Ventures into the Free World

In June, we were given some terrible news. My boyfriend was to follow a strict diet, embarking on a gluten-free and lactose-free adventure. At the time, our hearts sank. What would he do without cheese? Bread, that staple of the Catalan community, was a thing of the past. Many things contain gluten that we don’t even think about – including things such as toothpaste. This news was given to me on my birthday, which rather ruined our fine dining Italian restaurant experience I’d chosen as a birthday treat.

Trips to the world’s most expensive supermarkets, selling Bio everything, were now a part of the weekly shop. Meals out became increasingly difficult, with almost half the menu often wiped out. In solidarity, I decided to reduce my gluten and lactose intake, expecting it to be one of the hardest things I’d have to do. I have a complicated relationship with food, and after just starting to enjoy it, and myself, in food-related situations, I thought life was about to become much more bland and boring.

Things couldn’t have been further from the truth. It’s not that hard to eat ‘free-from’, especially now in Spain, as Bio supermarkets become more popular, and intolerances, or even life choices regarding diets, become widely more commonplace. I now have become an experimenter with food – my blender is my best friend, and my purse is suffering the consequences, but I don’t care. When your tummy feels happy, it affects everything in your life.

For this reason, I’ve decided to start sharing some of my experiments here, as I’d been posting many things on Facebook with people often requesting recipes – so watch this space for some interesting and (hopefully) delicious recipes!

Today’s experiment was based around chia seeds. These little balls of surprise contain huge amounts of fibre and protein, and magically bulk up things such as overnight oats and smoothies, to make a thicker texture. They have no taste, so are easy to add to recipes just for the nutritional benefit. But I wanted more from my chia seeds. I wanted to see what else they offered me. After browsing around the internet, I stumbled across a few recipes substituting egg as a binding agent for chia seeds. As it was a Sunday, my baking hat was already on – I love baking on Sundays, as it reminds me of home, and weekends spent licking the batter from spoons. I decided to create my own cake recipe that encompassed lactose-free and gluten-free.

Why not go the whole hog, though? If I didn’t use an egg, I could go further and make the cake dairy-free…and then push it more and make it refined sugar-free. A true experiment, because I bloody love cake. Nothing beats the light, fluffy goodness of it when it’s freshly baked. However, I’d sworn I’d eat less sugar (the ingredient in EVERYTHING, it seems) and was looking for recipes the other half could eat guilt-free. Needs must.

So, here’s my recipe for a banana loaf (one of my favourites in the loaf world), but tweaked to be free from nearly everything. Enjoy!

Chia Seed Banana and Walnut Loaf

Chia seeds absorbing away
Chia seeds absorbing away

The first thing to do is get your chia seeds into some water and let them soak it up. You’ll need 1tbsp of them, to 3tbsp of water. I just used tap water and left them in a little ramekin to do their thing. This will replace your egg and bind your mixture together. Plus so much good in such a little seed can’t be doing any harm, can it?

Pre-heat the oven to 170 degrees centigrade. On a hot day in my kitchen, there was nothing less that I felt like doing, but having the oven ready means having cake much sooner!

While those absorb, mash up bananas in a mixing bowl. Then add your muscovado sugar. You could do this with other sugars, of course, but I’m very partial to it in baking for its rich taste, and the fact that it’s non-refined. It’s difficult to get hold of in Spain but you can go to Bio markets and self-serve nut/grain shops like ‘Gra’ in the Gracia neighbourhood – which is reasonably priced and crammed up to the brim with alternative flours, pastas and grains. You can also sweeten your cake up with dates, but I like to taste the banana more than anything, so I put quite little sugar in.

Muscovado sugar and mashed banana ready for further mashing
Muscovado sugar and mashed banana ready for further mashing

I added some maple syrup into my mix, but you don’t have to. I am a sucker for syrup in general, so it winked at me from the corner of the cupboard. I think it wouldn’t make much difference flavour-wise, so if you have some to hand, then do the same as me and pour a smidgen in.

