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Eating out with Allergies

As a food journalist who is gluten intolerant, who eats out with a husband who is dairy intolerant or with others who have other food intolerances, this blog shares my eating out experiences in the UK and abroad!

Welcome to what it's like Eating out with Allergies!

 

January 07th, 2017

Eating Out With Food Allergies in Malta

  

It was another early morning flight, so bleary-eyed, we scanned the shelves at Eat www.eat.co.uk at Gatwick Airport North Terminal. I didn’t fancy a salad at 5am so the only option was a fruit salad – at least it’s healthy. Ray fared better with a turkey and cranberry sandwich, selected because it didn’t have milk in it. I also had a gluten free cereal bar which was labelled “may contain milk, soya and peanuts”.

 

On board the busy EasyJet www.easyjet.com flight, the menu carried symbols ‘gf’ (gluten free) and v (vegetarian) but there was nothing for dairy free or vegan. There was Moma Porridge with gf and v symbols next to it. Ray asked to see the product so he could check the ingredients and was disappointed to discover it contained skimmed milk powder so he couldn’t have it. The Food Doctor www.thefooddoctor.com has a section offering couscous and lentil wholesome pot and Thai style noodle pot, but there were no symbols indicating whether it was gluten free or dairy free. So you would need to ask to see the packaging to check the ingredients. We noted there was a gluten free 9 Bar Chia and Berry. So best to take your own food. We did have a cup of tea using our own Alpro www.alpro.com/uk soya milk which we carried in 100ml bottles from Muji www.muji.eu

Shell-shocked after the early start, we decided to have lunch at our hotel the Grand Excelsior Hotel, Valletta www.excelsior.com.mt I’d emailed them in advance and they said they would provide soya milk and gluten free bread at breakfast.

The lunch menu usefully carried symbols – v – vegetarian; vg – vegan; gf – gluten free; l – lactose free and r – recommended dishes.

Gluten free pasta and bread was available, but I indulged in silver bream with tomatoes.

As Ray said as he scanned the menu. “They’re a bit light on lactose free and vegan dishes.” He is allergic to dairy products and his first two preferences contained dairy – home-made butternut squash tortelloni had ricotta cheese in it; chicken and carrots sous-vide was prepared with butter. He opted for local pork in pancetta and stuffed with parsnips, croquet, legume and peanut ragout (21.50 Euros) He double-checked that the vegetables didn’t have butter on them and the kitchen prepared some without.

  

Quest for Soya Milk

We had a constant quest for soya milk. Although the hotel provided some, it tasted bitter in tea, although it could be used on cereal. We purchased the only remaining packet of Alprosoya milk from Wembley Stores, Republic Street www.thewembleystore.com On another occasion, we bought Koko dairy free milk, but found it also tasted bitter in tea. All the others were nut milks – almond, cashew which can be used in tea, but have a distinctive unpleasant taste. From experience, Alpro soya milk is one of the the best for tea – at home we use Tesco own label soya milk.

At the local Holland & Barrett store in Merchant Street, Valletta http://hollandandbarrettmalta.com/ a great source of dairy free and gluten free foods, we bought a packet of their own label soya milk which tasted fine in tea. Success!

Dining in Valletta

As Valletta will become the European City of Culture in 2018  www.valletta2018.org , it’s not surprising that there is so much construction work going on. The iconic Phoenician Hotel in Valletta is being refurbished with two enormous cranes towering above the 1930s building.

We look forward to seeing the new look hotel which will include new rooftop suites, an overhaul of the façade, new garden landscaping and a new health club. The aim is to have the hotel completed for Malta’s presidency of the European Union this year.

The entrance to Valletta has been transformed with new parliament buildings, as well as a new opera house. Further building work is planned including the restoration of the covered market (is-Suq l-Antok tal-Belt)

The colourful distinctive Christmas tree made out of Mdina glass is one of the major attractions. It is made up of over 2,000 handmade glass baubles created by Mdina glass artisans at the glassmaker’s workshop at Ta’Qali.

For lunch we found Cafe Caravaggio in St John’s Square where I had a smoked salmon salad and Ray a plain grilled chicken breast and chips.

 

On our first night, we chanced upon Papanni’s in Strait Street, Valletta www.papannis.com a welcoming restaurant which offers gluten free pasta.

Ray ordered Penne Bolognese (11.50 euros). He was assured it was dairy free, but it was made with fresh tomatoes. He has a problem with tomato pips, so asked if it could be made with passata (sieved tomatoes). The waiter checked with the chef and returned to the table to say it would be possible. I chose grilled salmon and salad – a huge portion of salmon. As a starter, we were presented with a delicious pate of white beans, garlic and potatoes. As our waiter said “No milk, butter or dairy at all.” It was delicious. The service was excellent and we returned another evening.

