Monday, December 15, 2014

Gluten-free highlights from Milan to Menaggio and onto Manarola

I didn't want the year to go by without recording some of the gluten-free (GF) highlights of our trip to Italy in May and June this year.  There's a high level of awareness about coeliac disease and the GF (senza glutine) diet in Italy and ensuring GF food isn't contaminated during the preparation and cooking process which makes it a great destination for coeliacs like me. Here are my highlights:

Caprese salad
I have to start with caprese salad as I had it for lunch at least three times a week and never got tired of eating it. The tomatoes in Italy seemed sweeter and tastier than in Australia and combined with buffalo mozzarella, basil and olive oil it was a delicious way to refuel at lunch.

Over the five weeks we were in northern Italy, I became a bit of a connoisseur of the dish and enjoyed the additional flavours and textures when anchovies or prosciutto were added. The entire time we were in Italy I didn't have a bad caprese salad which apparently was designed to resemble the colours of the Italian flag.

While GF products are available in Italian supermarkets, a larger range is sold at selected pharmacies (farmacias). This is what I discovered when I walked into the Menaggio pharmacy on the eastern shore of Lake Como.

Here I stocked up on GF madeleines and brioches, a great snack when we were exploring one of Lake Como's lovely gardens or a sweet accompaniment to a mid-morning cappuccino.

The Menaggio pharmacy was also where I discovered a delicious, non-dry GF bread that Bruce reckoned tasted as good as a normal wheat-containing loaf.  The pharmacist said it was the best one to buy as it didn't need heating or toasting and it made great sandwiches when we were on the run. Unfortunately, I didn't keep the label and spent the rest of the trip trying to find it again.

The Menaggio pharmacy and the one on Piazza San Stefano in Belluno at the base of the Dolomites, also had more than 10 different brands of GF pasta including Le Celizie, which was the most delicious GF pasta I have ever tasted. I wished I'd bought several packets to take back with me to Australia.

Pizzeria Il Discovolo, Manarola
Signs outside this shop advertising 'gluten free food sold here' caught my eye on our first afternoon in Manarola, one of the five little towns in Le Cinque Terre. When I stepped inside Il Discovolo I felt like a child in a toy shop with GF pizzas, focaccia, tortes, cakes and polenta bakes on display.

The owner, Enrico told me his wife Giulia makes the GF baked goods which they started doing three years ago after getting many requests from tourists.  They also stock a wide range of frozen and pre-prepared GF products including ice cream cones, lasagna, biscuits and crackers.

During our week in Manarola, I returned many times especially to buy farinata, the local specialty made with chickpea flour that was delicious topped with pesto sauce.

L'Arcobaleno Trattoria, Volastra
After a morning exploring the steep trails inland from Manarola, we went looking for somewhere to have lunch in the small town of Volastra. After our first choice couldn't cater for me we moved on to L'Arcobaleno Trattoria where Tony, the very friendly owner welcomed us in. When I told him I was celiaca, he hurried into the kitchen and returned holding up GF crackers and several types of GF pasta, like a child at school doing 'show and tell'.  Only in Italy, I thought, could you arrive in a tiny hilltop town and enjoy a hearty meal of bolognese with GF spaghetti, and as we ate Tony told us how his Nonna had moved to Australia but returned to Italy after several years.

GF biscuits on the train
After being pleasantly surprised to receive a complimentary drink on the 1st class train from Belluno to Milan, I was even more impressed when the trolley man gave me a small packet of GF biscuits to go with my drink. Only in Italy, I thought again, would they cater for coeliacs on the train.

Chips and olives with Prosecco
While I wasn't able to eat much of the food served with the evening aperitivo at bars and restaurants, I could always munch on some plain chips and olives and so didn't feel like I completely missed out.

At Bar Brera in Milan the staff went out of their way to provide me with alternatives like fresh cherries and rock melon and a huge bag of plain chips to make up for the food that I couldn't eat.

Ristorante Al Passetto, Cortina
It was raining and cold when we arrived in the ski resort of Cortina, high in the Dolomites. The town seemed deserted and we wondered where we were going to find somewhere to eat. And then we discovered Ristorante Al Passetto, which to my delight had a separate 'senza glutine' menu. There were plenty of options but I decided to have my first Italian GF pizza, which was delicious washed down with a glass of vino bianco.

