Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Indulge your Inner Biscuit!

On the weekend, as my little family was travelling up to Swan Hill to visit Grandpa, we happened upon a tiny cafe in Kyneton for lunch.  Called 'Inner Biscuit', I fully recommend you try it out if you happen to be in the area. Inner Biscuit is found at 34 Piper Street Kyneton, in a tiny but groovy little space, next to an assortment of other cafes and eateries in the lower end of Kyneton's main street, including the hatted Royal George Hotel and Annie Smithers' Bistrot.

The cafe sells mainly organic baked goods, of both the sweet and savoury kind.  You can sit down for a full lunch, or take away a special little something like an organic sweet biscuit.  We decided to eat in, and after speaking with the owner, I was happy to learn that she could easily adapt most of the dishes on the menu to be gluten free . I was a little concerned when the owner mentioned she uses spelt wheat in some of her dishes - definately not GF - but to her credit, she did check if I was going to be too sensitive to it.  All of the family, bar the toddler, decided to try the baked eggs with chorizo sausage, cheese, peas and potato.  At $10 it seemed a reasonable price for a wholesome meal.  We all agreed on tasting that it was delicious - lightly spiced, cheesy and filling.  And no reaction to any sneaky gluten for me! The toddler got some banana bread, and judging by the lip-smacking noises coming from his direction, I think he enjoyed his meal 'choice' too. (Note that the banana bread was not GF.)

Other choices on the menu included: Spanish baked beans with fetta and toast; sourdough toast; 'Belly Dance' toasties with Moroccan spiced hommus, roasted pumpkin and zucchini; and a mouth-watering selection of cakes and biscuits.  I chose an organic and gluten free almond rose crunch biscuit to go with my coffee, which had a great texture and light taste of rose-water.  Coffees were ok.  My decaf was a tad watery, but served as an admirable side-kick for my biscuit.

While we were there, an interesting assortment of locals and visitors came in for a chat, some coffee and a feed, including one little girl who had such a great face painting that she didn't want to eat for fear of ruining it. The dramas around picking a meal that wouldn't mess up her face were quite entertaining.  There was also a small bookshelf loaded with board games, books on design, children's story books, and magazines, so you needn't desperately think of things to keep the kids or kidults occupied when really all you want to do is sip your coffee and stare vacantly at nothing much in particular.

Owner Mara Szoke now sells her biscuits and other baked delights in Melbourne, and you can find a list of stockists on her Inner Biscuit website at  Do check out the website, the ginger-bread men are very cute when you click on them!  

Friday, January 22, 2010

Let’s get ‘CERES’ about gluten free and organic food

This week I was lucky enough to go to CERES café for lunch, which is found in CERES Environment Park (located on the corner of Roberts and Stewart Streets in Brunswick East - CERES (the Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies), is a 10 acre park quite close to the inner city of Melbourne, and is really a small village devoted to all things sustainable and environmentally friendly.

CERES Café has one of the most relaxed eating spaces in Melbourne, with a large sandpit and play area for the kids (and the adults), plenty of space for prams, a beautiful shaded open area to sit in, mosaic tables, and only a short walk to say g’day to ‘the girls’, i.e. the local chooks, as they scratch and forage around CERES' gardens.  CERES aims to minimise its environmental footprint by composting its organic waste, recycling, using solar energy, using water collection and solar heating for hot water, and feeding all its waste water through a grey water system. The café uses around 80% organic ingredients, with as much as possible coming straight from CERES’ own organic market garden.

Our occasion to visit CERES was a birthday lunch for one of the adult members of my son’s playgroup, so four of us, with toddlers in tow, planted ourselves under the shade of a beautiful little tea tree, and proceeded to get stuck into a veritable feast of tummy, earth and child friendly food.

Everything at CERES is cooked on site with a large range of organic and dietary specific meals and snacks, so there were no issues in me finding suitable gluten free options on the menu. In fact, gluten free and wheat free options are clearly marked on the menu (as are vegan, dairy free and 90% organic options)… gotta love that!  Examples of what's on the menu include: free-range organic eggs; big vegan breakfasts; slow cooked beans; hot indonesian eggs; and french toast for breakfast; savoury tarts, pastries, salads and organic baguettes for lunch.

As I was feeling the need for a simple, uncomplicated meal, I ordered poached organic eggs on gluten free toast. Now this is a dish that I consider the litmus test for cafes if they claim they can provide good gluten free food. The bread has to be soft, of good consistency, fresh and tasty (and of course gluten free), as it’s really the foundation for the whole dish. Everything else hangs off how good the bread is. CERES café surpasses many a café in Melbourne for the gluten free bread they provide, which is thickly sliced, soft, a beautiful light yellow in colour, with a lovely crunchy crust. So often have I been served bread that is stale, dry and crumbly, and tasting a little too much like potato (from the potato flour often used in GF bread mixes), that I suspect the cooks/chefs haven’t taken the time to taste the stuff to see if they’d actually eat it themselves. Would they serve that kind of bread to ‘normal’ customers? Somehow I think not – they’d lose a lot of business.

Judging a café by its eggs is another matter entirely, as there are so many different preferences for how they should be cooked. To me, CERES café does a great poached googy, a little bit runny, but not too runny so you need a straw to suck it up off the plate. One of our group tried the scrambled eggs, which looked great, and she said they tasted great too. Can’t argue with that.

