Category Archives: Friendship

Birthday blessings

This weekend has been one of “those” weekends. You know, one of the ones where there’s so much to do and just not quite enough time to manage to do it all. A combination of birthday celebrations, performing arts classes, auditions and hospital appointments has left us feeling somewhat exhausted; but tonight, after a fun few hours with M, G and a group of their friends, I’m also counting our blessings.

It’s been no secret that M found last year, his first at secondary school, tough. The move into a school environment where his year group was considerably bigger than his entire junior school combined with family deaths and the inevitable challenge of his continued restricted diet left not only M, but all of us, struggling to find a positive way forward. Circumstances last year meant that we didn’t really do much to celebrate his 12th birthday, so I was determined to kick off his teen years in whatever fashion he wanted.

The celebrations started with an M-friendly pear and ginger cake with caramel buttercream icing on Friday evening to accompany his presents, which included the bass guitar and amp that he’s been yearning after for a few months. He had been slightly frustrated with Mike’s refusal to take him to look at guitars last weekend and was only marginally mollified by the promise to get up early this Saturday morning to visit our local guitar shop and examine exactly what was on offer. As you can imagine, his excitement in finding the guitar and its own mini amp waiting for him when he got home from Stagecoach was wonderful to see and we’ve been serenaded with renditions of both “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Seven Nation Army” since late Friday night! I’m just glad the bass guitar lessons he’s been having at school appear to be paying off already and delighted to see him so wiling to practise in every spare moment.

However, the culmination of M’s birthday weekend came yesterday afternoon as we spent the late afternoon and early evening with a group of his and G’s friends. M had chosen a group of old friends and new, some from school, others that he’s grown up with and the best bit was seeing just how well these different strands of his life hit it off and enjoyed the few hours together. After lots of chat, M had decided he wanted to try his hand at an escape room and we booked 2 rooms at one of our local escape rooms sites. We amicably split into 2 teams, each with an adult and a mix of the older and younger children and determined to compete against the clock, rather than each other to escape our locked rooms.

I was impressed with how well they all worked together and certainly those on my team managed the frustration of solving some of the clues well, with only one of M’s friends needing some redirection and reminders to focus from time to time. We were lucky to escape with just 2 minutes to spare and although Mike and M’s team were not quite so successful – they had found all 4 keys, but failed to open the door in time – everyone enjoyed themselves and were ready to move on for a dinner to suit all dietary needs that were present.

The chatter, camaraderie and chuckles around the table were wonderful to experience and all the children were a delight to spend time with as they enjoyed their food and just spending time together. It was a wonderful way to celebrate M’s 13th birthday and I really have counted my blessings tonight that M has finally found his way out from the darkness of last year with the help of some amazing friends, who accept him for who he is and don’t see his health challenges as a barrier to their friendship with him. A perfect celebration with both new friends and old; and a combination of friendships that I hope will keep going for many years to come.

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#FFFA19

It seems almost impossible that a year has passed since my last journey to London for a judging stint at the FreeFrom Food Awards (#FFFA19), and yet, here I am, on the train heading home after another great day of finding some fab free from foods. I feel so privileged to be a part of the judging team and it really is no exaggeration to say that it is easily one of the highlights of my year. Not only do I get to taste and discover some fantastic new products to the market, obviously always feeling very hopeful that I might even find some that are M-friendly as well as delicious, but I have made some lovely friends along the way and the judging sessions are always the best opportunity to do some much-needed catching up over food and a cup of tea.

My day started with “Foods to Go”, which Mike and I judged on the one occasion I let him join me for the experience and which nicely balanced out the sweetness that I knew the afternoon would be filled with. You never quite know what you’re going to get in this category and this year was no different as the first few mouthfuls included dried fruit snacks, soup, noodles, sandwiches and sweet rice cakes! It was a relatively small category for us to make our way through thing – just 16 items to try – which is always a good thing and I was one of the lucky few able to try everything being neither gluten-free or vegetarian.

