Venus Beach Cafes, Devon

After probably the longest winter in living memory the restrictions in the UK are starting to be relaxed and suddenly we don’t need to stay at home, or more recently stay local. We live in a particularly beautiful area but sometimes you also really feel the need to widen your horizons, and particularly get a bit of sea air!

By a fluke of luck we had a mini-break booked in Salcombe, South Devon to start on the 12th April, the day self-catering holidays were first allowed. Boy, were we lucky! We’d only booked it up as we’d been in October just before the November lockdown and had the most horrifically wet and stormy weather and we really wanted to go back and see what Salcombe had to offer. Luckily for us 3 nights were available (the only available dates until October 2021!) and so back in November we snapped them up. For a while it didn’t look like we’d go, but fate was smiling down on us and all the dates slotted into place and we got our holiday! It was so fabulous to go away, enjoy some beautiful beaches and the cute winding streets of the town.

When we visited in October we went on a day trip to Bigbury on Sea and checked out Burgh Island (famous for Agatha Christie and the setting for some of her novels) and warmed ourselves up with tea in the Venus Cafe. Warming our hands on the steaming mugs we noticed the menu looked pretty awesome for us, all allergens clearly stated, plenty of vegan/veggie options and even a selection of safe ice creams. We couldn’t resist and scoffed down Swedish Glace cornettos despite the in climate weather, and then needed to warm up again. Cue a sharing plate of some of the best chips we’ve ever tasted!

Burgh Island

Consequently we were very keen on return to the Venus cafe on this visit. It turns out there are 4 Venus cafes in the Devon area – Blackpool sands, Bigbury on Sea, East Portlemouth and Millendreath, and whilst I’ve only eaten at the Bigbury one, if the others are just as good then they’re well worth hunting out.

Luna our Cavapoo on Bigbury Beach

The Venus cafe is just what you want from a beach cafe, a good selection of ice creams, cooked breakfasts, burgers and toasties and amazing chips! We had to eat outside as that is all that is allowed right now, but what a treat. Delicious safe burgers (toastie for me) and chips followed by ice creams. We couldn’t have asked for a better beach cafe experience.

Not only is the Venus cafe allergy aware but they’re also pretty hot on sustainability, local ingredients and introducing packaging solutions that are kinder to the environment. Venus cafe, we’re big fans of you, your food and ethos, and in our experience you deserve a big allergy applause 🙂

Afternoon Tea at One Aldwych, London

It’s rare that my girls get to go out for a real fancy treat, one that is food based but also worth getting dressed up for! We’ve previously had a wonderful Afternoon tea at The Langham and have often talked about some of the delicacies we came across. So, to have a repeat experience but in a new venue I did masses of research. There really aren’t that many choices, a fair few offer you a vegan tea option but once you’ve taken out all the nuts and seeds there are less options available, and whilst my girls may be dairy or dairy and egg free, that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to eat the vegan menu.

In my research I came across a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory afternoon tea at One Aldywch. This sounded both exciting and a possibility as they specifically stated that they could cater for any dietary requirement, if given notice. I contacted the hotel and was given a very welcoming contact, who checked with the chefs and confirmed we could be catered for. It sounded so exciting and we couldn’t wait for our tea featuring “fizzy lifting drinks, snowberry jam, chocolate milkshake mixed by waterfall”.

I have to say I’ve really struggled with whether to post this review as I don’t like to be negative, but honesty is the best way and we found the whole experience so deeply disappointing.

The hotel is lovely, with a modern feel and some elegant features like a checkerboard mirrored lift to get to the bathrooms – notably the bathrooms (always a giveaway) were nothing special, you didn’t feel like you were anywhere luxurious.

The service was okay, we were made to feel welcome but it was painfully slow, so slow in fact that we spent a lot of time looking over our shoulders for something to arrive. I know we are tricky as we all have different requirements but I’d given them 2 months notice and they were the ones who said they were happy to cater for us. Honestly, don’t say you can deliver if you can’t!

So onto the food… which was at best only ok, there was nothing that made you go wow.

For the standard vegetarian savouries (that I had and I’m mentioning first as these didn’t need to be tweaked to be made safe and should be the knock out dishes they wheel out daily) there was a relatively tasty cheesy tart, the driest brioche you have ever eaten filled with something unidentifiable and purple, a very earthy beetroot wrap and a rather nice coronation cauliflower in matcha bread. There were cheesy scones which were good, but I’ve had better. So one nice savoury.

