When I started the GF challenge six days ago I’d imagined this day would be the easiest – I would have a laid-back Sunday and do a spectacular GF meal to round-off. Then I’d knock back a couple of Estrella Damms and toast all the coeliacs in the land.
But I hadn’t counted on a dear cousin of mine turning up in the city unannounced from Italy with a football squad (literally) of mates in tow, to take part in an Anglo-Italian vs Italian amateur soccer competition in south east London. I knew full well today would not be about the football – the team had already lost 5-0 in a preliminary round yesterday – but I was invited along to partake in cheering, banter and – there is no other more fitting word for it – gluten.
Beers, breads, sausages, burgers, pizzas. If it didn’t have gluten in it, it had lactose in it. If it didn’t have lactose in it, it was an olive. And so I ate an olive. And drank orange juice. ‘That’s very acidifying, you know,’ I was teased.
It was a bit of a shame. My cousin was unaware of my GF challenge beforehand and had expected to have a pint with me. We’re similar ages, we played together as boys in the long hot Italian summers of the late seventies and early eighties, and we see each other perhaps every two years. How could I not have a drink with him?
But I didn’t. I had fun nonetheless – it was great to see him and he didn’t pressure me to give in – but the sometimes concentrated difficulties of staying on the wagon are something I’m relieved and grateful I don’t need to experience again. Really, I am very lucky.
So after a long day out I’m afraid it was a quick and unremarkable dinner, then, of a (mostly) GF meal of veggie tofu stir-fry with rice noodles, which I adapted slightly to make totally GF (basically using tamari sauce instead of usual soy sauce).
Ingredients (for 2)
150g rice noodles
About 150g tofu pieces
1 large carrot
1 stick celery
1 small red onion
1 red or green pepper
Fresh ginger (a thumb), garlic (a clove or two) and chilli (a red or green one)
Some chilli jam
Lots of Tamari soy sauce
Smattering of herbs
Stir fry the ginger, garlic and chilli in a little groundnut oil for a minute and then add all the vegetables, sliced. Meanwhile cook the rice noodles according to instructions. Add a teaspoon of sweet/savoury jam (I used a sample of fiery chilli and pomegranate jam I’d been given at a food show), generous quantities of Tamari soy sauce and some dried herbs, if using. Add tofu, and heat through, then when noodles are ready, drain and combine with stir fried vegetables, adding any fresh herbs, if using. Serve.
Okay, I guess the time has come to sign off on the GF challenge. I’m only partially satisfied with myself. I’d wanted to cook with millet or amaranth, and I wanted to do something with polenta, which I grew up with and is such an interesting food to work with, putting paid to the myth as it does that risotto is the only GF meal Italians eat. One for the future, perhaps…
A fear this week was learning something that I’d failed to put into the book. I’m relieved that this didn’t happen – but the week did bring the truth of it all home to me to a degree which you can’t quite conceive of when you only dabble a bit in gluten exclusion and label scrutinising (as I did when researching the book). I mean – I knew it was expensive, I knew it was difficult socially, I knew options were limited. And coeliacs had always told me these things, and more, and I could see them myself too. But to actually live them, and not only experience them in some ephemeral or abstract sense, really socked it to me.
Despite this, I don’t feel I’ve really experienced the coeliac life. A one-week experiment, knowing that I won’t suffer any consequences if I slipped up, with that tantalising light of tomorrow at the end of the tunnel – a luxury coeliacs don’t have – can’t really compare to a lifetime of gluten exclusion with the reward of possibly weeks of ill-health from any slip up. It is impossible for anyone to replicate what coeliacs have to go through. And while I imagine it does get easier as time goes by, the temptation and/or presence of gluten can never quite be removed entirely – much like cigarettes to an ex-smoker, or a drink to a recovering alcholic. We live in a boozy, smoky and gluteny world – and people have to adapt to it.
What have I learned? That it is ridiculously easy to mess up – as I did with lactose – although I imagine if you subsequently suffer the physical consequences of such errors, you’d probably rapidly sharpen your game. Something that has stuck with me is the surprising fact that many young women appear to have never heard of gluten. I’d assumed that most would have read enough women’s magazines, filled as they are with detoxing and dieting stuff and nonsense, to have learned what gluten is, even if not in the context of coeliac disease. It wasn’t true, in my experience.
What did I miss? Occasionally the gluten-containing food I like, of course – but mostly I missed having unlimited options. I missed not having to think about what I forked or spooned into my mouth – the luxury of culinary freedom, denied to coeliacs and gluten sensitives.
I want to sincerely thank all the people who have read the blog over the last seven days – and especially those who have commented. Others have emailed privately. There’s been some smashing support on Twitter too – with RTs and encouraging messages. There are too many of you to name individually but I can assure you you all really helped me along. I feared being ignored – or being accused of being patronising – but it was great so many of you stopped by and were nice, even occasionally so about my recipes, like the squash rice pie.
So, the end is nigh – just a few hours – and I can almost taste tomorrow’s lunch of toasted rye bread. I have a last Estrella Damm before me, and I guess life for this lucky boy is pretty good…