A Pizza Praise

I know I JUST wrote a post about how we feel bad when we eat things that aren’t homemade, but I wanted to be sure I wasn’t scaremongering. No matter where you live, there are some wholesome choices you can make outside the home. You can find restaurants with sustainable, fresh, local ingredients, who do not use chemical-laden products because the real thing is so much better, and who care about your specific dietary restrictions or concerns. There are restaurant kitchens you can learn to trust nearly as much as your own.

This post isn’t about them. This post is about pizza.

Pizza is one of my favourite foods. I love love LOVE pizza. One of my favourite silly jokes is even about pizza:

How does Good King Wenceslas like his pizza?
Deep pan, crisp and even

You’re groaning now, but you know you’ll tell someone later. Anyway, I sorely miss good pizza (and even bad pizza).  I haven’t yet perfected a gluten-free pizza dough myself. A lot of pre-made bases are chewy, and I never remember that I need an extra hour before baking for boxed doughs to proof. The frozen pizzas offered in the Tesco and Sainsbury’s shops here vary wildly, and, when I found one I really liked, it disappeared forever. What’s a gluten-free girl to do?!

Last year, Dominos UK announced they were rolling out gluten-free pizzas to all their stores by 1 November. All staff would have to take gluten informational training to know about cross-contamination. A couple of days before the 1st, we decided to give them a try. If the Belfast branches were waiting until the 1st to roll out, I figured the worst that could happen was we would be told to wait a few days to order. Wrong. CB phoned, and it went something like this:

CB: Do you offer your gluten-free pizzas yet?
Dominos employee 1: I don’t know what that is. I’ll get the manager.
Dominos manager 1: We did have gluten-free bases, but nobody ordered them. We binned them.
CB: You binned them? You didn’t even advertise them. It wasn’t on your menu.
Dominos manager 1: You can call another branch and see if they have them still. Tell them I told you to call over.

Second branch:

CB: Do you offer your gluten-free pizzas yet? One of the other branch managers told me to phone over to you.
Dominos employee 2: I don’t know what that is. The manager isn’t in, but I’ll phone him and have him phone you back.
. . .
Dominos manager 2: I’m not sure if we have them. What is gluten?
CB: In short, gluten is something that’s in wheat and other grains that some people are allergic to.
Dominos manager 2: Really? Can you tell me more about it? What does it do?
CB: [proves he actually listens to me and spends about 3-4 minutes talking about Celiac and gluten]
Dominos manager 2: Wow. Thanks. I’ve never heard of that. We don’t have anything gluten-free, I don’t think.

While the employees and managers were really nice, they had no idea what was going on (and I have to assume the bit about having binned them was a panic-driven fabrication). At that point, I wasn’t even so bothered they didn’t have the bases — I was prepared for that possibility since it was only rolling out — but I was very concerned by the fact that the information was so sparse and different. They clearly had not be trained about gluten cross-contamination if one of the managers didn’t even know what gluten is. As you may know, I like to have my voice heard. I got in contact with the national Dominos folks and discussed the issues we discovered in the Belfast branches. After a bit of back and forth, we agreed that it was best they pushed the roll-out date back a few weeks and work on employee education. I was later offered a voucher for my assistance and trouble and to try the new pizza when it came out and give feedback.

A few weeks later, voucher in hand, I tread onto the Dominos website. There is a big GF on the choice of bases. There are comments about which toppings are not gluten-free, which, it is good to see, are very few. I double- and triple-check everything before I place the order. I half-expect the phone to ring, and they will tell me they still don’t have them in Belfast. Not even three minutes later, an unknown number calls. I answer.

Dominos employee: You ordered a gluten-free pizza?
Me: (sighing) Yes, I did.
Dominos employee: I just wanted you to know there is egg in the base. Some people are allergic to eggs, and I wanted to make sure that was okay.
Me: Absolutely. Thank you so much for asking.

What a difference. Less than a month prior, no one in the shops even knew what food allergies were. Now they’re phoning to make sure I’m not allergic to eggs?! How wonderful! The delivery driver explained that they always make sure the pizza boxes marked with a gluten-free sticker sit on top of the others, just in case something could fall down into it somehow. Some drivers choose to leave off the dips because they aren’t sure about the content and don’t want to give out something that might have gluten (They don’t; I checked). I was overwhelmed by the allergy-attentive service by a take-away pizza chain!