For the girls they got avocado in bread – honestly I couldn’t believe the lack of imagination. There was also a very plain chicken sandwich and a rather challenging beetroot wrap. Big S got some nice hummus topped with a carrot puree but it came with a spoon rather than something to dip in. Who eats hummus with a spoon? Then there’s the scones. Oh my goodness they were bad, like hard biscuits you could hardly swallow, you really couldn’t imagine a worse scone (and vegan scones are so easy to make!)

The sweet course looked prettier, it had it’s own stand and came with some candy floss which did make everyone smile but the flavours and execution were nothing special.

The standard options were some tasty little lemon sponges, chocolate financiers and fairly good scones with jam, there was an Eton mess which would be nice if you liked cream (I don’t) and a very milky chocolate mousse and super minty chocolate drink. The there was a red velvet cake pop which was just unpleasant – sorry but when you’re charging £45 per head I think you need to do better than unpleasant.

The girls sweet course was far worse, I just don’t know how they made dairy and egg-free food so horrible. I know I’m probably far more experience in cooking free-from but I’m not saying I can cater or people and then charging them 5* prices for horrible food. On the plus side the little chocolate sponges were quite nice. But then the chocolate mousse was the most bitter chocolate I have ever tasted, the same awful scones appeared, the chocolate drink was again far too dark and worst of all both girls reacted to traces of milk and needed antihistamine. All that and they charged adult price for little S when she should have  been charged the child price.

Sorry One Aldwych but we came away so disappointed and underwhelmed; this special occasion was anything but special, cost a fortune and has put us off trying somewhere else new. Maybe we should have made a fuss on the day, but eating out with allergies is challenging and we try to make the experiences as pleasant as possible, and making a fuss in front of the girls just makes the whole thing worse.

So all in all I wouldn’t recommend afternoon tea at One Aldywch, even the standard version was anything but magical and only had a vague hint of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; save your money or save up and go somewhere like The Langham where you will have an experience to remember.

Wagamama – a truly great experience when eating out with allergies

I’m going to continue my ‘eating out with allergies’ series as it’s an area where I’m always looking for help and recommendations, so maybe my comments and reviews may help others too. Click on the ‘Eating Out’ tab for previous recommendations 🙂

I don’t know about you but eating out causes us some serious anxiety. Often we’ll think, oh wouldn’t it be nice to not have to cook for once and eat out instead. Then I spend ages trawling through the options online with the following thoughts running through my brain; ‘is there anything safe on offer, how seriously will they take our requirements, is it going to end badly, is it worth going out if it’s for something so simple and plain it would be easier to make it at home?’

More often than not we stick to one of our usual favoured chain restaurants which can seem more reliable in catering for allergies, or we just stay at home. Whilst it can be successful, the stress of trying a new location can simply be too much, tipping the meal from enjoyable to tense and uncomfortable. Little S often goes very quiet in restaurants, it’s like she isn’t at ease and is carrying a load of worries. Do any of you find this to?

Often the easiest and most relaxed way to guarantee a good safe meal is by staying at home, but that’s not so much fun….

When people first mentioned Wagamama as a good allergy friendly destination we inwardly scoffed – how could a Japanese style restaurant which actively sells a lot of food with sesame, peanuts and other nuts be suitable for us? So we dug our heels in and didn’t try it for ages. Then one opened near us and we took the plunge with Big S (just milk allergic so Japanese food is a fairly safe option) whilst Little S was on her first school residential (which had it’s own stresses, but that’s another story!)

Wow, were we impressed! The whole service is incredibly slick, and caters for allergies in a caring but professional manner. The manager is the only one who will take allergy orders, ensuring responsibility is taken by the person in charge and they always refer to the allergen menu which is a great reassurance. Big S can have a lot of items on the menu and now she’s a teen it’s fab to have a cool, safe and really popular restaurant she can head to with friends.

Little S’s options are fewer (free-from milk, eggs, peanuts and sesame) but still she can have an actual dish from the menu which is always fresh and tasty and doesn’t require us to bring bits from home, or for copious alterations to make it suitable. For reference Little S has the grilled chicken Katsu with Amai sauce and it’s been successful every time she’s had it (and that’s loads of times).

Children’s grilled chicken Katsu with Amai sauce

The only problem we’ve come across was the disappointment when the breadcrumbed chicken Katsu started to be cooked in the same oil as a dish containing cottage cheese, making it unsuitable if you have a dairy allergy. This was pointed out by a manager and then suddenly it all made sense why Big S had been sick a couple of times after eating the regular Katsu; there was a new dairy cross-contamination. This had been Big S’s favourite dish so she was mightily disappointed to forego her choice, but she’s got used to the grilled version now.

