You, with your hand raised. Yes, you, the one who carries an EpiPen, inhaler, and has a butt load of food allergies, intolerances, Oral Allergy Syndrome, Outdoor Allergies, and an Autoimmune Disease. Uh huh. I see you.
I believe this is your question after I tell you that I had a wonderful time at the International Food Blogger Conference in Sacramento. Your question is: How do you do wine tasting and eating out in El Dorado County and have a good time? Aren’t you scared? Won’t you get sick?
In fact, how do you EVER enjoy the holidays, socialize with friends, and navigate food allergy and intolerance nightmares out there in the real world?
Great questions! Two answers: 1. Fantastic preparation, and 2. Great hosts and chefs who know their stuff.
If you don’t have BOTH of these components when you enter a food-oriented conference and food-oriented events, you won’t have the kind of experience I did in El Dorado County for a day of eating and drinking. In fact, without these two components, you wouldn’t have much fun in any food-related event, which is why I typically won’t attend food festivals where the quality and preparation of food is much harder to vett or control.
Read on for my experience as The Sensitive Celiac at the food blogger event of my year.
IFBC and El Dorado County: Doing It Right
IFBC, For the Win
From the moment I touched down in Sacramento, CA and hopped into a shuttle to the Marriott Residence Inn, I enacted my plan with the precision of an experienced food engineer. In my carry-on, my day bag included a few snacks for the short flight and shuttle ride; the rest of my home kitchen prepared foods were packed in Tupperware in my suitcase:
Dehydrated beef jerky, soy and gluten free (yep, I made this!)
Homemade bread for eating with breakfast, and during excursions (I made this!)
Can of coconut milk (store bought, but tried and true)
Annie Chung’s Rice noodles (a staple)
Sesmark Brown Rice Thins (crunch up in a baggie, and you have a little crunch on top of mashed fruit, or a mini “crust” for a microwave tart
Flat, packable bento for carrying snacks (very handy).
When I arrived at the hotel, I asked for an order form to have food delivery to my room by the following morning 9am, and if I wasn’t there at the time of delivery, it would be placed in my refrigerator. Each day I ordered for the following day, and matched what I thought I might be trying to the foods I ordered. For example, when there was a breakout session on balsamic vinegar, I ordered lamb steaks and salad greens.
By packing snacks in my bento, I could peruse the various vendors, picking and choosing clean-ingredient foods and passing over anything that contained my food allergens or gluten. Many of the vendors with fresh food offerings had their ingredients separated, so I could ask if they could customize something for me by pouring or combining foods directly onto a clean plate. I even brought my own utensils to cut down on plastic waste.
I think this was the first time I had a vegan poke cup, minus the quinoa. That was awesome! For as many things as I turned down, there were still many samples that I could try. I’ve become confident and skilled at detecting anything I cannot have, and I’ve also become more creative on the fly.
Part of the success of IFBC 2017 for the allergic individual was the selection of vendors and the willingness of astute servers. Quite a number of vendors had options that were vegan, corn and soy free, and gluten free. Even the burger workshop that offered lamb and beef burgers could be served sans bun by asking the servers to prepare the samples from cooktop to plate without adornment, hold that cheese, please.
Some of you will recall that for the majority of 2016, I could not drink alcohol. Every time I tried to enjoy a glass of wine, my stomach revolted, cried, and struggled. The more weight I lost during the metabolic burn of training for an Ironman, the more finicky my guts became to sugars. I couldn’t eat a small apple without wretched cramping, diarrhea, and then fatigue. How would I enjoy alcohol during the IFBC?
I employed the habit of wine tasting I used to use long ago: sip and spit. The rule: spit more than you sip! It allowed me to taste some lovely wines without actually ingesting much of it. The result: Happy Tummy!
When registering for the conference, I signed up for two excursions that would most definitely have food served that I may or may not be able to enjoy. I wrote both excursion coordinators and asked them to forward my food concerns to the appropriate people. I have already talked about the first excursion to Cobram Estate; the second excursion was the all-day eating and drinking day in El Dorado County.