My highlights of this session were:

Thai Carrot & Sweet Potato Soup: This was a surprise hit for me. I am not usually a big fan of carrot soup as I find it inevitably sweet, but the delicate balance of the Thai spices alongside the vegetables gave every mouthful a tantalising delicious and fragrant flavour. I haven’t spotted this soup on the supermarket shelf before – though to be perfectly honest, I’d probably have passed it by anyway – but I will definitely be looking out for it in the future.

Made Without Wheat Chicken & Bacon Sandwich: Apologies for my failure to get a photo of this, but this was a delicious, well-filled chicken and bacon mayo sandwich, which was not only gluten-free, but also dairy-free and I know will be a definite winner with G. I was impressed by the quantity of the filling as well as the flavour and texture of the bread – you really wouldn’t be able to tell it was gluten-free if you didn’t know. Sandwiches can be one of the hardest things to find when we’re out and about, so this will no doubt become a firm favourite in our family.

Caramel Rice Cakes: These weren’t necessarily the biggest hit in the room due to their to-be-expected sweetness, but I fell in love with them as they’re pretty much safe for M and will give him a great sweet treat that can be added occasionally added to his lunch-box.

This year saw my return to one of my favourite categories, that of Tea-time treats, not least because it was there in 2016 I first discovered the incredible Borough 22, who perfected the most indescribably delicious doughnuts that are safe for both children and are still a regular favourite in our household. I had gone with strict instructions from M to see if I could find anything that might be safe for him, and with a few more ingredients to play with I was hopeful that I might just have some luck. The afternoon session did not disappoint and with 5 different chocolate cakes to taste amongst the 29 products, it was a tough job, but someone had to do it.

My highlights?:

Gluten-, dairy- and nut-free Occasion cake: First of all, we were completely blown away by the appearance of this incredible wedding cake which had been carefully driven to the FFFA HQ for our enjoyment; and then the taste simply took my breath away. Amazing sponge, creamy buttercream without being too sickly sweet and enough sharpness in the jam to cut through the sweetness – utter perfection and one I would definitely recommend.

Tea-cakes: Nothing beats a toasted tea-cake and a cup of tea and it was wonderful to find this vegan and gluten-free alternative for this Sunday tea favourite. Another one of those “I don’t think you’d know it’s free from” treats we got to try and one I’m definitely going to be trying out with G.

Raw Mince Pie: Now, this will be a surprising highlight to just about anyone who knows me as they know that I absolutely hate most things with dried fruit – fruit cake, Christmas pudding or mince pies are not anything I would willingly put near my mouth on your average day. But, this was not your average day and I absolutely had to try a small bit for the sake of fair judging. It was surprisingly tasty and whilst I’ll confess that I wouldn’t necessarily rush out to buy these for myself, I would highly recommend them to anyone looking for an allergy-friendly, vegan Christmas treat.

My thanks go to Michelle, Cressida and Sue for their hospitality today and to all those producers who keep working hard to produce these delicious free from foods that give those living with food allergies, just like G and M, the opportunity to eat the same things as the friends and family safely. Keep an eye out for the shortlist in February and final winners, who will be announced on March 20th.

Small businesses too good to miss!

There really is something very rewarding about shopping local and supporting small businesses and that is even more true when those small business owners are also friends, or become friends as a result of their business. We have been extremely lucky over the last few years to develop friendships and therefore fantastic working relationships with food producers who have, as a result of those friendships, readily taken on the challenge of feeding M, even at his most restricted, and succeeded to the absolute delight of us all. I would really recommend getting to know your local farmers and food producers and don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with them to see if they can help – you might just be surprised by their reply.

Borough 22 is one such success story and someone I love to shout out about on a fairly regular basis as you’ll quickly discover if you browse my blog. Created by the incredibly talented Ryan, who holds the as yet unchallenged place of ultimate superhero in M’s heart, this company bakes the most delicious allergy-friendly doughnuts, which have graced our table on many occasions. I discovered Ryan through the FreeFrom Food Awards a couple of years and he readily accepted my challenge to create an M-friendly doughnut using just the 5 safe foods M had at the time. Not happy with just creating a passable doughnut, Ryan continued to try to perfect the recipe each time we ordered until he produced a masterpiece that has kept us all delighted. With the countdown to Christmas now fast approaching, I will be placing our order for doughnuts soon and would highly recommend you beat the final order deadline of December 12 to add these unmissable treats to your seasonal table.