Grilled Chicken Katsu with sticky rice

Wagamama has grabbed with relish the rising popularity of vegan food and created an entire veggie and vegan menu, giving plant-based spins on their traditional favourites. This is a big bonus for me as a vegetarian as I’m more used to very little choice when eating out.

Vegetarian Yasai Katsu

So all in all, Wagamama is now a family favourite, relied upon for a safe and tasty restaurant experience. So much so we even visited a branch in Holland when we were struggling for safe options! If you haven’t, I’d recommend you to give it a go, it’s so nice not to have to cook every day!

Children’s Menu

Malta and Gozo with allergies

We’re just back from a wonderful, relaxing and very sunny summer holiday and I thought I’d pass on some thoughts on Malta and Gozo as holiday destination from the point of view of a family with food allergies to cater for. Whenever we go somewhere new I do a search on the supermarket availability for safe foods and allergy-friendliness of a destination, frequently coming up with nothing useful or only snippets of information. So maybe if I write my thoughts , other people may find it helps them in future.

I haven’t been paid in any way for this review, it just to help others who travel with allergies by passing on my thoughts 🙂

Similar to most families with allergies, we went self-catering; even if we could easily go to stay in hotels or all inclusive I’m not sure it would be my chosen option. It is not an issue and I think I just like cooking too much, and the trip to the local supermarket is always an interesting holiday activity for me. On this occasion we splashed out on a private villa with a pool and much needed air-con. This proved to be a highlight and certainly helped us relax and cool off. See below for our beautiful villa and pool in traditional Gozitan style.We used a company called James Villas and I have to say that the whole process from booking to returning home worked like clockwork. If you’re looking for a Mediterranean villa holiday I’d really recommend having a look at their site.

The first notable feature that made this holiday so easy was the language. Although everyone speaks Maltese, the official language is still English and that made getting our message across so much easier. It’s so reassuring when trying to convey such important requests to know that the person you’re talking to is really getting the message. I should add that the Maltese people as a nation are incredibly laid back, friendly and welcoming. I’m not sure I even heard a car horn in anger.

As we were staying on Gozo which is a small island only 14km long by 7km wide, there wasn’t a huge selection of food shops, but we did come across a Lidl, one supermarket in a shopping centre called Arkadia which we used and various little convenience stores. The selection of brands available was excellent; they even had Waitrose own-brand products!

We found the range to include products from the UK, France, Italy and Malta. The free-from brands we came across included Alpro, Pure, Valsoia, Misura and Schar. A really impressive range for a small island you might visit on holiday. So we were very well catered for, for buying dairy-free margarine, dairy-free yogurts, ice cream and milks, free-from biscuits and croissants.

We don’t need gluten-free products ourselves, but that range was even better. Amazingly, even the small convenience stores had a few free-from products available.

We did however have a problem with bread. I didn’t find any sliced loaves that didn’t have ‘may contain sesame’ labels and that wasn’t a risk we were willing to take on a small island. I only managed to buy some UK produced pittas that we survived on, along with the supplies I’d brought from home! More concerning was the fact that the peanuts were bizarrely kept within the bakery cupboards – that really wasn’t a welcome sight.

A lot of the ice cream parlours advertised vegan ice cream, but again we weren’t taking any risks whilst on an island with no big hospital, so opted for very cooling, iced ‘slushies’ instead which were available everywhere.

We ate out a couple of times. Lunch whilst visiting the Citadella in Victoria, the Capital, and one in a restaurant near our villa called Il Girna by Peppe. Both occasions were successful. The staff were very accommodating and we felt confident that they took our concerns seriously. Both adapted the menu to suit our needs, and whilst the resulting dishes were fairly plain, they were safe, so we were happy customers. If you’re after gluten-free or vegan food, the provision was excellent with dishes available in all the establishments we checked.

So, all in all, it was a really good destination for a holiday with allergies/food restrictions and I’d definitely recommend considering it as an option. We only visiting Malta once to go to the excellent aquarium, but I believe it offers more of the holiday resort type holiday. Gozo was much quieter, with stunning architecture (and really interesting house names – our favourite was ‘Reality’!). It’s fairly rocky with dramatic cliffs, stony bays and always beautiful crystal clear sea and inlets. Seafood lovers will be very happy, many very simple looking beach cafes and shacks seem to be turning out the freshest seafood. Sandy beaches are few and far between, with the red sanded Ramla Bay being the favourite. It should be noted that we had some fairly hairy drives with roads suddenly ending in front of us, or being so steep that the car couldn’t make it up in 1st gear, something I have never experienced before.

