Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Gluten Free Cruising in the Norwegian Fjords on the Sapphire Princess

Have you ever considered cruising, but been put off for fear of being stuck in the middle of the ocean unable to find anything to eat because you are gluten free? Think again! For those of you who follow my Instagram account, you will know that in August, I was lucky enough to take a family holiday cruising in the Norwegian Fjords on the Sapphire Princess with Princess Cruises..... and it turned out that gluten free cruising was gob-smackingly good.

I want to be absolutely clear... This was a self-funded family holiday with no commercial blog interest, but I was genuinely so bowled over by the experience, that I wanted to share our foodie journey with you.

Cruising is a new experience for us. We have historically been a family who travel into the heart of a city or country and who get down and dirty with the locals.... absorbing every aspect of culture available to us, spending time understanding local life first hand and of course, enjoying the local food and fare.

I honestly had no idea what to expect from cruising, but as we wanted to visit the Norwegian Fjords, it seemed a great opportunity to experience a new form of travel to somewhere which has an ideal viewpoint from the water. Departing from Southampton, it also had the added benefit of not having to worry about baggage limits and not having to hang around in an airport for hours.

As a family with two people who must not eat gluten due to Coeliac Disease however, we were definitely in the anxious camp about the probability of finding good, safe and varied gluten free food on board... Let's face it, the idea of being 'captive' on a ship for two weeks eating baked potatoes or salad would seriously dampen the experience, not least because one of the pleasures that cruisers relish is the eating. The prospect of sitting watching dish after dish of drool-worthy cuisine being served to other gluten-eating guests would be unbearable.

When we travel, we always go well prepared with gluten free rolls, biscuits and snacks so that we don't starve on holiday and as always, we went on board with plenty of sustenance. We needn't have bothered... for the first time ever, most of it stayed in our cases and got brought home again. The food and catering crew on the Sapphire Princess were 'on it' from the moment we boarded the ship, with a call to our stateroom almost as soon as we were in, acknowledging that we had dietary needs and asking us to make ourselves known when we came down to dinner. From that point on and throughout the cruise, both myself and Miss GF were frequently left speechless by the lengths they went to, not only to make eating on board as safe as possible, but also as decadent and varied as for all the other guests.

Nothing was too much trouble.... whatever we wanted, whether from standard restaurant menus or around the ship in the open all day cafes was made for us in gluten free form... and with no fuss. Seriously... when Miss GF saw coated frogs legs being eaten and decided that she wanted to try them too, the kitchen staff rustled up her very own gluten free batch as if it was the most usual request in the world. The guys on the Sapphire Princess knew exactly what they were doing.

Delicious Desserts (gluten free) - Sapphire Princess

While on board (and to make the most of our sea days), I managed to arrange a meet up firstly with Steve Reynolds, the Director of Food and Beverages and then later in the cruise, with Generoso Mazzone (Maitre D'Hotel) and Octavio Bellesi (Executive Chef), who were more than happy share their wisdom on free from cruising and food preparation on board.

Once inside the kitchens, you get a sense of the massive scale and logistical complications that they seek to overcome. Bear in mind that with more than 2,500 guests and the likelihood that a good couple of hundred of them will have food allergies and intolerances ranging from Coeliac through to multiple life-threatening allergies, they have a truly complex task keeping us all food-safe. The last thing they want or need is a passenger who gets sick because of an oversight.

Galley Tour - Sapphire Princess

The staff in charge of food on the ship are rightly proud of what they offer and when Executive Chef Octavio, offered for us to have a private tour around one of his galleys, we had no hesitation in taking him up. He runs a tight ship (pun intended) and I was reassured to see that not only were the areas for special food preparation separate from the rest, but that bowls and ingredients were covered prior to cooking and baking, to avoid accidental cross-contamination and that special ingredients were kept in their own storage areas. Even where dishes on the menu were naturally 'safe', they were prepared for us in a separate area to avoid cross-contamination.

