Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Ralph the Police Witch

 My dad, Ralph, is a Police Witch. That's not his official title, rather one I've appointed him.* The Collins English Dictionary website defines witch as follows:

Ralph is not a woman. He is not evil nor does he practice black magic. He is not wicked or ugly. In fact, one of my previous work colleagues told me she fancied him, and that he has a 'lovely aura' which I find sort of disturbing. She also believed herself to be a white witch. I see some sort of witch-related pattern forming.
My portrayal of him as a witch stems from his magic powers. He sees into the future. I call him a Police Witch as his visions are road safety or law and order related. And he is a retired policeman.

Delivered via text as if a subscribed-to-service, I receive sparsely written messages on a daily basis - usually early morning - presenting warning based predictions for the day.

"Watch the roads. The sun'll be low in the sky." (It's sunny out when I get this message.)

"Watch the roads. They'll be wet." (Usually raining.)

"There are new traffic wardens operating in Cardiff. Watch you don't get booked." (I really did narrowly escape this fate about two hours later, at the hands and ticket machines of the purple clad vehicle vultures.)

"Watch the roads. They'll be slippery." (Usually snowing.)

"Watch the roads. They'll be dark." (Night-time.)

You get the picture. He was thinking about setting up his own business recently. I am sure that a Ralph the Police Witch website would be a roaring success. In exchange for a fee, he could distribute his prophecies on-line, as well as via text, e-mail or twitter feed. In fact, I'll start some early market research. If you'd sign up to Police Witch tweets, please let me know.

Take a look into the skies of South Wales tonight, and you might catch a glimpse of my dad, scanning the streets on a broomstick with his walkie-talkie in hand, forming tomorrow's forecasts.

 Sort of without telling him.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Thank you!

I won runner up place at the Wales Blog Awards last night, in the 'best writing on a blog' category. I am  (quietly!) very pleased to have won the runner up place in this particular category. I love writing. Acknowledgement through the blog awards has given me a boost, encouragement to continue on my writing path, which I'm very grateful for.

Congratulations to everyone who entered, was longlisted and shortlisted for, and won awards at the Wales Blog Awards. Hopefully we'll see each other again soon to re-confirm our real-ness outside of the online world. Until then, happy writing!

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!

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Cafe Of Doom Scandal

Today, I really wanted to dine in a cave themed eatery with all the appeal of A Serbian film to a Disney fan, coupled with the gastronomic goodness of a donkey's toenail. "I know," I thought. "I'll eat at the Cafe of Doom."

The pitch black blanketed stairs beckoned to me like a hell bound death tunnel, the stale odour hanging in the stagnant air outside a mixture of cheap cigarettes and halitosis. As I advanced toward the entrance way, before I began to ascend the crustily carpeted steps, I noticed something different. The blackboard menu, usually awash with local culinary delicacies such as Roats Pots and Impudent Sassages, now resembled a Jackson Pollock style work of abstract expressionism. No exotic dishes proudly advertised, no tasty treats to tempt you in, just a smudgy scrawl.

I turned to the taxi driver leaning nonchalantly against his car nearby. His eyes and body language spoke silent volumes of his knowledge, his wisdom, as he arched one eyebrow slightly upon my approach, folded his arms and leant back a little further, one foot against his vehicle's wheel trim. His importance was brazenly broadcast through a blue-tooth headset looped around one ear, chunky mobile phone clipped to his belt in a bespoke leather pocket, Le Coq Sportif bum-bag holding plenty of ready coins to service the day's fares.  I had come to the right person for help.

"Do you know what's happening with the cafe?" I asked. "Is it open?"

"There's nothing I dunno about this place love", he said, puffing out his chest. Then dropping his cool and his eyebrow for a second, he beckoned me closer. His hand formed a conspiratorial cup next to his mouth, indicating invitation for a listening ear. I obliged with my right one. "Now you can't tell anyone about this, they don't want it getting out see 'cos it might affect trade. Christmas is coming up, and people travel from miles around to scoff some roats pots, and that's just the shoppers. The Christmas work parties are fully booked from July. Ronald has got 1400 Santa hats in boxes out the back. They were cheap like but it'd be a shame to waste 'em. Swear you won't say anything if I tell you what happened? On the bible, like?"

"Do you have a bible?" I asked.

"No, but you know what I mean. Would you swear on one if I had one?"

"Uh yes, sure."

And with that oath upon an imaginary copy of the bible, we had a deal, and my chauffeuring informant delivered the whole tale in hushed tones punctuated by sideways glances.

I had often looked skyward above the cafe entrance and wondered how many floors were in the building. Four, maybe five? And why the bars across a single window in the eaves? Now I had an answer to my idle wonderings.

I learnt that the proprietor Ronald's wife Mary, many years ago, suffered an addiction to the novels of the Bronte sisters, a rare disorder known as Bronte-itis. Initially, this was encouraged. Mary's mother Brenda had only ever expected to give birth to stupid children, such was the family tradition. When her youngest of nine began to devour literature other than Heat magazine upon being inspired by her English G.C.S.E. teacher, Brenda sprung into delighted action from a Jeremy Kyle and Jacob's Club induced coma (orange flavour) and 'phoned The Book Man* right away to order his entire classic collection. This happened to include several works by Jackie Collins, such was the Ton Pentre born Book Man's perception of classic prose, but no matter, they were saved for aunty Peg's Christmas present.

