Allergy-Friendly Eatery: The Grove Cafe, Alexandra Palace

Stumbled across the sweetest independent outdoor caff near Ally Pally during a wintry amble this afternoon. And the people there could show your cafe chains more than a thing or two about allergy-friendly provision. About friendly, full-stop, come to think of it.

The Italian-run Grove Cafe sits on the slope of a grassy hill in The Grove bit of Alexandra Park, looking out over trees and rooftops. It’s a tiny, slightly ramshackle building that, on a freezing day like today, has the cosy air of a chalet with its wood panelling, patio heaters and blankets tucked on chairs. Italian and Spanish ballads pipe from outdoor speakers and brightly coloured jars of straws, faded photos of Sofia Loren and other odds and ends jostle against the windows and plaster the doors.

The chalkboard menu offers everything a family-friendly cafe should: toasted sandwiches, pasta dishes, ice creams, soups and jackets. And when asked how the potatoes are cooked, given our allergic Sidney, the man couldn’t have been more helpful.

Not only are the spuds baked in nothing but their skins but, on request, the cafe serves up gluten free bread and wheat free pasta and the guy (who I guess must be the Ciro mentioned here; I really should have asked his name) said he’d be perfectly happy to heat up anything we might bring ourselves for Sid. How lovely is that?

There’s a football behind the counter for kids to kick about on the grass outside…

…and our straightfaced tot finally cracked a smile after being treated to a ditty about Naples and given a little red car to tinker with while we drank our tea. When we attempted to wrestle it from his grip as we left, prompting melodramatic tears, the chap said we could keep it and bring it back next time. Which we will, very soon.

Grove Cafe, The Grove, Alexandra Park, Alexandra Palace Way, London N22 7BA

Tasty polenta sticks

Egg free, wheat free, nut free, soya free (optional: dairy free)

When I need something fast, filling and portable for Sidney to eat these polenta sticks are a dream. I concocted them when I was stumped for an alternative to the perfect packed lunch – sandwiches. With wheat, egg and possibly soya off the menu it’s nigh on impossible to find a suitable bread and I haven’t got round to perfecting a home-baked version yet. Oh, all right, I haven’t got round to trying at all.

But these take 15 minutes to prep, taste great straight from the grill and are just as good snatched from the fridge and eaten cold on the go.

As for what you mix into them, it’s your call. I go for fresh spinach, a bit of tomato and some grated cheese, but you could stir in a bolognese sauce, diced roasted veg or some little chunks of ham. Sidney likes to pick them up with his fingers two at a time and cram them both in his mouth at once. And I like to eat them piping hot, with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of rock salt.

Ingredients

Merchant Gourmet or Valsugana quick cook polenta (I’m sure there are other suitable brands out there but these are the ones I’ve found with no nut warnings and which cook up quickly and smoothly)

Olive oil and/or unsalted butter

Two handfuls finely chopped fresh spinach

Small handful of finely chopped fresh cherry tomatoes

Handful grated cheddar or parmesan

Whole milk

Small baking tray

Method

My method is more by eye than by measurement – because the polenta keeps well in the fridge it doesn’t matter if I make a bit more than usual; it’ll always get eaten.

Boil around two inches of water (or half and half water and whole milk) in the bottom of a pan. Slowly pour in the polenta, stirring all the time, until it thickens to smooth porridge consistency. Turn the heat down and let the polenta simmer. It needs to cook for around five to seven minutes on a very low flame, so if it starts to look too thick and gloopy (like an undiluted roux) add a little more water and milk to loosen and stir.

After two or three minutes add your handfuls of chopped tomatoes and spinach, stir well, and continue to cook for another two or three minutes before adding in the grated cheese. A knob of butter adds creaminess, too. When the polenta has been simmering for at least six or seven minutes, no longer tastes ‘grainy’ and separates when you stir it you can take it off the heat.

Pour the mixture into a small baking tray pre-greased with a little olive oil and smooth so that the polenta sits around one inch thick (alternatively you could pour into muffin trays for thicker, fatter polenta cakes).

Grill under a medium heat for 5-10 mins or until starting to brown nicely on top.

Remove from the grill and let the tray cool.

You can serve the polenta up straight away if you’re happy with a squidgy texture. Otherwise let it sit for half an hour then lever the polenta out by slicing down the middle and removing with a fish slice. Place on a plate and cut into inch-thick fingers.

Eat at once or let them cool completely and pop them in the fridge to store. They can be eaten cold or reheated by steaming gently, frying in a little olive oil or microwaving.