One of the things that particularly interested me was how, with two and a half thousand guests and an additional one thousand one hundred crew members, the officers knew what food to bring on board. Surely food waste must be an issue?

Delicious Bread & Starters (gluten free) - Sapphire Princess

It turns out that the only food waste really comes down to what people leave on their plates and amazingly, the amount and type of ingredients brought onto the ship gets calculated well ahead of departure, based on the nationality and demographics of the travellers and what they are known to order as a general rule. So for example, a high number of cruisers from America will result in ordering higher quantities of meat, whereas Europeans will eat more fish.

The quantities of daily ingredients are simply astounding... 2,700 pounds of potatoes cooked daily, about 1,700 fish, 5,000 pounds of meat, 550 gallons of soup, 500 pounds of pasta, 2,500 pounds of vegetables, 1,600 pounds of salad, 13 gallons of mayonnaise, 400 pounds of butter, 6,000 pounds of fresh fruit, 100 gallons ice cream, 6,000 assorted pastries and 300 full sized cakes and pies. And that's just for starters.... the galleys use an average of 1,500 pounds of flour every day and a staggering 9,000 eggs. Yes really... I cannot in any way, shape or form get my head around what 126,000 eggs look like when they arrive at the start of a 14 night cruise.

But I digress...

Ahead of the cruise, guests are invited to complete an on-line dietary needs form which enables the crew to plan ahead and for the chefs and food staff to know exactly who needs additional care and attention. Whilst it is hoped that guests use this facility, it is clear from talking to the guys on board that there is always an 'inevitable' proportion of free-fromers who don't let them know up front, but still require the same level of food care.

More Delicious Desserts (gluten free) - Sapphire Princess

Being first time cruisers, we hadn't really considered the various dining options and happily accepted a fixed evening dining time in a named dining room. That suited our family fine, but I was also reassured when eating at other locations around the ship during the day, that staff in all kitchens would have been well-able to meet our dietary needs had we opted for 'anytime dining'.

Each evening, our head waiter would bring the next day's menu to myself and Miss GF to choose dinner (and lunch for sea days) for the following day. Whilst this seemed less spontaneous, the additional 'notice' meant that there was literally nothing on the starter-mains sections that was off limits. The philosophy of Princess Cruises was very clear.... As free-fromers, our experience should be as similar as possible to other guests. If the dish had pastry, they made it gluten free. If we wanted pasta, we got it. Sauces were specially adapted to make them safe and only where there was no other way round it were ingredients substituted for something completely different (such as rice instead of cous cous).

Main Courses (gluten free) - Sapphire Princess

Every evening we were treated to freshly baked gluten free bread which was served cloth-wrapped in separate baskets, opened and faced away from any glutenous offerings for safety and with a separate butter dish. I was left in no doubt that it was not just the chefs and kitchen staff that understood the risks of cross-contamination, but that waiting staff were equally well trained.

Stateroom Treat (gluten free) - Sapphire Princess

And desserts? Whilst I fully expected to suffer severe sugar withdrawals and to be 'required' to eat fruit salad and ice cream every day, I was left wide-eyed and spoiled. This cruise was like living on board a floating gluten free patisserie. Ok... the choice may not have been as free-flowing as for gluten-eating guests, but every night we were presented with a gluten free surprise dessert... everything from rhubarb pie and fruit crumble, to panna cotta, bananas foster, espresso creme brulee or chocolate brownie... floating islands and a whole array of light cakes, pastries and mousses. There were always gluten free patisserie options around the ship if you fancied a little treat outside of meal times and for breakfast we could order gluten free pancakes, muffins or french toast. There was even gluten free afternoon tea available. Decadent was an understatement, but most importantly we felt like we were equal to other guests and that we were no problem at all. No raised eye brows... no rolling eyes... no tutting or questioning whether a little bit of gluten was really going to matter. These guys 'got it' and that was just fine!

