If you have allergies and food intolerances the chances are you don’t eat out often, and if you do you have your processes and systems in place to ensure you remain safe. Always phoning ahead, sticking to simple dishes like salads, steak and ham, egg and chips; it means you can eat out with friends and family relatively safely but it’s not completely satisfactory.
It’s not the indulgent experience others enjoy. You can’t choose from everything on the menu. You rarely experiment with new foods when you’re eating out. It’s just not safe. But that’s a price you pay to stay safe, healthy and so you can join in with your friends etc. I’ve come to terms with that and am so very happy to be able to eat something, anything on a menu without the allergens that make me so sick contaminating it but I never totally relax.
On being brave and eating out
Well this month I have been very brave and eaten out twice, both times having excellent service and both times trying new foods – what was I thinking? Husband-who-can-eat-everything was with me on both occasions and is my second set of eyes and ears and makes sure I’m OK. He is my guardian angel and was slightly concerned on both occasions, having seen my suffer so many times. But this time it was going to be different…
The first time was at The Three Oaks in Chalfont St Peter and the second Humphry’s Restaurant at Stoke Park. I relaxed (well almost, the guard is always up, as it should be) and had a real taste of what I’ve been missing, but also a good lesson from both restaurants about how catering for those with allergies is possible with a little care and attention.
The second experience was stunning. Stoke Park is a hotel, near where I grew up, with a golf club in its grounds. But it’s not just any old hotel, it’s Britain’s leading 5 star hotel, spa and country club, set among 300 acres of beatiful parkland, lakes, historic gardens and monuments created over the past one thousand years. We were booked into Humphry’s, their fine dining restaurant, and the planning began.
Having grown up with scampi at the Berni Inn and Ethorp hotels as a child and finding simple country pubs to be the safest places to eat as an adult; fine dining isn’t something I do regularly. I can’t afford it either as a rule – oh how the other half live…
What can go wrong when eating out?
Going to very posh restaurants isn’t generally for the allergic. Maybe if you’re just allergic to one thing you can still eat out without feeling like a total loon, but when you have to list five or even six allergens that make you really ill it gets embarassing. I hate doing it, hate all the questions, hate all the pre-organising that’s needed. It’s also very worrying as so many things can go wrong. Chronic eczema, hives all over and full on hay fever symptoms at best and anaphylaxis at worst if something does go wrong is a scary step to take.
I’ve had a few bad experiences lately where I have become more lax and not followed my strict processes and it’s just not worth the risk. I would rather not go through this and definitely prefer not to pay a lot of money for a posh meal and then feel you’re missing out, as has happened to me in the past. While everyone else has exotic food you end up with the salad to start, nice simple meal for main and fruit saled to finish and still split the bill – I don’t mind this but it’s not as much fun when you know you could have made something better at home.
Humprhy’s restaurant pulled out all the stops
Not so at Humpreys restaurant. I was being brave in order to surprise my aunt on her birthday, it was a secret meal and she didn’t know me, my husband and my Mum were going to be joining them. I did all the usual, emailed my introduction email, spoke to the manager, emailed again to confirm and initially all looked very promising. I knew which staff who would be working that night, the chef was fully briefed and they were quite confident that they could give me the fine dining experience.
I was excited but still a little nervous about putting my life in their hands – because that’s what it feels like. It feels like I’m saying, here’s the gun, all the information you need to actually kill me, please don’t put the bullets in the gun!
The thing that made everything run the most smoothly was having my own personal waiter. Oh yes, my own waiter. I did rather enjoy that ;). He checked everything, found out what I enjoyed eating and listened. He discussed each item on the menu, suggested some things that would work really well and then talked to the chef about each course. The restaurant was fairly busy but they had enough staff to look after everyone. Knowing that if I had any questions there was someone who knew exactly what I could and could not eat and was knowledable about each dish on the menu was very comforting.
Attention to detail
Eating safely with allergies is all in the detail and this was where Stoke Park really came into their own. They were expecting me so there were gluten free bread rolls.
These were warmed, soft and delicious. I ate too many of these because they had bought in three (three bread rolls!) for me, it seemed rude to say no, but I managed to scoff two of them.
Maybe some dairy free spread would have been nice but it was just a treat to have the bread roll – that’s the first thing you normally miss out on as most restaurants will just tell you can’t eat the bread rolls.
I’m normally fine with this as I don’t have a huge appetite so I’m happy not to have the bread, but it was rather nice that they got this covered. I have no idea what brand of gluten free bread these buns were but they were really very tasty.
