The rise of the Coeliac detective
Last week I had two restaurant encounters that left me a little nervous.
The first place told me they had gluten-free options. I went up to get my food and the server picked up tongs from a plate with sausages on it to go to the gluten-free plate.
"Are those sausages gluten-free?" I asked.
"They should be," she replied.
"Are you sure?" I carried on. "Because if they aren't, please don't touch my gluten-free food with them."
She then passed me a plate of sandwiches so I could help myself.
As soon as I touched the bread, I was dubious.
"Are you certain this is gluten-free bread?"
"Oh yes," she promised.
"It looks like it might be wheat-free but not gluten-free."
She insisted it was gluten-free and I walked away with a plateful, deciding to inspect the bread away from the queue. Sure enough, it was made from rye and had oats on the outside. (Although oats can be gluten-free, I'm one of the unfortunate Coeliacs who can't tolerate them.)
Some time later, the manager saw I wasn't eating.
"Did you get your gluten-free sandwiches?" he enquired.
"They're not gluten-free," I said. "I'm Coeliac and I can't take any chances."
"We weren't told you were Coeliac!" he cried. "We were told you needed gluten-free food."
"They're the same," I said, puzzled.
"No!" he continued. "We only provided gluten-free for you."
Still confused, I said, "You provided wheat-free, not gluten-free."
I won't bore you with the number of times he insisted being Coeliac didn't mean gluten-free. To be honest, I'd anticipated a problem before I got to the venue and had wolfed down two doorstep slices of g-f bread and butter.
The next day I was at a rather posh lunch where I quizzed the waiters about everything put before me, as is now my routine. Despite having made it exceptionally clear what I needed (with a Coeliac card in front of me), the pudding I was given had shortcake crumbled over it.
"Is this gluten-free?" I enquired.
"Yes!" the head waiter responded. "The chef says you can have it."
"Are you sure?" I said. He went to check.
Minutes later he whisked my plate away. "Sorry about that," he said, placing a similar pudding in front of me but minus the shortcake. "Here's the gluten-free option."
It's been well over two years since allergen laws came in. Surely teething problems should have been ironed out by now? What would have happened if I'd naively believed everything I was first told? What if I weren't so clued up about gluten, always channelling my inner detective?
It's not surprising Coeliacs don't always leap at the chance to eat out. But denying ourselves the opportunity to go to events can mean a serious cull in our social lives and/or be seen as a faux pas at work. Who wants to be the person in a meeting who tips out cling-filmed sandwiches from a handbag?
The question is, what's to be done about it? You can complain to Trading Standards but this is time-consuming, not to mention quite a step to take if you haven't given the venue an opportunity to right their mistake first (so that it never happens again, obviously). And who wants to be the Mary Whitehouse of food police?
So in the meantime, I just hope that by keeping my detective eyes open and constantly quizzing caterers, I won't get glutened. But if you have a better suggestion, please let me know. It's all feeling a little exhausting.