Thursday, August 09, 2007
Gluten-Free Great Britain - my experience
OK, I admit it, I've been slacking off the past couple weeks and enjoying a family vacation in the United Kingdom (England in particular). This was the first family vacation in many years, and the first ever that was more than a week long. We all decided to finally give in and take a nice long break, especially before our daughter heads off to grad-school to begin her English PhD in a couple weeks.
A key consideration for me whenever considering travel is how I can safely eat gluten-free while away from home. I didn't know what British gluten-free food availability would be compared to here in the USA, and I was a bit hesitant about making the trip because of this. Luckily, any fears of gluten-free food option shortages was without merit.
I did receive some helpful pre-trip advice from Dianne (who authors the UK Celiac and Gluten-Free blog called "Gluten Free Journey"). In addition to her wonderful blogs about eating gluten-free in the United Kingdom, she also provided some great advice regarding what to see and do in the country. She has some great restaurant reviews posted on her site too, which were quite nice when planning where to eat during a couple days of our adventure.
I also packed a couple boxes of Jigsaw Bars to make sure I had some good, safe, gluten-free snack food along to fill in any gaps between "safe" food finds, and they worked out wonderfully. Luckily, Jigsaw Health had a buy-one-get-one-free sale going (and still do actually), so I was able to really load up on these handy and healthy gluten-free bars. I went through 24 bars in 16 days, and that was just about right for filler-foods when out and about (especially when walking 5-10 miles/day in London).
I had never been to Britain before, and quite honestly, it was nothing like I had imagined it or like others had described it to me.
One thing was exactly I as I expected: the flight. Oh my god is that a long flight. Sure, it's shorter than flying to the complete far side of the world, but at 7 hours to get there, and 8 hours back, it was a bit rough. The jet-lag going there was horrendous, as our flight departed Cleveland at around 8:30PM local time and arrived in London around 8:30AM their local time. Needless to say, I didn't sleep well (nearly zero in fact) on the flight.
So, right off the plane we picked up our rental car, and I got my first fast-track hands-on learning experience with driving on the "wrong" (i.e., Left) side of the road. That wasn't too difficult to become accustomed to actually. But, then came the infamous "roundabouts". Forget stop-signs: they don't exist in the UK from my experience (though, there are occasional "give way" signs that provide for rolling-stops of sorts). But, the roundabout replaces stop-lights and the old familiar USA "X" intersections nearly everywhere. Luckily, even with sleep-deprivation, I managed to make my way from London Gatwick airport to Winchester (our first sight-seeing stop), and on to our hotel in Portsmouth the first day...
Meeting Dianne from Gluten-Free Journey
...and, thank god, Dianne and her husband (yep, the same Dianne from that famous United Kingdom gluten-free blog) offered to meet my wife, daughter and I in Portsmouth, UK and drive us from the hotel out to dinner at Bombay Bay (Indian food - a place which she has reviewed on her web site). I can not express in words our gratitude for the attention Dianne and her husband bestowed upon up, and for saving me from an otherwise certain fate of getting lost in Portsmouth while trying to find the restaurant we were to meet at!
Dianne's husband made those (never-ending) roundabouts seem like child's play as he whisked us through the English traffic (which I was still finding daunting given my inexperience) on our way to dinner. They also took time to take the scenic-route, and showed us quite a few of the more notable landmarks and attractions in the Portsmouth, UK region en route to the restaurant.
By now, it was around 7PM and we three American tourists were running on fumes as sleep deprivation was causing some serious brain-fog, but our hosts did a wonderful job of keeping us going through thoughtful discussion and superb cuisine. Did I mention how absolutely awesome Dianne and her husband are? They are two of the nicest people you could imagine, and both are quite intelligent and great conversationalists. What a great way to get an introduction to British culture and meet a fellow gluten-free blogger from a new country!
We exchanged some "local" gluten-free specialties and gifts. Dianne introduced me to Thornton's Chocolates - in particular, clotted-cream chocolate-covered vanilla fudge, and oh my god are they good! And, they have clearly labeled gluten-free products. She also gave us some books on traditional British cuisine and the local geography and sites. What a fantastic and thoughtful thing to do! We took her some Tinkyada pasta that she had otherwise been unable to find in the UK, and some other gluten-free treats like Cinnamon-Raisin Peanut Butter from Peanut Butter & Co., which I have since heard Dianne really loves. It sure seems to me there is an opportunity for some cross export-import of some of these wonderful items between the USA and England, but that's another story altogether.
Well, needless to say, the evening went by in a flash, and though we had time to discuss our various gluten-free experiences and living with Celiac (Coeliac per UK spelling), there is never really enough time in one evening to cover everything you'd like. We certainly learned things about the other we otherwise didn't know, including how Dianne's husband has the same camera I used to photograph the GF Desserts book, and how Dianne is quite the expert in understanding blood tests (this will be handy in my coming blogs, as I hope to collaborate a bit with her on my more science-oriented health topic discussions).
So, the evening ended and finally we enjoyed a night of much needed sleep. And, the next day began with us moving on to see all sorts of varied English landscapes, sites, attractions, buildings, and towns.
Gluten-Free in England / Great Britain
I will go into much more detail about some of the wonderful gluten-free foods, treats, restaurants, desserts, candies, drinks, and more that I found while in the UK at a later time, and for now start with a summary of the experience (in particular, how things compare to the United States).
First of all, they (the UK) have much better product labeling than we do in most cases. I spent quite a bit of time checking out products in grocery stores and specialty shops while in England, and I was utterly impressed by how clear their gluten-free labeling is (and, allergen-labeling in general). There are exceptions of course, but primarily I found it much easier to quickly determine if a product was safe for me to consume or not. I'll be posting a list of some of my favorite UK Gluten-Free products soon - I saved the labels from things so I could remember them and comment on them!
And, restaurants tend to be ahead of the United States in their awareness of Coeliac Disease and consumer limitations. In fact, we ate at a few small, single-site restaurants that presented menus clearly indicating which items were gluten-free, vegetarian, and so forth. One little street-corner French restaurant called Bistro Deja-vu in the Cumbria (Lake District) city of Kendal could set a standard for simplicity and clarity. Just check out their online menu and you'll see that nice little "gf" symbol beside everything safe. Fantastic! Sure, there were places that didn't have a clue about gluten-free living and eating, but in general, most knew what it was and didn't have a problem determining what menu items were safe and which were not.
The bottom-line regarding gluten-free eating in England: generally simple and many excellent products and restaurants are available. Stay tuned for specifics.
The British Heritage Pass
The picture at the beginning of this blog shows our Great British Heritage Passes. I highly recommend this if you plan to see some of the popular attractions. The pass gets you into 580 different and magnificent properties around the country, and can be a real money-saver compared to purchasing individual entry into different sites. And, it is definitely a time-saver as well, as you don't have to worry about having additional cash available as you stop by each site on your trip.
We created our own travel plan to make a big loop around most of the United Kingdom during our two weeks, starting near London, working Westward towards Weymouth, North through Bath to Preston and Cumbria (the Lake District National Park), Southeast through the Peak District and South into London. We stopped for most any historic building, castle, ruin, park, garden, and other attraction along the way that was on our pass, and the sights were spectacular! I'll go into more detail in future posts, including some pictures of the various regions, when I get time to organize all of the digital photos we took (over 1100 of them).
Sorry about not being very active with the Gluten-Free Blog recently because of our adventure, but I plan to redeem myself with all sorts of upcoming blogs over the coming months :)