If you know us personally, you will probably be aware that Mrs Chrisparkle is a Coeliac. To the uninitiated, it means she must not eat anything containing gluten. Gluten is found in wheat products, so it’s a no-no to wheat flour, ordinary bread and pasta, many thickening agents, much in the way of convenience food, and loads of common or garden meals that you wouldn’t even think of. No worries, she can eat meat, fish, vegetables, rice, cheese, pulses and lots more. It’s been about ten years since she was diagnosed, and about five years since she last accidentally ate something containing gluten. That normally happens abroad, when language confusion can cause misunderstandings and a glutenous ingredient gets unfortunately scoffed. The result? Anything from mild stomach cramps to fainting and violent nausea, usually around 24 hours later.
But fortunately, people are aware of the horrors of food allergies, and chefs and waiting staff know to take it seriously. We tend to eat out a lot at pubs and restaurants, and asking the right questions and choosing sensibly off the menu means a worry-free dining experience.
Alas, that was until last weekend. You may have read, dear reader, about our trip to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday evening. Always an entertaining excursion, and it’s a thrill to be at the Royal Albert Hall, so we go the whole hog and enjoy a delicious meal in elegant surroundings at one of the Hall’s restaurants, pre-Prom. So it was that we went to the Elgar Room, and ordered our three course meals and wine.
If I’m honest, although the surroundings were great, look – we even shared the table with Jimi Hendrix – the food wasn’t that special. It looked delightful and its textures were beguiling; but as far as taste was concerned, it didn’t register much. No matter; it was an enjoyable experience. For dessert I had the cheeseboard which was genuinely tasty. Mrs C had confirmed with the waiter what she could have, and it was some chocolate and orange moussey thing with honeycomb on top. Mid-dessert, she was explaining to me that it was in fact the tastiest of her three courses when she suddenly stopped and asked me if I would try a mouthful. “Is that not sponge?” was her worrying question. I tasted. “Definitely”, I said. “How on earth do they make gluten-free sponge?” she asked. Erring on the side of caution we called our waiter over again and asked him to confirm with the kitchen.
A few minutes later and he returned, flustered and apologetic. Some of the dishes had changed a little recently, he explained. The chocolate and orange moussey thing never used to contain sponge, but now they’ve changed it, and now it does, and no one thought to update the record of ingredients and allergens. Massive apologies ensued, and a free dessert (the somewhat safer strawberries and cream); but it’s shocking that they took such little care with her food. It made Mrs C worry about everything else she had eaten. The cucumber soup, for example, certainly had some kind of thickening agent. Her heart sank. Would there be a reaction 24 hours later?
So the next day, we were really on guard when it came to ordering food in London. We’d stayed overnight as we were seeing another show on Sunday afternoon. It was 1pm and time for a Covent Garden lunch. We spied the welcoming looking Sussex Pub, occupying a commanding position on the corner of Long Acre and St Martin’s Lane. The tables outside looked inviting in the sunshine, and the menu looked full of nice grub. No indication on the menu as to what was gluten-free but one wouldn’t expect it, so armed with a couple of ideas for a starter and main course, I braved the food counter.
“I’d like to order some food please.”
“Certainly. What would you like?”
“Could you tell me first, are either the Nachos, or the Garlic and Lemon Chicken skewers gluten-free?”
“Ah, that’s a very hard question to answer. It is our policy not to guarantee the content of any of our meals.”
“Oh. Well can we not simply ask the chef, it’ll say on the box of nachos if it contains gluten or not?”
“We don’t guarantee what’s in our meals.”
“But can we not ask the chef though?”
“Well if you can’t say what’s in your meals, we can’t order them, can we?”
“OK” came the caring response (with a “wotever” type shrug).
At which point I upped and left, loudly saying how totally ridiculous such an attitude was, (to no one in particular.) I continued my angry remonstrations on the street, with the result that Mrs C had to quieten me down with a “shush dear it doesn’t matter”. But it does matter. Their menu specifically says to discuss any food allergens with the bar staff. Well if they won’t engage in ascertaining what allergens there might be in the food, what’s the ****ing point in that?? To be honest, I wasn’t looking for a “guarantee”, I’m not going to sue them, I just wanted an indication of the likely level of safety.
Fortunately we were able to repair to the sanity and coeliac heaven that is PJ’s Restaurant. We discovered this little gem quite a while ago. Not only do they have an excellent menu, they asterisk the items that are gluten-free.
“Would you like some bread?” asked the friendly Polish waitress. “Yes please” said I, tucking in. “No thank you” declined Mrs C. The waitress was straight in there. “Are you gluten-free?” “Yes!” said Mrs C. “I will get you some crackers” said the waitress. And sure enough, along came a gluten-free rice cracker. I really enjoyed my meal of salad, chicken and ice-cream, but much more pertinent was Mrs C’s experience. To start – Thai Fish Cakes, served with a lovely spicy dressing. I could tell from Mrs C’s rapturous expression that we were on to a winner. Then, Sea Bass in a Spring Roll. Spring Roll? Surely not? But yes, a gluten-free spring roll of epic proportions and of which I had a nibble and it was delicious. Finally, a Toblerone and meringue soufflé. Yes, it was as divine as it sounds. So you see, Royal Albert Hall and Sussex pub, with a little dedication and imagination, you too can provide a proper gluten-free meal.
So what of the gluten that was accidentally consumed on Saturday evening? Well, indeed, it worked its way through Mrs C’s system and by the interval of our afternoon show on Sunday, she felt nausea, giddiness, and an extremely uptight tummy. As a result she had to miss the second half of the show. Thanks, Royal Albert Hall Catering Department, for ruining our weekend. I’ve sent them an email detailing our misadventures with them. I’m yet to receive a response.