Tag Archives: food allergies

20 years of #mischiefandmagic

A lot can happen in 20 years.

In the years since our wedding in December 1999, our family has doubled in size and we’ve moved schools, houses and jobs at a rate that has to be seen to be believed. We’ve survived illness and loss within both our families and our friends, and continue to do so on a daily basis thanks to some long-term diagnoses that have oft-times caught us when we were least expecting them. Chronic illness has become a much bigger part of our lives that we could ever have imagined, but with that has also come some amazing friendships, connections and opportunities that we never even dreamed would happen and that, in many ways, I wouldn’t change for the world.

One such relationship that we have all absolutely come to value is the one with the charity, Over The Wall. They have been a phenomenal support to G and M since both first attended their camps in 2016 and are, in an almost unbelievable stroke of serendipity, also celebrating 20 years since they were first launched by UK businessman Joe Woods following in Paul Newman’s footsteps and the development of the Hole in the Wall Gang camps in Connecticut USA in the late 1980s.

So what are we doing to make this a year of note?

As far as our anniversary goes, I’m hoping that Mike and I might manage a night out somewhere special, though celebrating the week before Christmas can make that difficult as we negotiate the huge numbers of office Christmas parties that we inevitably encounter when trying to book a table anywhere without a lot of forward planning.

And, of course, it will come as no surprise that we are also working hard to raise awareness and funds to support Over The Wall’s ambitious plans to take a record-breaking 1,000 children to camp this year. Mike started the year in style with a sponsored polar dip on New Year’s Day and we’ve turned our hands to a few other things – some old, some new – to see just how much we can raise. We followed the “sparking joy” fashion and adopted a Marie Kondo approach to clearing out our wardrobes, committed to giving a regular amount each month and even stood in the entrance of our local Tesco superstore a couple of weeks ago to collect what we could and spread the word about the camps too.

We’ve taken OTW with us wherever we’ve travelled, sporting branded t-shirts, hoodies and bandanas with aplomb and almost quite literally went “over the wall” with them during our visit to Berlin.

G and M have obviously been a big part of many of our efforts, but are now launching an appeal of their own. Their yearning to do something truly spectacular has unfortunately been somewhat hampered by not yet being quite old enough to participate in the activity of their choice, but they have instead picked the next best option in their eyes and will be taking part in a sponsored indoor skydive at the end of this month.

How can you help?

Well, it goes without saying that any sponsorship you can give would be very gratefully received by G, M and OTW, especially if you can help them meet their fundraising target of £200 – scaled back somewhat from M’s original suggestion of £20,000 – by visiting their fundraising page here.

If you’re not able to donate, but live near a Tesco store in one of the following areas*, OTW is one of their Bags of Help Centenary Grants recipients until the end of August and by adding your blue token to their box, and encouraging friends, family and fellow shoppers to do the same, you will help them receive a significant grant that will be genuinely life-changing. Remember “Every Little Helps”, even if that’s by a blue token!

Finally, sharing the OTW message of #mischiefandmagic with friends and across your social media channels will not only help the charity reach even more of the estimated 50,000 children and young people living with serious health challenges across the UK, but sharing our fundraising page will hopefully bring even more cash donations pouring in to help them achieve their goals not only this year, but in the future too.

Thank you!

*OTW is currently starring in stores across: Perth & Kinross, Angus, Stirling, Fife, Clackmannanshire, South Ayrshire, East Ayrshire, Dumfries & Galloway, Scottish Borders, East Lothian, Midlothian, Somerset (inc Bristol), Wiltshire and Swindon.

Advertisements

Eating Out with Allergies in Berlin

With breakfast, lunches and snacks sorted out, all that was left to do was to find a few places for dinner whilst we were in Berlin. Mike had done a lot of research on the museums and sights to see during our trip, so I had taken on the challenge to see what options for safe dining there might be. We had great success with the 3 restaurants we ended up eating at, even if none of them could be described as being “traditionally” German, and the allergy information was readily available and easy to read.