Emanuele Cafe, Verona
Right on Piazza Bra, the main square in Verona, this restaurant is a perfect place to people watch and enjoy a Prosecco or two. It also caters for coeliacs and was where I had a delicious dish of GF pasta with zucchinis and prawns.

Carlin Carlota Agriturismo
All my GF needs were taken care of at this lovely farm stay near Neive in Italy's Piedmont region.

As the sun set over the rolling hills and grape vines I enjoyed a four course meal including a ragout with GF pasta and many glasses of Italian wine. Bellissimo!

Gelato biscotti at Mag in Milan
While artisan (good quality) gelato is generally GF, staff at gelaterias advise that crumbs from the wheat-containing cones may break off and contaminate the gelato so they can't say it's 100 per cent GF. This was the advice I received at Mag Gelateria in Corso Genova, Milan, but fortunately there was an alternative for me. Gelato biscotti, which the staff assured me was totally GF, was so delicious we returned three times during our week in Milan for an afternoon sweet treat.

Al Fresco Restaurant, Milan
As well as having a delicious GF lunch including GF bread roll at this lovely garden restaurant with Bruce, Trudy, Jenny, Stephen and Chris, the owner gave me some Italian language tuition on the correct way to inform restaurant staff that I had coeliac disease and required a gluten free meal. Grazie mille Senor Al Fresco.

Jenny and Stephen's GF dinners in Milan
Last but not least were the delicious GF meals prepared by Jenny and Stephen during our week-long stay at their apartment in Milan.

Grazie mille Jenny and Stephen and grazie mille to the Associazone Italiana Celiachia (AIC) for all the great GF education and training they do with restaurant staff throughout Italy. Bravo!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Salads, scallops and sparkling rose in lovely Launceston

On a trip to Tassie the week before Christmas, Bruce and I spent a couple of days in Launceston where we discovered a number of good cafes and restaurants with gluten-free (GF) food.

Last time we were in the apple isle's second largest city it was winter time so I didn't get to swim in the First Basin Pool at Cataract Gorge but this time I did.

And while we were there we had coffee and gluten-free cake at the Basin Cafe that overlooks the spectacular spot where lyrebirds strut around and show-off their colourful feathers. .

Later that day we had takeaway GF lunch of roast vegetable salad with quinoa, beetroot relish and aioli from the retro vegetarian cafe, Fresh on Charles which we ate in the lovely Princes Park.

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We also discovered the Milk Bar Cafe on John Street which serves gluten free cakes and salads.

And the Garden of Vegan, which is a couple of doors down from Fresh on Charles.  

It offers a range of delicious sweet and savoury GF treats including a Vietnamese green papaya salad which we devoured for dinner.

Sweet treats at the Garden of Vegan. 
At the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery the next day where we saw an exhibition called 'Into the Wild: Wilderness Photography in Tasmania' and one on the art of William Charles Piquenit, we enjoyed a GF frittata with salad for lunch.

For dinner that night we went to the Metz Cafe Bar at 119 John Street which offered a variety of gluten-free options including these lovely scallops washed down with a glass of Joseph Chromy sparkling rose.

And last but not least, on a drive up the West Tamar Highway to Bass Strait I was pleased to discover that Weiss Bars are GF and so I could join Bruce eating an ice cream looking over Greens Beach.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Desperately pursuing the perfect gluten-free sponge

My father loved sponge cakes!  You could make him very happy if you made him a sponge, especially on his birthday like it is today (16 Sept).  He loved the light texture and was a big fan of jam and cream.

My mother made a good sponge using a recipe of her mother's. I made it often in our battered silver cake tins and always followed the family tradition of cutting a small circle in the middle before slicing the cake.

When I was diagnosed with coeliac disease nearly 20 years ago, I stopped making sponges. But about 10 years ago I discovered Cecilia Sartori's Passionfruit Sponge in the pages of The Sydney Morning Herald. The recipe substituted custard powder and cornflour for wheat-containing self-raising and the passionfruit was a nice alternative to icing sugar on the top. Most of the time it turned out well, except for one Sunday when I thought it tasted a bit dry as I served it to family and friends "No, it's lovely", everyone said. But then I heard Mr Sponge Cake reply: "It is a bit dry." 

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I haven't made Cecilia Sartori's passionfruit sponge for a few years now. In fact I haven't made a sponge since Dad died in 2006. But on Father's Day a few weeks ago I decided to have another try. I went looking online for a new recipe and found this one on . I served the cake with raspberry jam and cream at my father-in-law's Father's Day afternoon tea. He gave me one of his 'Keith bear-hugs' when I showed him the cake, and said it tasted very nice. It was pretty good but not as light as the one Mum used to make with wheat-containing self-raising flour, and I know if Dad had been there he would have said, "good, but a bit dry."

