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#FFFA19

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

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

My highlights of this session were:

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

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

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

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

My highlights?:

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

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

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

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

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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.

Polar Dip

Despite the assertions of some Canadian friends that it couldn’t be a “real” polar bear dip without having to break some ice, in the middle of December Mike decided to take part in our local New Year’s Day polar swim. With just a smidge over 2 weeks to prepare for this madness, you wouldn’t be blamed if you thought Mike was completely mad – believe me when I say it was something that went through my mind too – but the reason for it is actually a fantastic one.

You have all heard me talk a lot about the amazing charity, Over The Wall, who provides free therapeutic camps for children with serious health challenges as well as their siblings and families. G and M have been fortunate enough to go to these camps twice each over the last 3 years and the difference it has made to them both is incredible. Since G’s first trip to the South Siblings Camp in 2016, we have taken every opportunity we’ve been able to find to raise awareness and funds for them – from M’s presentation at school to G’s sponsored hair-cut. I’ve talked to more people than I can even begin to count about just how special this charity is and in the last year have been delighted that 2 fellow EGID Mums were successful in their applications for camps too.

2019 marks 20 years since OTW’s first camp in the UK and they are looking to mark that anniversary by being able to send 1,000 children, young people and families to one of their camps. We want to help them achieve that goal, knowing from firsthand experience just how invaluable their camps truly are, and will be spending the year finding new ways to support them just as they have supported G and M.

And that’s why Mike kicked off our fundraising year in style with his Polar swim. He chose to swim in 9° water for 20 minutes – 1 minute for every year that Over The Wall is celebrating this year – and we set a tentative target of £200. Thanks to the generosity of friends and family, Mike not only more than managed his New Year’s Day dip, but also raised a fantastic £223!

If you’re able to give even a small amount, I know that Over The Wall will make very good use of it and you will be helping enrich the lives of young people living with health challenges, just like G and M. You can donate via their special 20 years donation page here.

Welcome to 2019

It feels a little strange to be putting fingers to the keyboard and sharing news with you all once again. Since the last time I wrote, we’ve celebrated Christmas, seen in the New Year, made some big decisions about future plans and the children have headed back to school. Mike kicked off the New Year in style – something I’ll share more about in my next post – as part of our family commitment for 2019.

To be honest I was glad to see the back of 2018, which had challenged us all from almost the beginning of the year, thanks to a nasty bout of Aussie ‘flu and…well…everything else that then followed on from that. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all bad and there were also lots of highlights from our year to celebrate too. Unfortunately and almost unbelievably, 2018 finished in much the same way it started with the sad news that one of my Godmothers passed away just before Christmas and 2019 obviously didn’t get the memo that it needed to improve on our experiences and kicked off with further news of ill-health for both friends and family.

However, I’ve learned some important lessons in 2018 and will be taking them forward into our New Year. I have some wonderful freefrom finds to share amongst other news and I’ve no doubt there will be discoveries and adventures to write about as 2019 unfurls.

Here’s to a year of discovery and wonder for us all.

Small businesses too good to miss!

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

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

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

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

Finishing the summer in style

With Christmas now just 6 weeks away – eek, where has this year gone?! – it’s hard to believe that I still haven’t finished telling the tales of our busy summer. You’d have thought our fairly last-minute plans to fly out to Canada for 2 weeks would have been more than enough to keep us all occupied, but we had even more adventures squeezed in to the final 10 days of the summer holidays before school started back.

We had the return journey from hell with a disrupted flight thanks to a group of rowdy French exchange students, who got into arguments and near fist fights with both the airline crew and other passengers, just rows away from the seats we were sitting in. I have never been so upset on a flight and am just grateful that the children were more entertained by the films they chose to watch, than scared by the events going on around them. This behaviour continued in the Dublin airport terminal and didn’t help the stress of a delayed flight back, which meant we missed our onward flight home by mere minutes. Mike and I were tired, grumpy and so fed up by all we experienced, that we complained long and hard, which fortunately secured us a later flight home, though it was 12 hours later than originally planned, and a hotel room for the day, which gave us the chance to catch up on some much-needed sleep, something that had been impossible on the plane.

We were both back at work the following day, whilst G and M went to my Mum’s for the last 2 days of the week. We rushed through the washing and then found ourselves packing once again for a weekend in Liverpool to see the Terracotta Warriors exhibition that we had missed when we visited back in April and what was, perhaps, the highlight of M’s summer holiday – a week at Over The Wall. Our weekend in Liverpool was a great success, especially as we managed a return trip to both of the fabulous freefrom restaurants we had discovered on our previous visit, something both children were desperate to do. The morning spent at the World Museum was well worth it and we all enjoyed seeing the amazing Terracotta Warriors that were on display. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 17 years since Mike and I first saw them in Xi’an, China and fantastic to introduce G and M to this incredible ancient tribute to China’s first emperor. They also insisted we explored every other part of the museum we could and given the rather miserable weather, it was a great way to entertain them whilst away from home.

From Liverpool, we headed back South, dropping M off at the Midlands OTW Health Challenges camp for what we had no doubt would be an amazing week for him again. I cannot begin to describe the incredible benefits that M gets from OTW and why this charity deserves all the support and praise we can possibly give it. Once again the camp chefs outdid our expectations and created meals for M that went beyond our wildest dreams – and yet again apparently put my attempts to shame. This year, however, I can take great solace in the fact that M shared with the chef that I put my recipes on this blog and he not only took a look at them, but also used them to help cook treats for M whilst he was at camp. Just as with his stay at the South HC camp 2 years ago, M was exhausted after a week of unbelievable fun and challenge and just about managed to survive the very final bit of our seemingly endless summer adventures.

