I had scarcely pressed the ‘go live’ key on my last blog about allergen-free catering when the following email plopped into my in-box:
Good morning Michelle,
I am hoping that I can persuade you to help me in my battle to encourage chefs to stop putting eggs either in or brushed over cake and pastries that do not require an egg in the recipe.
As you may gather I have an intolerance to Egg Yolk and it is quite difficult to eat in a restaurant these days because if the dish does not have egg in the recipe the chef will paint it over the top.
When I spoke to a local chef here he said you must have a “golden crust which can only be obtained with an egg wash”. But from the time that I learnt to cook with my grandmother and during all the time I taught cookery in schools and colleges I always brushed pastry or breads with milk and not an egg wash (occasionally I have even used single cream) and I always get a beautiful golden crust to the flaky pastry. Expensive you may say but not as pricey as using and wasting half an egg!
Any ideas how to get the message out to a wider audience?
Well, of course Veronica is quite right – you do not need to use egg to get a golden crust, you can perfectly well use milk or cream. So the chef she talked to, if he was going to cook ‘freefrom’ would need to be a bit more open minded. But…. What if you are also trying to cater for those who are dairy/milk allergic or intolerant as well as egg intolerant?
And that is the one big problem about ‘freefrom’ in food service. How many allergens should you be trying to exclude ? Can you – and do you want to – to exclude all of the major allergens from all of your menus?
After all, if you are not allergic to nuts or peanuts, they are not only a delicious but a very versatile and nutritious food. And less than 5% of the population (so that it probably less than 15% of your potential ‘freefrom’ market) is allergic to them. The same goes for sesame seeds or celery or mustard – all major allergens capable of causing anaphylactic shock, but only to a very small number of people. And, no matter how inventive a cook you may be, are you going to struggle to create a good selection of interesting menus when you cannot use any cereals containing gluten (wheat, barley or rye), crustaceans, molluscs, eggs, fish, peanuts, nuts, soybeans, milk, celery, mustard, sesame or lupin?
If you have a very wide range of serious allergies – like, for example, Ruth of What Allergy? or Alexa of YesNoBananas whose small son has multiple life-threatening allergies – you would just love to find a restaurant that used none of your allergens. Catering for this degree of sensitivity is challenging but by no means impossible. Even if a chef excludes wheat, barley and rye, eggs, dairy products, soya, celery, mustard, sesame, tree nuts and peanuts, there are still many hundreds of ingredients that they can safely use – although they may find it more difficult to produce some of the more conventional dishes that you would find in an ‘ordinary’ eatery.
If, on the other hand, you are ‘only’ coeliac (‘only’ not to downgrade the difficulties faced by coeliacs but because they are only dealing with one ‘allergen’ rather than five or ten) – life is somewhat simpler. There are also a great many more of you, so you are possibly a more tempting prospect for an eatery looking to go ‘freefrom’. Moreover, there are a great many more alternative- to-gluten ingredients available, making the chef’s task somewhat easier.
And indeed, going gluten-free only is the route that many budding ‘freefrom’ restaurants have chosen to take, offering gluten-free but not necessarily anything-else-free food.
While those wanting gluten-free food continue to be in the majority, there are an increasing number of potential eaters-out who want a greater freefrom range. These include both those with medical/digestive problems (a significant number of coeliacs, for example, also react badly to dairy products) and those who are choosing to eat ‘freefrom’ because they feel it is healthier and it fits better with their lifestyle (the fastest growing segment of the freefrom market). While they all want to eat gluten-free they would also like the option of eating at least dairy-free and possibly soy-free as well.
So, what is an eatery looking to go ‘freefrom’ to do?
Well, my advice, for what it is worth, would be to get your head firmly around all of those 14 allergens, get your allergen control measures in place, and then keep a very open mind. Once you are comfortable with the disciplines of allergen control, controlling for two allergens rather than one, or three rather than two, is really not that difficult. Moreover, once your chefs have started to think outside the conventional box and investigate alternative ingredients, experimenting with coconut oil instead of butter – as well as cornflour or rice flour instead of wheat flour – will no longer seem such a daunting task.
So start by offering specifically gluten-free dishes but try to include in those a few dishes that will also exclude dairy and/or eggs and/or soya and/or nuts/peanuts. Then ask your customers what they would like and be prepared to be flexible. Even if you do not intend to offer a completely dairy/egg/soya/nut free menu, there is no reason why your kitchen allergen controls should not include those ingredients so that, if you do get asked for dairy or egg free dishes, you are already set up to produce them.
Good luck – and, any freefrom eateries out there, do keep us posted on how it is going for you?