Holidays: Center Parcs

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It was only after we had children that people around us started talking about Center Parcs (although, I now know it’s a destination that appeals to all demographics!) and by the time Big S started school it seemed that everyone we came across either had or was going to a Center Parcs. I have to say that we were a bit snooty to begin with – somehow (although we’re happy to go to European campsites) Centre Parcs just didn’t seem like it would be our kind of thing. It had the sound of forced jollity in a fenced in camp, a hark back to Hi De Hi!

How wrong were we! A few years ago, looking for a last minute break before Christmas we took the plunge – surely all the glowing reports from our friends meant that it had to be quite good? Besides, it seemed a good option in the cold winter months and the fact that the lodges are self-catering is an absolute must for us – dealing with food allergies effectively rules out catered holidays, not only through lack of availability but also fear and stress on our part.

So we went and had the most fabulous time – those glowing reports made sense, it really is a fantastic family destination topped off by the most fun, exciting swimming pool one could hope for. Picture if you can, bobbing around in a deliciously warm outdoor pool, beautifully lit, under the icy cold night sky – it is blissful. It was so good we’ve now been three times with another already booked for next weekend – and i seriously cannot wait!! I think I’ll have to admit that we should eat our words over it not being for us!!

So why did we enjoy it so much? Well, the whole place is very cleverly designed – it’s apparently always full ( we went to the Longleat one) but somehow it doesn’t feel too busy. The lodges are orienteered in such a way that you don’t feel hemmed in, you really do have a sense of peace and tranquility in the middle of a forest -clever huh? There are obviously activities for everyone and every age to enjoy, all topped off with the stunning subtropical swimming paradise (and it really is!)

But for us one of the aspects that really makes it for us, as a family with food allergies, are provided for. The accommodation is of a great standard making self-catering easy. The ‘parc market’ on site supermarket amazingly sells dairy-free milks and yogurt; the sweet store even sells our beloved Kinnerton chocolate, which was a really welcome surprise.

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We have even found numerous safe eating out options. All the restaurants we’ve tried have gone out of their way to accommodate our fairly extensive requirements. Our needs have been taken seriously and with respect and as such the meals we’ve eaten out have been a bit less stressful than often is the case. The Grand Cafe in particular went out of their way to produce a safe meal for my daughters.

One big highlight was eating at the Pancake house – as you can imagine our eating out options are limited and being dairy and egg free, pancakes never feature in the options, but at Centre Parcs the pancake house serves light and fluffy American style vegan pancakes – how cool is that!

So if you’re like us with restricted diets, or just someone who fancies a really fun holiday, do do think about Center Parcs, I would thoroughly recommend it – in fact we may even see you there 😉

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Pizza Express (actually a reasonable option for the dairy and egg-free)

It may seem strange that I’m writing a review of a very well-known pizza chain – doesn’t pizza rely on cheese? However, we’ve eaten at a LOT of Pizza Express branches as a family and the girls have always been able to eat a safe and tasty meal, one that is almost completely on the kids menu (very unusual for us, we normally end up having to eat ‘off menu’ and always lose out financially for it).

At Pizza Express the waiting staff have always seemed friendly and well trained. They have unfailingly listened to our requirements and made no fuss…. And we’ve never had any food mistakes in any of the branches we’ve visited.

On the bambino menu the girls can start with dough balls and side salad (dairy, egg and nut free). This is followed by a pizza (minus the cheese)…. A cheese-less pizza might sound a bit substandard, but since the bases are unfailingly delicious and the tomato sauce good too, it is still a surprisingly satisfying main course. It’s all rather dough-based, but hey, it is a pizza restaurant!

But most exciting of all, there’s a new addition on the menu, a dairy, egg and nut-free raspberry sorbet. My girls hardly ever get to eat a pudding in a restaurant so this new development is hugely exciting, and the sorbet tastes gorgeous too! Although must admit we only actually ate it on third attempt as it had sold out the first two times we went, but that’s another story.

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The Cornish Arms, St Merryn, North Cornwall

During our wet holiday last week we did manage to eat out at a Rick Stein establishment. I’ve always wanted to eat at a  Rick Stein restaurant (odd maybe for a confirmed non-fish eating vegetarian!) as he’s always seemed like a nice, fairly laid back chap who cooks some great honest, flavoursome food. Since we were staying near Padstow and Rick Stein seems to own half the place it seemed the perfect opportunity.

We had wanted to take the ferry from Rock, have an early evening wander around Padstow and then possibly eat at The Rick Stein Cafe – we were en famille after all and didn’t want a too fancy (or expensive) restaurant. But, due to some rather bad organisation we got the timing wrong and missed the last ferry – d’oh! So we decided on a drive to Rick’s pub The Cornish Arms in fairly nearby St Merryn.

The pub was modern, welcoming and full of families on a Thursday evening. The seafood looked great and everyone seemed to be really enjoying it. We must have been the only table with two non-fish eaters and a further one who’d rather not!!