The Dominos pizza is good and tasty, but it’s not fantastic. It relies a lot on corn, which results in a heavier crust than their usual fare. It is crispy, which is a big problem with gluten-free doughs, and it isn’t too chewy. It only comes in one size (9″), but, in all, it makes for a good indulgent take-away, especially since they added spinach back to the toppings choices! The next hurdle I see for them is understanding that, because of some recent recipe changes, not a single side item or dessert is gluten-free. Currently, the only gluten-free option is the pizza itself.

Dominos Pizza delivered

Dominos Pizza delivered, pre-spinach return

Only a few weeks ago, Pizza Express announced their new gluten-free range (It’s even on the main page of their website!). After doing my research on how they are meant to be trained for cross-contamination (and knowing that I expect a little more from them than I would from Dominos), we decided to give them a try. The menu clearly marks items which have “NGCI”: Non-Gluten-Containing Ingredients. There aren’t a ton of options, but there are a few starters (including a lovely white wine and butternut squash risotto), at least one dessert, and a beer. (Their extensive online allergen menu (PDF) makes suggestions on how to make other items suitable for X allergy.) Nearly all of their pizzas can be made on the gluten-free base without any topping adjustments.

The service astounded me. I always fear the worst when someone questions the gluten-free thing.

Server: Oh, are you gluten-free?
Me: Yes, I am.
Server: I will alert the kitchen.

Rather than being made to feel a picky eater, she let me know with that simple statement that my dietary needs would be taken seriously. One table over, I heard the same server discussing with the mother of a young Celiac girl the changes the company had made in every kitchen for the gluten-free range. They have a completely new and gluten-free portion of every kitchen. Nothing ever goes on that side that has touched the other foods. They have a new oven that is only for gluten-free pizzas. In the cases where they are forced to utilize the same shelf space, the gluten-free items are all on higher shelves so that no errant flour can fall onto them. They are clear when they deliver the pizzas to the table which is gluten-free, but the setting is just the same — it sounds like such a little thing, but, when something is obviously different from others, it draws attention to it when you’d rather just get on with eating.

Pizza Express does have a superior crust. I would expect that. They have quality ingredients with responsible sources. The crust looks and tastes like a regular pizza crust. I’m shocked to say that I almost forgot I was eating a gluten-free pizza. Every once in a while, if I let my mind wander while eating, I’ll come back to the meal with a sudden paranoia that I have made a massive mistake and WHAT HAVE I EATEN?! That panic lasted a second longer when I realised there was pizza in my hand and it looked so good.

REAL pizza from Pizza Express!

REAL pizza from Pizza Express!

Pizzas from Dominos and Pizza Express lead completely divergent existences in the pizza world. Though Dominos did stumble at the beginning, eventually both chains impressed me. I can’t expect for any employee or company to know everything straight out of the gate, but a true willingness to learn and a commitment to respect go a long way in my book.

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One Lie about Cupcakes and One Curiosity Fulfilled

As I mentioned in my last post, CB got a job.  We have started and ended house-hunting, and, for those of you crossing your fingers for me, I got a great kitchen and a yarn room that I don’t have to share (except with this spoiled rotten little gem).

zoe

Until we move in, I’m basically chronicling thoughts and meals, which, admittedly, isn’t the most interesting way to keep a food blog.  Every time I think about getting into creative mode in the kitchen, I’m confronted with the idea that this is not-my-kitchen and these are not-my-things.  So, back to CB got a job, and we looked at houses.

The day that he found out he had gotten the job, I decided he needed a little something of recognition. I spoil him, I do.  I secretly arranged with the woman who made our wedding cake to make a tiny congratulations cake for him.  The best part of her cakes is that not only are they tasty, but they have little clay figurines on top.  I dare say more people commented on how good our little figures looked on the big day than commented on how good we looked!

CB cake

The reason I mention the cake, besides just being very tickled by it, is that The Little Cupcake Cafe is one of the few places in Belfast to get a decent gluten-free treat.  I had already arranged with CB’s mother to help me pick up the cake, but it was turning into a logistical nightmare to try to get it without him knowing.  Thus, the little white cupcake lie.

