Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Senza glutine in Roma, Siena, Cortona and Firenze

Unlike France, there is a lot of awareness of coeliac disease and the need to be on a strict gluten-free diet in Italy. More often than not Italians know what you are talking about when you mention words like coeliac or gluten-free (GF) although it does help to say them in Italian - celiachia and senza glutine.

While the country isn't in a great financial situation at the moment, its performance in diagnosing and treating coeliac disease is much better. Italian children are screened for coeliac disease at around 6 years of age and the average time time between the onset of symptoms and diagnosis for Italians of any age is usually only 2 to 3 weeks. As a result Italy is up there with Australia, Ireland and Finland as the top four countries for diagnosis of coeliac disease.

At the same time you can't presume that everyone in Italy will be aware of coeliac disease and understand what gluten-free means. So a coeliac's best friend in Italy is the restaurant guide on the Italian Coeliac Association (Associazione Italiana Celiachia) website.  To get to the guide, click on the menu item ''dieta senza glutine' and then click on 'Project Power Away'.  The information is organised by region so you just have to select Tuscany or Sicily or Veneto etc to find somewhere suitable to eat.

I would highly recommend taking an iPhone or device that allows you to look up GF places to eat as you go.  When we were in Italy in the middle of this year, we didn't bring a laptop or any sort of portable device with Internet access. This meant traipsing off to Internet cafes to find a GF restaurant  instead of being able to look one up on the go or as we were approaching a new destination.

At the same time you can be pleasantly surprised in Italy like the night we arrived in Castiglion Fiorentino, a small hill-top town about half an hour from Arezzo.  When I explained my senza glutine needs the waitress went to the kitchen and returned with a packet of GF pasta.

Another great resource is Maria Ann Roglieri's The Gluten-Free Guide to Italy which is available at Unfortunately I only discovered this book just before we set off for Italy so I didn't have it with me. It is packed full of GF eating-out options and is a handy back-up when you don't have Internet access.  Here are a few of the coeliac-friendly places we found in Rome, Florence, Cortona and Siena.

Osteria del Gallo, Roma

This is a cute little restaurant in one of those typical narrow Roman streets not far from Piazza Navona. While it was a bit windy the night we dined there we persevered in sitting outside as it was fun watching the passing traffic and taking in the atmosphere in Vicolo di Montevecchio.

Perhaps the most delicious part of this meal was the bruschetta served on toasted GF bread.  The traditional tomato and garlic bruschetta was nice but the eggplant and zucchini one was sensational.

For the main course I chose one of my favourite sauces - pesto with GF spaghetti.

There were plenty of GF choices for dessert including panna cotta and torta al cioccolato (gf chocolate torte).  Osteria del Gallo is at 27 Vicolo di Montevecchio, Roma.

I Quattro Amici and Il Portale Trattoria-Pizzeria, Firenze

In Florence we enjoyed a nice GF meal at I Quattro Amici which is close to the city's main Santa Maria Novella railway station  The staff were very knowledgeable and all the GF options were highlighted on the menu. My main course choice was the grilled sea bass with potatoes,olives and red pepper, followed by creme caramel for dessert.

The next night we dined at Il Portale Trattoria-Pizzeria.  Around the corner from I Quattro Amici, at 29 Via Luigi Alamanni, it turned out that this restaurant shared the same kitchen.  The entree servings of pasta were huge and easily served as a main meal. I enjoyed the spaghetti allárrabbiata with garlic, olive oil, red pepper and tomato.

Osteria Del Teatro, Cortona

On a day out in the hill-top town of Cortona with our friends at Villa Rossi Mattei in Arezzo, we came across Osteria Del Teatro.  As well as being a historic town, Cortona is known as the location of the movie Under the Tuscan Sun.

It's a delightful place and it was great to stumble upon a coeliac-friendly restaurant like Osteria Del Teatro.

For lunch I chose the GF gnocchi which was very nice but quite rich, washed down with a chilled white wine. The GF dessert option was oven-roasted pears with cinnamon, drizzled with chocolate. As you can see from the photo, the chocolate was more than a drizzle, which I endeavoured to work off climbing the steep cobble-stoned Cortona streets.

