I’m writing tonight’s post in the peace and quiet of the hotel room in North London that has been my home for the last 2 days. It feels a little surreal to be away from my sound proof bubble at home, where I desperately try to ignore the perpetual chaos of family life that swirls around me and I can’t quite get used to being able to write completely uninterrupted by demands for food or drink or the need to referee between any 2 of the other 3 members of my household. It’s no exaggeration to say I’ve been counting down to these days away for months and have had to work incredibly hard to not spill the beans about my involvement with this year’s Free From Food Awards, #FFFA16. I feel incredibly honoured to be included on the judging panel and have enjoyed every moment of this experience.
For those of you who are not in the know, the #FFFA are the brainchild of Michelle Berriedale-Johnson and were launched in 2008 to celebrate excellence and encourage innovation within the free from food industry. Each year a group of judges from across the allergy and free from community are invited to taste a variety of new free from products and rate them on quality, usefulness, innovation and nutritional value. The foods are all tasted “blind” in the first instance, with names and packaging removed so that the products really are assessed on their own individual merits. Then follows an active discussion as each individual judge is asked to help reach a group consensus on the category winner and which other products deserve to be shortlisted, commended or given a highly commended award. Given the judges have a variety of backgrounds from free from food professionals to health professionals and from allergy sufferers to allergy bloggers as well as the occasional “normal” person to compare each item to their non-allergy counterpart, you really do get a rounded point of view about what makes the highest quality free from product. Believe me when I say that any manufacturer who wins a category is producing something that has impressed across the board.
This is what judging confectionery looked like!
I was keen to judge the Breakfast and Tea-time categories as I felt these were areas where it would be amazing to find some new foods to tempt G and was delighted to be included not just on those panels, but on those for Confectionery and Meaty & fishy ready meals too. The ready meals was a real added bonus for me as, whilst I cook from scratch 95% of the time, the option to have some good gluten- and dairy-free meals stowed in my freezer for those occasions when a quick meal is needed for G was incredibly attractive. The number of entries was overwhelming to a #FFFA16 newbie and I was extremely grateful to Ruth at What Allergy who had advised me to skip breakfast that first morning to ensure I had space for all the foods I’d be trying. With 36 breakfast products, 22 confectionery items, 32 meaty & fishy ready meals and 26 tea-time treats to taste over around 12 hours, no wonder I left London feeling extremely well fed.
Even better I found some great new-to-us foods that I thought G might like to try and these are my top picks from each category:
- Breakfast: Nutribix – a great alternative to the well-known breakfast brand, Weetabix. These were MEWS-free, taste delicious and would definitely provide a hearty, healthy and filling breakfast. I particularly liked that they were so reminiscent of their wheat-filled counterpart, a cereal that G had loved when she was tiny in the days before we knew she needed to be gluten-free.
- Confectionery: Eskal Chocolate Wafer Rolls – I have to be honest and say there was a whole host of amazing chocolates for this category, which left me in some of a chocolate-induced haze by the time we got to the end of the judging session. However, these wafer rolls were the stand-out product for me as they were light whilst still being indulgent, deliciously tasty and would make a great accompaniment to a bowl of ice-cream for that extra-special twist. The only downside is that they currently contain soya, especially as they are amazingly gluten-, dairy- and egg-free.
- Meaty & Fishy Ready Meals: I can’t begin to tell you how impressed I was with the vast range of free from ready meals that we got to taste and, to my delight, this category produced 2 top picks for me. The first is one that G will love and that would have ticked so many boxes for M pre going elemental. Tesco is adding a gluten-, dairy-, egg- and soya-free scampi to their own brand Free from range, which I’m sure will prove to be a huge success with many allergy families. I’m so excited for it to hit our shelves in the next couple of months and can’t wait for G to try it. My other choice is something I know G won’t want to try, but it ticked so many boxes for me as it was tasty, free from and could be prepared in the microwave in less than 5 minutes, truly the quintessential ready meal. Better Than Rice Chicken Massaman Curry introduced konnyaku rice to me, which has a completely different texture to normal rice and I’m looking forward to trying it out with M. He might not be able to eat the rest of the dish, but with such a limited diet, this new rice will bring an interesting twist to mealtimes.
- Teatime: By the time my fellow judges and I reached this final category in my judging timetable, I was definitely suffering from a little food fatigue. As M calculated for me when I got home, I had tried over 100 different free from offerings in my 2 days away and had enjoyed a good many of them. The teatime category was again filled with a delicious array of biscuits and cakes, but there was one product that for me stood head and shoulders above the rest: the amazing Borough 22 doughnuts. These were impressively gluten-, dairy-, egg- and soya-free and also vegan, but most definitely not flavour-free and were the biggest hit of my #FFFA16 experience. I know that doughnuts are one of those indulgences that so many allergy sufferers really miss and these will more than ably fill a definite gap in the market. Not only did I get to savour them, but even better, the #FFFA16 team offered me the remaining 6 doughnuts to take home for G and my girl has been delighted to receive this treat.
My thanks go to Michelle, Cressida and the rest of the team at the #FFFA16 for their welcome and commitment to encouraging development in the free from community. I loved every moment of my time as a judge and have met some great individuals who work in different aspects of the allergy world and were a lot of fun to work/eat/disagree with over the 2 days. The shortlist of contenders for the final awards will be published on February 10th and the winners announced at the awards ceremony in April. I can’t wait to see who won in each category and share some more of these innovative products with you.