#FFFA20 – 5 years on

Last week saw me back in London for one of my all-time favourite events of the year: judging a couple of categories for this year’s Free From Food Awards (#FFFA20). It hardly seems 5 years since I completed my first stint and I can honestly say that every year since has been fantastic. It’s a day spent with an amazing group of people from the free from community, be they bloggers, allergy sufferers, parents of children with allergies, food manufacturers or producers. Every year sees me widening that tribe of mine and I absolutely love getting to know new people and oft-times linking faces to names I’ve seen across the various social media platforms I frequent.

This year saw me return to 2 of the categories judged at my first FFFA in 2016 – “Meaty & Fishy Ready Meals” and “Confectionery”. As ever I’m always on the lookout for new possibilities for both G and M and even more so this year as we see the number of safe foods for M slowly, but steadily increasing. I find it fascinating to see what products are entered into each category, particularly with the “Meaty & Fishy Ready Meals” as the range of options can be so wide. From 10am, we were tasting and critiquing breaded fish, breaded chicken, sausages, burgers, a few microwave meals and even a prepacked sandwich. What was particularly great this year was that there was nothing that was really dreadful and whilst not everything might have been to my taste, the final award winners are all very much deserved in my opinion.

My own highlights from this category include:

M&S Made Without Wheat Honey Roast Ham and Mature Cheddar Cheese sandwich:  Honestly, if I hadn’t known that I was eating something freefrom, I absolutely would never have guessed. Forget dry bread, hole-y bread, doesn’t-really-taste-like-bread bread…this sandwich was unquestionably as good as its gluten-filled counterparts and generously filled with ham and cheddar cheese. If I had to find a criticism, perhaps that it is a little limited in just being gluten-free, but that really is being incredibly picky. It didn’t really “fit” with the rest of the entries in the Ready Meals category, but with no “Foods to Go” category this year as part of the #FFFA20, I don’t object to it having been entered. This is definitely one that I would recommend to anyone needing or wanting to follow a wheat-free/gluten-free diet.

Co-op Irresistible Pork Sausages: “Wow!” – my honest comment after a taste of these sausages. We are, without a shadow of a doubt, a family that enjoys any meal including sausages and indeed G’s favourite and go-to meal is a plate of bangers and mash. These were delicious – juicy, succulent and absolutely more-ish, the description of these GF sausages as “irresistible” couldn’t be more accurate. We buy nearly all of our meat from our local farmers’ cooperative or from our small-holding friends, but it was great to discover such a good product at a competitive price in a supermarket chain.

Co-op Chunky Breaded Cod (MSC-approved): There were several free-from fish fillets to compare, as this photo shows, but this is the one that absolutely stood out to me. The crumb coating was crispy and robust and the piece I took didn’t fall apart on the fork before it had left the plate and reached my mouth. Well-seasoned, tasty and a balanced mouthful where the fish was definitely the highlight. Even better, the cod is responsibly sourced and MSC approved, which really made it stand out from the crowd.

Tesco Free From Chicken Korma with Rice: A more traditional ready meal in my eyes and a fantastic one at that. Not only gluten-free, but top 14 allergens free and included an interesting mix of brown rice and quinoa in the dish which made it stand out from a competitive crowd. It has been on the supermarket shelves for a little while as this was one of the dishes we were lucky enough to be sent to try just after their launch, but it reminded me just how good these ready meals really are. A rich creamy flavour, which was well-balanced and didn’t taste too watery despite being microwave cooked, something I have found to be the case with other similar ready meal options.

As you can see, it was a real mix of what I would consider the more traditional ready meals that are ready in minutes and foods that need little preparation other than cooking. It was great to see offerings from many of the major supermarkets and, whilst I didn’t mention them above, there were also some good options from both Aldi and Lidl. I love seeing more and more supermarket chains coming on board with their free from food choices and making them more available and affordable than they perhaps have been before.

A Night Out New York-style

I don’t think it’s possible to visit New York without experiencing something of its nightlife and we had 3 very different nights out during our stay.

