As one person it’s hard raising awareness of coeliac disease, or assisting those who are adhering to a gluten free diet. I firmly believe we all have to help each other out as much as possible, after all, not one person can visit every restaurant, review every product, attend every event. And so on…
Therefore it’s super exciting for me to be able to share with you my first guest blog post, from a lovely chap who I met through the coeliac grapevine on twitter. David Johnstone!
Thank you David!
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Pizza Express – Gluten Free Trial
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THE BACK STORY
Up until very recently, and possibly naively, I had always been a huge advocator for Pizza Express and gluten free dining there. Pre-coeliac diagnosis it had been a bit of a favourite place to with the family for a treat. It felt a bit special and the kids menu was great. In fact, it was the place of my last ‘gluten-full’ meal while I was awaiting genetic test results for a diagnosis (long story!). After diagnosis we would still occasionally visit our local branch in Banbury, Oxon where all the staff were very helpful, aware and understanding. I would have the ‘Chicken and Goats Cheese Salad’ without bread sticks and made sure I had the allergy info PDF stored on my phone. They were obviously a branch happy to deal with coeliac’s and I would often see staff taking FreeFrom bases to the kitchen area to be topped. Everything was great; we could still have our family treat!
That was… until we visited a branch in Birmingham on a trip out in October last year where I ordered the usual main course, in the usual manner all the while explaining that I’m a coeliac, and so on. Perhaps I had become over complacent because the reaction I had while finishing our coffee was the most extreme I had ever experienced, the like of which I had only heard about online as luckily all my symptoms previously had been mild. It turned out the dusty flour environment of the kitchen must have been to blame and in turn contaminated the salad. To be fair to Pizza Express, the event was investigated and I received a very good letter of explanation with an apology (ensuring us of their best intentions) and a gift card for half the meals value.
Anyway… I digress!
When I heard of the gluten free menu trial I was very excited, even more so when I saw that out of the few select branches it was running at, it included my old local. Therefore, I just had to try it out! Finally my old favourite pizza chain was going gluten free too. After the success and efforts Pizza Hut and Dominos have had, surely this was only going to be fantastic. I longed for my old favourites.
I phoned ahead to book a table and confirm the trial, the gentleman on the phone was pretty excited by it too. You want to know if it affected my decision to dine with them?! Obviously yes!!! But this is where I let myself down. I have never been great at heavily questioning restaurant staff and always preferred to do research beforehand and/or use restaurant dietary cards (especially when abroad). With the exciting wave of ‘safe’ options recently appearing in high-street chain menus, my familiarity with the branch, and the reassuring letter from customer services, I’m ashamed to say I let my guard down. Now, you experienced coeliac’s out there may be cringing and you’re probably right to be…
When we all got seated at the restaurant I asked for the gluten free menu expecting to be given a rubbish photocopy. I was pleasantly surprised to be told it was on the main, fully printed menu. Impressive for a 3 week trial!
I asked our first waitress which toppings were safe and was abruptly told that all the ‘classics’ were fine. I wasn’t too impressed by her or her answer as I really want to go for the ‘specials’ that I loved. Everything that I had read suggested any topping option was a possibility. I was so relieved when a second waitress came to take our drinks order; she was much more friendly and patient.
Only a few pizza toppings had gluten in them:
- spicy beef
- bolognaise sauce
- marinated mushrooms
Fantastic! This meant I could have the ‘Calabrese’ pizza that I’d missed so much. I knew already from the Pizza Express email that the ‘Risotto’ and ‘Brownie’ were gluten free so my starter and dessert were already chosen. I was very excited! Also fantastic was the fact that the gluten free options extended on to the kids menu, one up on most others.
I haven’t mentioned the disclaimer on the menu yet have I!
Again, to be honest I didn’t really take full notice at first and just shrugged it off as the usual corporate disclaimer, but after ordering it really started to sink in and I was getting quite anxious. Madness I know, I should have paid attention, I should have asked more questions and most probably should have got up and left. There is no real excuse, I just wanted it to be fantastic, and the family were seated and happy. Oh well, here we go!
I should mention at this point that I noticed the kitchen staff, and who I believe was the manager, were also getting rather anxious too. They were discussing it and pointing in our tables direction, which was partially reassuring… obviously they were taking it seriously. And so they should, I had checked out all the flour flying around while ferrying the kids to and from the toilets. Suddenly the situation all felt quite serious again and I felt myself physically shaking.
Our starters arrived and it was ‘Risotto D’Oro’ for me.
It looked rich, creamy and smelt divine. The taste was even better, it was everything I wanted it to be, soft, fresh, thick cheesy quality, reliving old memories of travelling before CD and finding a small random restaurant in Italy. I was really enjoying myself. The portion was slightly small, I guess perfect for a starter but a full size version would have been heaven for a main.
I’d seen a new side on the menu, ‘Polenta Chips with a Honey Mustard Dip’. Wow… Now I’m ashamed to say I’ve never tried polenta, a shocking revelation for a professional ‘Glutard’ like me. I’d heard so much about it from the staple tweeters and was looking forward to trying it. Disappointedly though this wasn’t gluten free, I’m not sure why, but a huge miss by Pizza Express I think.
The pizza arrived looking and smelling amazing, it was beautifully thin and had a light, crisped base. I was reassured to see it was obviously pre-made off site (something I could never have imagined saying before CD) as the outline shape was too perfect and it had small manufacturing marks over its surface. This was just how a Pizza should be, toppings that look natural and not processed. I choose the Calabrese toppings, which was an old favourite of mine. I had forgotten just how spicy that pizza was and it was made even more intense on a small GF base (it would normally arrive on a large rectangle base). I struggled slightly with it to be honest but my gosh it was lovely. Such a delicate base with honest flavours, I lost myself in the food again.
I would always go for a ‘Dolcetti Dessert’ at Pizza Express, a small something sweet with a coffee on the side. It felt like a nice little Italian finish to the meal and the new gluten free brownie was part of this. This was the course I had the least concerns over, all the desserts in this branch were prepared by the waiting staff across the other side of the room from the kitchen area. There was very little risk of flour contamination there, as for other cross contamination? Well I just don’t know. Thinking back I should have asked about whether the brownie was individually wrapped etc… reckless! Again the brownie was stunning, it had a perfect crispy top which took up the first quarter, and the remaining three quarters was deep gooey light rich chocolate heaven. I couldn’t fault this or any of the dishes for taste enjoyment.
Not worth the risk.
It’s not something I will be doing again without changes to the contamination controls and the disclaimer. With such safety, awareness and Coeliac UK supported options being available from other restaurant chains; it makes me ask, why did Pizza Express bother? Don’t get me wrong, I loved every mouthful while I wasn’t worrying and I could not fault the quality or taste of the food. It even distracted me enough to forget my anxiety for a moment… Overall I came out fine I think, if not I experienced only very small, light symptoms. However, as all us coeliac’s know, that isn’t enough. There needs to be something more. There must be tighter controls and a proper statement of intent to inject some coeliac confidence. If only the online training course Coeliac UK Catering Services are offering the catering sector, but ideally NGCI certified by Coeliac UK. Then I would be back there in a flash.
Thank you Pizza Express for taking convenient, gluten free chain dining to the next level, you just need to match the taste with the same dedication and seriousness to cross contamination controls to earn a coeliacs’ trust.