Ah, yes, the sunny days of house-hunting.  While the rain was holding off, we decided a constructive use of our time was to simply take a taxi to a nice neighbourhood and walk until our feet fell off.  We made notes of real estate agencies and houses that looked pleasant.  We walked, got a little sunburned, and ended up with just about nothing once we looked up the prices.  We kept fairly good moods, considering the poor luck we were having.

Until Cake Day.

We were well across town from the shop, and I declared that I wanted a cupcake.  An hour later, it escalated to my needing a cupcake.  Another hour and CB was simply refusing me a cupcake.  Never mind that we were too far away for either of us to do anything about it.  By the end of our house search, I said that I was going to get a cupcake because his mother wouldn’t like to hear of his refusing me a simple pleasure; she would surely drive me to get one.  She played along brilliantly, feigning exasperation at her son and immediately driving to the only shop which could provide me with what I wanted.

We sat down for a cup of tea and a cupcake.  Cathy, the fondant artiste, silently showed me the cake and placed it behind the till.  I managed to signal to the girl working the counter that I was to pay for the cake while asking for a glass of water; she casually slipped my change on the counter and walked away, enjoying the bit of espionage.

As we were standing to leave, I said to CB, “That box behind the till says ‘Burke’.  Do you think it’s for us?”
CB: “Burke is a common name.  I’m sure it’s not.”
Me: “But it could be?”
CB’s Mum: “Did you buy Sydney a box of cupcakes?!”
CB: “No, let’s leave.” (getting a bit embarrassed by now)
I peek behind the till.  “But, it has MY name on it.”
CB: “Sure it does.”
I am handed the box.  “Look, it does!”  I open the box and all is revealed.  I thought he was going to hit the floor with shock.  After he eyes up the little figure of himself, I add: “I didn’t even want a cupcake.”

Less sneaky but equally as exciting (for me. Only me.) was the idea of eating on our short trip to Dublin.  As a thank you present for helping him with the application and interview preparation for his job (and probably for constantly stating how much I believe in him), CB bought two tickets to see Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance in the Gate Theatre in Dublin. [Go!  See it!  Bring a wee hand fan because it is boiling inside!]  We already had our mind set on where to eat dinner before the show, but we still had an opening for lunch the next day.  CB sent me a link with gluten-free possibilities to browse, and there it was.  The restaurant that had managed to slip my mind that I used to obsess over visiting.

Cornucopia.

It was somehow a hundred times better than I even imagined it.  We got there just before the major lunch crowd, so we got a table just as we got our food.  By crowd I mean that the queue was completely out the door, and people were sharing every little corner of tables just to be able to eat.  The menu is a set of blackboards behind the counter.  Not everything is gluten-free, but everything is vegetarian.  There was a legend hanging above the blackboard explaining what was egg-free, gluten-free, nut-free, chili-free, vegan, etc.  It truly felt empowering not to have to ask what was in something before I ordered.  I am aware that that last statement will sound completely alien to anyone without dietary restrictions, but I felt like I owned the place when I ordered my food.

cornucopia

THIS was the amazing, empowered meal I had.  Curry and rice with sweet potato, carrot, chickpea, fine beans, and broccoli; kidney bean, tofu, and rocket salad; and a garlic and almond potato salad.  100% vegan, 100% gluten-free, 100% giddy-inducing.  Eat there.  Just do it.

Don’t Let Them Get You Down

The title of this post is directed, mainly, at myself.  I’m reminded everyday that I have an issue, a condition, something that makes me different.  It’s not presented as a particularly negative thing, but I can’t help but sometimes internalise it as such.

My husband CB and I are in a transitional period.  For a while, we weren’t sure which side of the ocean we would be calling home.  The lease on our house was up in July, there was one more job over here that wouldn’t be decided until August, and, well, visas take a while to process.  Short term leases are really only available on efficiency apartments or really poorly everything-ed student houses.  So, we’ve been living in CB’s parents’ house for the past month.  They have been gracious and welcoming, but then there’s the food thing.  As they want to be accommodating, and the family dinner is often a big deal, I’m forever hearing, “Can you eat this?”, “Where is good for you?”, “Which is better: X or Y?”.  I know that every one of those sentences means they are trying, they are considering me, and they are not just leaving me to fend for myself, but I can’t help but remember that, in our own house, it was simply a given.  I can eat this, I can’t eat that.  It wasn’t really discussed unless it was in a positive way: “Guess what I just learned I can eat!”