Il Ghibellino Osteria, Siena

On a day trip to Siena with our Villa friends we enjoyed a pleasant lunch at Il Ghigellino Osteria.

About a five-minute walk from the Piazzo del Campo and close to the Duomo, this is a quiet place to escape the tourists.  For lunch I had the leek risotto which fuelled me up for exploring Siena.

Villa Rossi Mattei, Arezzo

And during our week at Villa Rossi Mattei I was more than well-catered for by our host Liliana at our two group lunches and dinners with GF risotto, pasta, meats, salads and sweets.

Grazie Italia! Arrivederci.

Friday, September 30, 2011

High dining in the city of lights ... and love

There will be no gluten for you madame, said our waiter when we celebrated our wedding anniversary at Le Jules Verne restaurant at the Eiffel Tower.

Our waiter was prepared for my sans-gluten needs as booking online at the restaurant website allows you to indicate any special dietary needs.

Le Jules Verne was launched by restaurateur, entrepreneur and chef Alan Ducasse in 2007. It is named after the French writer of fantastic tales like '20,000 Leagues under the Sea', 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth' and 'Around the World in 80 Days'.

Just as Jules Verne invites the reader to go on extraordinary adventures in his books, Alain Ducasse welcomes diners to the magical place that is the Jules Verne, which he describes as a French experiment of our time - 125 metres above the ground.

With head chef Pascal Feraud, Ducasse wishes Le Jules Verne to be, "the most beautiful place in Paris to enjoy the pleasure of a contemporary and accessible kitchen."

Located on the Eiffel Tower's second observation platform, you can take a tour here with Patrick Jouin, the designer of the restaurant.

Seated one table back from the window looking north-west to La Defense and the Arc de Triomphe, we appropriately started our lunch with a glass of French champagne.  As we sipped on pink Bruno Pallaird bubbly, we were served an aperitif of duck liver pate with banana and mango.

As jazz and showtime tunes played in the background we tucked into our entree of simmered Helixbernn French snails with delicate "velvety" of lettuce.

For the main I chose the roasted sea bass with braised leeks and gold caviar - no less - accompanied by a chardonnay from Burgundy. Bruce had the spit milk-fed lamb with tiny artichokes and pearl jus (not gluten-free), washed down with a pinot noir, also from Burgundy.

The meals were delicious - very colourful and full of flavour and texture.  There was a sense of theatre to the serving with sauces dramatically poured over the plate at the table and cutlery faced down until it was time for the appropriate course.

As there was no gluten for madame, my dessert choices were limited to strawberries with sherbet.

While this was lovely, the gluten-eating monsieur Bruce fared much better. As well as his dessert of strawberry/rhubarb tart with thyme and lemon ice cream, accompanying his coffee was a bowl of passionfruit marshmallows and a plate of chocolate profiteroles and macaroons.

"Can I have any of that monsieur," I enquired hopefully to our 'no gluten for madame' waiter. "No madame," he said shaking his head.  I consoled myself with a dessert wine from Jurancon near Toulouse.

The experience was completed with a visit to the viewing platform without having to queue up with all the other tourists.

Le Jules Verne was a culinary experience to remember and a special way to celebrate our anniversary. Bon apetite.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Taste-testing at the Gluten-Free Expo at Homebush

When I was diagnosed with coeliac disease 16 years ago the quality and choice of gluten-free (GF) food was much less than it is today.

In those early days of adapting to the diet, I remember giving my niece Mary a taste of a sweet GF biscuit. "That's disgusting," she exclaimed.  Compared to gluten-containing biscuits it probably wasn't much good but back then I was just grateful to have something sweet to eat. Breakfast cereals weren't much better and most commercial breads were very crumbly and went stale almost immediately.

Today, it's quite a different story. As I said to my brother and nieces as we travelled home from the GF Expo at Sydney's Homebush last Saturday: "The best thing about the Expo is being able to try all the different types of food and find out which one is the best."

Today, it's not just a case of accepting what's on offer; I am looking for quality GF food.

There were 92 exhibitors at last weekend's Expo, which is an initiative of Coeliac NSW/ACT.  You could try four different types of GF beer made by O'Brien Brewing. There were curry and Asian food products from Ayam including red, green, Malaysian and Thai massaman curry paste and fish, teriyaki and oyster sauce.