So I'm interested to know if it's possible to make an almost perfect, light, gluten-free sponge cake?  What are the tips and tricks? Is it separating the whites and the yolks, folding the ingredients gently or sifting the cornflour three times?

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Happy birthday Dad (Johnny).  You were one of the world's great sponge cake devotees, and in honour of your 87th birthday I will make one later today.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Gormandising on gorgeous gluten-free Anzacs

This morning I made a batch of gluten-free Anzac biscuits from a recipe a Twitter friend recommended from Taste. I prepared them while trying to spot my Uncle David on the Anzac Day March on TV.  I didn't end up picking him out but maybe that was because I was late turning on the TV or perhaps at 93-years-of age he had a break this year?

The recipe used a few different ingredients to the non-GF one Mum used to make but the smell of Anzacs baking in the oven was the same. Some of the substitute ingredients for the traditional rolled oats were dessicated coconut, almond meal, GF plain flour and my breakfast cereal of choice, Freedom Foods Rice Flakes. The mixture produced nearly 50 biscuits so Bruce and I had to stop ourselves from eating too many as we enjoyed them with a cup of coffee on the deck.

Click here for the Gluten free, dairy free Anzac recipe.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Delicious and easy 'summer simmer fruits' for Christmas

Last Saturday night we had a whole crowd of people over. There were 12 adults, one teenager, six and eight-year-old boys and a three month old baby boy. We had lovely 'befores' courtesy of Kate and Chris followed by prawns and plenty of champagne. For the main course we served Christmas ham cooked in a marinade of orange zest, orange juice, cloves and Dijon mustard, roast pork with pears, Parmesan baked potatoes, Jamie Oliver's baked beetroot with balsalmic vinegar, marjoram and garlic and David Herbert's roasted asparagus with mozzarella salad. It was all very delicious if I don't say so myself.  But I think the dish that got the most rapturous response was the dessert, 'Summer Simmer Fruits'.

It was the first time we had cooked this recipe which I found in a Donna Hay magazine from Feb/March 2007.  While I shopped for the ingredients Bruce cut up the fruit and made the dish.
And what a hit it was. A beautiful mixture of mangoes, apricots and blackberries with a vanilla bean or two and some castor sugar. So simple, which is the key to all the best recipes.

I also made some meringues topped with chopped pistachio nuts.  The idea for the pistachio nuts came from a recipe in Country Style's Christmas 2012 collector's edition. I used the meringue recipe in Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion as it has served me well in the past and it was less complicated than the Country Style one. We served the summer simmer fruits and meringues with Bulla vanilla ice cream which is gluten free (GF). The other GF ice cream is Sara Lee's French Vanilla. To complete the festival of food, Kate made some delicious GF chocolate fudge brownies which we enjoyed with a cup of tea.  Here are the recipes:

Summer simmer fruits

2 mangoes, cut into wedges (skin on)
2 apricots, halved and stones removed
125g blackberries
1 thick piece of lemon peel
1 thick piece of orange peel
1 vanilla bean, split or 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
1 cup (220g) caster sugar
(These ingredients serves 4, so increase the quantities for more people)

Instructions: Heat a deep frying pan over low heat. Add the mangoes, apricots, blackberries, lemon peel, orange peel and vanilla. Sprinkle over the sugar and cover with a tight fitting lid. Simmer for 15 minutes or until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is syrupy. Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Sue's meringues (page 432 of Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion (2004 edition)

2 egg whites at room temperature
Half a cup of castor sugar
One quarter of a teaspoon of pure vanilla 
To reduce or increase the quantities allow 60g castor sugar to an egg white.
Note: I used 4 egg whites and produced nearly 40 meringues.

Instructions: Preheat oven to 150 degree Celsius and line a baking tray with baking paper. Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form, then add sugar, a little at a time, still beating. Beat in vanilla. Place small spoonfuls of meringue on baking tray and bake for 45 minutes. Turn oven off, leave door slightly ajar and allow meringues to cool completely in oven. Store in an airtight container lined with greaseproof paper. *If you would like to add pistachios to your meringues, chop up the nuts and sprinkle over the meringues before placing in oven.

Chocolate fudge brownies (gluten-free)

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Note from Kate: she added a big handful of macadamia nuts to this recipe.