Imagine a perfectly cloudless, warm Fall day. Armed with a wide-brim hat, sunglasses and sunblock, and a day pack with a few of my go-to gluten free snacks and my cameras, I hopped on a large air-conditioned bus with fellow food bloggers and watched the cityscape turn into forested single-lane roads and finally farms and wineries. Just before we approached the turn for our first destination, Skinner Vineyards, I snapped a picture, and I found my food blogging heart go all a pitter-patter!
Table Nectar with Chef Kim at Skinner Vineyards
The delightful and inviting Skinner Vineyards vista balances over farmland and vineyards, and I sighed heavily. Why can’t I live here forever? In the late morning sun, a 2014 Mourvedre from Skinner Estate flowed into my first glass of wine that was not going to be limited to a sip. This 96pts and Top 100 Wines (Wine and Spirits Magazine) was paired with a Romesco crostini, and by talking briefly with Chef Kim (who did set aside a few options without bread), I found myself eating salt cured black olives and a version of the Thai canteloupe seed milk gazpacho.
And then, the wine started flowing just a little bit faster than this food blogger could keep up with! Quickly, I found myself surrounded by an army of wine glasses, my hastily written notes on which was what, and specially prepared selection of charcuterie instead of the nut-filled squash salad. A surprisingly crisp and clean 2016 Rose from Fenton Herriott Vineyard made its way to my lips, and sadly, I parted with that wine before it had to be cleared to make room for the main dish and next two wines. Harumph!
Chef Kim delivered two reconfigured plates: slow roasted chard without garlic or squash, and house cured fennel and apple braised pork belly. Ooh la la!
This time, I drank my sips of the light and sweet 2015 Genache from Shadow Ranch and the 2014 Estate Sangiovese, with its deep brick color that went surprisingly well with the tart flavors of fried sage and aged gouda (ok, I had the tiniest nibble of gouda, I cannot lie. Like, scrape my tooth, sliver-sized piece. Don’t tattle on me).
On the heels of the pork belly, two more glasses were added to the growing collection on the table: a 2014 Cabernet France from Madrona Vineyards, with a gorgeous, smokey flavor that complemented the salty pork belly, and the Henrietta Stich Hard Cider from Delfino Farms, which is a great beer-like cider if you are like me and can’t have beer. I have not been able to find a gluten free beer that actually works for me, since I’m sensitive to oats, sorghum, and gluten-removed beers.
By this time, I could have wetted my fingers and played a short line from the Well-Tempered Clavier! on all those wine glasses. It would have definitely helped if I had a paper with nine circles the size of a stemmed wine glass in order to track all the tastings.
Chef Kim personally introduced her favorite dessert of the season: fig and goat cheese tartlet with honey, thyme, and aged balsamic drizzle. Strangely, I could hear a few grumbles among my compadres: figs, again?
However, this Seattle-based food blogger could not get enough of this short-season fruit. I see it for about a month, and then it is gone, gone, gone, like my mouth was ghosted by a figgy lover. I looked around for anyone who might have decided not to eat theirs, but despite the grumblings of over-indulged locals, their plates were empty and their tines moist with that dessert-like balsamic drizzle.
Before long, we were called to get back on the bus and head into town for our next series of stops and tastings. And this is where the wheels fell off a bit: cheese, chocolate, olive oil, and light fare that was not gluten or dairy free. What’s the Sensitive Celiac and Medical Unicorn to do?
What You Can’t Eat Can Still Be Digested
After loading up into the shuttle bus, we made our way into Placerville, a historic gold rush town with cute shops, a bell tower, and a small-town Main Street feel. Despite our large group being divided into three so that we could rotate the various stops of our guided tour at leisure, I found myself lagging behind, taking pictures of non-food related subjects that caught my eye.