My eating companions were also happy with their CERES experience (thank you ladies and babies)...

"The food seems wholesome – lots of sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds in my salad which I like! The outside cafe overall – earthy and gritty, but in a good way...."

"Consistently delicious! Service is always excellent too, even in busy times."

"I ordered the spinach and cheese roll (for Max, but I ate it too!) It was good, tasted fresh and full of spinach and the pastry was not too heavy. I also had my standard eggs on toast which is always good, my only criticism is that I find the whole thing a bit oily (but they do say on the menu that the bread is brushed with oil so I suppose that comment shouldn't count)??!! Sourdough bread delicious.  I love the phoenix range of drinks and always have the ginger beer."

And as for the coffee… well… I have to make a confession here. I don’t usually drink caffeinated coffee as it tends to make me just that little bit too giddy and wide awake at 3am in the morning. I ordered a decaf latte, and can I say that CERES is one of the few places in coffee-obsessed inner Melbourne where people ordering decaf are not treated as the very un-cool cousins of caffeinated coffee drinkers. In fact, if you’re not ordering an organic, fair-trade, soy-milk, water-filtered decaf mocca-latte, then you’re really not into saving the planet. Joking. I do exaggerate there… just a little.

Anyhoo, the coffee is really quite nice, although mine could have been just that little bit stronger tasting. To the coffee purists who don’t order anything unless it’s been roasted on site, I would say look elsewhere for your brew, but for the rest of us, give it a go as it’s a good cup to sip whilst sitting in the open air watching magpies bicker over food scraps donated by concerned toddlers. The atmosphere really helps everything here taste better... a bit like camping really, where you could eat tuna, chocolate and dried peas on 3 day old rice cakes and still love it.

Service at the café is relaxed and friendly, and I'm always fascinated by the huge variety of different accents of the staff. This is truly a well-travelled bunch of people. You don't get silver service here... more BYO service as you need to grab your own cutlery and drinks of water, but given the ethos of the place, it's totally appropriate.

So... all in all I fully recommend that you go visit CERES cafe.  It's a lovely atmosphere, has that 'feel good factor', has plenty of menu options for the gluten free amongst us, and best of all, it has chooks nearby!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Gluten free gnawfare - let the games begin!

As I sat at home the other day, reading the newspaper 'The Age' and its fabulous Tuesday section called 'Epicure', I decided that what this world really needs is another blog about food. This time though, the food's special... as in 'different'... as in 'unusual' in "Ooh, we don't really do that kind of food here, it's a bit tree-huggin' for us. And by the way, you don't look like you need to diet sweetie".

I'm talking about gluten free food.

But I'm hoping to achieve more than just discussing where you can find a gluten free pizza or a gluten free choc-blueberry-pistachio cupcake with marzipan fairies in Melbourne (and other locations as I travel to them). There's plenty of blogs and websites out there that do that. What I want to do is write about the gluten free food that I and my friends have eaten. My chats will be set within the context of a holistic experience, that is, the cafe, restaurant or food stall that happens to serve that gluten free food. I want to review and discuss the whole experience of ordering and eating a gluten free meal.... A bit like what food critics do for that mysterious 'real food' most people eat.

Here's how it will work. Myself and my willing participants will take ourselves out to sample the fares of cafes, restaurants and food stalls. Our mission - once we have chosen to accept it - will be to review this food, the service we experience and the general atmosphere of each establishment we visit. I have set up a loose criteria by which we will review this food, but I imagine this will develop further as we get more experienced in reviewing.

As I don't want to be a gluten free obsessive (too late some say), I am also planning to review the food we eat for its appeal to vegetarians, vegans, nut avoiders and any other special dietary requirements of the friends I invite along.

The criteria we have to start with is as follows:

1) The availability of gluten free food at the establishment
2) The knowledge of gluten free food and other special dietary requirements of staff working for the establishment
3) The ease of ordering this food - i.e. the 'attitude quotient' we're dealing with
4) The number of gluten free options, as well as any of those pesky other special dietary options
5) The taste and quality of the food we order
6) The general atmosphere
7) Any other incidentals we happen to notice while we're there, such as the quality of the coffee (sorry to the coffee snobs out there... calling coffee an 'incidental'!), if they're baby/pram friendly, if they put marshmallows in the hot chocolate, if they make pupaccinos etc.

So what exactly is gluten free food? For those of you who are a little uncertain, gluten free food is food without any wheat, rye, oats or barley products in it. Obvious foods like bread, pasta and cakes are a no-no, unless made with gluten free substitutes, but other foods can also contain gluten which is hidden in things such as flavourings, thickeners and the romantically named anti-coagulants. In the Western diet, gluten is pretty much everywhere, and it's taken me a long time to get the hang of buying, preparing and ordering gluten free food. For example, my first trip to a supermarket after I was diagnosed with Coeliac Disease took me three hours! I had to read the ingredient labels for all of the foods I was used to buying, then find appropriate substitutes. I'm sure a store detective started following me around I was in that store for so long!

I will include a few websites that explain all of the dietary requirements much better than I can (after all, why reinvent the wheel?), so stay tuned for those over the next few weeks as I get the hang of this blogging thing.

If you have a cafe or restaurant you'd like to suggest feel free to drop me a line!

Ta ta for now.