As many as 45% of all people in Britain could suffer from food intolerances, according to Allergy UK. No surprise then that free-from products have become Britain’s fastest selling food category, with sales forecast to grow 13% to reach £531 million in 2016, up from an estimated £470 million in 2015.
Clearly, the free-from ‘fad’ is here to stay, and one country leading the way in its provision for the free-from community is Italy. Yes, the home of pizza and pasta is surprisingly coeliac friendly. Not only is public awareness high, but the Italian government offers coeliac patients vouchers to buy gluten-free food (up to 140 euros per month), and the quality of products is equally impressive.
Thankfully, you don’t have to pick up your passport to get the very best of it. Free From Italy is a UK supplier of authentic Italian foods that are not only gluten-free, but free from dairy, soya, nuts and egg too.
There are two main brands available: Pasta Lensi for La Buona Vita pasta, and Le Conserve della Nonna for pasta sauces, created by the Fini Group. Benessere gnocchi and Probios Viva Mais couscous are also included in the range, and Ocado is Free From Italy’s leading UK stockist. Price-wise it’s all surprisingly reasonable. Each sauce costs £2 per jar, with the couscous, gnochhi and pasta also averaging around £2 per packet.
So how does it compare?
Put simply: this is pasta that looks, cooks and tastes just like the real thing. Special pre-cooking techniques prevent La Buona Vita from sticking together, with the specially grown maize and rice flour giving the pasta a light golden yellow colour and clean taste. The smooth texture and absorbency of the spaghetti is of a notably higher quality than other supermarket brands, while the fusilli is full of bounce and the perfect amount of bite.
The penne falls behind on its tendency to clump together, so be sure to stir well and cook in plenty of salted boiling water (at least one litre of water per 100g of pasta). Taste-wise, however, there’s really nothing to complain about.
The gnocchi does a much better job at separating in the pan, but read the ingredients list carefully: these may contain traces of soya. Made from organic rehydrated potatoes and the less commonly used quinoa, these bite-size Italian dumplings are quick to cook and melt-in-the-mouth tasty: soft, plump and deliciously satisfying.
Cooking a gluten-free lasagne can often seem a little daunting, but it shouldn’t be. We blanched La Buona Vita lasagne sheets according to the packet instructions (around 5-6 minutes), before layering with bolognese, cheese and béchamel sauce and baking in a hot oven for 45 minutes. The result? Soft, silky pasta, pleasantly thin with just enough bite and structure to hold together the shape of this all-time favourite and altogether triumph of a dish.
So that’s a thumbs up for the pasta and gnocchi, but what about the sauces? We tried the award-winning Le Conserve della Nonna Green and Red Pesto, again both entirely free from gluten, dairy, soy, nut and egg.
Go green for the flavours of rich garlic and toasted pine nut, or red for a warmer, intensely tomato take on traditional pesto. It’s a shame that sunflower oil is used over olive oil, but the ratio of oil to sauce is well-balanced, with the use of pine nuts (which are actually seeds not nuts, and found in the traditional Genovese recipe) acting as a mild thickener while adding rich buttery flavour.
The loose texture of the pesto lends itself to a stir-in pasta sauce, and also means a little goes a long way: each 185g jar easily makes four main meals. Because eating with an allergy doesn’t have to mean eating alone – and when food tastes this good, you’d be hard-pressed to tell it’s gluten-free in the first place.
Click here to find out more about Free From Italy