Pizzeria Simela: In my extensive internet research this restaurant consistently appeared with excellent recommendations for its brilliant gluten-free offerings of both pizza and pasta and I was delighted to read a more recent review that revealed they could also offer vegan – and therefore dairy-free – cheese. Based just around the corner from the fantastic Denns Biomarkt, this tiny restaurant has just a handful of tables, but is definitely worth a visit and booking in advance! We settled on some fresh tomato bruschetta on GF bread as well as a charcuterie platter for the four of us to share as a starter before selecting pizzas for our main course. Mike, G and M all opted for the GF buckwheat pizza bases, whilst I chose their regular base. It was also great to see a GF beer on offer and Mike willingly gave it a go, giving it a thumbs up. The food was absolutely delicious, there was a huge number of safe options G and M could choose from and there was very little left once my fellow diners had eaten their full. Definitely a winner in our books and one I would highly recommend.

Corroboree: This was a surprise find after a busy day involving 3 museums, a tour bus, lots of walking and even a lunchtime boat trip down the River Spree. We found ourselves at the Sony Centre at Potsdamer Platz, which seemed like a good place to search for a restaurant that might be able to cater reasonably well for even the most difficult of dietary requirements. Corroboree serves Australian-Asian fusion food and provided M with the chance to try some more unusual meats, something he’s been wanting to do for a very long time. The allergy menu I was given was fantastic and really easy to navigate and work out what was safe for both M and G. We were having a relatively early dinner, so G decided she would have a chicken Caesar salad supplemented with a bowl of chips, whilst Mike and I shared a Caesar salad with kangaroo steak as well as a platter for 2 which included Asian chicken, calamari and bruschetta. M, however, was the most adventurous of us all and decided to try the Corroboree platter with dairy-free tandoori chicken, crocodile tournedo and kangaroo filet. He enjoyed almost every mouthful and would happily eat crocodile again, though he’s less sure about the kangaroo as it tasted too much like beef for his liking. Something a little different to what we’d normally eat, but a big hit and a definite thumbs up for the freefrom offerings.

Hard Rock Cafe: It should come as no surprise that our first, and in fact, final meals were at our family favourite, the Hard Rock Cafe. Once again the allergy advice available was comprehensive and the restaurant manager came to discuss our dietary needs with us before the children placed their orders. We were reassured to hear that their GF fries are cooked in a separate fryer and there was no problem with tweaking the children’s choices to make sure they were as safe as they could possibly be. G once again chose the pulled pork sandwich which she first tried in Glasgow and now absolutely loves, whilst M changed his choices up a bit by choosing the pulled pork sandwich on the first night and a chicken and bacon “burger” for our final dinner. Both children were extremely happy with their meals and M was delighted to be able to try a selection of their smoothies too, having quizzed our poor waiter to make sure there was no milk added to them at all! Mike also decided to try their Local Legendary burger, which changes in each restaurant location and in Berlin was a burger topped with a serving of currywurst – the local delicacy of a bratwurst sausage topped with a curry sauce. I’m not sure its a burger I would have chosen, but Mike enjoyed it – and the generous glasses of beer that accompanied it. One of my favourite things about the Hard Rock Cafe is seeing what memorabilia they have on display and here they had a guitar made from a piece of the Berlin Wall with barbed wire as its guitar strings. Once again a restaurant we’d recommend to those eating out with allergies in the beautiful city of Berlin.

Sweet Treats in Berlin

The benefit of picking an apartment or apart-hotel to stay in is that there’s enough of a kitchen to allow us to cook safely for the children and we always travel with our extra suitcase of safe foods to make sure that we have enough of the essentials to see us through our time away from home. We never know what we’ll be able to find food-wise and it’s good to have a plan in our back pockets “just in case”. However, let’s be realistic, who really wants to cook when they’re on holiday? Certainly not me and so we had settled on a good compromise for a short break in Berlin, one that we’ve found has worked well for us in the past and which keeps the children happy too.

