Being diagnosed with coeliac disease may not sound like an obvious blessing, but for Naomi Devlin, it sparked a new foodie career path
Since she and her son were diagnosed with coeliac disease almost a decade ago, Naomi Devlin has dedicated her time to making wholesome and flavoursome gluten-free cooking more accessible.
From bespoke teaching days held in her family kitchen in Dorset, to her booked-out cookery classes at River Cottage - the base of operations seen in chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s TV series - she’s a woman on a dietary mission, and the latest string to her bow is her much-anticipated debut book, River Cottage Gluten Free.
“I’ve always wanted to write a cookbook,” says the 42-year-old. “I started blogging almost nine years ago after I found out that I [needed to be] gluten-free, so writing has been a cathartic process.”
Devlin doesn’t have formal chef schooling - but that hasn’t held her back, and the knowledge she’s gleaned as a nutritionist, along with her honest approach to food and vitality, and first-hand experience of living gluten-free, make up for any gaps.
“Maybe I’d have got there quicker if I’d had some training, but in other ways, because I didn’t approach things in the traditional way, I was really open-minded,” she reasons.
“I’d often make things backwards,” she adds, recalling her early experiments with recipes. “It was a case of me looking at the ingredients and thinking, ‘How would this be good?’, rather than, ‘How can I recreate this dish?’”
It’s a formula that seems to have worked: River Cottage Gluten Free is an authentic collection of 120 recipes - from breads to soups and cakes - for anybody looking to cut out gluten without compromising on taste, plus tips on alternative flours, methods of fermentation and delicious baking ideas.
A key aim for Devlin was to produce a cookbook that empowered people to feel confident in cooking gluten-free - a philosophy that applies to her courses too.
“When people come on my courses, I want them to have a sense that they could go away and do it too. If they don’t do it the same as me, that’s fine; they can experiment. It shouldn’t be precious.”
As for anybody with coeliac disease, being entirely gluten-free is a non-negotiable part of life for Devlin. However, she acknowledges that increasingly, avoiding gluten can be a lifestyle choice for some people.
“At the beginning, we had a lot of diagnosed coeliacs coming onto the courses to ask, ‘What can I eat?’ Now there are a lot of people interested in expanding what they eat, or cooking for other people who’ve had a diagnosis. The demographic has changed, and the way that I teach them has changed.”
Having attended one of her informative River Cottage courses, I can vouch for that. Her calm, poised yet fun manner draws a varied crowd, and while the reasons for signing up are interchangeable, Devlin has one vision: to provide a hands-on, demonstrative day, driven by her passion for tasty, not fancy, cuisine.
She applauds anybody seeking to improve their health or wellbeing through diet changes, and isn’t a fan of the ‘fad’ tag often associated with going gluten-free.
“I think it needs to be taken seriously. If someone believes they have an issue, it’s real for them. For whatever reason - if it’s an emotional thing that they need to have certain foods or whatever, that’s OK,” she says.
“There may be people jumping on the bandwagon with no concept of what they’re supposed to be doing, but if people are trying to discover what makes them sick, you’ve got to give that some respect.”
ROSE AND PISTACHIO CAKE
230g salted butter, softened, plus extra for greasing
180g light muscovado sugar
2tsp vanilla extract
4 large eggs, beaten
160g potato starch
3tsp gluten-free baking powder
160g ground almonds
For the filling and topping:
225ml double cream
1 quantity rose buttercream (see below), or extra whipped cream
50g pistachio nuts, finely chopped
Fresh or crystallised rose petals (optional)
To make the buttercream:
150g icing sugar
100g salted butter, softened
1tsp vanilla extract
4-6tsp milk or almond milk
Put the icing sugar, butter and vanilla into a bowl and mash together with a wooden spoon until all the icing sugar is damp and the butter is broken down a bit. Swap to an electric hand whisk if you have one, otherwise continue to beat with the wooden spoon until the mixture is starting to lighten. Add the milk, one teaspoon at a time, beating well between each addition. You may not need all the milk, so check after four teaspoons to see if you like the texture. (Buttercream made with dairy milk needs to be eaten within 48 hours; if made with dairy free milk, it keeps a little longer.)
Preheat the oven to 180C/fan 160C/gas 4. Line the base of two 20cm cake tins with discs of baking parchment and butter the sides.
Cream the butter, sugar, rosewater and vanilla extract together in a bowl with an electric hand whisk or balloon whisk until light and fluffy. Gradually add the eggs, beating well between each addition. If it looks like the mixture is starting to curdle, add a couple of tablespoonfuls of the potato starch and beat again - it should come right.
Sift the potato starch, baking powder and ground almonds together over the mixture and fold in gently but thoroughly.
Scrape into the prepared tins and gently level the surface. Bake for 25-30 minutes until golden, springy to the touch and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
Leave in the tins for 10-15 minutes, then run a thin bladed knife around the inside of the tins. Turn out the cakes and place, right side up, on a wire rack. Leave to cool.
When the cakes are completely cold, whip the cream until thick, but not grainy. Put one of the cakes onto a plate and spread the cream almost to the edge. Place the other cake gently on top and twist it back and forth a little, just until the cream is peeking out between the layers.
Pipe or spread the rose buttercream over the top of the cake, or top with more whipped cream. Sprinkle with chopped pistachios and scatter over a few fresh or crystallised rose petals if you have them.