How my city changed – Gluten-free Cambridge and the magic of chickpeas

Blog Stir brunch plate
Brunch at Stir Cambridge

Note to readers – This review of gluten-free cafés and restaurants is as much a resource for myself as, I hope, a help to readers looking for gluten-free fare in Cambridge, England.

(All restaurants featured are chosen out of personal interest. This is a fully independent review. No financial or other reimbursement has been offered to me by any of the proprietors mentioned.)

To return to the main page of this blog (for posts on books, creativity and writing, please click here )

For some local leads on gluten free dining, do read on…

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Stourbridge Common, Chesterton, Cambridge

Four years ago I moved to the Arabian Gulf. Every summer I’d return to the place I grew up (Cambridge, UK), take in the breathable (less than 40 degree!) air, return to the Middle East refreshed, but frustrated by the lack of reasonably-priced places serving fresh food in my hometown.

This year was different.

Cambridge has sprouted indie cafés and restaurants like an old tree properly nurtured. A smattering of new, individually-owned places to eat has sprung up.

During a run of pastry-heavy feasting in Oman, I discovered in 2016 I had Coeliac. It can make eating out risky. Like some coeliacs, I also don’t eat dairy. For months, this kept me cooking at home, fearing the risk of gluten cross-contamination. But a girl’s gotta live and travelling’s a great way to push the limits. During this summer’s visit, I found, to my delight, that Cambridge has changed.

Below is a list of places in Cambridge whose gluten-free fare I have found delicious and whose attention to cross-contamination makes them safe places to eat for the gluten-conscious.

PRICE KEY (FULL MEAL)*

£ under £8

££ around £15

£££ £25 or above

*Summer 2018

Zio Mario – Italian Artisan Food and Coffee

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£

As you enter this Italian artisan bakery/café, if the friendly proprietors don’t get there first, a large omelette-like dish will greet you from a pan at the front of the glass counter. Yellow and crispy, it has the portioned look of a Greek ‘bougatsa’ but is most definitely savoury.

In case you’ve never had the pleasure, a ‘farinata’ is a large, oven-cooked terrine made mainly from chickpea flour and water, originating in Northern Italy. It’s naturally gluten free, with an earthy taste a bit like a mild Indian flatbread.

I felt sure from the consistency that there was egg in there but no, if you’re vegan this will suit you too. At Zio Mario, they serve it with greens, pesto, peppers, tomatoes and a choice of flavoured oils.

They also offer a number of delicious-looking pasta dishes and Italian cakes and savouries, baked in huge ovens which stand behind the counter. It’s difficult to describe the pleasure of seeing a real independent bakery in action in my hometown after years of chains and supermarket baked goods. This place, at lunchtime, is crowded with locals, commuters (it’s next to the train station) and they play relaxed Sunday morning-style jazz.

(Zio Mario, CB1, by the train station)

Stir

stir

£

Their coffee is good (and strong.) They cater to weird needs (I’m dairy free, but do eat butter and sometimes add it to coffee – ‘bullet-proof’ anyone?) But it’s the gluten-free brownie I go back for. A regular fixture since they opened, it’s gooey and chocolatey, sweet but not too much. It does contain egg – hence the consistency – and is one of the many gluten-free items available at this café.

Stir also has a bakery next door which produces gluten-free bread, making brunch at Stir possible (with options such as avocado on toast, GF bread with hummus & beetroot stack, smoked salmon on GF toast etc…) Breakfast and brunch can be the most challenging meals to eat out for with food intolerances but Stir has managed to make it a pleasure.

This café has become something of a hub in the last few years. Thanks to the wraparound windows, even in winter, light pours in. There’s a yoga studio next door, with listings for classes and in-café activities appearing on Stir’s blackboard.

Stir (CB4, 253 Chesterton Road)

BBQ Grill N Bar

Blog BBQ Grill n bar

££

Despite the name, this is not a fast food chain (although dishes do arrive quick). Drawn by the knowledge that a number of naturally gluten-free dishes exist in Turkish cuisine, I was curious to try this new restaurant.

The owner was quite frankly fantastic. Going through the menu at length, giving suggestions and even offering at one point to pop across the road to the Coop for gluten- free bread to go with our starters.

Finding ways to not overdo the meat and fish which, depending on how they’re cooked, can be easily gluten free, I have embraced chickpeas. Namely, hummus!

