A great weekend celebrating a milestone birthday with family. Food, fun and fantastic weather – what more could we ask of South Wales in September?
What do axe-throwing, high ropes, tree-climbing, birthday cakes and family have in common?
Easy; my Mum’s milestone birthday – her 70th – and a family weekend spent celebrating in style at the fantastic Bluestone resort in South Wales. For those of you who have never heard of Bluestone, the resort is set in 500 acres of beautiful Pembrokeshire national park near Tenby with stunning views out to the Preseli hills and is a complete escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. As well as a site which is largely car-free, it is also absolutely jam-packed with activities and adventures to choose from and our weekend proved far too short to enjoy more than just a select few handpicked choices.
With 7 of us visiting, we stayed in one of their Grassholm lodges, which slept us all more than comfortably and included a fantastic open plan downstairs space with a generous sitting room, dining area and kitchen. Those of us who could booked bikes for the weekend and G and M had a great time racing around from venue to venue for each of the activities, although some of the hills proved a little more challenging for the rest of us. Over the last year, both children have really enjoyed every opportunity to go on bike rides especially as M’s confidence in his bike-riding has grown, and we can often be found spending a couple of hours exploring the country lanes near our house as part of a family ride. It’s also possible to hire a golf buggy to drive around the site, but we spent much of our time either walking or on our bikes whenever possible.
Needless to say, the children and Mike selected their activities for the Saturday with relative ease and I spent my time trying to grab action shots as G climbed to the top of a 40+ foot tree, whilst M and Mike took on the challenge of the high ropes course. Add in the demonstration of their Canadian roots in the afternoon with some axe-throwing skills and great fun was had by all. We even managed to squeeze in a quick early evening swim before heading out for a celebratory dinner at the Farmhouse Grill. Sunday was a little quieter with a morning at the Blue Lagoon water park before a late lunch at the Knights Tarfan.
All in all, we had a brilliant weekend and it came as no surprise when both G and M asked if we could go back another time. There were lots more activities that we could have tried, both indoors and outdoors, but we just couldn’t fit them in this time round. We would highly recommend Bluestone for a weekend, or week, away from it all and it certainly has enough to keep the most active of youngsters occupied for a good few hours anyway.
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.
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.
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.
December is always a busy month for our family, what with birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas to celebrate and squeeze in alongside the end of term and all the added demands that that almost always inevitably brings. As well as the last-minute rush to make sure cards have been written (and sent) and that presents have been bought (and wrapped), I also have to make sure I have time to bake the perfect cake to help us celebrate G’s birthday in style.
Over the years I have tried my hand at all sorts of cakes and I love spending the time to let my creative side really come out, though Mike might disagree as some of my more complicated masterpieces have kept us up into the early hours as I strive to get every detail just right. Last year I attempted a gluten- and dairy-free red velvet cake for G, which tasted great, but didn’t look as appealing as I’d have liked and so this year I was determined to create her a special treat that looked and tasted the part. G is a definite chocolate lover, something that can be a little tricky when you’re dairy-free, but there are lots of great dairy-free options available and I was determined to use a mix of them to make G a cake that the whole family, including M, could enjoy.
The obvious starting point was the beautiful chocolate mayonnaise cupcakes that I had perfected for Mike’s birthday and which I knew I could turn into a fantastic 2 layer cake. I wanted to create a really sumptuous filling and to my delight discovered this salted caramel flavoured icing mix as I wandered around our local supermarket. Mixed with our regular dairy-free spread, this made the perfect buttercream filling and topping for G’s cake. I finished it off with handfuls of Freedom mallows, shavings of Moo-free chocolate and sprinkles of Sainsbury’s Free From White chocolate chips. The final cake was a huge success: gooey, delicious and everything my chocolate-lover could have wanted for her 15th birthday.
Once G’s birthday celebrations finally came to an end, I was then on to my next birthday cake project, which was to bake a cake for my Aunt for her birthday on December 23. This year was her first celebrating without my Uncle, who sadly passed away earlier in 2018 and the plan was for a family gathering at my Mum’s house to mark the day. Mum was keen for me to bake some more of the chocolate cake that I had made for G’s birthday, but I wanted to do something a little different, especially with Christmas right around the corner, and instead settled on one of M’s firm favourites, banana bread.
When it came to making the cake, G was a huge help and offered to bake a dozen cupcakes, whilst I decided how to decorate them. She did a great job and by the time I’d found the perfect design and all the necessary ingredients, there were 12 wonderful looking cupcakes waiting and ready to go. I took inspiration from the front cover of a fantastic cupcakes cookery book that I’ve used before and gave a nod to my Welsh heritage with a plateful of sheep cupcakes. Safe buttercream icing, a small supply of Freedom mallows, safe cocoa powder and a little fondant icing was all that was needed to create these fun birthday treats,which were not only enjoyed on the 23rd, but saw G and M through Christmas too.
Turns out that October 15 is a popular day for birthdays. Old school friends, work colleagues and even M’s adored Godmother, but we’re celebrating a special day a lot closer to home. Cue Friday night celebratory meals, Saturday evening at the theatre and a Sunday afternoon spent baking a batch of M-friendly Chocolate mayonnaise cupcakes all to mark this occasion.