After being on the Celiac Disease journey officially since early 2014 (likely, much earlier in an unofficial way), I notice how my eyes have adapted to its role of digestion. For everything I cannot eat — the cheese paired with the wine, the wine after about two ounces spread across three or more hours, the chocolate with milk dairy or soy, the olive oil with garlic — my eyes scan the little details of presentation, color, brightness, shadow and contrast, and plating details. Sensuality reaches her tendrils everywhere. It’s just a matter of paying attention.
White spaces on plates and tables are now the palates and canvasses of this rich and artistic world. Whereas I used to sharply define cookery to the culinary arts, I find that I don’t think of that bounded distinction. Art is art, whether you can consume it with your mouth or not. Aren’t some of Van Gogh’s paintings so thick with layered paint, you want to dip your fingers into it?
Perhaps the most challenging stop on the tour was a chocolate and cheese shop. There was absolutely nothing there that was safe for me to eat, so again, I simply digested a hundred pounds of chocolate and cheese with eyes and nose, and the rest made its way to my camera.
The afternoon tour included two more wine and cheese tastings, including one with Nello wines (one of our hosts for the day), and a stop at The Farm Table. Unfortunately, my email with food restrictions was not forwarded to the appropriate person there. However, the chef on site took the plates of food that were served and recreated two of each without gluten or dairy, and I was able to sample some lovely, single ingredient foods. Why two? Because a friend I made along the way also needed GF/DF, so it was easy to say everywhere we went, “Make that a double!”
I know that we cannot live off of air, sunlight, and pictures of food. You and I will have to find food that sustains us, nourishes us, satisfies our appetites, and of course, does all that fancy maintenance stuff that boils down to good health. It’s not like I was hungry after all that eating and drinking during the day (and you better believe I was sucking down the water between stops). But there was one more winery to go.
Boeger Winery and Tasting Room
As our shuttle bus pulled up to Boeger Winery, I saw a sight that caused my Sensitive Celiac soul to breathe a sigh of relief. A voluminous buffet of salads, sides, grilled pork, and grilled beef free of barbeque sauce awaited us, along with another set of tasting tables of apple butters, chili spreads, honey, and fruit. Picnic tables were set up for our dining experience after we made our way through the wine tasting room.
Boeger Vineyards has a rich history through the gold rush days of making early wines and spirits. The tasting room, with a few artifacts like an old wheeled trough and some of the original architecture, ushers you into that earlier time.
I made a note of some of the wines I’d be interested in purchasing, and headed off to the grill and salad buffet before most of the other bloggers came down the line. It is much easier to prevent cross contamination issues by being the first at every serving plate, and the servers were happy to direct me to food that were free of my allergens and intolerances.
One of the men at the outside grill laughed when I asked if I could have as
much meat as I wanted. He took one look at me and said, “Can you eat a lot?” He then piled some meat on my plate. I smiled and said, “I’ll be back!” which made him and his colleagues roar with laughter.
“Back for more?” he said when I returned with a clean plate, ready for seconds. I know what they were thinking: she doesn’t look like a big eater. “I’m a triathlete, and I have Celiac Disease. I need more protein, please!” I sang my song, and he was entertained. He cut a large piece of beef off the side of a juicy roast and plopped it on my plate. “That will do!” I said, and they laughed again.
Did they know the essential part they played in one day in my life as a person managing Celiac Disease and Food Allergies? Could they ever understand how people like us want to live our lives fully, to be at the table with others, and just feed ourselves with nourishing food?
All I know is that the entire day, from start to finish, was made possible through good planning, vigilance, communication, and hosts who understand clean, simple ingredients. With complete transparency, I had a Happy Tummy day, and I did not eat a stick of processed convenience food. Yes, I did skip over the gluten-free cracker and bread options, because they are risky for me. Yes, I kept sugar on the down low. Yes, I didn’t get to swallow as much wine as I chose to spit.
Yet I wouldn’t trade any of that for the smile on my face. I, the Sensitive Celiac, the Medical Unicorn, just spent an ENTIRE DAY in El Dorado County, eating and drinking and playing and socializing. And I had a marvelous, safe, and Happy Tummy time. I could ask for more, and I didn’t need to.
This is what I wish for you. Let’s keep making food fun again.