Going gluten-free

As a devoted lover of all cakes, I really did enjoy the jubilee weekend celebrations, including our street party. I enjoyed delicious Victoria sponge cakes covered in jubilee decorations, cucumber sandwiches, coronation chicken sandwiches and sausage rolls. If like me, you believe it is your unassailable right to eat cake, spare a thought for those who have to be a little more cautious.

I received a letter from a reader Tony Cartwright from Harpenden who explained that although he enjoys reading this column, he can’t always eat the food recommended as he can’t eat anything containing gluten. He pointed out that most pubs, câfés and restaurants are not very good at labelling their food or offer a very limited range of food that would be suitable for coeliacs. As part of the national awareness campaign for Coeliac UK, Tony asked if I would take up a challenge to try and eat for a week avoiding gluten. Eek!

Around one in every hundred people in the UK have to avoid gluten in their food, which cuts out any products containing wheat, rye or barley. This means no beer, pizza, fish from the fish and chip shop, and most cakes, sandwiches, pasta and pies. Tony has to travel to Rickmansworth if he wants to buy gluten-free fish and chips! If you think about some of our most popular local restaurants, the choice to coeliacs is very limited: Italian and Chinese restaurants offer only a handful of gluten-free dishes and our lovely coffee shops rarely label their baked goods.

So Tony explained what I needed to look out for. “Chinese food is difficult because normal soy sauce is made partly from wheat. Any meal with a sauce or gravy needs careful checking with the chef as wheat is often used to thicken them. Anything with bread or rolls is normally impossible – so no sandwiches, burgers, pizza or panini. There are special versions of these made gluten-free but they are not normally available from high street cafes and restaurants. No pastry pies and tarts. If a pub or restaurant buys in ready-made chips or mash these may sometimes contain wheat flour (don’t ask me why), so we have to check.”

First, the good news. Tony told me that some of our local independents offer a clear choice for coeliacs with Lussmann’s in St Albans getting a special mention for their information and broad range of dishes on the menu, as did Freddie’s in St Albans. Indian cookery is an excellent choice as chickpea (gram) flour is used for thickening and bhajis, rather than wheat flours. Tony said Indian food is his favourite as he can eat most of what is on the menu, which makes a very welcome change – he recommends Cinnamon in Harpenden. We are spoilt for choice for good Indian restaurants in our local area, so this is good news for coeliacs.

Perhaps surprisingly some of the Italian chains are quite good at providing information. Carluccio’s has a special gluten-free menu which includes some gluten-free pasta and Strada in Harpenden has a clear menu too. The choices are limited, but at least you know some thought has been given to what is safe to eat, and they are trying to avoid cross-contamination of ingredients.

I noticed that some of the very good independent cafes offer one or two gluten-free choices, such as The Courtyard Cafe in St Albans, bread from Redbournbury mill, and The Pudding Stop. We found that most of the local independent butchers sell gluten-free sausages. I think there is growing awareness for those needing to eat gluten-free, and I think there is an element of lifestyle choice with some people preferring not to eat wheat. Whatever the motivation it should mean improved choice for those who need to eat wheat-free.


My very best find was The Osprey Saddlery cafe on Coopers Green Lane (AL4 9HJ). We discovered this very pretty cafe when out on the St Albans Charity Cycle Ride on a sunny day back in May. Just a mile or two out of St Albans this cafe is set in the courtyard next to the Osprey luxury goods shop. Drawn in by the tables set with bright red geraniums and having already drunk all our water and eaten the family snacks we went in for tea and cakes. Without asking we were told that “all our cakes are gluten-free”. I spotted coffee cake and lemon cake made by Mellyn Bakes, and flapjacks made by The Village Flapjack Company. Everything we ate was delicious and well worth the bike ride out there, whether you need to eat wheat-free, or simply enjoy good food. The cafe also sells light lunches such as sandwiches and quiches. It is open 10-5.30 every day except Sunday 11-4. There is some seating inside the cafe, but most is outside, so perfect for a summer trip out. Look out for the very pretty classic British china – everything was sourced from country house sales and auctions so you could be drinking your loose-leaf tea from Royal Doulton, Worcester, Wedgewood or a classic Brown Betty tea pot.

So, how did I get on? I did fairly well avoiding gluten, but I missed decent toast and failed miserably with fish and chips and beer one Friday evening. I would imagine that gluten-free options are becoming more widely available, but that this is a recent trend. If you own a cafe, bar or restaurant you can only win new customers by being more aware of their needs, so why not give this some thought?

Tony’s wife Doreen sent me this recipe for a versatile sponge cake, that uses ground almonds and rice flour instead of wheat flour. It is a very useful basic recipe originally from the cafe in Wells Cathedral that you can adapt to add lemon, chocolate or turn into a celebration cake with some icing. Doreen’s version, shown here contains chopped dried apricots, dates and nuts and you certainly don’t need to be a coeliac to enjoy it. If you have a local foodie business and want to know more, visit http://www.coeliac.org.uk for more info.

RECIPE Gluten-free loaf cake

An easy basic sponge recipe that you add any flavour to, such as lemon zest and juice to make a lemon drizzle, mashed banana, sultanas and dried cherries, chocolate chips and cocoa powder. Add icing to make a birthday cake. This is originally from Wells Cathedral câfé.

Makes 8-10 slices

250g soft margarine or butter

250g caster sugar

4 eggs, separated

250g ground almonds

50g rice flour


1. Preheat your oven to 180C, gas mark 4 and line a 900g loaf tin with baking parchment.


2. Cream together the margarine or butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Stir in the egg yolks.


3. Fold in the ground almonds, flour and the flavourings of your choice, whether chocolate chips or lemon juice and zest.


4. Whisk the egg whites until they peak then fold them gently into the cake mixture.


5. Spoon into the lined tin and bake for about 1 and a half hours until the cake is springy to touch. Turn out onto a wire rack to cool. When cold, decorate the top with icing if you like.





About thelocalfoodie

Food writer for The Herts Advertiser.
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2 Responses to Going gluten-free

  1. Great response to this article from readers. The Saddlery Cafe had a very busy weekend after the article came out, showing there is a demand for good gluten-free baking out there. Local cake makers and cafes have sent in their recommendations too, so I will try to feature them next time in The Herts Ad.

  2. Matthew Humphreys says:

    Through my holiday company I’ve worked with Coeliac UK for 3 years. They provide a fsntastic service for their 60k plus members detailing what and where they can eat. Anyone with IBS or is concerned can get a free blood test from your GP. A simple test can change your life for the better.

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