Happy gluten-free Christmas.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Gluten-free grazing at four favourite Annandale cafes

Working in Annandale over the past year, I have been taste-testing a number of the suburb's cafes. In the process I have discovered the following four favourites that cater for coeliacs like me and those on a gluten-free (GF) diet. 

For those of you who don't know where Annandale is, it's between three and five kilometres from Sydney's CBD and is within the Leichhardt Municipality. It is the next-door suburb to Glebe to the east, Leichhardt to the west, Balmain to the north and Stanmore to the south. Infamous Kings Cross property developer Abe Saffron was born there, Cold Chisel guitarist Ian Moss is a resident, and American author Mark Twain visited the suburb. He stayed at the home of Sir Henry Parkes, the father of Federation, who died in Annandale on 27 April 1896. I have also spotted a few of The Chaser boys drinking coffee at The Little Marionette On The Dale cafe on the corner of Albion and Trafalgar streets.

Cafe on Johnston

At 63 Johnston Street, opposite the tall spire of the Hunter Baillie Church is Cafe on Johnston. A favourite with locals for more than 14 years, this friendly spot is particularly popular with St Brendan's Primary mothers and their under-5s, who stop in for a morning coffee after dropping their older kids at the nearby school

I came across this review of Cafe on Johnston on Eatability, which describes it well: "It's not your usual trendy cafe (so many of which seem to be popping up everywhere) but it's got good heart and is not intimidating to walk into!"

It also serves delicious food and owners' Lee and Rob have always been very helpful in catering for my GF needs. They stock a particularly delicious GF bread which I had the other day topped with pesto, eggplant, red pepper and artichokes. Other choices include smoked salmon, capers, cream cheese, Spanish onion or tomato chutney, roasted pumpkin, eggplant and spinach. They also offer a range of tasty salads with at least one usually GF, 'create your own omelettes', and hearty soups in winter.

Revolver Cafe

At 291 Annandale Street, around the corner from Annandale North Public School, is the very cool Revolver. Original owner Rod, who recently sold to Mark, opened the cafe in 2009 in one of the suburb's old corner shop buildings.  The circa 1893 building was originally intended to be a pub but when the upper class gentry who lived in North Annandale (and some may say have returned) objected it became a general store and residence. 

On the cafe's website original owner Rod explains where the name comes from. "I have a John Lennon signed copy of the Beatles Revolver album which I think was the pivotal point in their career, as was this cafe so pivotal in my career. I have also always had a thing for cogs and all things revolving like the inner workings of some fantastical machine so revolver just fitted."

Revolver is full of character with friendly, efficient service, great coffee and innovative food. The mother of former owner Rod makes all the cakes including GF orange syrup cake, lemon and lime friands and a moist, coconut-filled, delicious banana bread. Many of the breakfast options are GF and bread-based items like eggs Benedict or burgers can be substituted with GF bread.

Esther's Table

Away from Annandale's main retail area of Johnstone and Booth Streets is the delightful Esther's Table. On the corner of Annandale and Reserve Streets, it is named after Esther Abrahams, the convict wife of Major George Johnston.  A captain of one of the First Fleet ships, George Johnston met his Jewish milliner wife on the journey to Australia. They set up home in Annandale after he was granted 100 acres in the area. Johnston named the suburb after Annan, his birthplace in Scotland.

The cafe has had a number of owners over the years, and some of you may remember it as Hopscotch or Beth's Place. The corner 1902 grocery store building and outdoor area has a nice aspect and seems to be bathed in sunshine for a good part of the day.  In terms of GF options, owner Rose Saunders usually stocks GF banana bread and a number of other sweet treats to accompany a coffee. GF bread is mostly available, although the stocked brand is not as nice as the one at Cafe on Johnston. Esther's Table's breakfasts are particularly delicious and there are a number of GF options.

Clover Cafe

Another local favourite is Clover on the western side of Booth Street just down from the Annandale Post Office.  Clover stocks Naturis Organic Buckwheat loaf GF bread, which waitress Maddie said had received many positive comments from patrons. In the sweet stakes Clover offers lemon and poppy seed polenta cakes and GF brownies.