Afternoon Patisserie (gluten free) - Sapphire Princess

And it gets better... Imagine how excited we were when, after a particularly crappy wet weather day (soaked through four layers to the skin, puddles in our shoes after a long, rain-filled hike, phone completely trashed by water damage and the distress at losing all the photos stored on it building...) we came back to our stateroom to find a tray with four plates of gluten free goodies... biscuits, cakes and desserts. In our gluten free world, that kind of thoughtfulness just doesn't happen... and when it does, everything feels better. It was a lovely touch and it made us feel very special.

Stateroom Treat (gluten free) - Sapphire Princess

But it doesn't end there... Towards the end of our cruise, there was an unexpected knock at our door. We opened it to be greeted with a large and very decadent-looking cake. I'd seen similar cakes around the ship, evidently created for occasions like birthdays and anniversaries. We had neither, so I (hopefully) asked 'what's this?' and then tentatively 'Perhaps you have the wrong room?'... 'Compliments of the Maitre D' came the reply.

Stateroom Treat (gluten free) - Sapphire Princess

Seriously? I can honestly say Miss GF and myself were jumping around the room, so unexpected and exciting was our gift. The cake (a light chocolate sponge layered with whipped cream and decorated to impress) was absolutely delicious... but most of all, we felt like we mattered and importantly, like we weren't just another 'dietary need'.

Stateroom Treat (gluten free) - Sapphire Princess

Aside from the food, the cruise itself was amazing and the Norwegian Fjords stunning (I hope to share a separate travel post on our experience soon). Miss GF was absolutely smitten with the whole experience and has been frequently suggesting new cruise destinations since our return. She has even managed to find a TV channel entirely dedicated to cruise pestering...

Of course, I suspect the fact that GF eating was so easy and Coeliac was completely and refreshingly accepted without hinderance, was a massive part of her enjoyment. Our thanks go to the crew of the Sapphire Princess for that. You made our daughter's year!

Will we cruise again? For sure! Miss GF has her sights set on warmer climes next time... But whenever and wherever we venture onto the open sea again, we will certainly be expecting great things.

I am sharing my gluten free cruise experience with the following travel linkies:

Two Traveling Texans
Fifi and Hop

Otis and Us

Gluten Free Alchemist © 2013-18 unless otherwise indicated

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Autumn Windfall Pear & Walnut Brownies (gluten free)

Recently I've had a bit of a love affair with Brownies.... These Pear and Walnut Brownies are a perfect Autumn addition to my collection.  Simple to make and dappled with succulent, fresh fruit and crunchy, earthy walnuts, they welcome the abundance of the harvest and hint of the cooler, winter days to come.

I am lucky enough to live in Kent, the 'Garden of England'.... the south-eastern most corner of the UK, famed for its fruit growing, cabbage fields and cobnuts... its hops and vineyards...  oysters and Dover Sole.... and its more recent addition of 'Thanet Earth'... a complex of temperature and light controlled glass houses which enable the production of fresh fruit and veg year round.

Pears and walnuts are two of my favourite local ingredients (although Kentish walnuts appear slightly later in the year). When the end of summer beckons, boxes piled high with ripe picked pears and windfalls start appearing outside the gates of houses, sharing abundance in the community with hand-scribbled envelopes which read 'help yourself'. It seems every third house has a pear tree in the garden.... or an apple..... a plum.... a cobnut... a damson.... the harvest share is a delight.

With the incredibly hot 2018 summer we have 'endured' in this part of the world, I am sad to say that the harvest has definitely suffered, although I was still lucky enough to be offered a bag full of pears from a friend with too many to manage herself. In addition to inspiring a rather delicious pear and raspberry crumble, the gift inspired these Pear and Walnut Brownies, which I have to say, were absolutely delicious.

