The Rise of “Freefrom” Foods in the Capital

22 November, 2013

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A healthy portion of brown rice at Leon

In our parents’ age, the idea of buying food lacking in anything seemed preposterous, less basic ingredients means less value, right? Now “freefrom” foods seem to be everywhere, thanks to a mixture of endorsements from health-conscious celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and a growing number of people affected by and interested in food allergies and intolerances.

Gluten-free is the champion of the “freefrom” world, and, according to “freefrom” expert and founder of the “Freefrom” Food Awards Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, this is partly because of the acceptance of the autoimmune disorder Coeliac disease. ‘Coeliac disease is medically up there and there is no other way of dealing with it apart from a gluten-free diet.’

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Coffee, cakes and a view of the counter at Leon, Spitalfields

Though saying that, those with a medical impetus to eat “freefrom” foods remain the minority, while those who simply choose to can be credited with the industry’s growth. Eating “freefrom”, whether that be gluten-free, wheat-free, dairy-free, sugar-free or meat-free, is most definitely a trend, and one that is growing, with more and more restaurants reflecting this in their menus.

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Leon’s Original Superfood Salad and their famous Meatballs Lunchbox

A standout example of this in fast and colourful casual dining is Leon. A London-based fresh and fast food chain with a healthy twist, Leon has captured the hearts and taste buds of the hard-to-please locals and even harder-to-please critics. With the stamp of approval from Giles Coren, Gordon Ramsay, Observer Food Monthly, Jay Rayner and the national newspaper powerhouses, Leon now has 13 restaurants filled with brilliantly chirpy staff and a refreshingly honest menu.

Their food is delicious, organic, made fresh, sourced as locally as possible and each item on the menu is coded for customers’ ease – up to eight symbols can be currently used, ranging from the old favourite “GF” for gluten-free to “Ve” for vegan, or a tiny pitchfork icon used to symbolise slightly naughty foods not recommended to order every day.

Leon’s brightly lit sign at Spitalfields

Openness on a menu is always great, but why did they choose to do it? ‘The owner’s father, David Dimbleby, was a gluten intolerant and was struggling to find anywhere he could comfortably eat…I think on the back of that they realised there was a gap in the market to cater to people with intolerances,’ says Tom Green, one of the managers at Leon, Spitalfields.

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Leon’s rich chocolate brownie with a hint of orange

And it seems to have worked – Leon contributes much of its success to its “freefrom” options and plans to launch two new symbols very soon, including a sugar-free key for their diabetic customers. This means that Leon’s development kitchen is constantly busy, for good taste and applaudable nutrition is also a must, ‘as long as we can find these “freefrom” options without compromising the food, there is no reason why we wouldn’t pursue it.’

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Seared seaweed, cabbage, pickled potatoes, soda-bread sauce, mustard seeds and foraged sea vegetables at Vanilla Black

In contrast, Andrew Dargue of vegetarian restaurant Vanilla Black decided to take on his meat-free venture with partner Donna Conroy not as a reaction to a trend but as a challenge. ‘When you look at top-end restaurants, they can be Indian, Chinese, French, but they don’t seem to do it with vegetarian, and we thought “why?” We wanted to change the meat-free perspective.’

After starting Vanilla Black in York in 2004, the couple enjoyed three years of success before bringing their business down to London. A transition that was much easier said than done, ‘the first people who came in didn’t like it, and they were vegetarians…slowly we found that younger people were coming in and, interestingly, they were meat-eaters.’

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Soya curd, beetroot, Nasturtium leaves, seeds and iced lettuce at Vanilla Black

Andrew is the first to admit that a compliment from a meat-eater means more to him than a compliment from a vegetarian, and designs his food around the palate of the former, always with a focal point and complexity of flavour, though never would he ever use a meat substitute.

Everything on their menu has a meaning and is often secretly cheeky: take their starter of brie ice-cream with pickled plum, red-wine custard, Sherry vinegar and cracked hazelnut – a fine-dining and oppositional version of the British pub classic deep-fried brie. As Andrew says, ‘we are not about filling people’s bellies, we are about filling people’s minds.’

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Vanilla Black’s Irish-inspired dish and dainty table setting

Michelle from the “Freefrom” Food Awards assures me that not only is the market for “freefrom” foods growing, but the number of people with food allergies and intolerances is as well.

‘When I was a child, nut allergies were virtually unknown, while now one in around 55 children has a nut allergy, and Ceoliac disease, which used to affect one in 400 people, is now affecting one in 70.’ Michelle also reveals that the retail “freefrom” trade has been growing by 15 percent year on year for the past five years, and according to Ceoliac UK, the untapped gluten-free market in the UK alone is worth more than £100 million.

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The polished eclectic-antique style of Vanilla Black’s restaurant

There are many hypotheses on why this is, but non are substantiated as of yet. While Europe is taking measures to make eating out easier for those affected. In December of 2014 new EU regulations will require all food-service establishments, including your local pub and the deli down the road from work, to be able to communicate to customers whether their food contains any of the 14 major allergens.

It is a significant victory for the “freefrom” community, but for the European food-service industry it may become a catalyst for quite a change. The openness and interest in ingredients like we see at Leon may become the norm, and the trend for “freefrom” is sure to become positively mainstream.

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Dessert at Vanilla Black: milk chocolate and olive oil pate, avocado ice-cream, lime meringue, dark chocolate and bee pollen 

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