Another favourite was also a discovery thanks to the FreeFrom family of Awards, though this time the Eating Out Awards, rather than the Food Awards. Café Nouveau near Frome is a worthy three-time gold winner and owner Susan has become another family favourite since we first judged the venue 3 years ago. She has also embraced the challenge of feeding M safely and was delighted to hear this year that his list of safe foods had expanded enough for her to try a new dish when we visited as part of this year’s judging panel. This paragraph is something of a confession to Susan, who I know is a regular reader of my blog, as we had gone on the pretence of a late birthday lunch for Mike, carefully concealing the fact that it was a convenient cover story for our judges’ visit. This anonymity is critical when acting as a judge and it was fantastic to see first-hand that Susan’s care for her customers extended to all who were visiting the café that afternoon and not just those she might have suspected! G loves eating out here as she can happily choose anything from the menu and was delighted by the prospect of safe waffles the weekend we visited, though she was disappointed to learn they had run out of the dairy-free ice-cream she was hoping to sample.

My final shout-out is for a new business to my blog, but one that we are delighted to have found. Ben is an ex-work colleague of mine and he and his wife Mandy have become firm friends over the last few months. They own a small-holding just outside of Bristol and Ben has ventured into the world of producing home-made meat products, including some great gluten-free options, through his business, Ben’s Farm Kitchen. G has been delighted with their delicious GF honey roast sausages and sausage rolls, whilst Mike and I have become big fans of the “normal” and GF scotch eggs, especially the pickled beetroot ones. However, the real success story has been their willingness to try and prepare M-friendly sausages and burgers, which has possibly been one of the highlights of 2018 for M. I worked with Mandy to make sure the ingredients used were as safe for M as possible and the meat mix she created has been a huge hit in our household. M has already asked me to make sure we have a supply of “his” sausages and burgers in for Christmas and that’s a request I’m delighted to fulfil. Not only do we know the provenance of the food we’re eating, but I’m reassured that they want to get it right for the family as much as we do.

Exploration through Enrichment

One of the things I love about G and M’s secondary school is the Enrichment week they run in June. Every year the young people are encouraged to explore new activities and opportunities during the week and try their hands at things they perhaps haven’t had the chance to experience before. When G was in Year 7, she opted for Bush Camp – an African-style adventure that involved 4 nights away from home sleeping out under canvas with campfire dinners, quirky showers and earth toilets for her home comforts. If there’s one thing that proves my daughter doesn’t always follow in my footsteps, this choice was it as I am a reluctant camper at best and it would take an awful lot to convince me that this could be considered as a fun week away from home. However, G loved every moment and couldn’t wait to choose her options for both Years 8 and 9.

Whilst G had determined that this year was going to be the year for a week away at pony camp in the Brecon Beacons, M’s choices were limited by the reality that he wouldn’t be able to spend a week away from home. We made the decision right at the start of his Year 7 year, not wanting to put him through once again the trauma of last-minute decisions and the inevitable disappointment that he experienced when we had to conclude that he couldn’t go away to the end of term Year 6 camp last year. We opted that M would be based at home for the week and instead he had to  the activities that he would participate in during the school day.

M decided on Action Adventure, where he got to try his hands at high and low rope courses, archery, building a trebuchet and bush-craft skills over the first 3 days of the week. Day 4 was designated as a community day, which was designed to give the children an opportunity to understand their role in our local community and to give a little something back. Some children did bag-packing at a local supermarket, others chose sponsored activities to raise money for local charities and M’s group of year 7s built wooden bird-boxes to be put up in the grounds of their school.

On his final day, M was keen to join the trip to the Tamworth snowdome, although he was disappointed that he had to ski, rather than being able to show off his rapidly improving snowboarding skills. He has been learning to snowboard since Christmas and has been coming on in leaps and bounds on the artificial slopes. He didn’t find it as easy to ski as he had hoped and the combination of time spent focused on skiing and ice-skating meant that he and his friend slept on their way back home. Both children had a great enrichment week and I’m grateful that this fantastic opportunity has been available for them both to fully experience, explore and enjoy. Not only am I impressed by the variety of opportunities they have to choose from, but the school did a great job of keeping the parents of around 900 students updated about their return home on the final day, which is no easy feat!