So, what more needs to be said other than Happy Birthday to our favourite husband and Dad!
One of the nicest things about adding some new foods to M’s limited list, other than the obvious of…well, you know, the addition of new foods to a highly restricted diet…is that just 3 new ingredients have added a huge number of new recipes for him to enjoy. Each one has brought something different to the cookery table, but the best one in many ways, or so M would have you believe, is the mighty banana. I first started playing with recipes back in March for M’s birthday, when I adapted an old favourite to bake a banana bread birthday cake with reasonable success. M wasn’t impressed by what he felt was an overwhelming flavour of nutmeg, so the recipe has had a few more tweaks to reach what is, by M’s exacting standards, almost complete perfection. It’s no exaggeration to say that the introduction of a 3rd fruit has been a game-changer in our household and so I thought I’d share the best bits about bananas with you all:
Banana Bread – it’s never easy to find recipes that can be adapted, and adapted well, to suit M’s restricted diet and these days vegan recipes are almost always my automatic go-to starter for 10. I found a wonderful vegan banana bread recipe on the BBC Good Food website and it took just a few subtle tweaks to turn it into a tasty, gluten-free, M-friendly baked treat that has been a big teatime hit. The latest twist has been to add some dairy- and soya-free chocolate chips to the dough, which makes the cake taste even more indulgent and a welcome addition to his daily packed lunch for school.
Banana & Chocolate Chip cookies – so often my recipes are a response to an unexpected need and these cookies are no different. One of M’s English lessons recently revolved around a tale of children stealing cookies from the staff office and his tutor group were given the opportunity to re-enact the story during a lesson. M came home from school very upset that he hadn’t been chosen to be one of these wannabe thieves and felt excluded because he knew he wouldn’t be able to share eating the cookies once they had successfully been taken. Fortunately, a quick call to the Head of Year 7 and an even quicker Google search found this wonderful recipe, which again required just a few tweaks to make a batch of M-friendly cookies that could be smuggled out of the school office alongside the ones for the rest of his class.
Banana, Apple & Lime Smoothie – one of M’s most precious possessions at the moment is the Nutribullet and Smoothies recipe book that my Aunt has given him as a memory of my Uncle. M feels even closer to him as he peruses the different recipes, trying to work out which he can safely make and enjoy and smoothies have quickly become a staple of his everyday diet. It’s even given him a great vehicle to trial raspberries as a handful added to the fruit mix works a treat. Despite his regular reluctance to get up and get ready for school, M can frequently be found whipping up a smoothie as an alternative to a more normal breakfast and he happily drinks it as he and G walk to school each morning. For a child who has always struggled with what to eat first thing in the day, these smoothies have been a real success story and a welcome break from the stresses that have all too often been a constant part of our morning routine.
There’s nothing better than finding a hidden treasure and this small cafe is an absolute gem. We were visiting friends who moved to Frome at the start of the summer and on recommendation from another friend, decided to try out Cafe Nouveau in Tytherington for our Saturday lunch. Long gone are the days of just dropping into a cafe or restaurant and hoping for a safe meal to feed both children, so about a week before our visit I wrote a quick email to the owner, Susan Green initially asking if it would be possible for us to bring a packed lunch for M to enjoy whilst the rest of us ordered from their menu. Much to my delight, Susan replied offering to prepare a cooked lunch for him based on his 5 safe foods and then impressed me further with some extra questions about which herbs and seasonings could be added to his meal to give a bit more flavour. This was already a meal that was sounding like a success and I couldn’t wait for our visit to see exactly how well it delivered.
I’ll be honest and say that we didn’t realise at first that the entire menu is gluten- and dairy-free, but as soon as we had established that fact, G was in her absolute element. I cannot adequately put into words her reaction when she realised that she could choose anything she fancied and soon settled on a prawn mayonnaise ciabatta with a small side salad and accompanied by her perennial favourite, a soya milk hot chocolate. When we placed our order for her drink, Susan reassured us that because G needed to be dairy-free, she would use dark chocolate powder to ensure the drink was completely safe for her. They had a fantastic range of alternative milks and milk-based drinks on the menu, including almond, coconut and soya milk as well as some cows’ milk for those customers who don’t want to try something different. We were told that the cows’ milk is kept separately and different containers used depending on the milk used. M was keen for G to try the “Vanilla Soya Frothy”, which I assume is a vanilla milkshake, but G was determined to indulge and stuck resolutely to what she knows she likes.