There were a wide range of of snacks, chips and crackers including this brown rice variety from Deligrains.

Rowie's Cakes in Marrickvillle showed off its rocky road, cakes and biscuits.  Rowie Dillon, who supplies gourmet products to Qantas and Singapore Airlines, also gave a cooking demonstration and introduced her new cookbook, Indulge which includes savoury as well as sweet recipes.

Callum Hann from Masterchef fame and Rick Grant also gave demonstrations on preparing nutritious and delicious GF meals. Other sessions included advice on being a 'social coeliac', 'label-reading made easy' and what's new in coeliac disease from Dr Jason Tye-Din.

There were numerous bread-making companies and a number selling sweet and savoury pies including ones from Bellyhoo. The St Peters based group offers a range of sweet and savoury fillings including sour cherry, apple, beef burgundy and beef and vegetable.

I am a fan of Country Life bread but it was good to see a few other players in the GF-bread market at the Expo. The Queensland-based Gluten Free Bakery make puff pastry and sweet pastry mixes as well as a range of quiches, pizzas and breads. I particularly liked their French baguette product line.

We all ended up with blue tongues after hoeing into the Blueberry Clouds from Clouds Lollies. After tasting a few pizza bases we thought the ones from  Old Time Bakery in Sydney's Yagoona were the best.

And of course it was great to see the team from the Coeliac Society, who were on deck answering queries and welcoming people to the organisation's 7th Gluten Free Expo. 

Coeliac Queensland will follow with the 2011 Gluten Free Food Expo on Sunday 30 October 2011 at the Commerce Building RNA Showgrounds, Brisbane from 9.00am to 4.00pm

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Thumbs up for coeliac-friendly cafes in my Sydney suburb

A couple of months ago I wrote a story for The Australian Coeliac magazine's 'Thumbs up for your home town' competition.   The competition invited Coeliac Australia members to write about coeliac-friendly restaurants, cafes, caterers and stores in their home town.

My story, which follows below, was published in the June 2011 edition of The Australian Coeliac.  For my efforts I won a hamper of GF food from Simply Wize.

Petersham's sweet gluten-free treats
I am taking you on a tour of Petersham’s sweet gluten-free (GF) treats. Just six kilometres from Sydney’s CBD, my suburb is a place of planes, trains, terrace houses and ‘Little Portugal’.  
First stop on our tour is Perfect Crema or ‘Michael’s’ as all the regulars call it after its friendly owner. Just off Parramatta Road on Railway Street, Michael and chef Tom have recently added some GF cakes to their menu.

Now, my morning latte is often accompanied by a blueberry, raspberry or passionfruit melting moment or moist pecan maple or coconut and raspberry friand.
The delicious creations are made by self-confessed baking tragic Jenny Pitarch, who enjoys adapting recipes for her coeliac mother.
Next stop on the tour is the Palace Pantry run by Erich and Takako Fasolin. The 131-year-old corner store at 49 Palace Street offers a selection of GF cakes and slices made by pastry chef Takako. Takako developed her skill working at Rowie’s Cakes in nearby Marrickville and for Adriano Zumbo of MasterChef fame at his Balmain patisserie. 
Using her own flour mix of rice, tapioca and potato flour with GF baking powder, Takako’s philosophy is to create simple cakes made with quality ingredients.
Her four GF options – mixed berry friand, orange and almond cake, caramel round and chocolate brownie – are mouth-watering treats after a dip at the nearby Fanny Durack Pool named in honour of the 1910 Olympic gold medallist and one-time local resident. The pool is in historic Petersham Park where 18-year-old Don Bradman scored 110 in his first, grade cricket appearance in 1926.

Takako also sells her cakes at five inner-west cafes – Kelby’s and Free Pour in Marrickville, Hoochie Mamma in Newtown, and Mollycoddle and Paper Cup in Stanmore.
Crossing the bridge over Petersham Station, our tour moves into the area known as ‘Little Portugal’ – home to many Portuguese restaurants, cafes, butchers and delicatessens.  In the heart of the strip at 35c New Canterbury Road is Sweet Belem, run by husband and wife team, Lina Correia and John De Almedia.