Ice Hockey at the Prudential Center, New Jersey: Unsurprisingly, the first was an evening of ice hockey and the first time either G or M have been to a proper NHL game. As soon as our flights and hotel were booked,  Mike was on the lookout for who would be playing where over the Christmas period and as soon as the final schedule was released, big decisions had to be made. We were originally considering a New York Rangers game at Madison Square Garden, but the cost of the seats combined with what we considered to be limited viewing based on our previous visit to see the New York Knicks meant that it looked unlikely we would go.

In a moment of almost sheer desperation, Mike decided to widen his search to see whether the New Jersey Devils were playing at home during our visit and there he struck proverbial gold. Not only were they playing on the 27th, but much to Mike’s delight, they were up against his team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Even though we were crossing state lines, the trip to the Prudential Center in Newark by PATH train was easy and took us almost directly to the door. The children cheered their way through their first hockey game with G wearing proudly the NJ Devils hoodie she bought beforehand, mostly in a bid to rile Mike. It was a great family evening out for all of us with G and M now fully indoctrinated into the love of the sport and the right final result being achieved on the night, if you are to believe Mike and M!

Rockettes Christmas Spectacular, Radio City Hall:  This is an experience like no other and one that I would heartily recommend time and time again. It was also the reason behind my Mum’s wish to be in New York during the Christmas period for her 70th birthday. For the uninitiated, the Rockettes are a dance troupe started in 1925 in St Louis, inspired by the British Tiller Girls of the same era. They are known for their iconic and incredible dance line and the impressive precision and impeccable timing of their dance routines. To watch 36 dancers perform routine after routine in absolute sync with each other is simply breathtaking and both G and M were totally absorbed from the moment the music started.

Their Christmas Spectacular is, quite simply, that. Spectacular; and utterly awe-inspiring in just how spectacular it is. Radio City Hall is an amazing venue and one that I would happily visit again and I would love to do a backstage tour there if the opportunity should come up in the future. There were some wonderful surprises in store as we watched, the most outrageous of which I won’t share, just in case you are ever lucky enough to visit yourself. Let me just say, that the nativity scenes were not quite what we had expected and definitely worth a watch! M loved the Santa Claus routine, whilst G was hard-pressed to pick her favourite, so amazed was she by their skills and dance moves.

Movie night at AMC Empire 25, 42nd Street: Christmas for the last few years has meant one thing when it comes to films and that has been our family visit to see the latest in the Star Wars saga. 2019 was no different and given the epic nature of this final film, it only seemed fitting to watch “The Rise of Skywalker” somewhere amazing and different. Our unplanned evening out did not disappoint and we lapped up the opulent luxury of the AMC Empire 25 on 42nd Street, just opposite our hotel. We are not a family who splashes out on the VIP seating in our local cinema, but even we know that that has nothing compared to our seats at this NYC cinema, which had the functionality to make them recline and to raise a foot rest so that we were truly comfortable for the duration of the film.

Our last foreign movie night out was during our last trip to Canada, when we went to see “Avengers: Infinity War”  at a wonderfully old-school cinema in downtown Toronto. The experience was just as magical, but so very different in just about every way imaginable. It was a fitting end to our busy few days in NYC and we left the cinema with 2 very happy youngsters.

#Auschwitz75

Today, 27 January 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Auschwitz was established in Poland in 1940 by the Nazi party and was initially created for 3 main purposes: to imprison enemies; to use forced labour; and to kill certain categories of people. An estimated 1.1 million people were killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp between 1940 and 1945 and when it was liberated by the Soviet Army in 1945, fewer than 7,000 of the approximately 1.3 million deported there were freed.

The Germans had already moved 60,000 of their prisoners from Aushwitz-Birkenau to other camps and many of them died on those death marches.

Of the 7,000 liberated by the Soviet Union, nearly half were too ill, malnourished and exhausted to survive for long after they were given their freedom.