Even when we travel in the UK, I always make sure that I have breakfast cereals and cartons of rice milk packed as we’re never quite sure what dairy-free milks we will find and we start our days with breakfast in the room. Thanks to the great location of our Citadines Kurfürstendamm Berlin hotel, there was a Starbucks coffee shop and local bakery within easy walking distance, so Mike trekked out each morning to pick up a coffee for me and some freshly baked pastries and bread rolls for us to enjoy. We had also agreed with G and M that we would take packed lunches out with us daily and so had taken some Bfree wraps for M to enjoy, whilst we had picked up some great gluten-free bread rolls for G in a local supermarket. Both kids love cooked meats, so finding some safe lunch meat in the same supermarket was a great bonus and absolutely delighted them. Sadly, this same supermarket didn’t stock any rice milk, although there was an impressive array of other alternative milks and we ended up getting some soya milk for G and just used our supply from home for M’s daily breakfast.

However, as we found our way to dinner one evening at the fantastic Pizzeria Simela – don’t worry, there’ll be more about this in my next blog post – we stumbled across Denns Biomarkt and as we had a few minutes to spare, I suggested we popped in to have a quick look around. This has to be one of the best spur-of-the-moment decisions I’ve made in quite a while as, not only did their bakery have gluten-free fresh bread available, but there was a great selection of other allergy-friendly options available too, including numerous cartons of rice cream, which somehow made their way into the spare suitcase for our homeward journey! M also took a fancy to the black rice milk that he discovered, though sadly the final product proved not to be as tasty as he was hoping it might be. Here are a few of the freefrom finds that were the biggest hits with G and M:

Friederike from Jute Backerei: Well, who could refuse these amazing looking cookies from this gluten-free bakery? The clear labelling meant I could see from a quick glance that these were gluten-, dairy- and egg-free, so potentially a safe treat for M to enjoy alongside his sister. With the help of Google translate, I scanned through the list of ingredients and was happy to see that whilst they were baked in an environment containing soya, the cookies themselves were soya-free and didn’t contain anything that made me particularly worried about M eating one. They were absolutely huge and, I am reliably informed by both children, also extremely delicious!

Das Eis Triple Choc Ice-cream: Since getting home from Berlin, I’ve discovered that Das Eis is a huge vegan brand of ice creams and sorbets. Made from almond and rice milk, this ice-cream was also soya-free and so another treat that I was happy to let M try – once he had taken an extra dose of his array of anti-histamines and other medicines. There were a couple of flavours available in Denns Biomarkt as well as some other brands of dairy-free ice-cream, but the Das Eis Triple Choc was the only one that was also vegan and soya-free and therefore the best option for M. The children somewhat reluctantly shared the small tub with Mike, but they all agreed it was worth it.

Ben & Jerry’s Non-Dairy Chunky Monkey Ice-cream: After our trip to the DDR museum, M asked if we could go on river cruise to enjoy our lunch and given the glorious day, Mike and I were both more than happy to agree. I had spotted some ice-creams for sale in the museum shop and had somewhat mindlessly looked to see what was available as I waited for Mike and the children to complete their purchases. G is notoriously difficult to buy an ice-cream for when we’re out and about as she won’t eat ice lollies and it’s rare to find a dairy-free ice-cream available for her. So, I was delighted to spot this vegan ice-cream, not least because we also felt we could allow M to try it as well whilst we were on holiday. The small pot was enough to satisfy them both before they tucked into their packed lunches and kept the smiles on their faces for the rest of the afternoon.

Bringing History Lessons to Life in Berlin

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m a big fan of holidays. Not just the trips themselves, but I absolutely love the process from the moment we start thinking about the perfect destination to pick and, much to Mike’s frustration, can frequently be found thinking about where we should travel next, even before we’ve left home on the next one booked. We haven’t done too much travelling since our trip back to Canada last summer, but no sooner had G and I got home from our fantastic day out at the Strictly tour, than it was time to finish the packing and zip up the suitcase for our 5 day half-term break.

Our holiday was perhaps not what people expected, in that we weren’t chasing the sun with a few days at the beach, even though both G and M are desperate to go back to Greece and mention it every time they can possibly shoehorn it into any conversation. Instead, we had taken inspiration from G’s GCSE history syllabus and her learning about Superpower relations, the Cold War and Nazi Germany during the inter-War years, subjects which also happen to tie in quite nicely with M’s focus on World War 1 in his history lessons this year; and so headed to Berlin. As the children have got older, we try to involve them more and more with planning our activities whilst we’re aware from home and this trip was no different. G spoke to her history teacher just after Christmas as the school had taken a group of their A-level students to Berlin a few weeks earlier and came home with some recommendations of the best places to visit to help solidify her learning and understanding of these eras.

