Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Cardiff: food allergy friendly city?

This article was written for and first appeared on Guardian Cardiff here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/cardiff/2010/oct/05/best-cardiff-restaurants-for-allergy-sufferers

I'll set the scene. It's a Friday evening and you're going for a meal with your friends. You're looking forward to a few drinks, delicious food and not having to do the dreaded washing up afterwards. Now imagine your most hated foodstuff. Seafood? Sprouts? Semolina? Upon arriving at the restaurant you discover all but two of the dishes consist of your gastronomic nemesis. However, your friends are pleased with what's on offer, so you politely opt for one of the palatable plates. How would you feel? Disappointed? Excluded? This is often the allergy sufferer's dining out experience. You're the odd one out. As a food lover and someone with a gluten intolerance and nut allergy, I know first hand how frustrating it can be to undertake the should-be simple task of eating out. After several particularly exasperating encounters I decided to delve a little deeper into the situation in Cardiff, and share my experiences on the good and bad of provision for allergy sufferers, in addition to restaurant policies.

When allergy sufferers struggle to find dining options, it isn't a case of not liking the food available. Quite often, I salivate over the thought of pesto pasta, of a risotto sprinkled with pine nuts, of sticky toffee puddings and chocolate fudge cake. Unless I fancy a dose of illness and a hospital visit in place of coffee however, it's just not worth it.

Food allergies, intolerances, are often misunderstood, dismissed as flights of fancy or fussiness, but they can cause serious health problems, and can even be fatal. Foods such as peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, fish, shellfish, dairy products and eggs can lead to anaphylaxis  People with ceoliac disease can have a range of health problems as a result of eating gluten, which is found in wheat, barley and rye - so that's bread, pasta, pastries, gravies and cake off the menu. Lactose intolerants cannot consume anything containing the main sugars found in milk - affecting breads, desserts, confectionary and sausages.

If diners know what ingredients are in the food served at restaurants, even if not their meal of choice, that's preferable to being served up a nasty surprise. Recently, I ordered a lunchtime mozzarella, tomato and avocado salad at Marks and Spencer, Culverhouse Cross. In spite of there being no indication on the menu, it was presented with a pesto dressing, which consists of ground pine nuts. Luckily, I recognised it's appearance, and was able to get my food replaced without the dressing, but somebody less aware, who had perhaps been living with their allergy for a shorter space of time, may have inadvertently eaten what is effectively their poison. Marks and Spencer's response to this occurrence was as follows:

The salad in question uses a pine nut and basil pesto. Although they’re known as a pine nut, these are botanically not a nut, but a seed and therefore do not require nut labelling as per legislation guidance.

Peanuts are also, technically, not nuts but legumes, yet still provoke a serious reaction if consumed, as would pine nuts. It seems a minimum legal responsibility is being adhered to rather than examining the actual effect of ingredients on potential customers. This approach is also indicated by the response to whether Marks and Spencer held a policy to list all ingredients potentially harmful on their menus:

In all of our Cafes we do have documents available on all products we sell; this details the allergens contained within the product and they are available from any member of staff for customers to review.

This list is a positive step, but it's existence should be advertised so that customers know they can ask for it. Although Marks and Spencer didn't fare well on this occasion with my nut allergy, they have just launched an impressive gluten free product range within their bakery, from which I can thoroughly recommend the chocolate and cherry cake! (Please send me more just to double check M&S!)

I asked the same questions on policy and provision for allergies of Wagamama, and found their awareness to be excellent. Their website lists the menu options which might be suitable for a range of intolerances. Waiting staff are trained about dishes and can advise allergy sufferers on what is suitable for them, and they are also happy to modify dishes where possible to cater for multiple needs.

La Tasca also offer advice on their website, from which customers can download a document with a complete breakdown of which of their foods contain allergens.  Best of all, their in-restaurant menus states which dishes are not allergy-friendly - this is the holy grail of dining out for me, so that what I see on the menu is what I get on the plate!

Another Cardiff hero of allergy friendly dining out is Chapter Arts Centre, for their lovely gluten free spaghetti, lots of gluten free cookies, and a menu clearly indicating allergens. I recommend The Pot Cafe in Roath  and Jaspers Tea Rooms in Llandaff for their amazing homemade gluten and nut free cakes and desserts - make sure you leave enough room for them! A gold star goes to Signor Valentino in Cardiff Bay, as despite having an unavoidably gluten filled menu - a given in an Italian restaurant - their staff are incredibly knowledgeable on the suitability of their dishes for allergy sufferers, they didn't make me feel awkward for asking and there was plenty to choose from - their swordfish is fantastic!

I've barely sampled the icing on the multi-layered (nut and gluten free?!) chocolate cake that is eating out in Cardiff. Here's to lots more time spent testing the city's culinary wares on behalf of allergy sufferers - a comprehensive list is needed. Of the places I did try, the overall situation is good. In order for the 'nasty surprises' to be eliminated, restaurants need to adopt policies such as La Tasca's whereby all dish ingredients are listed on the menu. Staff need to be trained, enabling them to advise customers on safe choices, and more options should be available. A big thank you to all those eateries already making a big effort to improve dining experiences for people with food intolerances. Entrepreneurs take note - there is a gap in the Cardiff market for a cafe or restaurant devoted to being food allergy friendly. If you establish this idea, please adopt me as your taster, and mention me on Dragon's Den!

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