Living with a nut allergy, and, subsequently, my little sister’s nut allergy drove my passion for baking, and, ultimately my decision to apply for the Great British Bake Off.
When I was five years old, I had an anaphylactic reaction, and was diagnosed with a severe nut allergy. Allergies were a lot less common in the early 90s, and there were very few baked goods I could eat….cue deciding to make them myself (sorry Mum!). I made the almightiest mess in the kitchen every weekend without fail. I started with simple bakes; with muffins and brownies, but then got more adventurous, leading to my rather distressed parents finding me deep frying doughnuts in their wok, full to the brim with oil, over naked flames!
While on holiday in Devon, my sister had her first reaction, to a bag of chocolate labelled ‘may contain traces of nuts’, we had no idea she had an allergy at this point and the experience was very scary. I was old enough (10 years old) to understand what was happening this time, and, seeing my little sister struggling to breathe was horrific. Lydia (my sister) was then also diagnosed with a nut allergy.
When we were children, schools and groups didn’t really understand allergy in the same way they do now. On a school trip to a chocolate factory, I was given a large sign to wear saying ‘nut allergy, do not feed’, this was not a lot of fun! I did however think it was brilliant when the school dinners contained nuts (in a pudding) so I was given a choc ice instead; I didn’t understand how dangerous it was that nuts were being handled in the school kitchens still.
Secondary school was a bit easier; I volunteered to make cakes for ‘Cake Fridays’ as often as possible, partly because I loved baking, but also so I wouldn’t be left out. Some teachers at this point were bringing in alternatives for my sister and I, which we were very grateful for. However, when the French trip came along, I was told I couldn’t go as they wouldn’t be able to cater for me, and I wouldn’t be able to join in with activities involving buying food from the markets. In general, schools are doing much better these days, but I still get messages from teenagers and parents of children who aren’t being accommodated for.
Feeling excluded is definitely a common theme with allergies. When I started university, there were lots of social events at cheap curry restaurants where I couldn’t eat anything. Not wanting to always sit them out, I would go along, but be continually explaining why I wasn’t eating anything and why I’d brought my own glass for the wine!
As an adult, there are still difficulties living with an allergy. For example, all the companies I spoke to about making a nut free wedding cake charged a premium for this making it even more expensive. In the end, my brilliant friends made our cake instead. I have made several free from wedding cakes for other people since.
Applying to the Great British Bake Off felt like a slightly pointless activity; they were never going to take someone with an allergy over thousands of easier to manage applicants. I was completely upfront about my allergy, and about what I could and couldn’t do from the start; I am ok with nuts in the same room (other than Brazil nuts) but I couldn’t bake with them or handle them myself. The team were brilliant, phoning me several times to check exactly what I could do, and then, I got the best call ever – to say I’d made it into the tent!
When I arrived at the famous tent, I was taken aside and shown the ‘nut tent’. This was a separate marquee set up with a wash station, fridge and storage for all my ingredients and equipment. This tent, along with the lovely ‘nut runner’, complete with customised t-shirt was a carefully monitored system to ensure my ingredients and bowls etc were never contaminated. Only the nut runner was allowed to clean down my bench after bakes (with separate products). The home economics and food production teams were so helpful in sourcing all my ingredients from trusted brands, and also making sure all the ingredients for the technical challenges were completely safe. There were also no nuts on site, in the catering or crew snacks. The medic on set was brilliant, fully equipped to deal with an anaphylactic reaction, and checked in with me regularly.
I cannot thank them enough for giving me the opportunity and making such a careful plan for me.
I am now focusing on producing a range of recipes free from nuts, but also dairy free, egg free and gluten free so everyone can join in!