Armed with that information as well as the additional research Mike had carried out in the preceding weeks, we had plenty to do to fill our time and couldn’t wait to get started. I had found what looked like a great place to stay: the Citadines Kurfürstendamm Berlin apart-hotel, meaning that we had access to a full kitchen which always makes life a little easier when travelling with food allergies. We were ideally located not too far from the main retail street and within easy walking distance to not only shops and restaurants, but also the Berlin U-Bahn, or Underground rapid transit system.

Our first day started, as it so often does when we travel to a new city, with a “Hop-on, hop-off” bus tour, although we weren’t as impressed with the City Circle Tour offering as we have been with other tour companies we’ve chosen in the past. However, it gave us a great introduction to the city of Berlin itself and helped us work out how to get to the various sights on our list as well as ticking a few of them off without too much hassle. Both G and M were fascinated by their first view of the few remaining remnants of the Berlin Wall, the Brandenburg Gate and the bombed remains of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, all of which really brought their history lessons to life.

A pudding for every day

M’s restricted diet has come with a number of challenges over the years, not least of which is finding some delicious desserts for him to enjoy at the end of a meal. I have worked hard to adapt recipes or create new ones for him, but sometimes all this busy working Mum wants is to be able to pull a pudding out of the fridge and not have to do anything more than remove the lid and provide a spoon. One of the staples of my childhood for weekday desserts was fruit yoghurts and when M was small, he absolutely loved eating a yoghurt whenever he fancied it. G has always been less keen, although she definitely enjoys the odd soya pudding – especially the chocolate ones – on occasion.

So, I’m constantly on the look-out for an M-friendly alternative and you can imagine my delight when my hours of internet trawling uncovered the wonder that are Bio Organic Rice Desserts. Now sadly these puddings are incredibly difficult to source and I have spent a small fortune in shipping boxes of them to our house. However, the chocolate desserts have been a huge hit with Master M and those boxes definitely don’t last long unless a few are hidden away from his immediate view.

18 months ago I came across  La Crèmerie’ and their rice yoghurts at the Foodmatters Live Conference in London and last summer I eventually managed to convince M to give the yoghurts a try. We placed an order for both the plain and the vanilla flavours, but unfortunately  La Crèmerie was low on stock and we had to wait a little while for just the plain yoghurts to be delivered to our door. The rice yoghurt is delicious, although M wasn’t too keen on the plain flavour – I just wish that he’d had the opportunity to taste the vanilla ones as well. However, whilst they weren’t the biggest success we’ve ever seen, they did make a great addition to his smoothies and I was also able to use it to create a stewed apple and yoghurt pudding for him. Sadly, these are another more expensive option and perhaps not one for everyday, but they are a good dairy-free alternative and one I’d happily recommend.

Rocky Road

Over the last few months, I have been encouraging G and M to become more engaged with the treats they like to eat, in particular asking them to find, choose and make the goodies they want to eat themselves. Part of my reasoning was to make sure M has some safe desserts to include with his lunch at school as it’s so difficult to buy safe options for him, and part was to help them both develop the skills they need to cook safe food in the future. It has been a mixed success and as soon as their initial enthusiasm wore off, the number of biscuits and snacks they had similarly reduced to almost nothing. However, after a couple of busy weeks at work, I decided to seek solace in the baking process myself and chose to experiment with adapting a new recipe for them both to enjoy.

My starting point was a favourite treat of mine, which I thought I could adapt, but actually needed me to perfect another biscuit first before I could even attempt the final product. I love shortbread, especially at Christmas time and I thought that an M-friendly shortbread might be a great starting point and something G and M would both like on its own. Some quick online research and I found a great and simple shortbread recipe, which thanks to our recent successful introduction of Vitalite dairy-free margarine to M’s diet, only needed me to swap the flour to make it perfect for him. It didn’t take long to whip up the first batch and G and M were delighted to taste-test them for me.