It is thought that up to 17 million people: 6 million Jews and 11 million from other groups such as the Roma, homosexuals, people with disabilities and those persecuted for their political or religious views; were killed from as early as 1933 and with an increasing intensity during the Second World War.

Zalmen Gradowski – Polish Jew, born circa 1910, transported to Auschwitz December 1942 and killed October 1944.

#WeRemember #Lestweforget #Auschwitz75

Seeing the sights of NYC

When Mike and I visited New York nearly 3 years ago, we stayed in the fantastic Hotel Beacon on the Upper West Side just a couple of blocks from Central Park. We loved the location and the facilities and always thought that it could be a contender for if and when we ever visited with the children in tow. However, Mum was keen to stay closer to Times Square and so this trip saw us at the Westin Times Square instead. A great hotel on West 43rd street with the most amazing views from our 44th floor bedroom, but disappointing offerings when it came to allergy-friendly food. Fortunately, if there’s one thing you’re not short of in NYC, it’s restaurants and we found several within walking distance that were more than able to cater well for both G and M.

Our visit was planned to the nth-degree. With no input from the children except some less-than-subtle questioning about what they might like to see after G’s best friend visited NYC last summer, Mike and I had put together an itinerary that we thought would cover most of the must-sees in the city and it definitely kept us busy whilst we were there. My Mum has visited NYC a few times before and so didn’t necessarily want to do as much trekking around as we knew we would end up doing with G and M. I think we managed a good balance of the main highlights, leaving both us and the children enough to still see if we ever come back again and even managed to throw in some extra activities that we hadn’t done before.

The children were less than impressed with Mike’s yearning to see the inside of the Guggenheim museum on our first afternoon, especially after our lengthy wander across Central Park. I insisted that we took in both the Alice in Wonderland sculpture and the “Imagine” mosaic as we walked through and I think tiredness after our extremely early start was really kicking in by the time we made it to the Guggenheim. I only wish I’d been able to snap a photo of G’s face when I told her that we weren’t going round the museum exhibits, but simply going to stand in the main entrance whilst Mike looked up in awe and took several photos. She really was lost for words for a few minutes, though she quickly found her voice to comment on our 2 minute stop for a long time afterwards!

The Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, 9/11 Memorial Museum, One World Observatory, Grand Central Station and the New York Library for M to see Winnie-the-Pooh, we “did” them all. We usually choose to take a sightseeing bus to do a city tour when we visit anywhere new, but, given the busy traffic in NYC, instead thousands of steps were walked each day and we ventured onto the subway whenever time and location required. Our days were absolutely jam-packed, but we managed to do everything we wanted without too much hassle. Our fears about the winter weather didn’t come to pass and we definitely didn’t need the oodles of thermal underwear I’d had packed “just in case”.

Fairytale of New York

This has been a big year for the 7Y2D household. Mum’s 70th, G’s 16th, my Aunt’s 65th and our 20th wedding anniversary have kept us busy over the last few months and the celebrations have been nearly endless since the middle of September, especially for my Mum. However, there was one more surprise to come for the children, which started with a wish from Mum, was then planned meticulously for almost a year and finally revealed to G and M on Christmas morning.

With the help of some carefully thought out and themed pressies and well-crafted clues as well as the odd stocking-stuffer here and there and my Mum’s Christmas tree that was decorated with predominantly NYC baubles, an incredulous G and excitable M eventually discovered that we were off for the surprise trip of a lifetime and heading to New York. Neither had an inkling it was even on the cards as they hadn’t questioned our decision to cook and eat our Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve – something that worked surprisingly well at reducing stress levels on Christmas morning itself and definitely something I’d want to consider doing again – or worried that the stack of pressies under the tree for them was considerably smaller than normal.