#NEAW2018: T is for Thank

May 25: T is for Thank

To everyone who has supported us over the years. To those who have provided listening ears, shoulders to lean on and helped wiped away tears. To friends who have given time, energy, a chance to get away from it all and, most importantly, a large drink when it’s most been needed. To the communities that have walked each step of the journey with us, whether local, worldwide or virtual. To those who have been part of the blogging process over the last 5 years and continue to read my posts and share them on.

To our family and friends. To our wonderful children. To Mike.

Thank you xxx

Third year a charm

When the email inviting me to once again participate as a judge of this year’s Free From Food Awards dropped into my inbox a couple of months ago, I started the necessary planning to ensure I could get to London and be away from home for a couple of days. Mike was booked to work from home for my 2 days of judging, I arranged for a bed at the FFFA headquarters and my annual leave was booked from work. It seemed as if everything had been meticulously planned and since the start of the year, I’ve been counting down excitedly to the days themselves. Needless to say, and just in case you hadn’t picked up from the tone of my above writing, things didn’t quite go as expected and life once again proved that even the best laid plans can go awry.

First of all, my arrangements to go the night before my first day of judging had to be tweaked when Mike was due to be working over 2 hours away and wouldn’t be home before 7pm that evening. The thought of the 2 hour train journey late at night and then travelling on to the FFFA house with the likelihood that I wouldn’t arrive much before 10.30pm that night meant that instead I had a quick rethink and booked myself on to the 6am train the following morning. With the tickets booked, it looked like everything was back on track and it was full steam ahead once again.

And then ‘flu struck; and with 50% of the household taking to their beds, I suddenly had to rethink it all. I was reluctant to give up my third year of judging completely and so reached an agreement with my husband in his sick-bed that I would head off on the 6am train as planned, but instead of having some time to myself and staying in London, I would instead return at the end of the day and pick up my nursing duties where they had been left off over 12 hours before. It would mean a long day for me with not much chance to rest and recover, but I knew that the day itself would rejuvenate me as I spent it with the fantastic bunch of fellow judges that have become friends over the last couple of years.

My choice of category this was “store cupboard”, something I hadn’t previously judged and one that I had found quite intriguing in previous years. This category encapsulates a vast selection of products that could be found in your kitchen cupboard (flours and packet mixes), fridges (mayonnaises and sauces) or freezers (cook from frozen goodies). With 49 items to taste, evaluate and score, this is a long day, which contained a lot of laughter thanks to the people I was with. I’ve made no secret that the last 12 months at work have been challenging ones and it proved to be a real reminder of exactly what is important in life and provided a focus on just how lucky I am to have such opportunities away from the 9-5 drudgery of the day-to-day.

There were a lot of products for us to try and some were definitely better than others. I think it fair to also state that some were better received than others, with the occasional one leaving us all scratching our heads as to why exactly they’d been entered into the awards. With a choice of 49 different items to taste during the day, I wanted to bring you the highlights as I saw them and although not all were safe for M, they would all be an ideal addition for G. In no particular order, I loved these:

Orman’s Vegan Easy Egg – a fantastic egg replacement product that produced an omelette that not only tasted just like the real thing, but had a similar texture as well. I hadn’t come across this before, but I absolutely loved it.

Probios Mayorice – a rice-based mayonnaise that was a good alternative for regular egg mayonnaise and, even better, was pretty much M-friendly (allowing for the fact that we have no idea whether he can tolerate mustard or not!).

Thai Green Curry sauce – I can’t remember who this was made by (Co-op maybe?), but it was a delicious and aromatic version of this popular Thai dish. Marketed as gluten-free, but sadly not also dairy-free as the manufacturers had decided to use double cream to thicken the sauce. Despite that fact, I enjoyed the mouthful I had.

Spice Sanctuary’s GF Asafoetida – This is one I’d never heard of, but is a fantastic gently aromatic spice blend that can be used to replace onion and garlic in your cooking. Not an inexpensive option, but you only need a little to flavour your dishes.