With the success of the shortbread in my back pocket, it was time to turn my attention to my final goal – M-friendly Rocky road. This time I recruited G as my kitchen help and she enjoyed the tasks of chopping the Freedom mallows as well as smashing some of the shortbread into bitesize pieces too. Whilst the standard recipe calls for the inclusion of raisins or cherries in it, we haven’t yet introduced them into M’s diet and so instead used dried banana chips, which again had some attention from G and her trusty rolling-pin. Moo-free chocolate has proven to be another safe option for M and was the final ingredient needed for the recipe.

An hour or 2 in the fridge and the Rocky road was ready. It was another resounding success with G and M and they certainly enjoyed the week or so that followed as either shortbread or rocky road was included in their packed lunches every day. Even better, M was so taken with both recipes that it reignited his interest in doing some safe baking himself and he spent a Saturday afternoon making the shortbread and prepping everything for the rocky road before he had to head to bed. He even told me off for not having put my recipes onto my blog quick enough for him to find and follow – so here they are, ready for the next time my youngest ventures into the kitchen!

Pizza and Ballet

One of the Christmas presents we were treated to this year was family tickets to go and see Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” at the Bristol Hippodrome. We have only been to a couple of ballets with the children over the years despite our love of the theatre and my Mum was keen for us to experience this unconventional retelling of this classic ballet. Of course, no family evening out can start without dinner out too and this time round, partly as we were later arriving in Bristol than we’d originally planned and partly because, well, why not, we decided to veer away from our known safe restaurants and look for somewhere new to try.

It’s always a challenge when eating out with G and M because of their dietary needs, but our decision over the last 18 months or so to relax M’s restrictions on high days and holidays in order to find a better quality of life and balance for him means that on occasions like this, we’re able to eat in places where we’re confident he can choose safe ingredients to make a tasty meal. We know that there are a number of restaurants near to Bristol Hippodrome from Pizza Express to Wagamama, so I made the suggestion that we wandered up Park Street to see what else might be available, with our end target being Pizza Express if nothing else seemed to suit.

About halfway up the hill, we stumbled across the marvellous Molto Buono restaurant and, spotting gluten-free pizza bases on the menu, decided to stop there and see how their food measured up to the children’s somewhat exacting standards. It didn’t take too long for G and M to decide what they wanted to eat and were delighted to discover that as well as gluten-free pizza bases, the restaurant also had vegan mozzarella available as a topping. Much to my surprise, G opted for the GF Marinara pizza – tomato sauce, olive oil and oregano – and M chose the GF Diavola – tomato, salami and vegan mozzarella. Mike joined them in trying one of handmade pizzas, whilst I settled on a pesto pasta. The dishes that arrived looked amazing and tasted even better with portion sizes that satisfied even the voracious appetite of the youngest member of our family. I wouldn’t hesitate recommending this restaurant – excellent food, prepared simply, served quickly and all at a great price.

Fully satisfied by our meal and with more than enough time to meander our way back towards the theatre, our evening had started in fine fashion. We all then sat enthralled for the next couple of hours as the story of Swan Lake unfolded before us. Matthew Bourne’s interpretation brings a more modern-day twist to the tale and replaces the well-known Dance of the Cygnets with an incredible male troupe of swans instead. The dancing was incredible and brought real inspiration to both G and M as they watched it in absolute awe, something that should never be under-estimated as M had expressed his concerns about watching a ballet – “…there are no words to explain what’s going on, so how do you know the story-line..?” before it even began.

I think we would all heartily recommend seeing this production, though it turns out that I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to the setting, much preferring the classic portrayal of the Swan Lake tragic love story. It was fascinating to talk to G and M about their thoughts on the production, with M uncertain as to whether the second half was a dream or not and both expressing the view that the role of the Swan/Stranger represented the 2 sides oft he Prince’s psyche. This was a performance that really challenged everything we knew and expected of a ballet and was a truly amazing experience. Despite my hesitations about some parts of this version, I am fascinated to see how Matthew Bourne has adapted and updated other ballets and hope to be able to see another of his productions soon.