CB got the job — which I’m convinced was the only job left in Northern Ireland — so we begin our house hunting today.  Visas get put off a while longer.  I get to start planning my new kitchen.

I can’t say that my time in this house has been without inspiration.  I’m referring to the Olympics but trying to steer clear of being just another blogger talking about the Olympics.  I’ve been learning (and educating) about athletes that are Celiac/gluten-intolerant.  Novak Djokovic, the Serbian tennis player who failed to place in these Olympics but won Wimbledon in 2011, has a gluten intolerance.  In fact, he credits his Wimbledon title to this discovery, as he was able to train longer, harder, and faster once he omitted gluten from his diet.  Jenn Suhr, Gold medalist in the pole vault for the USA, tested positive for Celiac Disease only last year.  She was finding it difficult to maintain her strength in training sessions and would even put off eating solid foods until after the training day was done.  She eliminated the gluten and brought home a gold medal this year.

What I’m not saying is that not eating gluten will take you to the Olympics.  What I am saying is that, even with a condition that can be so depressing and something that factors into your daily life, you can excel to whatever level is appropriate for you.  I need to lose all this weight from my medical ups and downs (mostly downs) last year, but I’ve often allowed lethargy and stomach pain stop me from pushing myself.  But, I’m going to do it.  I’ve got the swimsuit hanging in the wardrobe.  I brought my tennis racket over from where it sat, dusty, in my parents’ house in America.  I’m going to do it.

I might just leave the pole vaulting to Suhr, though.

Brava, Sligo!

pancakes

When I decided — with my husband and his family — to go on a weeklong holiday in the west of Ireland, I honestly wasn’t sure if I would end up starving to death while we were gone.  After all, “gluten” seems like such a foreign word in rural places, and let’s just forget about “Celiac”!

To my extremely pleasant surprise, it turns out that Sligo, Ireland is a Mecca for Celiacs.  I was even able to do something that is a no-go in the big city of Belfast — eat breakfast in a restaurant!  I’m so happy that my favourite little town in the world is able to cater for my particular needs so well.

It appears that the reason Sligo is so Celiac-friendly is because of the hospital in town.  In 2010, they began testing and trials based around Celiac (Coeliac) and Hemochromotosis (“iron-overload”).  Apparently, the incidence of Celiac diagnosis in northwest Ireland is very high, and gluten-related investigations in Sligo’s hospital sit at about 2,000 cases per year.  That number is extremely high when considering Sligo is a very small place.  Sligo now has the technology to perform Celiac testing in house, rather than sending the materials to Dublin for processing.

I was previously in Sligo in 2008.  Though I can honestly say that I wasn’t looking for gluten-free options in restaurants, I do know that nothing caught my attention back then.  (Having many restrictions on my diets, I tend to pick up on available options and the fine print that says to ask your waiter if you have any allergies even if they do not relate to me.)  I can only assume that the more the community learns about Celiac, the more likely they are to provide options for their own citizens and vistors.

The following is only a guide.  Since a lot of the information I found before heading to Sligo was quite old, I thought I would offer an updated account of what I found.  It’s not exhaustive — I didn’t go door-to-door, restaurant-to-restaurant (though it does sometimes feel like what I do!).  These are the places I discovered. [Note: Everything food-related in Sligo seemed to be a bit pricey.  I was tempted to say that about all the restaurants.]

Bistro Bianconi, Tobergal Lane, Sligo town
I think we ended up eating here three times over the week.  Pizza, pasta, etc.  It’s a nice sit-down restaurant, but it doesn’t require dressing up.  Everything we tried was great, gluten-free or not.  They have gluten-free pizza bases and pastas.  They don’t charge more for them, and they don’t look at you funny when you order.  The four course early-bird menu wasn’t entirely Celiac-friendly (soup, Caesar salad, garlic bread for starters), but the regular menu is always available.  Their ice cream was gluten-free, and they had a lovely pavalova on for the dessert of the day once.

