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2021: #FFFA with the teens – 7Y2D COVID-19 Diaries Week 44

This time last year I was in London taking part in what is unquestionably one of my most favourite events of the year, judging a couple of categories for the Free From Food Awards (#FFFA). The first lockdown changed the way that the awards ceremony itself took place, with a rather wonderful evening spent celebrating the best of what had been tasted online instead of the usually glamorous night out at the Royal College of Physicians near Regents Park.

I’ve missed the opportunity to escape home for a day or two and reconnect with friends from the allergy community, or indeed make new ones as well as the chance to uncover some potential new big hits for G and M this year. The way the 2021 FFFA will be judged is currently being reviewed in light of yet another lockdown, and may end up going virtual, though the logistics of that will be somewhat more difficult as we usually judge blind with the products only being revealed once all votes are in. Of course we’ve all got our fingers crossed that reducing numbers, the vaccination roll-out and lifting of lockdown might mean we can all get together once again, but only time will tell if that’s what will actually happen albeit potentially a little later than normal this year.

When I started judging 6 years ago, M was on his highly restricted diet of just a handful of safe foods and I was delighted to discover the amazing Borough 22 doughnuts, which are still one of our all-time favourite allergy-friendly foods ever. Over the years I’ve managed to find more and more safe options as M’s repertoire of foods has steadily increased, sometimes at a faster pace than any of us expected, and this year is no exception. M can now eat far more normally than it sometimes seemed possible, although he still follows a strict MEWS-free diet with some other known problem foods also excluded.

This improvement to his dietary options has been much celebrated at home, so it was perfect timing when the email from the FFFA team dropped into my inbox asking if both children would like to be involved as judges of the FFFA’s “Child & Teens” category for their first time ever. Unsurprisingly both leapt at the chance and have embraced this new mantle of responsibility with great aplomb. The products have been slowly trickling into the household over the past couple of weeks and its been wonderful to see G and M getting as much joy from the judging experience as I have over the years. There have been one or two big hits (watch this space for future updates) and one or two absolute “NO”s, although those have mainly been the result of individual taste and general fussiness rather than anything really wrong with the product. Their feedback has been honest and all they really want to know is whether they’ll be able to take part as judges again in the future!

Third year a charm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the Judging table

Today Mike and I have enjoyed what feels like a rare day off together. We’re away from work, away from home and away from the constant complexities of parenting 2 children with an interesting selection of food allergies between them. Instead, we have been privileged to spend the day in London as part of the judging panel for the Free From Food Awards 2017 (#FFFA17). You may remember that last year saw my debut in this exciting role and, thanks to the generosity of my Mum in providing some invaluable childcare and the need for a “normal” person in the selected groups of tasters, Mike was able to join me in the experience. It was last year’s involvement that kicked of an exciting year of opportunities for us all: from discovering our very own set of superheroes including the wonderful Ryan of Borough 22 to attending the Awards ceremony with a broken leg; not forgetting the introduction of GalaxyGazer and Marvin to their own readership and my involvement with the Free From Eating Out Awards 2016 – gosh, what a busy year it has been!

Our day started off a little later img_13641than normal with the “Meaty and Fishy Ready Meals” category. I enjoyed some of the new products that I discovered when judging this round last year, though was disappointed to find it difficult to find some of my favourites once the Awards were over. I was looking forward to seeing what new products I would uncover this year, especially seeking out anything suitable for G. Much as I enjoy cooking and usually prepare all our meals from scratch, I love finding those quick alternatives that will make busy evenings just the tiny bit easier. There were some great foods on offer, including a delicious gluten-free quiche from Asda, some highly contentious coronation chicken sausages and a great selection of microwave-able meals. To my delight, I came across 3 dishes that I thought were absolutely amazing and would be more than happy to buy for G. The first were the most delicious Sweet Quebec sausages from Slightly Different Foods. All foods are initially judged blind so that our opinions are not unduly influenced by any preconceived ideas img_13671about any of the suppliers or manufacturers of these products. I was thrilled to discover after the tasting who had made these sausages as we had stumbled across this company at last year’s Allergy and FreeFrom Show and our lengthy and enthusiastic conversation with owners, Sonia and Steve, evidently encouraged them to submit an entry to this year’s Awards. The sausages contain that classic Canadian combination of bacon and maple syrup and are bursting with flavour. I have no doubt that G will absolutely love them and the simplicity of the ingredients makes them a great choice for many with food allergies.

Next was a fantastic Chicken Tikka Masala with rice, which was unexpectedly manufactured by Pure, better known for their range of dairy-free alternatives to normal margarine. I had absolutely no idea that they made other free-from foods and this curry was beautifully fresh with a great selection of vegetables and even some quinoa included in its list of ingredients. Finally was my run-away favourite, a beef casserole with dumplings from Tesco, which is gluten-, dairy- and egg-free. The meat was tender, the gravy rich and the dumplings a surprise bonus on an already superb ready meal. I’m not convinced that G would choose either of these 2 options for an evening meal, but I would be more than happy to serve her both.

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