Mix up your sugar and banana mix, and add vanilla essence/powder. I bought some pure vanilla powder from a local health shop, and felt it was quite expensive at €12, but I use it every day for smoothies and other puddings so it’s a worthy investment, plus it lasts a while. The chia seeds need to have rested in the water for twenty minutes, so make sure they have done so, and then add them into your banana/sugar blend.

Weigh desiccated coconut and buckwheat flour out, and add the tsp of baking powder. If you don’t make this GF, you can use self-raising flour and cancel out the baking powder. You could add chocolate pieces/cacao nibs/cocoa powder for flavour, but that’s another experiment waiting to happen!

The finished mix
The finished mix

Mix your flour and coconut into the mashed banana mixture. Now it’s time to add some almond milk, a little at a time along with the flour mix, until you have a nice smooth consistency. Your instincts should tell you how much you need to put in – if it’s a little on the dry side, add more almond milk, and if it’s too watery, then you may need to add more flour/coconut to bulk it up. This is the reason why you need to add it all a little at a time!

The finishing touch will be some walnuts. Cut them up small, if you like, or keep them rather big for texture. Fold them into the mixture and it’s ready to be poured into a baking tin, pre-greased (I did mine with vegetable oil) or filled with baking parchment.

Put your cake in the oven and cook for about 40-45 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean. Take out and leave to rest, then get it while it’s hot! The loaf’s texture is heavy because of the buckwheat, so if you don’t like that kind of dessert, you can switch and experiment with flours. I wanted a dense loaf suitable for work time snacks, so the texture was perfect for me.

The finished product!
The finished product!

Voila! Here’s my finished loaf. The colour was a rich brown, and it might sound strange, but that’s exactly how it tasted to me – I told you I liked that muscovado taste! The bananas add a lot of flavour and the texture is completely different to your usual banana loaf, which is why I liked it a lot. You could serve it as a dessert and pour more syrup on it, if you liked, or you could do as I’m going to, and take slivers for fuel throughout the day.


120g buckwheat flour

2 whole bananas

60g dark muscovado sugar (dates can also be added to sweeten)

1 tsp baking powder (can be found gluten-free)

1 tsp pure vanilla powder or vanilla essence

Cutting into the loaf
Cutting into the loaf 

30g desiccated coconut

50ml almond milk

1 tbsp chia seeds, mixed with 3 tbsp water

Handful of walnuts

Maple syrup to taste


Wot? No Sossages?

Of course, as English, we have stereotypes. Every nation has them, and they can be quite fun at times, especially when you learn to laugh about them, stiff upper lip and that, what what. We seem to be seen as a nation who partakes in strange humour, constantly insults one another, whilst being ridiculously polite and able to queue until we’re blue in the face. One stereotype I just simply can’t fathom, and almost abhor, however, is the fact that we’re seen as a nation who just doesn’t have good food. It’s a well known fact that Brits apparently can’t cook and don’t eat well. I can understand that given the size that Brits are coming to be, and the state of health of our children/adults alike, the world might have this impression of us. But it’s just not fair! It’s simply not true. Having sat for dinner with Spanish families for over seven months now, and discussed food matters, the remark I now hear most frequently is; ‘I never knew you had so much to offer’. Talks of fruits, vegetables, cakes, main dishes, everything you could think of, that the Spaniards had no idea we had on offer.

I can understand that if one looked at the basic meat and two veg style of Brit supper, then the wrong impression could be given. I’m not a big meat eater myself, let alone fish, so I do struggle here a bit in Spain, where the daily diet has to include at least one of each. The food’s great here, and they’re healthy, lithe, and sporty, with a good attitude to eating, relaxing, and dining. I think Brits got lazy somewhere along the way, and decided fast food was easier, like our American cousins, but even so, we still have some great things that I’ve been discussing recently with nostalgia.

Yum! Proper sossages.