#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.

Young Carers Awareness Day 2019

Today is Young Carers Awareness Day 2019 and the purpose of the day is to raise public awareness of the challenges faced by young people because of their caring role, and to campaign for greater support for young carers and their needs. Young Carers often struggle with mental health problems of their own due to the strains they can find themselves under, hence the launch of their #CareForMeToo campaign.

I was recently invited to write a blog for Over The Wall about the impact of their camps on our family and I chose to particularly focus on the importance of the siblings camps for children like G, who is recognised as a Young Carer locally. I thought I’d take the opportunity to share my thoughts here too.

 “…when one person in the family has a chronic illness, the whole family has it…”

Jamie-Lynn Sigler

When you live with chronic illness you know that it is about so much more than just the disease itself. Pain, exhaustion, medicines, appointments and hospital admissions are often accompanied by a loss of self-confidence, doubts about self-worth and mental health issues that need time, patience and understanding to come to terms with and overcome. As parents to a child with a rare illness that is little known and little understood, Mike and I have had to find a resilience and strength within ourselves to not only support M as he finds his way to understanding his condition and living his life to the fullest, but also to fight those battles that he is not yet ready to tackle himself.

For the last 8 years, since our appointment with M’s first gastro consultant, our focus has been on finding answers and researching ways to give him the best quality of life we can despite the challenges he faces. As he now heads into his teens, we are seeing the fruits of those endeavours as M begins to make his own choices about the foods he eats, knowing full well the reactions he may experience, and taking on more responsibility for his medicines.

You could say that we’re achieving what we set out to do when we got his diagnosis: to raise a young man who won’t let his illness define or constrain him and who believes that he can be successful no matter what; but we have not been alone in supporting M. Family, friends and our local community have walked every step of this journey with us, helping us in more ways than we could ever imagine was possible; but there is one person who has been there since the very beginning, without any choice and yet who loves M unconditionally and is an indisputable rock for him, even when they don’t always see eye to eye.

She is, without a shadow of a doubt, the unsung hero in our family story.

Since the day her baby brother arrived prematurely in her world, G was determined to help out whenever she could. She put up with his incessant screams from what we now realise was undiagnosed pain and looked to comfort him however she could – making him laugh, giving cuddles, reading stories or just bringing him “Cat” when nothing else would do. Like so many siblings to children diagnosed with chronic illness, G has inevitably been side-lined when that illness has dominated family life and despite our determination to make sure she doesn’t miss out because of it, I know there are times when we haven’t got that balance right and given G the attention she deserves and needs.

From the interruption of frequent hospital appointments to badly timed admissions over her birthday 2 years in a row, G has had to take the back seat to M’s illness more times than seems fair and these are not the only ways in which her life has been affected by his diagnosis. We cannot ignore the reality that having a chronically ill sibling has had a massive impact on G and her mental health too. Anxiety, panic attacks, facing fears and anger management issues are all inextricably tied up with the role of being a young person caring for another and it has been crucial we find a supportive environment for her that has taught strategies for dealing with her yo-yoing emotions and provided a safe and understanding outlet for them. Encouraging G’s involvement with our local Young Carers group as well as applying for a place at the Over The Wall Siblings camps have been important steps in recognising the impact that M’s health has had on her over the last 15 years and have helped her feel that we really do understand and appreciate all that she has had to put up with and sometimes give up too.

That time away at OTW was a week for her to be herself, not defined or viewed in her role as M’s big sister and encouraged and allowed her to take time to focus on herself without worrying about him. G came home a different child to the one who had left us, having realised that her life experiences didn’t isolate her in those circumstances and she had found a sense of self-worth that she had been struggling to develop at home and at school. G’s second camp experience saw her develop a confidence and willingness to take on new challenges, knowing that, with a little bit of self-belief and perseverance, no mountain is too big for her to conquer. OTW brought G out from the shadow of M’s ill health, helped her rediscover who she is as an independent individual and gave her her childhood back – and for that I can’t thank them enough.

Battle of the Birthday cakes

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.