Fiona McCartan has mastered the art of gluten-free cooking since being diagnosed with coeliac disease. She tells Joanne Savage why she avoids the tasteless fare in the supermarket ‘free from’ aisle.
My first shopping trip as a coeliac was comparable to a Britney-esque meltdown,” says blogger and chef Fiona McCartan.
“The ‘free from’ aisle in supermarkets is just the most depressing place ever - it’s always cardboard breads and nothing you’d consider as remotely fresh.”
Fiona’s blog, Gluten Free Fi, has become a go-to site for coeliacs looking for recipes and recommendations on where to eat in Belfast and beyond. A talented chef, 32-year-old Fiona has managed to master the art of delicious gluten-free cooking and her blog is filled with what look like sumptuous recipes for coeliacs.
Coeliac disease is a common digestive condition caused by an adverse reaction to gluten, which is a dietary protein found in three types of cereal including wheat, barley and rye. Gluten is found in a staggering array of foodstuffs including cereals, pasta, cakes, most types of bread, certain types of sauces and certain ready meals.
For coeliacs eating food containing gluten can produce a huge variety of symptoms; the small intestine becomes inflamed and therefore unable to absorb nutrients.
Having suffered from crippling stomach cramps, an inflamed stomach and sickness whenever she ate for a full seven years, Fiona was relieved to finally be diagnosed coeliac but realised it would present many dietary changes.
“The problem with coeliac disease is that there are something like over 300 symptoms so it’s really difficult even for a doctor to be able to pin-point it and it took a long time for me to get the correct diagnosis.
“I suffered from really bad stomach cramps and my stomach was so inflamed that I would often be sick after anything I ate or drank. It was mainly cramps and sickness but then because gut health is so important I was really tired and sluggish all the time and it began to affect my mood and I was really down.
“Eventually I was diagnosed by blood tests.”
Fiona describes her diagnosis as a huge lifestyle change as she came to terms with all the foods she could no longer eat and suddenly she would have to phone ahead if her friends wanted to visit a restaurant to check if there was anything on the menu she could eat.
It was frustration with the banal and tasteless food in the supermarket ‘free-from’ isle and the paucity of gluten-free takeaway and restaurant options that spurred Fiona on to come up with her own tasty alternatives and unique dishes.
“I started this blog for people who are going to the ‘free from’ aisle in the supermarket and feeling despair that that is all they can eat,” explains Fiona.
“It’s to try and show people that actually you can cook lots of delicious dishes that are gluten free and you can also find restaurants and takeaways who will accommodate you. You can have normal meals that are just as tasty as meals with gluten in them. My whole thing is to try to find substitutes for anything that I would have eaten before.”
Fiona’s gluten-free recipes have been tried and tested at home and get the thumbs up even with non-coeliacs - so tasty are many of these culinary masterpieces. Her blog boasts recipes for carrot and parsnip flapjacks, one tray Mexican chicken, crispy sweet potato fries, peanut butter chicken with coddles, spiced salmon with blackbean quinoa, no-carb spicy courgetti, egg muffins, chunky guacamole and celeriac and apple soup - to name only a few.
As well as the array of tempting gluten-free recipes Fiona also does research to work out where coeliacs can enjoy eating out locally and what takeaways can accommodate gluten-free orders.
The list is surprisingly substantial with Fiona dubbing Macau on Belfast’s Ormeau Road as the ‘holy grain of gluten-free Chinese food’ and Mandarin City in Ballyhackamore also accommodating coeliacs. Other Belfast eateries serving gluten-free are John Dory’s for quality fish and chips, Boojum for top Mexican food, Nandos for Portugese-style chicken, Green’s Pizza, Pizza Express and the Pizza Company.
The Gluten Free Fi blog also gives coeliacs tips on how to find gluten-free eating options when travelling - a lot of research and forward planning is required.
When it comes to dining out Fiona is adamant that coeliacs should not just accept there is nothing for them on the menu - they should be bold enough to ask the chef to make something that will suit.
“Sometimes I’ll be ordering in a restaurant and they’ll tell me there is nothing gluten-free. Before I might have accepted that but now I will usually ask for something that can be made gluten-free and will send my request to the kitchen. I think people who are coeliac need to feel emboldened to ask for things that they can eat and to make requests in restaurants for the chef to prepare something gluten free because it’s not that hard to do.
“Some restaurants will even keep a frier that is only used for gluten-free food to prevent cross contamination.”
What are Fiona’s favourite dishes to cook from the many tempting recipes on her blog?
“I like things that you can throw together really quickly and easily without having to give it too much thought so some of my favourite recipes would be like a chicken and chorizo chilli that I know I can like throw together on a Tuesday night, I also love the lemon and garlic prawn pasta -I just crave it. Gluten-free spaghetti tastes just the same.
“My friends all eat gluten but they love the food I make. If we are going anywhere they will ask if I want to bring along some of my gluten-free treats and they’ll list off the things that they love. I made flapjacks with carrot and parsnip mash with raisins and cinnamon and we were having a girls night so I brought them round and all of them said they were ridiculously good.”
Judging by the popularity of her delightful culinary creations, Fiona McCartan is certain to soon fulfil her dream of writing a gluten-free recipe book and perhaps even convince the normal population to try some truly tasty gluten free dishes.
For more information on gluten free recipes and takeaway and restaurant options for coeliacs in Northern Ireland visit the Gluten Free Fi blog at glutenfreefi.com. Fiona is also developing a new travel section to help coeliacs find eateries while abroad.