Of course, we can all agree to disagree when it comes to things like Marmite, but just simple things like bacon and sausages I have to hand to the English when it comes to it, as I don’t like streaky bacon, which is the standard here, and I definitely don’t like finding bits of gristle in my sausages, which I find more often than not here. They’re not as salted and seasoned here, too, so I do believe you can’t beat a good Cumberland or Lincolnshire sausage.

Apples here are entirely awful; and I don’t exaggerate this fact – even some of the Spaniards themselves have agreed with me on this. Bland, the wrong kind of chewy, a little seedy and almost fluffy so they fall apart in your mouth, they have almost no flavour and you feel like you’re only eating them in order to get one of your five a day. Granny Smiths can be bought here but they’re awfully expensive, as are Pink Ladies, but I do miss a good Cox’s Pippin, or just the simple Garden Gang ASDA apples which are a snip at £1 a bag (although inflation has probably got the better of me here and by the time I go back to England they’ll be at least £2.50). The variety of apples we have is much richer, much more vibrant, and entirely more satisfying. Other seasonal fruits include gooseberries (grosellas), blackberries (moras), redcurrants (grosellas rojas – apparently there is no difference between gooseberries and redcurrants here, according to the names they give, which I can assure you is not true…they’re entirely different fruits!), and blackcurrants (grosellas negras, if you hadn’t guessed that), to name but a few.

As far as I was aware, they look nothing like redcurrants! I tried to describe them to my Spanish family as ‘Small kiwis with hair and stripes’. Er. Kind of.

We have a rich variety of fruits and vegetables, which I do believe we don’t always take advantage of, but our basics are brilliant for cooking, eating fresh, and baking. Strawberries with cream, a Wimbledon favourite, which brings me onto another lament – no cream. That was a bit of a lie, they do of course have cream, even squirty type, which I would have thought was a cardinal sin over here; but they don’t have cream that goes over a fat content percentage of 35%. Quite right, you’re probably thinking. Sounds jolly healthy. But imagine ice cream made with milk and less fatty cream, strawberries without the rich double cream coating, your favourite dessert with a covering of what almost seems like milk.

A whole Summer without this – what on Earth will I do?

I was looking to bake myself a nice cake with homemade ice cream for my birthday, or a semifreddo, but what would you know, all the things I wanted to bake required double cream, which just doesn’t exist here. I’d have to try and make it myself right from the cow. I can lament all I want, I suppose, but it’s not truly serious – I of course miss some British cooking, but it’s mostly the baking rather than the main courses, which I’ve never been keen on much due to the meaty content. Ginger doesn’t exist here either, really, except in Chinese food, or upon occasion in smoothies. I love a ginger nut or a good HobNob, brandy and ginger snaps, syrup pudding, ginger cake, and marmalade cake, which I hadn’t thought about much until recently, and now I’m at the verge of salivating over the keyboard.

Here’s an example of some fabulous British recipes, that I would urge anybody to try, and think twice about what they say when they remark on our cuisine, or lack of it indeed!

Summer Pudding

A tasty dish celebrating English summer fruits, including the aforementioned types of grosellas – redcurrants, blackcurrants, and blackberries, strawberries, with raspberries. Delicious with that naughty double cream, but just with the sweet juice that runs off the fruit mix, it’s enough to make you dream of Summertime in the Winter.

What you expect to find cutting into a Summer pud.

Eton Mess

Named from the famous school, of course, after being traditionally served at cricket tournaments there, and celebrating the strawberry in a different fashion to Wimbledon. Meringue, the hard type, which is difficult to find in Spain, is broken up with a strawberry/raspberry/red fruit coulis, with sugar and that famous double cream again, but it can easily be made with normal ‘nata’ and Greek yoghurt. Serve it chilled in a clear glass for a nice visual treat at well as a tasty one.

Ginger Nuts

Easy enough to buy in British supermarkets, but well worth making. Delia’s somewhat of a Saint for us in regards to cooking, and this recipe is fabulous. Gingery, warming biscuits aren’t probably what one needs in a sunny climate, but when the weather’s cooler and you need the cockles of your heart warming, I’d recommend whipping up a batch of these.

