So, the idea of reprising the story of me having ceoliacs disease wasn’t to moan about it (much) but to voice the thought that it’s very ironic I have it.
Because not only am I an excellent baker – the product of two grandmothers who were both talented and knowlegeable cooks – and have a natural ability to make beautiful, crumbly pastry which my own ‘plain cook’ of a mother marvelled at, but I’m the descendant of a line of top-class pastry chefs who lived and worked in London in the years that bridged the 19th and 20th centuries.
My great-times-sixth grandfather John was a prolific but poor Victorian playwright who died leaving his family unprovided for and, ultimately, consigned to a life in the poor house.
His son Albert, my great-times-fifth grandfather, turned his back on the dramatic life and took up a ‘proper’ trade in which he flourished: he trained as a pastry chef, moving up through the ranks of the place he trained in to eventually owning a business himself. That place was a culinary establishment – a cafe – or, most likely, a top-end London pie and eel shop.
According to census returns, Albert’s business was prosperous enough to need a number of assistants to keep it running in addition to his sons and – later – his grandsons. So flour – the very stuff which has the potential to make me ill – was the thing which saved Albert and meant survival for his family. In a very literal sense Albert put bread on the table with the work of his own, capable hands.
In a further twist of irony, I wrote the following piece about Albert for my dissertation many months ago, long before I knew I was a coeliac and purely as a device to shine the light of discovery on his father John.
“So, you want to know about my father?”
A ball of dough thuds onto the table, launching a mushroom of flour into the fragrant, warm air. Clenched fists begin to pummel its sticky whiteness, strong, square-nailed fingers ripping, stretching, kneading in well-practiced rhythm. Sinewy arms move at rapid pace, well-oiled pistons on a steam engine, particles of flour settling delicately along their hairs as they work. Albert glances briefly from the table, his large, intelligent eyes questioning.
“So you want to know about my father?” he repeats tersely. “What was it exactly you wanted to know?”
The last time we chatted (was it really that long ago? How time flies!) I was facing redundancy and had not long discovered I have ceoliac’s disease – an intolerance to gluten which imposes the necessity of checking every single ingredient in every single thing sufferers eat to ensure they don’t trigger the condition.
Which also means telling restaurant staff – complete strangers – all about it, so they can go and check with kitchen staff that a chosen menu item is gluten free. Sometimes they do this cheerfully and tactfully, without making you feel like you’re an attention-seeking freak, sometimes they already know a little about gluten intolerance and have a ready prepared menu or a knowledge of which items you should avoid.
And sometimes they look at you as if you’ve got a screw loose and are deliberately trying to wind them up. Often, waiting staff return from the kitchen bemused and surprised, to share their amazement that the pre-grated cheese does, indeed, contain flour when who would have thought it? (It’s often given a coating to stop it sticking together in the bag). And I nod and smile and think well, me, actually, which is why I asked in the first place. I don’t make it up for the fun of it!
You’ll not guess from all this, I bet, that I’ve found having ceoliac’s disease, well, a bit hard to stomach. To the extent that to begin with I kept quiet about it as far as remotely possible and made my own mind up about a food’s suitability. “When something says ‘may contain gluten’, I’ve worked on the principle that it probably doesn’t,” I told the dietician at my recent check-up. “I’m afraid you should work on the principle that it probably does,” she replied. “Let’s order another blood test, shall we, to see how effective your gluten-free diet actually is?”
I haven’t had the results back yet but I’m not holding my breath. Since that moment, though, I’ve become more rigorous than before in reading food labels and asking in restaurants, and have my fingers crossed that, now, I’m doing enough to show a difference.
Still not enjoying it but hey, I should be thankful. Ceoliac’s Disease is easy enough to control and there are more and more products available in supermarkets to help with the job. I miss my favourite bread and cakes, true, but in the grand scheme of things I only have a bit of inconvenience to deal with along with a heavy sprinkling of self-pity. And it would do me no harm to remember, when I’m feeling particularly down about the unfairness of it all, that life isn’t particularly fair, that people do get ill, but that there are lots of people out there who have things much, much worse than me.