The trials and tribulations of a Coeliac, or how we spent Sunday afternoon in some anxiety and discomfort

Largely tasteless, yet strangely more-ish. 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. Gluten free Granola. Scrummy.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.

Cheese Kettle Chips - fabAlas, 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.

Jimi HendrixIf 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.

Gluten free organic pasta. It does taste different from ordinary pasta but it's still perfectly nice. 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?

We were in London, let's do it, let's break the law...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.

Covent Garden“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.

Review – BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, Prom 21, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, R. Strauss Don Juan and Dance of the Seven Veils, Walton Violin Concerto, Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky Cantata, July 30th 2011

BBC PromsEvery year Mrs Chrisparkle and I take a trip down to London to see a Prom. The choice of which Prom is often the source of lengthy debate and the weighing of pros and cons, until finally a compromise is made – music we think we’ll enjoy on a date that is convenient and with no work the next day. Albert HallGetting to and from the Royal Albert Hall from Northampton is no mean feat. Anyway, this year it was an easy choice – Alexander Nevsky on a Saturday!

We always make an occasion of it and treat ourselves to a slap up meal in one of the RAH’s restaurants. A couple of years ago we upgraded to the Coda Restaurant, a real destination eatery. This year, for some reason I can’t quite remember, I booked for the Elgar Room. This will be the subject of a future blog post, quite possibly tomorrow. Suffice it to say at this stage, I probably shan’t make the same decision next year.

Andris NelsonsMoving on. It’s all about the Hall and the concert, after all. Our conductor was Andris Nelsons, and from our vantage point he seemed to be enjoying himself thoroughly. We started off with Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, one of three pieces of music in the programme that was completely new to me. In an action packed seventeen minutes it seemed to have everything you could possibly want from a piece of classical music. Sparks, crashes, searing notes, quiet bits, lively bits, all coming together to form a satisfying whole. Don’t ask me to be more erudite about the performance, that’s all I can offer you on the subject.

MidoriA palpable sense of expectation for the next item – Walton’s Violin Concerto, with Midori as soloist. When not moonlighting as a melon-based liqueur, her day job is as a fantastic violin player. She has a commanding presence on the podium, and she got the most extraordinary sounds out of her instrument, made in 1734 according to the programme notes. View of the BalconyWhen she feels the music vibe, she really feels it, contorting her neck and upper body into the most uncomfortable looking positions that allow her to express the real personality of the music. I have to be honest here – I didn’t really like the concerto per se. It didn’t really inspire me musically, and I know that’s my fault. To me it was almost too clever, too difficult, too unnatural for me to get a sense of anything that might approximate a tune. But this is nothing to do with the performance, which I could tell was sensational.

Proms AudienceWhilst I was in an interval queue for the Gents, Mrs C observed Midori sweeping majestically out of the Hall, through one of the side vestibules, where a group of onlookers withdrew to the side to allow her to pass; at which point she graciously, and much to their surprise, shook hands with each and every one of them. Mrs C felt it was one of those unexpected moments of accidental theatricality, and I wish I’d seen it.

Alexander Nevsky himselfThe second half of the concert started with my favourite, Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky cantata. The CBSO, augmented by their wonderful chorus, gave a lively, exciting performance. There are so many delightful passages in this music, and they shone as usual. If I’m honest, I thought the balance of sounds within the orchestra for the Battle on the Ice was a bit off. If, like me, you imagine one army represented by the jolly string tune, and the other army by the discordant brass section, the string army never got a look in, for the brass were on the ascendant from Round One. But the percussion was great; I particularly loved the xylophone playing and the magnificent huge drum is the stuff of childhood fantasy. Nadezhda SerdiukThe chorus were spot on, and it was all magnificently stirring. I should also give mention to the mezzo-soprano Nadezhda Serdiuk, who waited patiently on the podium for her four minutes of singing in the penultimate section, and it was well worth the wait, I thought her performance was very moving.

The final piece was Richard Strauss’s Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome. Again, full of vitality and exuberance, engaging and beautiful. Albert Hall lit upFor me, though, it was a let down after the high of the Prokofiev. I feel the programme would have been much more rounded if the Salome had started the second half rather than ended it.

Nevertheless an extremely enjoyable concert, and we all emerged triumphantly into Kensington Gore, on a wave of Bolshevik fervour.