Brownies can often be over-sweet and are a popular chocolate and sugar fix, but I prefer to make mine seeking depth rather than sweetness in the ingredients I use. The soft, wet texture and fruitiness of the fresh pear helps to cut through the sugar as does the craggy, almost bitter, earthiness of the walnut. The brownies also have a more caramel-intense sweetness that comes from using a less-refined mixture of golden caster and brown sugars.

I have a number of Brownie recipes on Gluten Free Alchemist, with an array of brownie-textures. Personally, I love them all.... soft and fluffy..... drier and slightly crumbly.... dense and more gooey. These particular brownies err on the side of gooey, but not so much that they clag in your teeth. Whatever the texture however, they can often be tricky to cut. Whilst they should always be cooled completely in the tin, before turning out, I also find that placing them in the fridge for an hour to firm up allows for a more even, clean cut... after which you can bring them back to room temperature for the best texture and flavour experience.

In celebration of Autumn, I am sharing these amazing Pear and Walnut Brownies with :

Love Cake with Ness at Jibber Jabber
Cook Once Eat Twice with Searching for Spice
Cook Blog Share with Everyday Healthy Recipes


Baking Crumbs with Only Crumbs Remain and Jo's Kitchen Larder
Fiesta Friday with Angie, Spades, Spatulas & Spoons and The Pantry Portfolio
What's for Dinner with The Lazy Gastronome

More Fresh Pear Inspiration on Gluten Free Alchemist
Pear & Chocolate Cake
Mocha-Pear Upside Down Cake
Winter Ginger & Pear Trifle
Brown-Sugared Pear & Ginger Preserve
Heavenly Chocolate, Walnut & Pear Torte
Sweet Autumn Dessert Yorkshires with Vanilla Sauteed Pear & Walnuts and Blackberry Coulis
Raw Green Smoothie

More Brownie Inspiration on Gluten Free Alchemist
Beetroot Brownies
Chocolate-Banana-Coconut Brownies
Gooey Brownies
Chocolate-Peanut Butter Cup Brownies
Minty Chocolate Brownies
Chocolate-Cherry-Pecan Brownies
Toblerone Brownie

Pear & Walnut Brownies (makes 1 x 8 inch (20 cm) square tin - 16 brownies)


300g good quality dark chocolate - cubed
150g unsalted butter
100g plain GF flour blend (I used GFA blend A from this post)
50g ground almonds
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon GF baking powder
3 large eggs
60 ml milk
70g golden caster sugar
70g soft light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
140g fresh pear cubes (no peel or pips) - approx 1 medium-large pear
65g walnuts - rough chopped


  1. Preheat the oven to 180 C/350 F/Gas 4 and base-line a nonstick 8 inch/20cm square baking tin with baking paper.
  2. In a medium glass, heatproof bowl, melt together the chocolate and butter either in a microwave (medium setting, 30 second bursts, stirring between each until smooth) or over a simmering pan of water. Set aside.
  3. Weigh and mix together the flour, almonds, salt and baking powder until well blended and all lumps are broken down (I weigh into an airtight container and shake vigorously). Set aside.
  4. In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, milk, sugars and vanilla extract (preferably with a whisk) to blend completely.
  5. Add the dry ingredients and chocolate mixture to the bowl and fold through thoroughly until well blended and even in colour. 
  6. Fold through the cubed pear and chopped nuts.
  7. Pour the mixture into the prepared baking tin and smooth the top.
  8. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes until firm, but so that a skewer inserted into the centre comes out with a few crumbs attached. 
  9. Remove from the oven and cool completely in the tin.
  10. When cold, chill in the fridge for an hour (to make it easier to cut) before slicing into squares. 
  11. Decorate (or not) as you wish.
  12. Store at room temperature and eat within 2 days (or in the fridge it will last longer, but bring to room temperature before eating for best squidginess). 
Gluten Free Alchemist © 2013-18 unless otherwise indicated

Monday, 1 October 2018

A Coeliac-Friendly Pilates Retreat at the Beautiful Domaine du Pignoulet in Gascony, France

Sit down and grab a cuppa. A couple of weeks ago I spent an amazing weekend on a French Pilates retreat at Domaine du Pignoulet, with the loveliest group of bloggers you're ever likely to meet, being nurtured with delicious gluten free food and calm.... LOTS of CALM.