On the day I lunched there, I enjoyed the mint and lime poached chicken salad with a cucumber, coriander and sesame oil dressing. I have also tried the Clover Greek Salad which includes chunky cucumber, cherry tomatoes, Persian feta, fresh mind and parsley, rock salt-roasted beetroot with a punchy fattoush dressing. Another favourite is the grilled haloumi with watermelon, artichoke hearts, pesto, semi-dried tomatoes and salad greens. Clover has an app which can be downloaded for free at:

Next time: Annandale's coeliac-friendly restaurants

Monday, July 2, 2012

On the tapas trail in Moorish Spain

Eating out overseas is much easier when the local coeliac society lists gluten-free-(GF) friendly restaurants on their website like the Italians do. But if they don’t the next best thing is when restaurant staff have a good understanding of the gluten-free diet.

Fortunately this was what we experienced when travelling through the AndalucĂ­a region in southern Spain last year. In most of the restaurants we dined the staff knew what GF meant and could advise what was suitable on the menu.

Logging on to the Federation of Celiac Spain (FACE) was also useful although its listing of GF restaurants is limited to hotel and restaurant chains. At the same time it is a good source of information on supermarkets selling GF products and on explaining your GF requirements when eating out. It also provides links to coeliac organisations in other regions of Spain including Malaga, Granada, Cordoba and Seville.

One of the nicest meals I had during our time in southern Spain was at Citron in Malaga, our first stop before heading on to explore Moorish Andalucia. Here I was served warm GF bread topped with olive and anchovy paste followed by beef medallions perfectly cooked medium-rare with yellow and red capsicum, onion and cherry tomatoes and chips made in-house.

I also thought I was enjoying a GF beer, however on closer examination I found that the Estrella Damm Daura GF beer was actually not 100 per cent GF. Made from barley it contains a small amount of gluten so it is low-GF rather than GF-free. Consequently it was my last beer in Spain.

The staff at the Hotel Tryp where we were staying in Malaga were very helpful in finding a GF restaurant in the Costa de Sol city and recommended Citron. Tryp Hotels are a good option for coeliacs as they offer GF meals in their dining rooms.

Another hotel chain that is coeliac-friendly is the Parador group, but they are significantly more expensive than Tryp hotels. In Granada we traipsed up the hill to the Parador near the Alhambra so that I could dine gluten-free. While the dinner was nice, it was quite expensive and we would rather have eaten in a more traditional Granada restaurant with more atmosphere than this rather formal hotel dining room.

In Seville we stayed at a Tryp Hotel in the Macarena area and so started each day with a GF breakfast in the dining room.

In Granada and Cordoba, we visited the same cafe each morning where the staff were more than happy to heat up my GF croissant or bread roll bought at the local supermarket.  They would serve it with jam and butter, our daily fresh orange juice followed by a cafe con leche.

During our four days in these two fascinating cities we returned to the same cafe each day for our breakfast ritual and almost felt like locals. One tip I would suggest is when you see GF supplies at a supermarket stock up as you may not find them at your next destination.

In the Las Alpujarras (white villages) in the Sierra Nevada Mountains there was not quite the same knowledge of the GF diet but people were helpful in trying to understand what I couldn’t eat. Learning the Spanish words for wheat, barley, rye and oats and flour was useful, as was carrying the Spanish translation card explaining coeliac disease and the GF diet.

With tapas considered an Andalusian speciality I was keen to join in this culinary tradition. While I couldn’t eat everything on the tapas menus in restaurants and bars throughout AndalucĂ­a, there were usually at least four options I could choose from.

At Taberna Tofe in Granada we had too much tapas!  The food was nothing extraordinary at this traditional restaurant but the woman serving us was extremely helpful in ensuring my selections were GF including pork with shredded cabbage and paprika and a salad with lettuce, tuna, fetta, sultanas and apples.

We also enjoyed some delicious tapas at Casa Rubio Bar after exploring Cordoba’s colourful patios full of geraniums and other potted plants.

Grilled fish and salad at El Rincon de Carmen in Cordoba’s Jewish quarter was a nice way to finish the day after visiting the spectacular garden at Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos. Perhaps our best tapas was at Aljibe restaurant in Seville, which had interesting combinations to choose from.

After visiting Cordoba’s mosque-cathedral Mezquita, we dropped into the always busy Bar Santos for one of their famous tortilla de patatas. We ate the filling potato omelette on the steps of the Mezquita washed down with a freshly squeezed orange juice – one of the daily delights of travelling in this region.

And of course the sangria was GF so I could enjoy a glass or two at a bar opposite Granada's spectacular Alhambra and take in the historic and beautiful view. Muchas gracios Andalucia!