This article is part of a guide to London from FT Globetrotter
I found out late in life that I was intolerant to an ingredient that made up most of the food I loved: dairy. Since I cut it out, I have been hounded for years about whether I miss cheese or a warm piece of toast with “real” butter on it. I don’t (well, not much). But people failed to ask the most hard-hitting questions: did I miss croissants? Or pastéis de nata? Indeed. Buttery, flaky and melt-in-your-mouth pastries are exactly what I missed most.
Those who must shop from a supermarket’s designated “free-from” shelf, which caters to dairy, gluten or egg intolerances, will understand the struggle in having to suffer dry, stodgy and sugary substitutes. And for many years, I couldn’t find a free-from pastry on the supermarket shelves or in cafés at all.
However, as people have become more concerned with environmental issues and personal health, alongside heightened awareness around allergies and intolerances, the number of better alternatives has steadily increased in recent years. There are now more free-from options than ever, with sales topping £1bn in the UK in 2020, according to market researcher Mintel.
The free-from scene has a strong foothold in London. The city is home to more than 150 vegan restaurants and, since 2018, has hosted the UK’s first festival for gluten-, dairy-, egg- and refined-sugar-free foods. Many restaurants offer free-from dishes now, which was far less common just a few years ago.
After an extensive tour of bakeries and cafés across London, I have compiled this list of fantastic free-from pastry providers (someone had to do it). If, like me, you have an intolerance but are craving an authentic-tasting cinnamon bun or a sweet pecan Danish, these places will do the trick.
149 Heath Road, london TW1 4BH
Good for: Brunch. It has a varied menu that caters to most allergies
Not so good for: Dinner. It closes at 5pm (4pm at weekends)
FYI: The closest train station is Twickenham. If driving, there’s parking on Heath Road, where Soul is located
Soul in south-west London’s free-from offerings . . .
. . . include these pillowy vegan cinnamon buns
South-west London had been neglected by the free-from scene (most purveyors of allergy-friendly food seem to set up shop in east London), until Soul opened in Twickenham last year. This rustic coffee shop focuses on breakfast, brunch and lunch with a health-conscious approach, serving a variety of items such as vegetable-filled toasties, superfood salads, immunity-boosting juices and freshly made smoothies.
It has also ensured that there are dairy-, gluten- and egg-free options in each section of its menu, including pastries, such as a sumptuous vegan cinnamon bun (£4) that you can have served warm. The top perfectly replicates a cinnamon bun in shape, size and flavour, but it rests on a muffin-style cylindrical base, which means there’s more of it to eat. It was exactly what I’d hoped for: swirled dough spiced with cinnamon and a melting, sugary centre — a roll that unfurls into soft, pillowy deliciousness. The use of almond butter, cinnamon oil and coconut treacle makes the texture the antithesis to the dry stodge of the past.
169 Battersea High Street, London SW11 3JS
Good for: Gluten-free pastries with no cross-contamination. This bakery is entirely free of gluten and buys ingredients from only other gluten-free suppliers
Not so good for: Its pastry boxes are pricey
FYI: Manna Dew is not far from Battersea Park, so you can take a stroll and enjoy your pastries there
Gluten-free bakery Manna Dew’s apple cinnamon chausson © Annika Derksen
Manna Dew, a gluten-free bakery and café in Battersea, has the largest selection of free-from pastries on this list, including its delectable apple cinnamon chausson, maple pecan twists and lemon ricotta twists. It also adheres to requirements set by the charity Coeliac UK, so its offering is safe for those who suffer from Coeliac disease.
Manna Dew has gone all out to ensure free-from doesn’t feel like an afterthought — there are certainly no dry or heavy pastries here. It also offers a few dairy- and egg-free products, such as its perfectly honeycombed square puffs, which triggered a Proustian rush for me as I remembered one of my first baking experiences with my mother making puff-pastry squares sprinkled with sugar. Manna Dew is a little on the pricier side: small pastries start at £1.70; regular-sized options are around £4.20 each, and boxes start at £7 for two pieces. You can order in store or choose from a selection of pastry boxes online for home delivery.
