When Denise O’Callaghan heard her father had been diagnosed coeliac, the investment banker turned to her love of baking to create cake recipes — and a new business venture, says
Arlene Harris

WHEN Denise O’Callaghan graduated from UCC with a degree in Italian and Economics, she headed off to London for a five year stint as an investment banker — little did the Glanmire woman think that one day in the future she would be appearing on national television with one of Ireland’s best loved chefs.

But this is what she will be doing when tonight she joins Neven Maguire on Healthy Home Chef to demonstrate some gluten-free recipes.

“When I was growing up, everyone in my house was a baker — including both of my parents, my granny, my sister Louise, and myself, but I never thought it would be something I would do as a career,” she says. “I went off to work in the Square Mile in London after college and years later, I applied for a job in Dublin where I ended up working for seven years.

“But during that time, my Dad (Michael) was diagnosed coeliac and was finding it increasingly difficult to find nice baked goods to eat. All of us experimented with different recipes but at the time (about 15 years ago), there was little choice in the shops and not much information on how to blend flour either — but after a lot of experimentation, we came up with some really nice recipes.”

Denise had an idea that she would like to set up her own business, but it wasn’t until she realised how difficult it was to find gluten-free food that she realised what venture she would finally embark on.

“With all the trial and error it took us to produce tasty recipes, we realised that there could be a business opportunity there,” she says. “We figured that if it was that difficult for us, a family of bakers, other coeliacs must have a really hard time — so after much thought, I decided to move back to Cork, as there is a much higher incidence of coeliacs here, and set up a gluten-free bakery.

“With help from Cork County Council, I opened a small place in Ballincollig which did so well that a few years later, I opened a place twice the size in Carrigaline and then finally moved to an even bigger premises in Little Island.”

Denise’s business is definitely a family affair as they are all involved — including her husband, Derek.

“Our business has gone from strength to strength over the past few years and not only are we supplying regular customers, but also supermarkets and restaurants, both here and in the UK,” she says. “We are all involved in it now and are amazed at how the attitude to gluten has changed in the past decade or so from when Dad was first diagnosed. Back then, it was a difficult thing to have to live with but nowadays, people are buying the products not just because they have an intolerance or allergy, but because they have made a lifestyle choice to avoid gluten.

“ I would say that in a few years, gluten-free will be totally mainstream and there will be little or no differentiation — and this is down to improved taste and texture.”

A decade or two ago people viewed gluten-free products as bland and boring, but Denise says the trick is in the flour blend.

“There was a time when people viewed gluten-free cakes in the same way as they would diabetic chocolate, but so much has changed,” she says. “Nowadays people wouldn’t even know well-made products don’t have gluten in them and this is down to the flour blend. It took a lot of experimentation for us but we have now realised that there is no such thing as one flour blend to suit all recipes — some work best with rice flour, or tapioca, others potato flour or cornflour while some work with a blend — so the key is either to experiment yourself or buy a ready-made mix.

“When I wrote my book, Delicious – Recipes from my Gluten Free Bakery, I included a recipe for a great flour blend which people could do at home, but increasingly customers were coming into the shop looking for it already made up, so we now stock that as well.”

Denise says the next big challenge will be to reduce or eliminate sugar.

“We are addicted to sugar and reducing the content in baked goods will be the next project, but it will be difficult,” she admits.

Denise will be baking a quiche on Neven Maguire’s ‘Healthy Home’ Chef on RTÉ 7.30pm; www.delicious.ie 

Why it’s never been easier to go gluten free

Here are some of the reasons why gf living is a dream nowadays compared to years ago, writes Nuala Woulfe.

  • It’s normal: According to Síobhan Lawless of Irish GF company, the Foods of Athenry, the international GF market is estimated to grow by 25-30% and that’s why big brands like Walkers Shortbread, Clonakilty sausages are interested in GF.
  • Italian food: Italian food is no longer a dream. Gone are the days of aeroboard pizza bases and soggy pasta, Italian restaurants offer good alternatives and shop-bought pasta has improved greatly.
  • Eating out: Gluten-freers once dreaded occasions or events like a weddings in case there was ‘nothing they could eat’. Today most venues offer GF options. And gluten free Christmas cakes, mince pies and even pancake mixes are available in supermarkets and not just at costly health shops.
  • Afternoon tea: In years gone by, Gluten-Freers would have never expected such luxury, but many hotels supply this option. Josie O’Kelly, Sales and Marketing Executive of Hayfield Manor Hotel in Cork, says: “Providing gluten free is second nature to us, we’ve been advertising GF afternoon tea the last two years.”
  • Beer: Years ago, except for the occasional trip to a Chinese where a rice beer might be bought, beers weren’t accessible. Now with the explosion of craft breweries, beer is created from a range of ingredients. I’ve even come across one made from bananas in Tesco.
  • Travel: The internet is not only been a wonderful resource for recipes, but has made finding information about the places to eat at home or abroad much easier. In the last year, Aer Lingus also introduced a gluten free snack pack on all flights.


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