The last couple of years have been incredibly tough for me. Multiple and unexpected bereavements, a close shave with a terror attack in Barcelona, set against an emotionally punishing day job which has been in turmoil and a demanding full-on home life have all taken their toll on my resilience and ability to manage and stay strong. So when I was asked if I would like to join a group of bloggers to spend a long weekend in the beautiful region of Gascony, France, enjoying Pilates classes, good food and like-minded company, it seemed the timing could not have been better. And I was right... My time at Domaine du Pignoulet was the most calm and relaxed I have been in many many years. I feel blessed.

Photograph courtesy of Le Coin de Mel

My experience was in no way unique however and life has clearly been tough for most of us in our group of ten 'retreaters'. With 25 young kids between us and a myriad of other life, loss, relationship, parenting and health issues being faced, we were not only stressed on arrival, but more than ready and open to sharing our vulnerability that the experience of complete relaxation and being looked after can trigger. The setting of Domaine du Pignoulet invites the opportunity to bond, share and regenerate and as we drove through the gates, we were welcomed with open arms.... and with complete acceptance by Susie and James.

Susie and James run Pignoulet... a couple of Brits who have taken the bold step of leaving behind the UK rat-race to pursue a more peaceful existence in the south of France. Having bought this wonderful character-filled ex-farmhouse in 2016 from James' parents (who had undertaken a significant amount of renovation), they now share its zen and beauty with the rest of us by way of opening it to paying guests..... offering anything from holiday rental (sleeping up to 14), to Bed & Breakfast, part or fully catered holidays and Pilates and Yoga retreats.

I am quite envious of their decisiveness in making the break from UK life-stress, but they both have such great ideas and creativity and are such wonderful people with huge hearts and bags of care, that this is clearly a great move for them. Pignoulet offers a little haven of peace and tranquility that is perfect for regenerating the mind, body and soul.

The house itself is beautifully restored and comfortable, maintaining much of its rustic charm.... old wooden staircases, ornate ironwork, antique furniture, huge French shutters, colourful trinkets and farmyard memorabilia all add to the interest and atmosphere. The gardens which surround it are equally delightful.... with a large pool enveloped by rural quiet (apart from local bees buzzing round the fig trees)... ideal for chilling with friends and family. The whole place is a photographers paradise, especially if you like quirky angles, natural charm and nature.

The Pilates...

If you have never considered Pilates, I would thoroughly recommend you give it some thought. Regardless of your age and level of fitness (I am heading upwards on the first and downwards on the second), it is a wonderful form of exercise that can be pitched for everyone. With a particular focus on improving your core strength, flexibility, balance and posture, you gently push your body to betterness with less risk of damage than other, more strenuous forms of exercise. But don't be fooled... its 'gentleness' in no way limits its effectiveness and you quickly feel the benefits. The emphasis on being constantly aware of your breathing and how your body moves, has the additional benefit of taking you to an incredibly liberating level of mind-body connection (whether you are a beginner or more experienced), automatically removing your attention from the disturbance of the white noise around you, to allow complete calm and tranquility.

At Domaine du Pignoulet, the Pilates Studio is idyllic. Set in an open, converted barn, surrounded by fresh air and sounds of the countryside, this backdrop provided a perfect ambience and setting for starting my journey on this most healing of activities.

