When Finn Ní Fhaoláin was first diagnosed as a coeliac aged 18, she let out an expletive and then just got on with it.
Actually, she did a whole lot more. Armed with notes from her nutritionist and some kitchen gadgets from her auntie, she started to experiment.
Now, eight years later, she has a different take on life, on health, on food — and a new book to explain how she went from having dark circles under her eyes to having the energy of a labrador. And, she adds, the sense of humour of a teenage boy.
Yet, a seasoned wisdom hops off the pages of Finn’s World, a book that is full of recipes for delicious, health-giving food that just happens to be gluten-free.
But this is a book about living, as much as it is about eating. The subtitle, Do what you love. Love what you eat, encapsulates Finn’s philosophy in a few words, and her book explains how she has put it into action.
She was always a happy and active child but, for years, had bouts of unexplained stomach problems. She went from specialist to herbalist to homeopath, but got no satisfactory answer.
Things got much worse when she went to college to study earth and ocean sciences. Her diet was full of wheat-laden student fare — cereal, toasties, pizza. She felt continually drained and had uncontrollable stomach cramps every time she ate.
“As I lost strength and weight, I gave up all the sports I loved so much and I started to look like a bobble-head doll on the dashboard of a car,” says the 27-year-old with characteristic humour.
She started to eat a vegetarian diet and eliminated wheat on the suggestion of a GP. She found her food choices were very limited and added more rye and barley, which are both harmful to coeliacs. Things got even worse.
“Eventually, I couldn’t carry a stack of plates up the stairs in the vegetarian restaurant where I was working,” she says.
When she was 18, she was diagnosed a coeliac, although she says, these days, there is much better awareness of the condition and people are diagnosed much more quickly.
She began to eat meat again and paid a fortune for gluten-free food which was often awful. She recalls the sawdust pharmacy bread: “You sneeze and it collapses”.
But things were starting to look up. Her health improved and she began to develop gluten-free recipes for the foods she missed. There were two criteria – they had be delicious and they had to affordable.
She was pretty good at finding some pretty cool names too. In the book, you’ll find recipes for No-Amish-beard-required corn bread; Oh, Mon Dieu, French toast; Pae-Eile and Disco Barbie Beetroot Soup.
The food, however, was only part of the story. She had completed her master’s in marine biology but had a long commute to work in Dublin. Her friends were scattered all around the country and she wasn’t able to do what she loved on the east coast, either — surf.
Finn, short for Findabhair, the Irish version of Guinevere, decided to look around for cooking courses and ended up with a scholarship for a full culinary programme at St Angela’s College in Sligo.
There, she sat beside a girl from Bundoran in Donegal and had something of a lightbulb moment.
If she moved there, she’d have sea, surf and community all in the one place. And cooking of course. Since she moved there, she says she’s found wonderful local suppliers and now works as a private chef when she’s not surfing.
Her advice to anyone who has any digestive difficulties is to see a doctor, but you don’t need any reason to try her gluten-free — and cheap — recipes.
More Irish people are doing just that. Her book was published just as Bord Bia released a report showing that one in five Irish people shop for gluten-free food regularly, even though just 1% of the population is coeliac.
Now, all those people who spend up to €66m a year on gluten-free products have a book full of new gluten-free recipes to try.
Finn’s World is published by Gill Books, €22.99
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