Osta Cafe, Garavogue Weir, Sligo town
Ok, I’ll admit it.  I ate their pancakes on four different occasions.  But, in my defense, they have several different options!  While there are not a ton of gluten-free choices on their menu, a simple breakfast is well-handled.  There are scones (I had a plain one with jam and butter.) and muffins (Mine was raspberry and coconut.) baked every morning.  Gluten-free pancakes come with the following options: lemon, butter, and sugar; cinnamon-infused berry compote and greek yoghurt (seen half-eaten above); local honey, greek yoghurt, and sliced almonds; bacon and maple syrup . . . and I’m pretty sure I’m missing something.

Bella Vista, Shore Road, Strandhill
Strandhill was a beautiful little place not far from Sligo town.  It’s famous for its surfing (no swimming allowed), but the view is amazing.  Of course, everything on the west coast is the Atlantic Ocean, but you really feel like you’re looking out into the ocean from Strandhill.  As far as I can tell, all the businesses in Strandhill are on one road — Shore Road.  We passed by a couple of restaurants where I could have eaten (a lot of Asian cuisine is safe if you know what to look for), but we stopped at Bella Vista because there were a lot of options.  I think the place is a bit under-staffed, but hopefully that was only a temporary problem.  They also charge €2 for changing a pasta or a pizza base to gluten-free.  I ordered tagiatelle a la pollo.  It turned out that they had actually run out of gluten-free tagiatelle, and the waitress was too busy to ask me if substituting spaghetti was okay until it was being presented to me.  Of course, I was fine with it, but why bother asking if they had already made the decision?  My husband, CB, would like to point out that you should discourage anyone non-gluten-free in your party from getting the steak sandwich.  Everything else was good.

The Yeats Tavern, Drumcliffe
The Yeats Tavern is just down the road for where W.B. Yeats (and his wife! Don’t forget his wife!) is buried.  Otherwise, it seems to have nothing to do with the poet.  Regardless, I had a very decadent meal here.  It started simply enough — their vegetable soup is gluten-free, and they have a lovely note just under it on the menu that says “Ask your server for gluten-free bread!”.  And, what a lovely piece of bread it was!  My main course was a special of pan-fried chicken smothered in roasted peppers and covered in a thick slice of goats cheese, which was baked to form a crust. It was drizzled with balsamic vinegar and pesto.  It also came with a choice of potatoes — the dinner menu does not mention that the chips are not gluten-free, but I noticed it on the early-bird menu posted at the entrance — where I chose the buttered new potatoes and stole a few sneaky bites of CB’s garlic and cheese au gratin (we checked on their Celiac status!).  For dessert, they have gluten-free ice cream, around which they formed several options, and a chocolate brownie with a “gluten-free alternative”.  I didn’t find out what that alternative was because I opted for an ice cream dish with bananas and toffee — surprisingly light and refreshing!

Poppadom, O’Connell Street, Sligo town (no website)
Considering my love for Indian food, I knew I would be visiting this restaurant again after a positive experience four years ago.  It did not disappoint (except that CB wanted Peshawari naan and did not find it on the menu — he got on just fine with his regular naan).  I always find myself customising my meal in Indian restaurants as of late, and they were more than happy to provide exactly what I wanted.  We were confused that there was a tasty chicken option on the early-bird menu (which we missed) that wasn’t on the main menu, though I can’t remember what exactly it was.  Best yet was that, after a warm and muggy day, they had an air conditioner!  I know, I know: I’m a spoiled American and my husband is an over-warm Irishman, but we like our cool air.

Tesco store, O’Connell Street, Sligo town
This entry is the one real oddball on my list because it is not a restaurant.  However, I can’t speak on my time eating in Sligo without mentioning shopping at Tesco.  They had a great selection of gluten-free flours (even Bob’s Red Mill!), mixes, sauces, breads, and other food-stuffs.  I found things I haven’t been able to find anywhere up North.  In fact, we indulged a bit on some sourdough bread (well-sealed) and a box of deep-pan pizza bases to bring back home with us!  There were some mini baguettes from a gluten-free bakery in Cork (who knew?!) that made for great sandwiches for the days’ adventures (believe it or not, we did more than eat!).

And, in case you were wondering why I’m so shocked at the gluten-free selection, this was the view from our bedroom window every morning!

cattle