At BBQ Bar N Grill it is creamy and intense. Combined with baba ganoush (aubergine-based dish), rice-filled vine leaves and salad, it becomes a balanced gluten-free meal. For more substantial dining, there is oven fresh sea bass cooked the Turkish way, with herbed potatoes, grilled meat or salmon, all served with a zingy side salad.

BBQ Grill N Bar (CB1, Brookgate, off Hills Road)

The Salisbury Arms

Blog S arms doorway

£/££

I’ve never really been a pub go-er (more of a clubber in my youth ;)) but planning to meet up with a friend for dinner, the Salisbury Arms on Tenison Road stood out online, for its broad and inventive gluten-free-friendly menu.

They make both delicious-looking regular and gluten-free pizzas, baked in an open kitchen at one end of the bar. And if the chance of wheat flour touching the GF pizzas is a problem for your health, then there are a number of other dishes guaranteed free from gluten.

We had torched mackerel with prawn and tomato bruschetta which was wonderful. It’s hard to overstate the joy of finding restaurants which not only advertise as gluten-free-friendly but provide GF bread with the meal. The Salisbury Arms is one such place – their bruschetta was infused with the taste of the whole ‘pot.’ For dessert, apple pie with GF pastry was another happy surprise. My friend, who does not have food intolerances, had his with dairy-free ice cream – delicious!

The Salisbury Arms, (CB2, Tenison Road)

The Oak Bistro

blog oak bistro

££/£££

Whether your diet is gluten free or not, this restaurant has a special atmosphere which translates to a fabulous dining experience for an occasion. Manned by a welcoming Maitre d’, it serves bistro classics cooked to perfection in an ambience of calm and candlelight.

Years ago, when awareness of food intolerances had not yet become vogue, the Oak Bistro offered gluten-free bread before the starter to be dipped in a herby tomato reduction. (Happily, it still does).

As in many UK restaurants, specifically gluten-free dishes are not listed on the menu but staff are well-versed on exactly how the food has been cooked and a Coeliac (or person with NCGS or other food intolerances) can eat with full confidence here. I had steak which they serve with truffle butter and hot (un-cross-contaminated) French fries (hard to find in many places). Desserts also cater to all; their sorbets are fresh and light.

Come here for a real treat or, if you work in the city centre and are lucky enough to have The Oak Bistro as your local to unwind in.

The Oak Bistro (CB2, Lensfield Road)

Three other UK based café/restaurants which are not independent (they are chains) but worth a mention:

Pizza Express

££

Rather than explain what makes this restaurant so important for those with food intolerances, I refer you to this helpful blogpost by Kevin at Gluten Free by the Sea, which reviews Pizza Express’s Gluten Free procedures. (If you’re intolerant to gluten and really miss pizza, this one’s for you.)

Pret a Manger

£

If you live abroad or haven’t come across it – Pret is healthy ‘fast food’ – quick, fresh, and they label all potential allergens/intolerance-provoking items which can be easily seen as you make your choice.

Cote

££/£££

Another chain which deserves a special mention is Cote, for the mini paper flags they place on all gluten-free dishes. Omitting gluten for many is a lifestyle choice rather than a serious threat to health but if the latter is a reality for you then a restaurant’s attempts to minimise the fear around eating outside the home can mean the world.

Cote’s dishes are French brasserie style, well-cooked and they serve filtered water in reusable pottery bottles.

I used to bemoan the fact that the foods I loved – bread and cake and pastries – had become off limits. But feeling well and travelling – the way I can now – I’d opt every time for that crispy chickpea farinata. Creamy hummus. Or that GF brownie on Chesterton Road, so generously conceived.

Buon Viaggio!

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P.S

Mustn’t forget these! Frangipane-flavoured, they’re great if you’re on the go and short of portable, sweet-tasting, gluten-free snack options. (You can find them in British supermarkets).

I review places and books I’ve enjoyed. If you would like your book reviewed on this blog, you can find details of how to get in touch via my contact page . I don’t review everything I am offered but I’m always happy to take a look.

As always I’d love to read your comments.

Do you live in another a part of the world with good gluten-free-friendly cafes and places to eat? Any restaurants to add to this Cambridge list? Feel free to recommend them below…

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