The vegetarian options were extremely limited (it is a British pub after all), with a choice between a Ploughman’s or a blue cheese, tomato and rocket tart. For me a Ploughman’s is a lunch-time dish so I opted for the tart, and I have to say it was a big disappointment, even by pub standards. It consisted of a square of puff pastry topped with some blue cheese, four very undercooked and low-on-flavour tomato halves (not peeled) and a little pile of rocket leaves – that was it! Not impressed…

D had the special of pork chops with mash and gravy. It was a huge portion and he said the gravy was lovely and the mash ‘fine’ but one pork chop was frazzled and tough and the other more on the pink side than you want to go with pork. It was the very last portion which may explain it, but again, not hugely impressed.

However, everything was much better for the girls. The waiter took our food concerns most seriously, retreated to the kitchen and came back saying they could have four out of the six options available – an amazing amount of choice for us! He even made sure he personally notified the chefs when our order went through to be extra careful. We hadn’t asked for this level of attention by the way.

Big S had her favourite of sausage and chips – not exactly haute cuisine but eating out is about having what you really want isn’t it? Little S had a wholesome slab of grilled cod with chips – certainly the best dish on the table and much enjoyed. Also, much to our delight there was egg-free sorbet on the pudding menu – so for once (almost a first for us!) we managed to all have pudding too.

Both girls ate safely and enjoyed the meal out. It was really the excellent service that made it a good evening out (plus we’d probably have loved the food if we were fish eaters). On that basis alone I would say it was a successful meal and we left a happy family :-).

The Oyster Catcher Pub, Polzeath, North Cornwall

So last Monday night we ate out at The Oyster Catcher pub in Polzeath, Cornwall. It’s a St Austell Brewery pub in a stunning cliff top location in North Cornwall. To be honest it was our choice simply because it was incredibly convenient to where we were staying. The menu is basic pub fare with an emphasis on burgers – I guess that’s what surfers like to eat after a day catching waves.

Since The Oyster Catcher is a standard UK pub the veggie options were limited. Either a blue cheese, walnut and pear salad or a butter bean and chickpea burger. I opted for the burger which was tasty enough but suffered from the pub tendency of serving portions that are far too big.

The kids menu is short and consists of exactly what you would expect. However, it was the staff’s treatment of us, as a family with allergies, that really stands out. The barman was lovely and took all our concerns seriously, getting back up from the chef at every opportunity. Little S was very happy with her (safe) freshly battered fish, chips and peas (classic British seaside fare after all!). Big S was rather disappointed that she couldn’t have a burger or chicken goujons, but relented to having fish too. The barman must have noticed Big S’s disappointment and came back a few minutes later with the offer that the chef could batter the chicken instead of using breadcrumbs to make if safe for us – how nice is that? The food wasn’t amazing but both girls loved having supper out in a pub, and we felt comfortable and relaxed thanks to the the staff’s sympathetic treatment of us.

So all in all a successful family meal out for all of us.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that should you be on holiday in Polzeath with a dairy allergy, the small local Spar sells Provamel soya puddings, yogurts and ‘milks’ – a godsend if you’re holidaying in the area.

Eating Out

I’m kinda hoping that this section gives us an excuse to eat out more and be more adventurous when we do dine away from home. Brief reviews will follow…

I’m sure eating out has its difficulties for all families, but for the family with allergies it can be a stressful nightmare. There are certainly not many of those ‘oh we just happen to be out, let’s grab some lunch’ occasions. Any meal out has to be pre-vetted via the internet or simplest, most allergy friendly fare must be available. Even so, we spend the whole meal time vigilantly checking for possible signs of hives, wheezyness and other symptoms, hardly taking a moment off to eat our food, let alone relax!

Some chains have always been excellent with providing for our needs, notably Nando’s (and surely everyone loves Nando’s), Giraffe and Pizza Express. But you don’t always want to eat in a chain restaurant

Ironically, while hardly gourmet, most pubs seem to be able to offer something – ham, chips and peas are normally available and usually safe (although always check for possible coatings on chips, butter on the peas and allergens present on the ham!) – although this is hardly exciting or particularly nutritional. Throw a pesky veggie (me) into the mix and pubs really aren’t the best place to eat unless you fancy yet another frozen veggie lasagne or goats cheese and red onion tart!

Vegetarian/Vegan cafes would certainly appeal to me but fail as a family destination due to the presence of nuts and seeds. Besides, its very important to be aware that vegan isn’t necessarily suitable for a completely dairy-free diet – it seems that ‘may contain traces of milk’ are acceptable in a vegan diet but certainly not for the dairy allergic (in my experience).

Anyway, we’re off on holiday to Cornwall for a few days. The weather looks like it’ll be shockingly bad, but we’re looking forward to some family fun. Hopefully we’ll  eat out at least once – I am hoping for a Rick Stein establishment in Padstow – I’ll report back with a review.