My first amuse-bouche
After the bread rolls along came the amuse-bouche, my first thought was, ‘Is that what I ordered?’
Ever watchful, ever on guard, but this was a delicious little appetiser; pan seared halibut on a bed of watercress (The others had a mini beetroot burger).
The fish was perfectly seasoned, tender and just flaked with the knife.
By this point the only thing worrying me was that my stomach was already feeling quite content and filling up. How much more food was there to come?
Starter of crab with quail’s egg and grapefruit
Next came the crab starter which looked so beautiful I didn’t want to touch it. Another first, crab and quail’s egg. Never eaten either and thoroughly enjoyed them both.
When this meal arrived mother remarked,‘Oh you’ve even got a little boob!” I’m assuming in reference to the quail’s egg – quick glances around, no, noone heard. (sniggers into napkin) I wonder quite what the staff of Humphry’s thought of our little group – the freaky eater and the excited mother! The little boob was delicious indeed, a really rich flavour and I’m a crab convert – so tasty and quite a unique taste.
Duck main course, pink, just how I like it
For my main I chose duck, which I love and rarely cook for myself because I don’t find it easy to perfect.
This was just to die for (well not literally – thank goodness) and was every bit as delicious as this picture promised.
The duck was pink in the middle, perfect. The blackberries were tart and the perfect accompaniment with the bird, special saute potatoes for me instead of dauphinoise made it pefect for me but also probably a little more healthy!
Just roll me out the door – I might burst!
And then along came pudding, when I arrived they had said that they would be able to cook pretty much everything on the menu for me, except for the ‘Humphry’s ‘Snickers’ – Milk Chocolate and Peanut Mousse, Salted Chocolate Caramel, Caramel Foam and Peanut Tuile’.
No problemo – quite happy to forgo that one.
Husband who can eat everything was given a special dispensation to have this pudding, which he thoroughly enjoyed, with the no-kissing-after-the-meal rule in place. He wouldn’t normally eat nuts at home or when he is out with me but I’m not so sensitive that I cannot sit next to someone else who eats nuts and this was a kind of decontructed snickers pudding so there weren’t that many nuts in it.
I stayed well away from him – my stomach was so huge and full he wouldn’t get that close anyway!
I was feeling very full by this point but the chef had an idea for a fruit ravioli soup kind of thing for me.
Well it would have been very rude not to give it a go… and it was delightfully sweet and refreshing, packed with pomegranate, one of my favourite fruits and the little ravioli swimming the middle.
I cannot now remember what fruit was in the ravioli but apricot is springing to my mind. I loved it. Who says fruit is boring? And yet another first – fruit in ravioli!
With the flowing white wine we were all now pretty full, a little belt adjustment needed if you know what I mean.
Thank you for seeing this as a challenge rather than a problem
This really was the best meal I’ve ever had, in my life. I don’t get out much, as you will probably have gathered, but we all agreed, the food was outstanding. It was brilliant to enjoy so many flavours, to feel part of the group and if this is fine dining, I could get used to it. I tried new things, experienced new food tastes and felt truly indulged.
Last but by no means least was a pot of tea, stuffed full of fresh mint leaves.
The perfect end to a truly spectacular meal.
There were even little fruit jellies for me while the others had a selection of chocolates with their coffee. The sweeties were just one morsel too many – I managed one of them and the other two were smuggled out 😉 but again I was struck by their effort to include me.
What could they do better? Well really? Not much at all. I don’t award 10/10 to anyone so 9.5 out of 10 is pretty outstanding. Maybe they could have provided some dairy free spread to go with my bread, or maybe some oil to dip it into. I’m being picky though, it was a truly outstanding allergy eating out experience and I awoke the next morning with no skin rashes, no eczema, no stomach cramps and most importantly – no anaphylaxis! All they can do is keep on treating their customers well, seeing any food issue as a challenge and not a problem and making the same effort to make every diners’ meal enjoyable, even the guest with allergies.
Thank you to Chris Wheeler, chef at Humphry’s and Rob, our attentive waiter, for making so much effort to make sure I enjoyed the experience as much as everyone else. It was clear that they saw my food issues as a challenge and clearly excelled themselves with their ideas and creations. The sign of a very good chef and a fantastic waiter in my opinion, working together very effectively. THANK YOU!
Thank you also to all the staff who looked after us, especially Rob who was with us every step of the way. Everyone was professional, kind and fun, we had a laugh with them and at no point did I feel I was being awkward or any trouble.