Tottie Limejuice Family Dinner

As birthday presents go, a diagnosis of coeliac disease was not top of my wish-list for my 60th.

I had been feeling tired and sickly and losing weight off and on for more than a year. I had seen a couple of doctors who each had their own pet theory. One thought the fact that I was restoring an old grottage(grotty cottage) was significant, and was concerned about the likes of lead-based paint.

The other thought it was more than likely linked to four years of looking after my elderly mother, who had dementia, in difficult circumstances.

Once I moved into my grottage and changed doctors, my new one was on a mission to find out exactly what was going on. She it was who decided to test for anti-bodies, although my symptoms were not classically coeliac.

Friends were very encouraging, telling me of people they knew coping effortlessly with the disease. The problem was, they overlooked one important factor. These people lived in the UK, mostly within a short bus ride or drive of a 24-hour Tesco, with its extensive range of gluten free products (other supermarkets have the same). I live in the middle of nowhere in rural France where we don't have Tesco. And we certainly don't have 24-hour opening.

By nature and persuasion, I am a locavore. I like to do all my shopping and business transactions locally. My move had been carefully planned based on me being able to buy produce from the market in my local village, topped up by odd essentials from the small supermarket in the next town, less than ten miles away.

This being France, every meal is based round bread, which was now on the forbidden list for me. My new diet involved removing all wheat, rye and barley and, until my symptoms settled down, oats too, since some coeliac sufferers can be affected by the avonin in oats.

To make matters worse, the baker from a nearby village had just started a home delivery service to my hamlet every Friday and his was without doubt the best bread locally, and his pain au chocolat was truly to die for. I really was nearly in tears when I had to tell him not to call on me any more for my weekly treat.

There must be other coeliacs in this part of the world, but I have not yet encountered them. The blank looks which greeted me in the local shops when I asked for gluten-free products told me I was certainly a rare breed. My local supermarket were kind and helpful and did start stocking some gluten-free products but they were most highly sugared cereals, biscuits and cakes, which did not appeal to me at all. There was also some bread,three times the price of a normal loaf and, as I soon discovered, it would actually be tastier to eat the box it came in and throw away the loaf.

Eating out became a real challenge. It was already hard enough as, from choice, I don't eat meat and vegetarianism is still in its infancy in this part of the world. Since coeliacs cannot tolerate even minute traces of gluten the safe tolerance level is 20 parts per million it was worrying how often I was asked what gluten was and was it found in nuts?

Restaurants were always kind and tried to help but would invariably offer to make me a sandwich. I got used to eating large bowls of salad, as at least the risk of gluten contamination from that was minimal.

Help did come though in the form of my special red card. I joined the French association of gluten intolerants, although coeliac is an auto-immune disease, not technically a food intolerance. They provide the card which lists all the permitted and prohibited foodstuffs and it has proved very useful when eating out.

Reluctantly I've had to modify my locavore and eco-conscious ways in favour of mail-ordering the odd treats from the UK, and asking visiting friends to bring out my favourites. The very kind fans who read and enjoy my Sell the Pig series of books also send me out little gifts, so my cupboard is always well stocked with such goodies as jammy dodgers and stem ginger cookies.

It's always harder to learn a modified diet in later life and as gluten is so important in giving bread in particular its familiar consistency, it takes a while to learn to cook in a different way. I've invested in a bread maker with a gluten-free programme. The resulting product is not really like bread at all but it is, at least, edible.

It took a long time for the symptoms to abate and I have six-monthly blood tests to check the anti-body levels. I've learned to carry emergency nibbles with me wherever I go, especially when invited out for a meal.

I hate the fact that it's called coeliac disease. To me it is just a big inconvenience that I'm slowly learning to live with.

One good thing about it recently was that when the son of a friend was doing a school project connected to his wish to be a baker, I was able to give him all sort of posters and leaflets about living gluten-free so he produced the best project of any of his classmates.

At least my silly disease was useful for something!

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