 

A must in Valletta is having a cup of tea at Caffe Cordina www.caffecordina.com dating back to 1837, reminiscent of a Viennese coffee shop. There are no gluten free or dairy free cakes, but there is soya milk and a complimentary gluten free and dairy free macaroon with each drink. They also serve gluten free pasta and salads, as well as Maltese specialities such as pastini made from  almonds.

Breakfast at The Grand Excelsior Hotel was a vast hot and cold buffet. Hot food included boiled eggs, scrambled eggs, grilled tomatoes (lovely rich flavour), mushrooms and bacon. There was also a station where a chef cooks omelettes in front of you. I did pick out from the buffet smoked salmon, bacon, raw carrot sticks and goats’ cheese. The impressive array of fruit included melon, pink grapefruit, watermelon, but strangely no bananas unless you asked for them specially. It was a real treat sitting by the window looking at the views of Sliema across the creek and the luxury yachts moored at Msida Marina.

 

When I asked for gluten free bread, I was presented with a bowl of gluten free cereal, bread (already toasted) and digestive biscuits. Ray asked whether any of the cereals on display contained milk. They said they all contained milk except the gluten free cereal, but he didn’t take any chances as they couldn’t produce the packaging which he could check.

One evening we thought about having room service. The menu had symbols – l – lactose free and gf – gluten free. Ray wanted the beans and pork Minestrone style soup, but it wasn’t marked lactose free. We decided to try the lobby bar menu, which had the identical dish. When Ray asked if there was any dairy in it, the staff member checked with the chef and returned to say there wasn’t any. So he enjoyed the soup with cannelloni beans and local ham hocks (9.50 Euros). He said “In other words, I could eat it in the lobby bar, but not in the room!” I had chicken Caesar salad without the croutons.

 

We used Malta’s excellent bus service to get round the island – 1.50 euros per journey or you can buy “tallinja” cards of various denominations – for example, 15 euros for 12 single day journeys. There’s also a “hop on, hop off” tour bus as well which would be excellent for a first time visitor.

 

The no. 56 bus from Valletta goes to Ta’Qali crafts village and the Malta Aviation Museum www.maltaaviationmuseum.com This is one of the island’s best kept secrets. It’s well worth a visit even if you’re not an aircraft fan and boasts a collection of aircraft relating to Malta’s aviation history. This includes World War 2 aircraft such as a Spitfire and Hurricane. Incredibly, the museum is entirely run by volunteers who not only run the museum, but also carry out restoration work on the aircraft.

The museum is in the Ta’Qali area where you’ll also find a host of arts, crafts and jewellery shops. The only café there is at the Mediterranean Ceramics Café www.mediterraneanceramics.com where Ray had a tuna sandwich with no butter (1.60 euros) and I had a tuna salad (6.10 euros).

 

At the shop you can see a vast array of ceramic ornaments but the most unusual are the table tops made from volcanic stone and hand-painted, which are shipped all round the world. They are also exhibited at the Hampton Court Flower Show and Chelsea Flower Show in the UK.

 

Tea Notes

In Malta, the search is always on for a decent cup of tea as there is a tendency to serve a pot of hot water with the ubiquitous Liptons tea bags. They taste appalling, so it’s always a pleasure to discover new tasty varieties of tea such as Althaus German made tea “English breakfast St Andrews variety” at Café Cordina, Clipper tea at Costa Coffee www.costamalta.com  (Valletta and The Point, Sliema) and English Tea Shop organic English breakfast tea www.etsteas.co.uk at the Grand Excelsior Valletta.  It’s great news that Costa Coffee has arrived in Malta as it means that their English Breakfast tea is available with soya milk. Our favourite branch is in the Embassy Shopping Complex, Valletta and there’s free wi fi (just enter the password at the bottom of the receipt)

Supermarket Know How

Valletta isn’t well served for supermarkets. You’ll find a few gluten free and dairy free foods at The Wembley Stores and Holland & Barrett. We also discovered gluten free and dairy free foods in The Albion Stores, Merchant Street, Valletta, although curiously the shop’s signage only says “souvenirs and decorations.”

 

In Sliema, you’ll find the Chain Foodstore on level -2 of The Point shopping centre www.thepointmalta.com with a gluten free and dairy free section.

Dining in Sliema

At Café Cuba www.cafecuba.com.mt the menu has symbols indicating whether a dish contains certain ingredients – SH spicy hot; SS sesame seeds; M mustard; S soyabean; V vegetarian; G gluten; L lactose; E eggs; F fish; N nuts. Virtually everything had gluten and lactose in it, although I did find roast beef, beetroot and goat’s cheese salad (12.50 euros). Ray had the same without cheese.

I’m starting to think that some restaurants claim that more or less everything contains certain allergens so they are seen to be adhering to the EU regulations (where restaurants are supposed to list what allergens are in their dishes). This may be down to laziness (not wanting to make the effort to state the allergens in each dish), or lacking the ability to do it. Or are they playing it safe because their suppliers don’t give them this information?