Here you can taste traditional Portuguese cakes like orange roulade made with polenta. Other GF options are raspberry and lemon roulade, flourless orange and chocolate cakes, coconut and mango blackberry fool, orange jaffa and chocolate truffle and crème caramel.
“A lot of people come in and are surprised at the variety we have,” says Lina, whose ‘cake boutique’ is named after Lisbon’s Belem district, the area where she and John were married nearly 20 years ago.
The final stop on our tour is Big Brekky at 316 Stanmore Road, just around the corner from the art deco Petersham Town Hall featured in Baz Lurhmann’s 1992 film Strictly Ballroom.
As you sip on your coffee you can enjoy a GF chocolate brownie and gaze at the artwork on the walls, on loan from the nearby Wood Paper Silk’ gallery at 348 Stanmore Road.
As the Portuguese say, bom apetite!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Dining out sans-gluten in France, Italy and Spain

After recently spending six weeks in France, Italy and Spain, I have been pondering why there is so little awareness of coeliac disease in France, in comparison to their European neighbours.

While the French were very helpful in trying to ensure my choice of meal was gluten-free, I didn't strike a waiter or chef who had heard of coeliac disease and most were unsure what gluten-free was.

This contrasted with Italy where if restaurant staff weren't familiar with the condition they knew what gluten-free was.  The situation was similar in Spain although there was a little less knowledge of coeliac disease. 

The website of the Associazione Italiana Celiachia has a comprehensive list of coeliac-friendly restaurants throughout the different regions. The Federacion de Asociaciones de Celiacos de Espana (FACE) does not offer as comprehensive list but significantly more than their French counterparts.

The Association Francaise Des Intolerants Au Gluten (AFDIAG) has information on where to buy gluten-free products in France but when it comes to eating out blogs of gluten-free travellers are more useful.

So why is there so little awareness of coeliac disease in France?  

Perhaps there haven't been any awareness campaigns, such as those conducted in Australia each March during Coeliac Awareness Week.

Maybe it's more of a cultural issue. The French are very proud of their food (quite rightly) and are reluctant to tamper with it. They also don't like fads, which is probably why I seemed to have more success with waiters when I switched to the AFDIAG translation, which explained that, "For medical reasons I am not allowed to eat any products made of wheat, rye, barley or oats etc."

I know that Italy is one of the leading countries in terms of research and diagnosis on coeliac disease and that every child is tested for the condition around eight years of age. This would certainly increase awareness among the Italian population but why so far ahead of France?

What do you think? Have you got any ideas? Maybe you have had a different experience?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Remembering a birthday at Macquarie Park Cemetery's cafe

Last Saturday, 2 July, was my Mum's 80th birthday. Although she's no longer with us it was important to mark the day.

So, as we have been doing for the past 19 years, some of the Sydney-based members of the family ventured over to Macquarie Park Cemetery and Crematorium at North Ryde.  Bruce and I brought some wattle from our garden that after five years had finally flowered. My brother and his girls picked some home-grown St Patrick roses.  We arranged the flowers near the plaque on her grave and sang happy birthday. Thirteen-year-old Eimear also said a little prayer.

And after we'd remembered her big day and said hello to Johnny (our Dad) who rests next-door, we headed over to the cemetery's cafe.

Some people might think it's a bit strange to have a cafe at a cemetery but it's not - it's a great idea as many people gather there for funerals and to visit their loved ones.   And the best thing about the cafe at Macquarie Park is that there are gluten-free options. My gluten-free niece and I enjoyed a rhubarb cake with our latte and hot chocolate. Other choices were friands and orange almond cake.

If she was alive today, our mother Barby would have appreciated the gluten-free cakes as she was an undiagnosed coeliac.  The cause of her death was lymphoma of the small intestine, which is one of the serious consequences of undiagnosed coeliac disease and not being on a strict gluten-free diet.

The Macquarie Park Cemetery and is open from 6am to 7pm seven days a week. It is located on the corner of Delhi Road and Plassey Road, North Ryde. The cafe also includes an extensive florist so if there's nothing flowering in your garden, there's plenty of choices there. 

Happy birthday Barby.