Photo courtesy of Peachicks Bakery

I had not done Pilates before I attended this retreat (and neither had several of my fellow travellers), but Susie (who is a fully trained Pilates instructor, personal trainer, sports massage therapist and nordic walking instructor) was a wonderful teacher. Keeping a constant eye on how we were exercising and gently and patiently ensuring we were not only getting the best out of each session, but not pushing ourselves beyond where we were comfortable, the gains were measurable, even over the course of a weekend. Although my body had clearly been encouraged to push itself in new directions, my back (with which I have had a lengthy history of issues) and my many age-ached joints, muscles and tendons were starting to appreciate the new strength they were being offered.

Two weeks in and with a determination to continue practising, I am walking more upright, using my abdominal muscles more effectively and definitely slouching less... Since returning to the UK, I have started classes locally and have tempted both Mr and Miss GF to join me.... Family Pilates not only seems to offer a shared exercise option, but to be giving us some family time together as well...

The food...

Despite having an incredibly diverse group when it came to eating, with a wide range of allergies, intolerances and dietary preferences to cater for, Susie and James took feeding us in their stride. They embraced all and each of our needs not only safely, but in a way that made us feel like we were no trouble at all. As someone who frequently encounters rolled eyes and tuts, this was so refreshing. I allowed myself to embrace that rare feeling of trust around meal times.... that I didn't have to worry about accidental glutening. Susie and James had done their research well and yet were equally open to checking and learning about the micro-risks to be aware of when avoidance is a matter of health.

Safety approved, the food we ate was amazing. Fresh, local and seasonal produce whipped up into nutritious meals and energy-boosting snacks and served with genuine care and generosity that can only come when someone has put their heart into making it themselves.

With everything from freshly-grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, kitchen-blended museli, local honey, fresh juice and home-made energy balls at breakfast... to crisp, fresh and colourful salads, olives, cold meats, home-whizzed houmous and local cheeses for lunch... to perfectly planned and inclusive 3 course meals in the evening (including desserts of boozy figs from the garden and vegan aqua faba chocolate mousse), everything we ate was not only delicious, but healthy too. In the afternoons we were even treated to tea and gluten free cake... the piece de resistance, being a divine flourless orange cake.

Of course, no weekend of relaxation would be complete without a little tipple and we were pampered with delectable local wines and (my favourite) Kir Royale... a heavenly combination of champagne with an infusion of Creme de Cassis.

The local Area...

Although we stayed at Domaine du Pignoulet on a Pilates retreat, the house is also available to book as holiday accommodation, with or without catering. I last visited Gascony many many years ago, but this trip reminded me of its beauty and potential as a holiday destination in its own right. Sitting close to the Pyrenees, to centres such as Toulouse and Lourdes and to many pretty small towns and villages, it is an ideal location for hiking, cycling, swimming, running, horse riding, fishing or just sightseeing Gascony and its neighbouring regions and pottering in the local markets.

I am certainly considering it as an option for a future family break...

Although I was invited to attend Domaine du Pignoulet on a bloggers retreat, I honestly cannot shout loudly enough about the wonderfulness of the experience I had there. The attention to detail and comfort, homeliness and emotional acceptance, carefully facilitated pilates sessions, delicious home-cooked food and the opportunity to connect in such beautiful surroundings with a group of women that I can now firmly call friends, will be time that I will treasure forever. Our booking is already made for next year...

If you would like to experience a little piece of this Pilates paradise or spend some time in this most beautiful of French regions, visit the Domaine du Pignoulet website and contact Susie and James for more information. I seriously cannot recommend it enough.

For other reviews on the Pignoulet bloggers retreat :
Le Coin De Mel
Free From Fairy
Dairy Free Kids
Cook Veggielicious
Peachicks Bakery
Mummy Tries
Free From Farmhouse
Just Eilidh

Shared with :

Otis and Us


I was invited to attend a bloggers retreat at Domaine du Pignoulet. All views and opinions on the trip are absolutely my own and I have shared a completely honest account of my experience. Although costs of my accommodation were covered by the retreat, I paid for all flights and transfers myself.

Gluten Free Alchemist © 2013-18 unless otherwise indicated