The plan was simple, though had taken hours of subterfuge to achieve. I spent most of December “checking and washing” the pile of winter and ski clothes stored in the attic to see what still fitted us all, something M eventually twigged was all due to our planned trip as we headed to Heathrow. I had slowly, but steadily removed items of warmer clothing from their wardrobes and drawers to take to New York and had, in fact, packed 3 sets of bags by the time December 22 was with us. 3 suitcases and 2 pieces of hand luggage for the flight as well as a small overnight bag were deposited at my Mum’s house one evening by Mike without the children realising and our boxes of Christmas pressies, food and bag of clothes strategically left in the hall and landing at home as evidence of what I’d been sorting out behind our closed bedroom door for hours.

On Christmas Day itself, once the presents had been opened, the secret revealed, questions answered and additional bits and pieces needed for our holiday sorted from the rest of the Christmas detritus, there was just enough time to share a family buffet-style spread, more in keeping with our Boxing Day meal than anything else. Mike, G, M and I set off from South Wales in the early afternoon, detoured via my Mum’s house to swap the Christmas packing for the holiday suitcases and eventually arrived at our hotel in Heathrow in the evening. We had little time to enjoy their beautiful Christmas decorations as we were more focused on packing the final items and getting an early night.

Our flight was at 9am on Boxing Day, so we had an early start (3.30am!) to reach the airport terminal and get ourselves checked in before heading to Heathrow’s T3 lounge to relax in peace before the flight itself. One of G’s Christmas pressies was a manicure before we flew, so she had just enough time to enjoy a GF/DF bacon sandwich and a bowl of cereal before hitting the lounge spa to have her nails done. G absolutely loves painting her nails, but this was her first manicure and she enjoyed being able to choose her colour – a pale mint green – though she wasn’t quite so certain about the soak and massage bit of it. And finally, after an extremely busy few times, it was time to board our plane and fly out to 5 days of adventure in NYC!

No 6Hundred, Swansea

The lead up to Christmas is always busy for our family with an array of birthdays, wedding anniversaries and the end of term to contend with before the big day itself. December this year felt like an especially hectic one what with a 16th and a 20th as well as a special 65th birthday to celebrate. We were planning to spend Christmas itself in South Wales with my Aunt- well part of it at least (and there is more about that to come over the next couple of posts) – which gave the perfect opportunity to experience a girls only birthday afternoon tea at No 6Hundred in Clydach.

I’ll be honest, it wasn’t the smoothest of bookings, with huge confusion over both the time of our afternoon tea and our dietary requirements, and my expectations weren’t particularly high despite the wonderful allergy-friendly afternoon tea we’d enjoyed at One Aldwych a few weeks earlier. Mum and I popped into the cafe on the morning of the 23rd to triple-check the booking once again and also pass over some decorations we wanted them to use for the table. With nothing else possible for us to do, it was time to go home, rally the troops and make sure we arrived for our 2pm booking.

I am delighted to say that the afternoon tea was excellent and they managed to cater well for the gluten- and dairy-free requirements for G. The tea itself was unsuprisingly influenced by Christmas itself and included a skewer with pigs in blanket and stuffing for that seasonal touch along with some freshly baked mince pies shaped as miniature Christmas trees. G’s plate was just as impressive and, given how quickly she managed to clear it, evidently delicious. The cakes were not only gluten-free, but also vegan and looked amazing, though she commented that the dark chocolate tartlet was just a little too bitter for her tastes.

The rest of us enjoyed a fantastic tea as well, though we were definitely beaten once again by the number of cakes provided and so picked our favourites to sample as part of the meal itself. We treated ourselves with either a glass of prosecco or mulled wine to kick the celebrations off – water for G – which were the perfect start to a lovely day celebrating my Aunt’s 65th birthday. I was impressed by the food provided by No. 6Hundred, especially the GF/DF offerings available for G, but would love them to work on their booking and confirmation systems to make it a truly fabulous overall experience.

 

Charlie & the Chocolate Factory Afternoon Tea, One Aldwych

Given the morning had been spent tramping across the length and breadth of London, you can only imagine how delighted M and G were to eventually reach our final destination – One Aldwych Hotel. Ever since I had settled on taking my Mum to the Royal Opera House as part of her 70th birthday celebrations, I knew that I wanted to find somewhere for an afternoon tea which could cater for both children as well as the adults. Our last afternoon tea in London was over 16 years ago when I qualified as an accountant and treated the family to tea at the Ritz, all whilst pregnant with G. It was an amazing occasion and I really wanted to find somewhere to meet our expectations and previous experience if at all possible.