Gooseberry Fool

Gooseberries are obviously difficult to find abroad, but it’s well worth it for the tart taste of this tangy ‘fool’, which can also be made with other fruits such as rhubarb or raspberries. I remember not liking it so much when I was younger, but now I think it’s wonderful.

Gooseberry Fool.

Simple drink – Elderflower Cordial

Even better if you put Gin in it!

And the final, quintessential Brit drink…

It’s Pimms o’clock! 

Get your pitchers ready for Pimms.

Pimms always reminds me of Summer. When made correctly, with the right fruit, and the mint, it’s just divine. I haven’t seen it here in Spain but I’m getting a bottle brought over for me thanks to the wonder that is Duty Free: can’t wait to savour that Brit taste for my Birthday. It’ll be Eton Mess, Pimms, Gin sorbet, and strawberries all round, I hope.

La Castañadas

Picture an October without Hallowe’en. It’s pretty difficult to imagine, given that in England, it’s just something we ‘do’ – not as heavily dosed up as the Americans on sweets and tacky costumes, but certainly celebrated enough to rocket Hallowe’en spending in England up to roughly £4 billion this year alone. Yet here, Hallowe’en is something that goes relatively amiss. All week in school, I have been playing picture memory games with printouts of ghosties, ghoulies, haunted houses (‘hanteeed howze’), and pumpkins. The children absolutely love learning about Hallowe’en, because they’re already aware of it, but it’s just not done on the same scale here. Trick or Treating (Truco Trato) is a relatively new phenomenon, and most children don’t do it – they just have an American friend that goes in the next neighbourhood. I’ve also watched (umpteen times) a video of Jack, a young English boy from London, engage in the most civilised children’s Hallowe’en party on record. “Golly gosh, Jack, what scary pizzas you’ve made.” “Why thank you mama!” “Children, let’s partake in Apples on Strings!” “Oh, what super duper fun, hooray!” and so on, and so on, until you feel the need to visit Jack and burn his house down with a pumpkin lantern for being so smug in a witch’s hat.

How not to light your pumpkin.

This week, I’ve managed to learn new words in Spanish, though they might not be ones you want to add to your phrasebook. Writing out Hallowe’en menus with the kids is great fun, as of course, children’s fascination with the relatively disgusting means they are suddenly very keen to learn new English words. And the only way for them to learn, is to ask me – so, this week, my trusty diccionario has found the words for ‘sangre’, ‘ gusanos’, ‘piel’, and ‘moques’. I’ll give you a Rolf moment and ask if you’ve guessed what it is yet. Two I could legitimately use in an accident, and inform you there’s blood on me because I’ve cut my skin open – ‘sangre’ and ‘piel’. Now, the other two. ‘Gusanos’ translates as worms, which is handy to know, but not really as useful as ‘I’d like two stamps, please’, which I still haven’t managed to get under my belt. And the last, truly terrible one, doesn’t have a polite translation in English. I’ll just tell you that it’s produced when one has a runny nose, and we’ll leave it at that.

I imagine you always wanted to find out the word for these in Spanish.

Each year I take great delight in carving up my pumpkin, usually whilst indulging in a nice macabre film – that’s an oxymoron if ever you heard one. Whilst I’m sure you can get large pumpkins here, I haven’t actually seen any – they’re all piddly little things that would take two minutes to carve out and scrape. Naturally, when we took to carving these, the insides didn’t yield enough to make my usual pumpkin pie. I miss the smell of nutmeg and cinnamon wafting through the house as the candle inside the pumpkin flickers through the gaping mouth.

