Sunday, 17 April 2016

Center Parcs Gluten Free Food Tasting

A few weeks ago we were contacted by Center Parcs UK asking if we’d like to attend a gluten free tasting session.  What luck – after all, it was being held in Woburn Forest the newest and only village we’ve not been to and also the one we’re hoping to visit later in the year. Previously frequent visitors we'd stopped returning due to concern about the availability of gluten free food options.  Not only would there be food to taste and talk about, but I could also do a pre-visit check, take some pics for J to review whilst also taking the chance to assess things like lighting, toilets and layout.
To get to the point where Center Parcs had decided to offer a tasting session must have taken a lot of planning and thought.  In fact, the Executive Chef, James Haywood, had previously challenged himself to see what it was like to be a diner who required gluten free food. He ate gluten free and blogged about it here. The experience left him "feeling like a second-class citizen" but this, fortunately, didn't deter him from the challenge to offer gluten free food across the Center Parcs restaurants.
Arriving at The Venue in the village, the bloggers assembled (Beth, Kim, Loriley and Lucy) and we were welcomed by Maddy, Steph and Eddie from Center Parcs.  After introductions, we chatted about gluten free gripes and goodies.  We also learnt that the food we were to taste was a range of items from different eateries onsite and is available across all villagesfrom the restaurants Huck’s American Bar & Grill, Sport's Cafe,The Pancake House, Rajinda Pradesh…  we were shown the specific dietary requirement menus used – more on this later.  It was good to see a range of items on the menus (including breakfast options at The Sport's Cafe) and we were soon treated to a 16 course tasting menu showcasing the delights on offer within Center Parcs restaurants.  Detailed below are the dishes... 

To start off, we were served (warm) artichoke dip with tortilla chips.  It was a tasty starter which would be a good sharing dish as was surprisingly hearty.

Next up was a mini Mac'n'cheese... and what a dish!  I thought it was fantastic and finished the lot (never mind there were 14 more dishes to try).  It turns out this is the SAME recipe served to all diners wherever it's on the menu - the only difference is the addition of gluten free crumb to the top (and the kids' version has a slightly different cheese sauce).  The macaroni and sauce is all gluten free... and fab.

The wings we tasted, from Huck's, were Spicy buffalo hot wings with ranch dressing and also BBQ wings.  Both were served up looking, smelling and tasting great.  The spicy one are SPICY (tabasco standard spice, not Nando's extra hot spice!) and both dishes were tasty.
Nachos were served next... nice and spicy with some kick from the Jalapeno peppers.  There was plenty of guacamole, sour cream and salsa to dig into.
Having tasted the Huck's menu items, we moved onto other dishes.

First up were some bite sized pizzas...which can be ordered for eating in at your accommodation through the in lodge dining service. We tried a selection of toppings from the menu.  I tried the seafood pizza and the others all looked and smelt appetising.  

Served in the Sport's Cafe, we moved on to Mini Fish and Chips... OH MY!! What an absolute delight... crisp batter, not too thick and beautifully cooked fish.  Wondrous (and I say this as an East Coast of Yorkshire lass who has had plenty of F&C in her time!!)  Delicious.  Served imaginatively in 'paper' cones for our tasting menu but, usually, the diner is treated to this delight on a 'newspaper' plate.  Asking Chef James about the fab batter, he revealed this is made using Dove's Farm Self Raising Flour and Daura Damm beer - a recipe we'll be trying ourselves soon.

The Grilled Cajun Swordfish was lovely.  The zesty lime added just the right amount of 'zing' and was also served with a refreshing green salad

Having read the Menu prior to the event, I was keen to learn what a slider is... turns out it's a mini burger.  We had a lovely selection to try, in specially baked mini buns, to provide a flavour of the burgers.  The burger was moist, tasty and very well cooked.  The food presentation was really appealing.  

Following the burgers, was the Mustard-brushed pork loin, served on a skewer with a mini hasselback potato and sour cream dip (which I dolloped over...)  

Prawn fajita shells were really well received too... the sizzling platter and clever moulding of the shells was a really eye catching way to present the food.  The prawns were moist and spicy and the shell remained crisp.

By this time, I was  definitely starting to feel full up but the presentation of the Grilled Tandoori Salmon was really eye catching and my senses were back in action.  It was a lightly cooked, spicy dish presented beautifully and is from the Rajinda Pradesh menu.

Finally, it was time for dessert.  What a platter of goodies we were offered.  Flourless Chocolate Torte that was rich and smooth accompanied by a tart raspberry compote - delicious (I ate the lot).  Dutch Apple pancake with cinnamon sugar and vanilla ice cream - tasty, very tasty.  A mini slice of Daim cake - always a hit with me. And, finally, Ultimate Chocolate Pancake with chocolate ice cream - the ice cream was fabulous.  What was most interesting about this course, was learning that the Pancake House has a range of gluten free options - I would NEVER have thought of even going to a pancake place as simply would not expect them to cater for those needing gluten free food. 

Although I was really impressed with the food we were served, a bit of a sticking point for me is the term “Gluten Sensitive” used as the heading for the menus.  There was discussion on the day around using this and we learnt that CP’s “legal bods” said Gluten Sensitive was the term to use… not being a specialist in food allergen labelling, it seems positive to have awareness regarding allergens BUT I’d prefer to see "No Gluten Containing Ingredients" alongside information about cross contamination risks. I like to be an informed diner and will go to great lengths to support venues catering responsibly to address dietary needs.

Looking at wider allergens and/or dietary requirements, there are also menus for vegans and lactose intolerant diners which is good (snapshot from Pancake House menu shown). We learnt that there is ongoing consideration within the company regarding potentially seeking accreditation relating to food allergens but there are a number of bodies who organisations can seek to align with so it’s not a simple decision.
The menus are available across the restaurants in all the Center Parcs UK villages which is great to know.  Before the tasting, I visited the onsite supermarket (the parc market) and was pleased to see a decent free from section in ambient, chilled and even some freezer items.

Overall, it was a really enlightening day.  There was a good exchange of views, many opinions shared about products that work well and plenty of suggestions (hot chocolate, marshmallows and waffles, please!) made.  The event was well supported by the Center Parcs team and I hope they learnt as much as I did.

The villages that Center Parcs have within the UK are definintely somewhere to consider visiting if you have dietary needs to take into account when looking for holiday/short break destinations.  As a family, we're planning to visit Woburn Forest later in the year... and have already started preparing J and trying to sort it out.  I feel confident I won't have to worry about taking the contents of the fridge to see us through our stay by bringing our own gluten free food... and, hopefully, we'll also be able to eat out safely and have snacks JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE!! What a lovely thought.

Many thanks to all at Center Parcs - it was a real pleasure to be part of this.   

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