I spent weeks searching the internet and reading reviews before finally settling on the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory afternoon tea offered at One Aldwych. I already knew a little about One Aldwych as Executive Chef Dominic Teague won the inaugural Pathfinder Award at the FreeFrom Eating Out Awards in 2016 and I had read all about the work he had done to create a completely gluten- and dairy-free restaurant without advertising the fact.

Our experience started with my initial contact with the hotel to see if they could cater for both G and M without too many problems. There then followed a flurry of emails between us to establish what safe foods could be prepared, keeping it relatively simple to suit G’s tastes and without pushing M’s boundaries too far. I asked for his meal to be MEWS-free and was impressed when they sent through to me a copy menu for what they thought they could make for both children. With a few tweaks here and there, we ended up with what looked to be an impressive selection of savoury and sweet treats, guaranteed to make this afternoon tea a truly special one for us all.

With one week left to go, there was just enough time to exchange one last email before we headed to London and I was able to order a MEWS-free celebration cake to mark the triple occasion – Mum’s 70th, G’s 16th and our 20th wedding anniversary – all in one fell swoop. I had also received a reassuring email from Executive Chef, Dominic Teague himself, explaining just how they would look after our table and take care to make sure the cross-contamination risks were reduced to as low as they possibly could be. Other than making sure that we had enough medicines with us to ensure that M was well-covered for the extra treats I knew he’d be trying, there was nothing more we could do until we arrived at One Aldwych itself.

On arrival, we were ushered upstairs to the beautiful dining space of One Indigo and quickly seated at our table. My one criticism of our afternoon is that service seemed to take a long time from beginning to end and we had been sitting at our table for a good 5 minutes before the restaurant manager appeared to introduce himself and tell us about what food we could expect to be served. However, everything settled, we then sat back to wait for our food to appear – and that was definitely worth the wait.

My one hesitation had been around the savoury items going to be served for G as she is not the most adventurous when it comes to food and although I had originally asked if she could have just plain GF/DF ham sandwiches, the final menu I had seen suggested that she would be given more than that. A little prompting ahead of time meant I’d agreed with her that she would try at least a mouthful of everything she was served, so you can imagine all our delight when a plate of safe ham sandwiches appeared for her as well as an allergy-friendly carrot puree and houmous tart, all of which she enjoyed with an enthusiasm just about matched by M as he enjoyed an incredible array of unexpectedly safe foods.

The pièce de résistance was, without question, the marvellous dessert selection that arrived for each of us. Cakes, scones, mousse and fruit kebabs made for a truly spectacular display and the selection provided for M was just as impressive as those for the rest of the table. The chocolate and raspberry celebration cake was wonderfully light, airy and delicious, though totally unnecessary given the amount of food we had to enjoy for the meal. My Mum, Mike and I were all delighted to be able to treat both children in such a way and one that we would never have thought was possible 4 or 5 years ago. My thanks go to Dominic Teague and his team at One Aldwych for giving us such a wonderful birthday meal – and for the boxes of leftovers we were able to take to enjoy at home later too!

1999

20 years ago the world was on the cusp of the new millennium. Fears were high about the possible fallout from Y2K and the dreaded millennium bug, and my Mum was not alone in stocking her under-the-stairs cupboard with enough dried goods and bottled water to see the family survive for months if the very worst actually happened. Films “Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace”, “The Sixth Sense” and “American Beauty” hit the big screen and we found ourselves singing and dancing along to “Tragedy”, “Livin’ La Vida Loca”, “Mambo No. 5” or even “Baby One More Time”. It was a time of excitement as we ventured into that new era with anticipation for everything that the 21st century might bring.