New Year’s Eve

  

Valletta came to life on New Year’s Eve with all the activity focused on St George’s Square with live music and cartoons projected onto the façade of the Grandmaster’s Palace. The streets were full of stalls selling all manner of food and drink. The city became frenetically busy with throngs of people. We had an early dinner at Papannis followed by tea at Caffe Cordina. The evening’ festivities culminated with a spectacular firework display.

On New Year’s Day, in contrast, the city was virtually deserted with only a few shops open. We found Costa Coffee at the Embassy Shopping Complex open and discovered the “Eat Real” gluten free and dairy free cereal bar.

A long walk down the steps and through winding streets brought us to the Valletta Waterfront, where you can see the beautifully restored baroque 18th century warehouses which were built by Grand Master Pinto as stores for the Knights of St John. The different colours on the doors represented the goods that were stored inside such as blue for fish and red for wine. Today the warehouses have been converted into restaurants and shops. We picked Bistro 516 www.qbarmalta.com as it offered a gluten free menu. We always think if there’s a gluten free menu available, chances are they will be more aware about other allergies such as dairy. This seemed to be the case because when I was handed the gluten free menu, they said it was lactose free too. As it was New Year’s Day, it was very busy with families and large parties, so I’d recommend booking.

We both ate sedanini, a curly gluten free macaroni pasta with chicken, peas, mushrooms, fresh parsley and olive oil (10.50 euros). Delicious. Mine was accompanied by a gluten free beer. To our astonishment there was a range of gluten free and dairy free desserts.

Ray chose dairy free and gluten free lemon cheesecake, similar to a raw vegan cake. My choice was the gluten free almond cake topped with chunks of Toblerone – mouth-wateringly divine – crispy and chocolatey. A great start to the New Year!

 

Fishing village of Marsaxlokk

A trip to the tranquil fishing village of Marsaxlokk is a must. Avoid Sundays when the tiny village is over-crowded with people visiting the market and you’ll be very lucky if you can find anywhere for lunch.

 

On Monday we took the 81 bus from Valletta and found the village was deserted and we could soak up the idyllic picturesque view of the brightly coloured fishing boats against the blue sky. Stroll along the harbour and watch the fishermen repairing their boats or folding the nets. A market is held there most days selling lace tablecloths, Maltese food and general tourist merchandise.

The highlight of the day, apart from sitting in the sunshine taking pictures and enjoying the view, is a fish lunch. At La Torre, there is a useful glossary of fish varieties at the back of the menu – for example, Spnotta – sea bass; Awrata – sea bream, Qamita – octopus.

 

I decided on my favourite grilled salmon (14.90 euros) while Ray ordered pork chops (10.90 euros) accompanied by salad, French fries and fried courgette. You can tell the difference between boat caught fish and the fish bought at a UK supermarket! The taste was wonderful – definitely no need for any kind of sauce. A dash of pepper and olive oil is all you need. Ray liked his pork shops (he rarely eats fish) and again no need for any sauce to spoil the natural flavour. It’s also reasonably priced.

There’s a Costa Coffee here opposite the bus stop where we had a reviving cup of tea with soya milk naturally.

Maritime Museum at Vittoriosa

The next day we took the no. 2 bus to Birgu (Citta Vittoriosa). It was a Tuesday and we discovered a big street market right next to the bus stop. Worth checking if it’s held every Tuesday. Vast array of merchandise such as towels, socks, clothing as well as fruit and vegetable stalls.

Vittoriosa boasts the Maritime Museum which charts Malta’s maritime history. Its exhibits include the largest Roman lead anchor in the world weighing 4 tons.

We found the restaurant near the museum over-priced and crowded so headed back to the town square for lunch alfresco at Café du Brazil although it was draughty sitting in the wind, even though the sun was shining, but there were no tables inside.

Ray had chicken salad (giving me all the tomatoes as he can’t eat them) and I had the tuna salad. We were given sachets of mayonnaise. Automatically Ray checked the ingredients and found milk protein listed. You can’t be too careful! Milk in mayonnaise! Gluten free desserts were available.

Back at the Grand Excelsior Hotel, Valletta, we were surprised to see two vegan dishes listed on the lobby bar menu – tofu salad and a vegan burger.

Ray decided to try the vegan burger (16.50 euros) made of quinoa, chickpea and sweet potato patty with beef tomatoes and lettuce. He gave me the tomatoes. Ray said it was very tasty. The bun was spread with pate (white beans and garlic) similar to the one we tasted at Papannis.

Overall, Malta’s foodservice outlets seem to understand gluten free requirements. Several served gluten free pasta and in the case of Bistro 516, a gluten free menu, but I think there is room for improvement especially for people with dairy free intolerances and allergies.

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