I once again had a fab day finding new products and taking some great options away with me to experiment with at home. Judging finishes this week and the results will be announced at the Awards ceremony in a couple of months’ time.

Unexpected Christmas treat

Whenever I write a review and share it on my blog, I do so because I’ve found a product or place that I’m impressed with and want to spread the word throughout the allergy community. Sometimes I’ve been fortunate enough to have received a freebie or two in advance for us to taste test and review – something you will always see declared on my posts – and I guarantee that we will always be honest with our opinions. It’s true that I rarely share things I don’t rate, although when I’m less than impressed with the service we’ve received, I will always make sure I shout that from the rooftops too. However, I never review with an expectation that we will receive something afterwards, though I’m honest enough to say that it’s always nice when we do!

That’s why, when I wrote about my discoveries at the FoodMatters Live conference a couple of weeks ago, I did so because I was just thrilled to have some new goodies for M to safely enjoy, which is always fantastic especially in the lead up to Christmas. What I didn’t expect was this marvellous parcel that was sent on to me just a few days after my post was published:

M spotted it propped up against the front door as we drove onto our driveway after school on Tuesday and was eager to be the first out of the car and to the door to pick it up and discover what had been delivered. His glee when he spotted the “Freedom Mallows” label on the front was unstoppable and he couldn’t wait to get it to the kitchen table and open it up. I had been in the know, as Elvin had contacted me asking for a postal address, but I’d only expected a small bag, or maybe 2, of mallows which I could sneak into their stockings on Christmas Eve. The treasures hidden within this box are immense and no stocking in our household is big enough to hold it all. Without a doubt, the excited squeals of both G and M which shook our house reverberated around our village and I just wish I could adequately capture that moment of absolute joy to share with you all.

A big thank you to Elvin at Freedom Mallows – you’ve made 2 not-so-small-anymore children very, very happy!

Big Youth Forum Meet-up

In the middle of October, a group of over 80 young people from across the country gathered at Great Ormond Street Hospital for the first ever national Young People’s Forum (YPF) meet-up. Organised by members of GOSH’s YPF, the event looked to provide an opportunity for discussion about the practical and emotional issues that impact young people when they are in hospital as well as running workshops teaching a variety of skills from basic first aid to how to run a successful national awareness campaign.

Never ones to miss a great opportunity, we checked the proposed date for the meet-up and signed both G and M up to be a part of the day as soon as we could. G has been a member of the GOSH YPF for over a year, whilst M had been counting down the days to his 11th birthday so that he could similarly join the group. He finally attended his first meeting earlier this year and was thrilled to be able to be a part of this inaugural event, especially when he revealed that they were hoping to invite a celebrity to take part in the event too. It proved to a real learning experience for them both as they were invited to take part in the planning for the day itself via conference calls, a life skill that I never imagined them learning before their careers kicked off. We sat around the kitchen table, discussing conference call etiquette, the need to keep your phone on mute until you actually wanted to speak and the importance of listening carefully to what the others involved had to say.

After weeks of careful planning, the day finally arrived and we made our way across London to GOSH bright and early on the Saturday morning, following the signs that had been chalked on the surrounding pavements to help the visiting youngsters find their way. Mike and I were excited to learn that their celebrity guest was comedian Alex Brooker, star of “The Last Leg” and himself a former GOSH patient. G and M were less impressed, neither knowing who he was and whilst M was initially quite disappointed that his own top pick, magician Dynamo, was not going to be there, he very much enjoyed the opening talk that Alex gave to the group of young people attending the Big meet-up.

From what they told us afterwards, the day just flew past and they were keen participants in every activity, including covering their arms with a selection of temporary tattoos recently designed by GOSH Arts with the help of a few members of the YPF. G decided to attend the First Aid workshop, where she learned the basics of CPR as well as how to deal with anaphylaxis and administer epi-pens. She was particularly delighted to learn this latter skill as it was something that she and M had requested be a part of the First Aid training given. M, on the other hand, opted for a workshop ran by consultant paediatric surgeon, Ross Fisher teaching practical presentation skills, which he has subsequently put to great use at school. All in all, G and M had a fantastic day and are already looking forward to next’s year national meet-up, which is being hosted jointly by the Nottingham and Derby YPFs.