20 years ago Mike and I embarked on a new adventure that was all our own. Mike had moved almost everything he owned across continents, we had bought our first house, faced – and survived – the first big challenge of life with my T1D and, on December 18th 1999, we committed to loving each other and living together for the rest of our lives. We trusted that that commitment would bring with it much happiness, but knew that we would inevitably face challenges and sorrow too, which we would survive and could survive by being there for one another. Our vows “…for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health…” have been tested perhaps far more than we could even imagine, but we have come through the harshest of fires and are much stronger for it.

20 years ago we celebrated our wedding surrounded by our family and friends from near and far, and even though several of those who were with us then are no longer with us, we have precious memories to remind us of their presence when we started life together. Our wedding was very much a family affair. We were married in the breath-taking beauty of our local Cathedral and were blessed to have friends from my time with the Girls’ choir there performing integral roles in the ceremony – from the Canon marrying us, to the Organist playing, the Choir providing the music and the Head Verger adding and lighting tens of tealight candles before the service to bring an extra touch of magic. Our amazing vintage car was provided and driven by the father of someone who was at school with me and a friend of my Aunt made our stunning wedding cake. Our reception venue was decorated by my bridesmaid’s mother and friends of my parents provided a Dickensian feel with their wonderful singing of popular Christmas carols before our evening reception began.

20 years on, we are not the fresh-faced youngsters we were then. Life has taken us on journeys that we never imagined would be part of our future and has, at times, battered us to the point when it would have been so much easier to just crawl under the duvet and hide, rather than face it head-on. We have weathered every storm that has come our way and somehow found a way to absolutely dance in the rain. We are stronger and braver together than we would ever have been as our separate parts – 20 years of life experienced together will do that for you.

20 years on, I am grateful for every moment we have shared. Neither of us is perfect – far from it indeed – but somehow we’ve made it work. We’ve laughed together, loved together and grieved together. We have 2 wonderful children – most of the time – and life is good.

Happy 20th anniversary Mike. Love you always and here’s to 20 more!

Snow Globe Magic

If I’m perfectly honest, G’s 16th birthday cake is an idea that has been bubbling for a few years, ever since I first saw it shared on Facebook, but it’s taken me this long to pluck up the courage to actually give it a whirl and be organised enough to start the decorations more than 24 hours in advance of her birthday. I was very nervous about whether I’d be able to get it to work, but the end result was much better than I hoped and G was absolutely delighted with it. That was especially important given this was the girl who just a couple of weeks ago said that she didn’t really want to celebrate her birthday and wasn’t bothered about having a cake!

To start with, I found a brilliant new recipe for a gluten-free, vegan sponge cake on The Loopy Whisk and, with a few tweaks to make it just as G finally decided she wanted – a vanilla and chocolate chip cake – and ended up with a wonderfully light and delicious birthday cake for her. I also whipped up a batch of cupcakes for my choir’s Christmas meet-up from the same batter and despite a few issues around getting the timing of that bake right, I was thrilled with those as well.

Next it was on to the most challenging step of all – to create a “snow globe” to encase the top of G’s cake to make it a truly magical masterpiece. The instructions on how to make the globe from high quality melted glycerine can be found here as well as my “step-by-step” photos you can see here. I attempted a larger globe than for individual cupcakes, which was successful, but much trickier to coat the balloon than the instructions suggest. Also, a word to the wise, don’t use balloons that have writing/images printed on them – the only balloons I had tucked away at home were Over The Wall ones and so G’s snow globe had an unexpected additional image, which delighted her, but wasn’t quite what I was aiming for!

I kept the design on top of the cake quite simple and attempted a new buttercream icing using goats’ butter as that’s something she can tolerate without a problem and that M can have a little of as a treat. I always find it difficult to make a dairy-free icing that is stiff enough to pipe successfully, but this batch was better than ones I’ve created before and I think it will need to be a case of continued trial and error until I find that perfect recipe. So, with a layer of desiccated coconut snow, a simply piped Christmas tree and the requisite “16” candles, G’s birthday cake was complete for another year. And this year I was only up to 1.30am finishing it off!