8 Little Thames Walk, London SE8 3FB
Good for: French pastries that replicate the traditional sort
Not so good for: Large orders to go. Pastries are sold individually
FYI: This is slightly further from central London than the other bakeries listed here; the closest station is Greenwich on the DLR
Arapina in Greenwich describes itself as a ‘healthy lifestyle bakery’ © Finchley Thompson, 2017
Arapina’s vegan pain au chocolat: ‘The best I’ve ever come across’
Arapina, part of the Atrium Heights apartment complex in Greenwich, bills itself as a “healthy lifestyle bakery”. The interior is bright with plant-lined shelves and a heaving display of baked treats ready to eat, many of which are free-from. Its vegan pain au chocolat (£2.95) — the best I’ve ever come across — is generously sized and tastes exactly like the traditional version, with a glazed, crisp exterior and a stretchy and soft centre. (The texture of a traditional pain au chocolat has been recreated by laminating the dough with a high-quality vegetable butter.) If you’re not in the mood for something sweet, Arapina also offers a range of savoury pastries stuffed with sautéed veggies, spicy tomato dressings and creamy, dairy-free béchamel sauce (starting at £4.95).
Café de Nata
26 Cromwell Place, London SW7 2LD and branches across London
Good for: A quick stop for a treat on the go
Not so good for: Choice. There’s only one free-from option, whereas the traditional pastéis de nata are available with various toppings
FYI: Café de Nata does home delivery (find out if it’s available where you are by checking your postcode on its website)
Café de Nata recently launched a soy-based vegan pastel de nata
Café de Nata is, unsurprisingly, dedicated to the pastel de nata, the Portuguese sweet custard tart. There are branches dotted around London; I visited a location near South Kensington Tube station (which, with just two small tables outside, is more of a takeaway spot than a proper café). I’d been yearning for a pastry with a rich filling, so I was elated to hear that Café de Nata recently started offering a soy-based pastel de nata (£2.50). Custard is tough to achieve at the best of times, so alternative options are rare. But Café de Nata has cracked its egg-free version. The flaky pastry is delicate and buttery, and the baked custard filling is just firm enough that it doesn’t spill out of the tart — but is still gooey and perfectly caramelised, with a hint of vanilla on the palate. Unlike many other free-from offerings that heap sugar into products under the guise of flavour, these small pastries are perfectly balanced on all fronts.
The Bright Store
268 Hackney Road, London E2 7SJ
Good for: Freshly baked pastries. You can order a brunch box that includes two croissants, a Danish of your choice, yoghurt granola pots, fresh fruit, coffee and two juices
Not so good for: Sitting in. The place is small and seating is limited.
FYI: The Bright House has a store on the floor below. It stocks ceramics, skincare and eco-friendly homeware that are ethically sourced from independent makers across the UK
A few of the vegan pastries (including peach and pear Danishes . . .
. . . to be found at Bethnal Green coffee shop and eco lifestyle store The Bright House
Bright House in Bethnal Green, has a dedicated menu of free-from pastries, ranging from pear Danishes to lovely croissants. The peach Danish — a rare find — was so big and indulgent that I ate it over two days (well worth its £3). The café, which focuses on eco-friendly and ethically sourced produce, also serves a next-level sandwich in the form of a vegan filled croissant, which is stuffed with a coconut-based cheese (which is also nut- and soya-free) and either tomato and “ham” (tofurkey), chilli jam or sun-dried tomatoes with pesto. The croissants are a crucial part of the offering; according to The Bright House’s website, they “have eaten a lot of terrible creations disguised as vegan croissants over the years’‘ and they’ve made it their “mission to find the best of the best vegan pastries to stock”.
Share your favourite London places for free-from pastries in the comments
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