Friday, 1 August 2014

Bookalokal review: A gluten-free dinner, new friends and nutrition.

"Expand your world through food" is Bookalokal’s slogan. And as a gal passionate about travelling and food, it's bang up my street.

Bookalokal started life right here in Brussels a few years ago. Described as AirBnB for food, it's now expanded to dozens of cities round the world - a pretty strong testament to how popular it is.

The idea is simple: local people offer home-cooked dinners, cookery workshops or food tours to, well, anyone who wants them. "Meal experiences" is the term used by Bookalokal.

You might wonder why anyone would want to pay restaurant prices for a non-restaurant experience, but the idea is you're getting an authentic, well-cooked meal as well as the chance to connect with local people, learn about their culture and food, and meet new people by way of your fellow diners.

Groups vary in size, but I don’t think they tend to be too big so you get the chance to talk to everyone. The format apparently appeals to everyone from business-people on a short trip to long-time city residents, all of whom want something different to your bog-standard restaurant. Understandably, the concept is popular with solo travellers.

I'd heard of Bookalokal before and thought it sounded really interesting, so when they asked me if I'd like to pick an event to review for my blog, I was really excited to have the opportunity to experience Bookalokal for myself.

There are loads of interesting sounding dinners, brunches and lunches from which to choose, but I particularly like the idea of the workshop/class style meals, where you're taught how to make something new (as well as getting something delicious to eat!)

The event I chose was called "Gluten free, whether you need it or not." While I'm not a coeliac and I would never cut out gluten from my diet altogether (mmm bread), I am very interested in the health benefits of reducing your gluten intake. (Last year I tried going gluten-free for a week and concurred it wasn't for me.) And after all, gluten-free food sales are soaring and it does seem to be the food trend du jour!

After confirming my attendance I was sent the phone number, email address and exact address of my hostess for the event, Gaia (I was also able to read about her and reviews of her previous events online), and I got another reminder email on the day. Always handy.

On the menu was:

Starter: Grilled vegetables, pancetta and polenta skewers
Main Dish: Gluten-free pasta with saffron and zucchini cream
Dessert: Creamy peach ice cream on grilled fruits
Drinks: Rare herbal teas and infused waters.

It all sounded healthy and tasty to me!

Before you book, you get to see the host’s rating, ask them a question, and are given pretty much every detail you could need, from how long the event will last to whether they have wifi and aircon!

At £22 per person, it’s far more than I’d generally spend on dinner, even at a restaurant! However, for people with more money or for a special treat, I think it’s great. Why not buy someone a Bookalokal dinner as a present?

I arrived at Gaia's flat bang on time, and was the first one there. She welcomed me warmly and we started chatting while waiting for my fellow diners to arrive.

Joining us were four others of all different ages and nationalities. French, Belgian, Portuguese and Indian, plus British me and Italian Gaia. But all currently living in Brussels. It was fun to discuss our different cultures over the evening, even if the language of the night was, of course, English.

As we made small talk and found out a bit about one another while sipping fruit-infused waters we agreed on one thing in particular: food and travel are the best.

We then all sat down on floor cushions and Gaia handed out info packs for us to take away, containing the recipes for the night and info about gluten-free eating. She talked to us about how wheat has adapted over the years, how our busy lifestyles have changed our eating habits for the worse, and how we can eat better. First tip: try and chew each mouthful at least 30 times!

We were challenged to put this into practice by sampling natural foods like dried fruits, nuts and seeds. The idea was that by not rushing our food we'd be able to think about how it makes us feel. To be honest I didn't feel much apart from "mmm this is nice food", but some of the others did.

After discussing our different experiences, we moved into the kitchen. Thank goodness - I was getting huuuuungry! By the time we eventually sat down to eat it was nearly three hours after we’d arrived, and to be honest I’d have preferred it if we’d started earlier.

Luckily, Gaia had done most of the food prep beforehand, but it was fun to get stuck in and do the final bits ourselves (under her guidance.) She talked us through the recipes, and this way we understood better how to recreate the dishes ourselves.

For the polenta, shrimp and courgette skewers (slightly different to the menu we were given online beforehand), all we needed to do was a spot of chopping before building our kebabs, drizzling them with oil/marinade and popping them in the oven.

For the main course, Gaia had already cooked a load of courgettes and onions in olive oil (the smell was divine!), and this mix was to become our pasta sauce. It was blended and then set aside while we moved to the dinner table for our starters.

The little round table on Gaia's terrace was laid with pretty, colourful crockery which I liked a lot. 

So, how were our skewers? I liked them. Polenta is something I've only had once before and to be fair it doesn't taste of much but a little oily drizzle goes a long way.

Gaia herself wasn't overly satisfied, so for the second baking tray's worth she added a stronger dressing using chilli flakes, balsamic vinegar and lemon. As someone who doesn't really like balsamic or lemon, this wasn't the best thing ever for me, but they were certainly more flavoursome.

While we finished up, Gaia got busy in the kitchen preparing our second course. And this, ma dears, was a real treat.

It's actually very simple too: all she'd done was cook a load of gluten-free pasta, mix some Italian cheese and saffron into the blended vegetable creating a delicious sauce, and then combine the two.

It was so so tasty, and amazing for comfort food. The thing is, you wouldn't even guess you were eating so many vegetables - a great way of sneaking them into meals for kids.

I had three servings. It was that good.

The gluten-free pasta did have a slightly different texture to normal pasta, but it seemed more like wholewheat to me. Still scrummy.

After so much pasta, a light pudding was just what we needed. Enter: banana and peach sorbet. (Again, different to the menu online, and I had quite been looking forward to the prospect of grilled fruits.)

When I saw a blender and some frozen banana come out, I knew we were in for a treat (big fan of blending frozen bananas in gelato, milkshakes, smoothies etc, as you may well know.)

All Gaia did was peel and chop the peach then blend it with the banana to make a thick, refreshing, healthy 'ice cream'. As she had some pink and some yellow peaches, I had the idea of blending them separately and creating a layered pudding, and I think it went down rather well.

It really was remarkably tasty, and again, incredibly simple. A wonderful light summer pud.

By this point it was gone 11pm and a school night (*gasp*) so time to say our goodbyes and head home. We all exchanged business cards/numbers/blogs (on my part) etc, and said "See ya... Maybe."

Will we see each other again? To be honest it's probably unlikely, but it was lovely to spend an evening with new, interesting people from all other the world, all with different stories to tell.

I now see that with Bookalokal, you're paying for much more than the food. Over the evening, I learned about nutrition, cooking, eating, and was made to challenge my assumptions. What's more, I had a lot of fun and ate some delicious food. What's not to love?

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