Free from … a life of pain


If you are a coeliac, gluten-free isn’t a lifestyle choice – it’s the difference between enjoying life and feeling permanently, miserably, malnourished

Christine Willis, owner of Christine’s Puddings, was in her teens when she was diagnosed as
a coeliac.

Until she was in her late teens, Christine Willis always felt ill – she had headaches, stomach aches and was in and out of doctors’ surgeries and hospital for endless tests.
It turned out she was suffering from malnutrition – she was a coeliac, and the diagnosis, which literally changed her life, was almost by chance.
‘Eventually, a new doctor said: “I’m going to test you for this.” And that was it,’ says Christine, who runs Christine’s Puddings, a gluten-free bakery, from the Pudding Room at her home in Sturminster Newton.
Janet Baxter, who works for the Guild of Fine Food at Gillingham, is also a coeliac – but she didn’t get her diagnosis until she was in her 40s. She had a lot of discomfort but not the continuous misery that Christine suffered. However, as the years went on, she began to experience more problems and to lose weight.
‘I lost a LOT of weight,’ she recalls. ‘I was so thin, I could easily put my hand around my upper arm.’
She was also tired and lacking energy – she never actually fell asleep at the wheel of her car, but it was sometimes a close call:
‘I had various tests and then a doctor did a test for coeliac disease, and after a biopsy, the diagnosis was confirmed.
‘No two people are the same – some people have bloating, some people lose weight. Doctors sometimes test sufferers for cancer before they diagnose coeliac disease.’

Butternut Squash with Coriander and Toasted Seeds quiche, a recipe in Honeybuns’ All Day Cook Book

Janet stresses the importance of getting that proper diagnosis: ‘The internet encourages people to self-diagnose, but it really is necessary to see a doctor and have the blood test.’
There is no medication possible – at present, at least – so coeliacs need to be very careful about their food choices. After her diagnosis, Janet joined the Coeliac UK society and is full of praise for its annual directory of gluten-free products and where to find them. ‘It’s our bible,’ she says. Like many people with food-related health conditions, Janet is used to people assuming she will be OK with ‘just a little bit of wheat’ – she won’t be. Or that it is a simple allergy – ‘It isn’t. It is an auto-immune condition.’

Janet Baxter who works for the Guild of Fine Food

At work, where her roles include the full-on job of dealing with products arriving for Great Taste judging, she often has to handle bread, cakes, biscuits and other wheat-based baked goods (wheat is, of course, in many other products). However, unlike people with a nut allergy (where any contact can be fatal), coeliacs are not affected by handling products with gluten – but hygiene is critical. She is constantly washing her hands.
Fortunately, in the years since Janet was diagnosed, the availability of gluten-free (GF) foods has increased significantly, with a large range of GF bread (although the general consensus is that most of it is better toasted than eaten straight), ‘and there are lots of brownies and cakes – but very rarely savoury things.’

Some of Christine’s savoury tarts

Keeping it local
Christine Willis can help with that – she makes gluten free pastry that is so good it is in demand from chefs as well as domestic cooks needing gluten-free products. Her range includes Christmas puddings, sweet and savoury tarts, pastry cases and doughnuts plus a few other things which can all be bought at shows or her pop-up shops (see her website, below, for more information). Her business customers include Brimsmore Garden Centre Yeovil and the Celtic Manor resort near Newport to which she supplies ‘thousands of mince pies’ every Christmas.
She could have expanded her business or even sold it, but after realising she was ‘being used’ by various companies that approached her, she decided to ‘keep it small and help people.’ She is strongly committed to sourcing locally: ‘Where possible we use local ingredients – free-range eggs, vegetables, cream and cheeses. We strive to make each and every pudding or tart a wholesome expression of our love for food, life and living.’
Christine was one of the founders of Coeliac UK: ‘There were 30 of us initially – now there are thousands of members.’ Like Janet, she stresses the importance of getting a proper medical diagnosis – and she recognises the importance of the directory.

Honeybuns founder Emma Goss-Custard

Bakes by bike
There was a time when having to go without a major food group was difficult, if not impossible. Early efforts at gluten-free bread were worthy – but sometimes almost inedible. Now there is a much wider choice, and one of the finest makers of GF products is based in the tiny village of Holwell near Stalbridge.
Honeybuns, founded by Emma Goss-Custard, operates from old farm buildings at Nash Farm, where Emma and her husband Matt and a team of more than 30 local people produce a wide range of delicious and tempting treats. The brownies and lemon and ginger shortbread have been customer favourites since the company was founded more than 25 years ago, but they’re accompanied by new delights such as the Persian Flapjack with pistachios and rose blossom water and a fruited ginger traybake. Emma has also written two cookbooks – Honeybuns Gluten-Free Baking, a celebration of cakes and bakes, and the second, Honeybuns All Day Cook Book, which is a broader guide for home cooks, with savoury dishes for every meal alongside some more sweet things.
Emma began making cakes and bars when she was at Oxford University, delivering her bakes by bicycle. The inspiration for her gluten-free baking was not coeliac disease – although her products are hugely appreciated by sufferers – but the collection of recipes from her mother and grandmother, reflecting their Italian roots. Many of them were naturally gluten free, using ground almonds, polenta or other ingredients that were unusual at the time.
Since Honeybuns started in 1998, there have been many changes – more gluten-free ingredients are available and many more people are looking for gluten-free, dairy-free or vegan products. The Honeybuns range caters to these demands as well, but the emphasis is always on the quality of the ingredients and the pleasure they bring.
‘First and foremost, these are delicious cakes,’ says Emma.
Honeybuns All Day Cookbook – £13

When you look around the shelves of a food shop, you can’t miss the amount of ‘free from’ food on display. There are products that are free from up to 14 different allergens; others are specifically dairy-free, lactose-free, nut-free, meat-free, sugar-free or – the most common – gluten-free.
The marketing gives the impression that these ‘free from’ foods are somehow healthier for you, and many people suffering from discomfort when they eat, hope that free-from foods will help. Often they will, if you are one of the large number of people who suffer from food allergies or intolerances.
Allergies have increased globally in prevalence, complexity and severity over the past 60 years. The UK has some of the world’s highest rates of what is described on a government website as ‘food hypersensitivity’ – ‘Food allergies affect 1-2% of the UK population, with some allergens responsible for hospital admissions with anaphylaxis.’ In the UK, it is estimated that two million people are living with a diagnosed food allergy, and 600,000 with coeliac disease.


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