Mary relentlessly read her batch of novels through the day and night, only stopping to drink the odd cup of tea, barely uttering a word to her family and shunning television completely. Although unusual behaviour, Brenda's encouragement only turned to concern when her daughter's appetite waned. Adhering to another family tradition, Mary had always been a portly girl, pillows of flesh padding all potential bony edges. As the fat flattened out, Mary's mother began to keep a closer eye on her newly dilligent, slim-line daughter. She had been curious about the fate of the books Mary had bulldozed through. There was no bookshelf in the house, and they hadn't been lying around. One night, after Mary had, as usual, been holed up in her bedroom all day and again not eaten a thing, Brenda tip-toed up the stairs taking care to avoid the creaky floorboard, and edged her daughter's bedroom door open. She was confronted by a shocking sight.

Eyes wide and other-worldly, mouth foaming, Mary appeared to be in something of a frenzy. Sat on her bed, she was surrounded by hundreds of loose pages, their edges torn and frayed. Her cheeks bulged, protruding as a result of contents crammed in. Still viewing from her vantage point, mouth agape, Brenda saw her daughter crumple one of the strewn sheets, and push it past her teeth, biting down, chewing the paper into a pulp before swallowing. Her skin was flushed, hair dishevelled. Mary was eating her books.

Once safely at the local mental institution and a diagnosis of Bronte-itis reached, Mary's slow recovery began. Treatment involved extreme exposure to anti-literature, so a course of daytime TV and gossip magazines was administered. Sadly, this was the pre Big Brother and X-Factor era, treatments with their inclusion are now found to provoke a much faster recuperation. Achieving sustained good health involved indefinite avoidance of all book shops, period dramas and vintage clothes shops.

Decades on, Mary had embraced her opportunity for a fresh start. She resolutely avoided anything literature-like, and her time in hospital had suppressed all inclination toward the intelligent. She ate non-literature based lunches, married Ronald, together they bought the Cafe of Doom, and settled into their life in Valley suburbia. Calm had been restored until Mary learnt she was expecting the couple's first child. It was a turbulent pregnancy, with sickness throughout the nine months, sleepless nights, and constant kicking from the baby inside. Then, the time of the birth arrived. After an agonising labour, an ashen faced doctor approached Mary and Ronald at the hospital bed side.

"Mary, Ronald. There's no easy way to say this. I've been looking through your medical records. I didn't believe this could have happened until I saw the confirmation of your previous illness for myself. The Bronte-itis you suffered ten years ago...there's an infinitesimal chance that female sufferers bare children linked to the characters of the Bronte sisters....I'm afraid you've given birth to a Bertha, the mad wife of Mr. Rochester."

And so, the calm which had been restored to Mary's life was once more shattered, this time indefinitely so. She and Ronald would never experience the pleasures of regular parenthood, of dropping their child off at the school gates, of sports days and birthday parties and trips to the zoo. The doctor morosely explained to the weeping couple that the only way to care for a Bertha was to treat her in the same way as the character. This was her expectation, her reality, and although she wouldn't enjoy being locked up, any diversion from this would likely result in a mental collapse. She too had been born with Bronte-itis but as she was already mad, in her case it could be satiated. Thus, the attic of the Cafe of Doom was transformed into a cell. Bars were placed across the windows, it was sparsely furnished, and a meal hatch installed into the door through which regular bread, water and novels were delivered. Only the couple's closest friends knew about the existence of Bertha, the wider circle of acquaintances and gossips were told of a tragedy, and whilst technically true, the inferred implications meant no questions were ever asked.

Today had been a busy one in the cafe. Orders for impudent sassages were flying in, and hundreds of roats pots being prepared. As the aroma of the foods drifted up the staircase, around the corners and under the door of Bertha's cell, something within her stirred. The kitchen is situated on the second floor of the cafe, Bertha's room the fifth.  A strict rule insisting that the kitchen door be kept closed, the extractor fan switched on to top speed usually stopped that happening, but alas, today a new member of staff had begun, and forgotten these directives. 

The scent awoke something instinctive within Bertha, something neglected on lunches of literature and Tesco Value bread, filling her with a superhuman strength. She prised open her room door, tore down the flights of stairs, charged through the cafe sending customers, mobility scooters, tables, small dogs and plates crashing in all directions as she burst out of the entrance way. Upon seeing the blackboard menu adorned with forbidden delicacies she let out a rumbling roar and wiped them off vigorously, grabbing a stick of chalk and scrawling over the remaining smudges. Her cries of outrage could be heard as far as the outdoor market and Wilkinson's - naturally drawing a crowd of toothless women carrying striped bags of fruit and vegetables. It took Ronald, plus four of his meatiest male customers and one questionable female to lift a screaming, struggling Bertha back into the cafe, and then only because she was promised a stack of impudent sassages as reward. It took thirty seven additional roats pots before she was relaxed enough to be escorted back to her room, and upon arrival, this time shackled.

Thus, I discovered the fate of today's delicious Cafe of Doom fare and was forced to dine somewhere with a much more welcoming entrance way. Mary and Ronald would be closing for the rest of the week, attributing the incident to a sick cousin from London come to visit. The locals were already suspicious of (The) London so would easily write off such behaviour if associated with that place.

"Keep it schtum now mind love", winked the taxi driver, relishing the regaling of his tale but finally drawing to a close as a potential customer arrived. "Wouldn't want to miss out on our roats pots now would we?"

* There are multiple Book Men in the South Wales Valleys, but only ever referred to as a single person. The role of a Book Man is a full time one, which involves bringing a selection of books directly to the people of the valleys in exchange for cash, as a replacement for them visiting an actual shop. If you receive a book from a valleys gran or aunty for Christmas, it has probably been purchased from The Book Man. The chance of that is tripled if said book is authored by Dan Brown or Jackie Collins.