OTW’s Midlands camp is based just minutes away from the National Memorial Arboretum near Lichfield, Staffordshire and it seemed a shame to be so close and not stop there for a relatively quick visit. The NMA is somewhere I’ve long considered visiting and we chose a beautiful day to make the trip. Both children were about studying the World Wars at school and with 2018 marking the centenary of the Armistice, it seemed fitting to spend some time walking the grounds and exploring the many memorials that are found here. It was a remarkable and moving place to visit and I’m glad we made the effort to, despite M’s reluctance and overwhelming tiredness from a week away from home.

Downtown Toronto

We really were trying to squeeze as much as we possibly could into our 2 weeks in Canada this time round and so decided to end our visit with just 3 days in downtown Toronto to do a little sightseeing that we hadn’t done before. When we thought we were going to be visiting at Christmas, M had been really keen to have a repeat trip to Niagara Falls, somewhere we’ve visited with the children on 2 previous holidays, as he was desperate to see the Falls frozen, though we had warned that it might not happen even during December. However, visiting in the summer changed our plans a lot and Mike was really keen to fit in a day trip to Toronto Island if we could, something that we managed to do without any problem whilst we were staying downtown.

Our home for these 3 days was an apartment within walking distance of almost everywhere we wanted to go and, ironically, just across the road from that of another friend of ours, who we didn’t realise was living nearby. Our plans, as always, were fairly loose, though we had booked tickets for sports games and theatre trips to provide some structure for each day. We decided to visit the CNE – Canadian National Exhibition – with the same cousins we’d headed to Canada’s Wonderland with and had lots of fun wandering between the various exhibits. The day we went happened to be Veterans day and all 4 children enjoyed looking around the Canadian military section and exploring the tanks and aircraft on display. We even managed to find a stall selling Beavertails – a deep-fried dough sweet treat, shaped like a beaver’s tail – and bought a couple of us all to share. This treat was obviously not gluten-free as well as being covered in sugar, so G, M and I only took a small mouthful each, whilst Mike, his brother and the rest of the family enjoyed the rest.

Our day on Toronto Island was beautiful and started with a boat trip across Lake Ontario in glorious sunshine. The children were keen to explore what was there and we could easily have spent another day or two on the island itself. However, our time was limited and so we enjoyed more rides in the small island theme park, though nothing quite as adventurous as those at Canada’s Wonderland, before heading off for a short walk, a trolley tour of the island and the opportunity to dip our toes into another of the Great Lakes to finish off our day. We had to cut short our stay on the island as we were heading to a baseball game in the evening, but we managed to find time to walk some of the streets of Toronto to the Eaton Shopping Centre, before exploring the underground shopping concourses back to the stadium. G found the underground “streets” particularly confusing to walk and couldn’t quite believe that it was possible to walk the approximately 15 blocks from the Eaton Centre to the Skydome completely underground. All in all, it was a busy few days, but the perfect ending to our 2018 Canadian Adventures.

Her Inner Thrill-seeker

The next stage of our Canadian road trip found us driving over 5 hours east from Lake Huron to the peaceful resort of Beachwood, Lakefield to join a number of our friends and their families for a short summer break. We had been lucky enough to book a room in the main lodge for a couple of nights, which gave us the chance to catch up with these friends who we might otherwise have missed. It was also a fantastic chance for both G and M to catch up with some of their godparents, as 2 of G’s godfathers and one of M’s numbered amongst our friends staying at the resort that week.

G and M were both excited at the prospect of spending a few days lakeside and were delighted to find that they could swim in both the small pool and the lake itself. The resort was amazing and we were easily able to walk between our room and the various cottages our friends were staying in whenever we wanted. Our children were the oldest there and soon became popular, G in particular, with the younger crowd. It came as no surprise that they also befriended some of the other children on site and spent a lot of time moving between pool and lake to play games with whoever was around. As well as the swimming, the children also loved the opportunity to go out in a canoe (or should that be kayak?!) with Mike, hitch a lift on the speedboat when it took guests out water-skiing and spent a huge amount of time climbing and playing on the giant inflatable obstacle course in the middle of the lake. It was here that G started to find her inner thrill-seeker, something that came as a complete surprise to us all and was to develop even more as our holiday continued.

With our couple of days with friends behind us, we travelled south to the town where Mike grew up and our home for the rest of that week. Our primary aim whilst we were there was to visit Canada’s Wonderland, an awesome theme park and one that I had never before been to, despite my numerous visits over the last 20 years! Not only did we have 2 days of incredible fun, but we spent it with the rest of the family we hadn’t yet had a chance to see and both G and M loved every moment of racing around the park and trying out the rides with their cousins. It was here that G’s newly discovered thrill-seeking personality really came into its own as she and her cousin, H, challenged themselves to ride pretty much every roller-coaster or ride they could find. The boys were slightly less keen to ride the bigger rides, which suited my sister-in-law and me just fine, and quickly found themselves enjoying similar experiences, which were very different to those their sisters were undertaking.

G’s confidence in trying out so many different roller-coasters and rides – there’s only 1 I can remember her refusing to go on which the rest of us did – came as a complete surprise to us all. Our trip to Florida 4 years ago found M being slightly more adventurous than his big sister and I really hadn’t expected things to change as much as they did. It was fantastic to see G and H really enjoy the time they spent together, usually with Uncle Dave, though Mike found himself on some rides that he perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise chosen! It really was an amazing time with both family and friends and we could barely believe that we were heading into the final few days of our holiday as we packed up and moved on to our final destination in downtown Toronto.

Exploration through Enrichment

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

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

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

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