The gluten-free experience varies greatly. Some choose not to eat gluten, others medically cannot. I fall into the latter category, as I have coeliac disease. Coeliac disease is a genetic condition that makes my immune system attack my own tissues when I eat gluten, meaning I throw up. Most memorably, on Leicester Square Tube Station at rush hour, in a memory that haunts me to this day. This trait, however, means I have a unique perspective on Durham’s food and drink.
The Independent Cafes
Durham has so many independent cafes, almost all of which have amazing gluten-free options, so I’ve narrowed it down to my top three. However, my single complaint is this – why is every gluten-free cake option orange and polenta? I assume that due to the hardships of crumbly gluten-free baking, moist cakes work better. But seriously, before I was diagnosed I’d never had an orange and polenta cake. Now I can taste them in my dreams.
1. Cafedral. I had not had a scone in approximately six years until I went to Cafedral. Savoury gluten-free options are available, there are gluten free cakes, but I will always. Always. Get a scone. Extra points for the great scheme where if you bring back a takeaway cup, you get given an avocado plant grown from seed. Great way to reduce waste.
2. Leonards. I was hesitant putting this one on the list and potentially jeopardising Leonards’ hidden gem status and lengthening the queues. But altruistically I will reveal that the savoury gluten-free options at Leonards are the best in Durham. The first time I had the chicken, mozzarella and pesto sandwich, I nearly cried.
3. Riverview. There are plenty of gluten-free options but my chief love of Riverview is a fond memory of apologising for asking what the gluten-free options were in a painfully British manner only for the waiter to make very intense eye contact with me and begin a 5-minute lifestyle coach-esque pep talk about how I shouldn’t be apologising for needing accommodations, while my allergy-free friends tried not to giggle.
Flat White also merits a mention. They do great gluten-free pancakes that almost make up for the insane queuing time. But so does the Flipnfast crepe truck in Market Square which, true to its name, is very fast. The dark horse winner is the Bubble Waffle Society in the Food Pit. With no artisanal decorations or flourishing plants, this place will never become a Durham lifestyle classic. But what they do have is gluten-free bubble waffles, and that will always top aesthetics in my book.
Let’s be honest, when people talk about Durham restaurants they’re either talking about Spags or Lebaneat. The two are the pillars that hold up an entire cohort of students. Yeah, we’ve got our chains, but I can go to a Fat Hippo or a Pizza Express anywhere. Who cares? I’m actively dreading the day I graduate and can no longer regularly take advantage of Spags’ two-litre wine deal. Spags has pizza, pasta and dessert allergy options, and candles on tables for romantic ambience. Lebaneat has allergy options, a great name, and you can bring your own booze.
An honorary mention also has to go out to Nadon Thai. They have great gluten-free curries that I have embarrassingly Caucasian responses to, gorgeous cocktails in eye-catching shades of green and are insanely quick to deliver food. They also once served my friend a dish with a rose perfectly carved from a mysterious vegetable and none of us could figure out if it was edible. She ate the whole thing anyway and is still going strong, so I assume it was.
The College System
The college system had its ups and downs for allergies. An up is a fond memory of being served for dessert every evening for about two months gluten-free brownie tastefully adorned with edible gold leaf, for reasons best known to the Grey College catering department. I took great joy in joining my friends, with their plebian apple crumble, and affecting a put-upon lament of “Oh, I’m just so sick of gold leaf”.
However, there were many downs. After feeling very ill the first few weeks (which I originally put down to being drunk all the time) I had to get in contact with catering staff to make sure the meals I was being served were actually gluten-free (they weren’t). And while there was also a non-gluten toaster set out for us in the mornings – wonderful – apparently despite making it into Durham University, some people can’t read signs that say “don’t put ‘normal’ bread in here”. Which meant I usually started my morning cathartically having a go at some sleepy fresher putting their gluten bread in MY toaster. However, I can’t complain. A friend with coeliac disease was told by her college to walk back to her block of accommodation each morning to toast her bread.
Formals and Balls
At nearly every formal or ball I am served a near identical slice of chocolate and orange tart. As you can see, sometimes the artsy bit of sauce as decoration changes, but the tart remains the same. Who is this catering company? Why do they supply every event in County Durham? We may never know.
While my experiences at formals have all been fine, a fellow coeliac at a different college was served gluten bread, then not allowed to leave the hall (due to formal rules), and had to throw up in her lap.
Night Out Foods
As someone from a major city, I think we can all agree the state of the night out food industry in Durham is abysmal. Its 2am, and you’ve just left Jimmy’s. All you really want is carbs. But the queue to Paddies is insane and Subways is closed. What to do? What to do indeed, when you can’t even eat anything on the Paddies menu. I have to go home and make my own junk food. Horrifying.
Sports and Societies
Initiations for any sport is a feared night. But as we all stood in someone’s back garden in the viaduct, trembling, dressed as sprouts and covered in egg, looking down at a green recycling crate filled with beer, baked beans, and tuna, I – a lowly fresher – turned to the team Captain and explained that medically, they couldn’t make me do this. He looked bemused, asked if I was lying, looked panicked as I began explaining the complexities of my stomach lining, and I was let off. Watching my fellow rowers drink baked beans while I stood, immune, was an ego-boosting power trip. Remember, it’s what medical conditions can do for YOU.
8/10, would be higher but I was covered in egg.
Actual University Studies
I study geography. They do not feed us.
The Science Site Cafes
I have a vengeful hatred for the Palatine Centre, which never has anything I can eat. The Billy B Cafe has gluten-free wraps (both meat and veggie options!) but so does both the Calman and Teaching and Learning Centres and the queues are much shorter there. All three also do gluten-free sandwiches but it’s the wraps that save the day. The gluten-free falafel wrap is lifechanging. I’d include the Chemistry Café but I don’t know where it is and at this point I’m too afraid to ask.
7/10 would be higher but the gluten free options are always more expensive than the ‘normal’ options, which does make economic sense but also feels discriminatory to me.
My final word is this – I’ve been lucky in my time at Durham, and not everyone will have had the same experiences as me. I have found that, from the University to the city, people are accommodating, and if they make mistakes, they are careful to correct them. But we need a Maccy’s in town – their chips are gluten-free!
P.S. it’s not Durham, but the Lily Tree Bakery in Newcastle is all gluten-free (and has a lot of nut/dairy/soya free options) and they do donuts!
Image credits: Pixabay, Sophia Massam