There’s also plenty of culture from pre-historic temples which pre-date the pyramids of Egypt by one thousand years, to hilltop Basilicas aplenty. It seemed to me that Visit Malta has invested a lot in their tourist attractions and they were all modern and top-notch. I’d say we did everything in Gozo in one week, but then we like to be busy and you could happily stretch it out with more ‘relax time’, and that would be rather lovely in the wonderful southern Mediterranean climate.

‘The Diner’ Review

The Diner (also known as Goodlife Diner) has fair few branches scattered all over London and also one in Southampton and is temptingly styled as a retro Diner with booths and neon lights a plenty, but also boasts an extensive veggie and vegan menu. I think this is one of the few American diner style restaurants that we have eaten at as a family. Somehow all the milkshakes and sesame-seed buns makes us feel they won’t be suitable. Anyway Big S (milk allergy only) had been to a party at The Goodlife Diner and they were not only very helpful and accommodating on the phone when I scoped out the options before hand, but she also came home raving about the meal. This was the kind of destination that a teen wanted to go to.

On her recommendation we returned as a family and it was a very pleasant experience. The waitress was extremely well trained on allergies and immediately brought out the allergy folder. Naturally, as a Diner, it’s a burger and chips kind of place, not a place for exciting gastronomy – but that suited us for a simple family lunch. We always take our own rolls if we think burgers might be on the menu as invariably the bread isn’t suitable. But to our delight the Vegan gluten-free buns were safe (no egg in sight which is unusual for gluten-free). The girls said they were tasty if a bit crumbly, but what a joy to have a burger without the Home supplied bun.

The meat eaters of the family said the burgers were delicious and chips particularly fine (although looking at the allergy folder you might want to step away from the egg and dairy-free onion rings as they had a whopping 3,000 calories per portion!!)

I had a veggie burger which was only ok, it had that musty flavour of health food shops and dried herbs which I’m not particularly keen on. But there is an entire veggie and vegan menu to choose from, so I wouldn’t dismiss it as a unsuitable restaurant for vegetarians.

To our delight there was a dairy-free milkshake on the menu but we didn’t try it out as it was coconut flavoured and not to our taste.

So if you fancy a family meal in a proper ‘diner’ style setting with neon lights and milkshakes and burgers, I’d say The Goodlife Diner is a pretty good choice, not too expensive and caters well for all dietary requirements.

The Boulevard Restaurant, East Wittering

 

Perhaps wrongly, we don’t often frequent independent cafes or restaurants, and instead opt for the reliability of chain restaurants with their meticulous allergen folders and by-the-book trained staff with strict procedures when handling customers like us. It is quite simply easier. It is a shame as you do want to support small independent and family run businesses over large corporates. So we are really happy when we do come across somewhere independent that can suit our needs without trouble.

We came across The Boulevard Restaurant in East Wittering, West Sussex by chance. We had originally pinpointed a positively reviewed and recommended nearby pub (for allergies) but received such a terrible response from the management when we enquired about allergens – real rudeness in fact that we left pretty rapidly. Having made the unusual move of leaving the house for a day out without a full packed lunch ‘just in case’, we had to find an alternative place to eat. Luckily, we didn’t have to go far before we stumbled across this little gem of a family restaurant.

The Boulevard is family run and has I believe served since 1979. It’s a relatively ‘simple’ cafe restaurant with the kind of menu you would expect but with daily specials, very generous portions and crucially the staff have been without fail so helpful, efficient and friendly. There’s a full range of safe (or adaptable) favourites on the children’s menu, and the main menu has plenty of veggie and vegan choices – so we’re one happy family! So much so, we’ve now visited three times even though we live quite a way away.

Another highlight for us is they sell a full range of New Forest Ices, and as I’ve mentioned before their sorbet is dairy-free, egg-free and totally nut-free too. When we visited they had three flavours of sorbet. A choice of pudding for the girls when eating out is a rare luxury for us, and again outside of a chain, the girls would be offered a piece of fruit usually.

Then to the girls’ delight, the bill comes with a little tub of jelly beans rather than the ubiquitous chocolates. Happy bunnies all round!

So, if you’re near the Witterings (the beach at West Wittering is vast at low tide and well worth a trek) I’d really recommend a stop off at The Boulevard Restaurant – we might even see you there!