Here, however, the time around the end of October and the beginning of November is certainly nothing to be sniffed at and dismissed as boring, because they don’t do Hallowe’en. It’s the time to celebrate their own special festival – La Castañadas. This festival celebrates all that is autumnal, centring around something we also eat in this season: the chestnut. This humble little nut has sparked off years of traditional celebration in Catalonia. The school spent days preparing for this: in the dinner hall, their version of a Guy was set up and displayed. The children stuff clothes with newspaper to form a large ‘abuela’ – grandma. In our school, a stuffed old lady in what seems to be ragged or old clothing sits in a deckchair, frying pan smouldering on the fire, chestnuts dotted around the pan and floor accordingly. Select children dress up as the elderly lady, daubing rouge on their cheeks, adorning a headscarf, and pulling on ropey old skirts with a motheaten jumper. It’s become a happy celebration, much like Hallowe’en, instead of the sombre remembrance of the dead that it used to be. The children didn’t have lessons on Friday, and were hugely excited by the fact that thanks to the little old chestnut, they could spend the day playing games, watching films, and screaming in the corridor.

La Castañera - that old chestnut.

It’s not just chestnuts that are eaten on La Castañadas. When the festival was being described to me, I had difficulty not showing my inner disgust when they described some of the typical foods consumed. Now I’ve come to try them, I’m pleasantly surprised, but ask yourself what you would be thinking when you overheard dinner conversation (in Spanish) about recipes for panellets, one of the typical foodstuffs enjoyed at this festival. Here’s what I managed to piece together:-

– You take a potato, peel it, boil it, and mash it down, same as mashed potato.

–  You add ground almonds to the potato and mix it all together, to form a sort of dough.

–  Roll the dough into balls and glaze with egg. Cover in pine nuts and put in the oven, until golden brown.

Perhaps it doesn’t sound the most exciting of treats – the combination of egg, potato, and ground almonds didn’t really appeal to me, particularly when I learned you can flavour the mix with chocolate powder or similar to change the taste. However, I powered through my apprehension, and I’m glad I did. The taste isn’t like anything I’ve had before – somehow the almonds make it taste rather grainy and sweet, like a marzipan that hasn’t quite formed correctly or has gone wrong. You have lots of different types to contest with, also. Go to any Forn de Pan (baker’s), and you’ll see rows and rows of little panellets, all lined up and ready to be boxed up, tied with a ribbon, and taken to the family to share over the long weekend.

Panellets, accompanied with coffee, are the perfect weekend treat.

A lot of the recipes and foods I see here, I wish we had in England. I’ve rather taken to the ensaimada, a roll of sweet pastry curled up like a snail, and dusted with icing sugar, that can contain custard like a danish pastry, be eaten by itself, or be glazed with chocolate for that extra cheeky treat. Another treat is Cacaolac, that the children seem to live off, a rich milkshake type drink, so sweet that if you drink it quickly, your head starts to spin. They eat a lot of meat, of course, and the smoked sausages, cured hams, and chorizo, are wonderful, if a little on the salty side. Oil is daubed on everything – but it’s okay, because it’s olive oil, and that means it’s healthy, or at least they keep telling me.

Ensaimadas, the trick to a healthy Spanish diet...or not.

Then we have other things that I just know the English do better. A good pint of milk, a sponge cake, and, here’s one you might not have suspected – asparagus. Asparagus here is often seen in jars, like pickles, and it’s white. They have green asparagus, but it’s not as common. And heaven forbid that you should do the usual boil it in a pan, and serve alone, with a good slab of salty butter to dip the stalks in. I described this as one of my favourite childhood meal accompaniments, and was met with revulsion: ‘Asparagus! Boiled! But you can’t possibly! And with BUTTER! You crazy English.’ Normally I’ll submit and say their diet is healthier, and mostly better in every way, as it’s fresher and less laden with fat, but this one I’ve got to give to the Brits. Here, you’ll have asparagus fried in oil and salt, something that to me takes the wonderful taste of the vegetable away, and makes it just taste like olive oil – which they obviously enjoy, seeing as they lather it on everything from salad to green beans, to potatoes. They’ll be telling me it goes rather well with jam roly poly, next…