Mike and I both decided to take a look at their specials board, which is updated I believe on a daily basis and contained some delicious sounding dishes. I checked to make sure that their soup of the day didn’t contain potatoes and chose the chicken soup with a gluten-free roll on the side. Mike opted for their daily special of a spinach-filled chimichanga, which Susan mentioned was a fairly small portion and so added the Mezze plate, which included houmous, olives and some delicious seeded crackers. The plates, when they arrived, looked wonderful and the food was absolutely delicious. My soup had that real home-made feel to it, was packed with chicken and tantalisingly fragrant in its flavours. I was impressed with the gluten-free bread, which we were later told is baked off-site in a bakery that has an exclusively gluten-free area to make sure there is no cross-contamination risk. G’s sandwich soon disappeared and her hot chocolate didn’t last long either! As for M, he was thrilled to receive a healthy-sized portion of plain rice, topped with 2 roasted chicken thighs and some apple and ginger purée. He was a little disappointed that they didn’t stock any rice milk for him to drink, but was happy with the cartons of cloudy apple juice that were on offer instead. We were all delighted by our fantastic meals, little realising that the best was yet to come.
Anticipating that there wouldn’t be much on offer for M as a dessert, I had brought some safe snacks with us for him whilst the rest of us enjoyed a pudding. For the first time ever in her life, G had the chance to experience something that is commonplace for all her friends. She and I went to the counter, where an impressive array of cakes, cookies and other sweet treats were on display and she could eat every single one of them. That is a treat that is absolutely priceless and I loved seeing her struggle to pick just one item to enjoy after her lunch. There was chocolate cake, Victoria sponge, reduced sugar apple cake, flapjacks and some amazing-looking bite-size vanilla and nut ball treats. G finally settled on a toffee popcorn cookie, whilst I savoured a slice of the Victoria sponge. Neither stayed around long enough for me to snap a photo, so I’m afraid you’ll just have to imagine how wonderful they looked. We were so impressed with the selection that M helped me choose a few to take with us for afternoon tea at our friends’ house and was particularly keen that the man of the house had the chance to taste the allergy-friendly chocolate and orange torte.
Cafe Nouveau really was a most remarkable find and one that the whole family would happily recommend to anyone eating out with food allergies. It is part of a very small development on the edge of 30 acres of parkland that also includes 4-star Bed and Breakfast, The Lighthouse. Susan and her team open the cafe from 7am to provide breakfast for The Lighthouse’s guests as well as other customers, something that I absolutely love as it would save the need to pack boxes of cereal and cartons of safe milk on our travels.
Our marks: 9.5/10
If there was one thing we were all in need of last weekend, it was a sweet treat and I really wanted to bake something that I hadn’t made before. M was keen for me to make an entry for Delicious Alchemy’s own version of the Great British Bake-off, the Gluten-Free Magic Bake-off, so I needed something that would feed both children as well as hitting the brief he gave me of “something spectacular Mummy“. Hiding in the kitchen cupboard was a packet of Delicious Alchemy’s Gluten and Dairy-free Vanilla sponge cake mix, an item I’d bought on something of a whim to go with the 5 bags of their Rice flake porridge that would keep M going for the next few weeks. I pondered on whether I could use the mix to bake similar cupcakes to those I would be making for M and settled on the classic flavour combination of pear and ginger that has served me so well in the past. I haven’t made pear and ginger cupcakes before, but combining my recipe for pear and apple cupcakes with that for pear and ginger cookies, I was certain that I was onto a winner.
I started with a batch of M’s cupcakes and carefully tasted the batter mix to make sure that the ginger wasn’t too overpowering, something I’ve been guilty of in the past. Satisfied that the flavour combination was exactly what I wanted, it was time to move on to G’s cupcakes and I couldn’t wait to try out the sponge mix. Such mixes are a convenience I don’t use very often, usually because they don’t meet our complicated allergy needs, but given our last 2 Decembers with M disappearing into hospital and missing G’s birthdays, I figured that anything that could make the whole cake-baking experience a little easier for whoever ends up making her a cake can only be a good thing. I was really impressed with the sponge mix and how easy it was to use. I followed the packet instructions precisely, including using an egg – I can’t remember the last time I used an egg in my baking – and then added my own twist of pear and ginger. A quick taste reassured me that the flavour was good and then, with M’s cakes already out and cooling on the rack, popped G’s batch in to bake. The results looked and smelled delicious and soon joined M’s to cool, whilst I moved on to think about the icing.
Now this was where I wanted to venture into something completely new. I perfected coconut oil icing for M about this time last year, so it was time to take that knowledge and use it to create a different flavour. I turned to my ever faithful companion on these allergy-friendly recipe hunts, Google and discovered this great recipe combining ginger cupcakes with a salted caramel icing. I’ll be honest, salted caramel is not really my thing, but a couple of months ago, M had asked if I could make M-friendly caramel for him and I decided that there was no time like the present to take on that challenge. Rolling my sleeves up, I followed the recipe carefully, tweaking and swapping out ingredients as necessary to meet our allergy needs. I started with making the caramel and was delighted with the result. It does have a slightly unusual flavour because of the rice cream used to make it, but it wasn’t bad for a first attempt and I was certain that M and G would both love it. Once the caramel had cooled, I mixed it in with the coconut oil icing and then piped it onto the top of my cupcakes. A sprinkle of crystallised ginger added the final touches and I ended up with some beautiful cupcakes to serve. G and M both loved the look of them, but to my surprise the icing proved to be just a little too sweet for my sugar-fiend, M. Nevertheless, they’ve been a hit in our household this week and it’s great to have found a way to make tasty dairy-free caramel.