Member in Focus: Michelle Berriedale-Johnson

Each month, newsletter editor Kristen Frederickson meets a Guild member with a story to tell. This month: FreeFrom expert Michelle Berriedale-Johnson

How long have you been a Guild member, and why did you join?

I was invited to join the guild very soon after it was formed (late eighties?…) by my good friend Christopher Driver who was the then editor of the Good Food Guide. At that point I think there were only 20 or 30 members, headed up by Hugo Dunn Meynell who was running the International Wine and Food Society and whose idea the formation of a guild had been. At the time I was writing a series of books about English food history (one of them, Pepys at Table, co-authored with Christopher) so it seemed like ‘a good thing to do’.

I was a pretty dormant member to be honest until another close friend, the food writer Miriam Polunin, became a committee member and talked me into doing the same. One thing led to another and in due course I did my two year stint as chair in the early 90s. 

I was, I remember, quite keen to steer the Guild into a rather more active political direction and during my time the Guild did become a member of Sustain as a means to that end. I think that, probably wisely, the Guild now focuses more on members’ specific needs and concerns rather than getting involved in the wider world of food politics!

I also remember being permanently in trouble with my lovely fellow committee member, Evelyn Rose. This was in the days before email (yes, they did exist…) when faxes were still the primary means of communication. While some people (like me) had a dedicated fax number, for many their fax operated through their phone line. Forever forgetting this I would send lengthy faxes about Guild business at midnight or 1am, dragging poor Evelyn or her husband from their beds to answer the phone (which I think still lived in the hall of their house) only to find it was me sending yet another Guild fax…..

You have carved out a very specific and personal niche in the food writing world. Can you tell us what factors drove you down this path?

Pure happenstance really. I was just about to start on a fairly lengthy book on the history of English food when both my 18 month old son and his father were diagnosed with a dairy intolerance. I was a hands-on foodie (I had run an outside catering business for 10 years) and I was so horrified by the selection of allergen-free foods available to those with dietary restrictions that I decided that there was an opportunity that I needed to explore. 

We started off by manufacturing (or having manufactured) a range of ice creams, vegetarian ready meals and chocolates that were all gluten and dairy free. But this was ten years before what is now the extremely successful ‘freefrom’ food sector even got named. Even though we did get our foods into all the major supermarkets we could never sell enough to cover the interest on the overdraft, let alone make a living from them.

So I went back to food writing – ‘special diet’ recipe books and a newsheet which first turned into free quarterly magazine that went to around 35,000 health professionals (a vain attempt to inform/educate them about food allergy and intolerance) and then into a monthly patient support subscription magazine.

There had always been two aspects of food history that really interested me. The hinterland – how what you could grow or buy to eat and how you could prepare it, affected the whole structure of your life; and the mechanics of the food – how those ingredients and methods really worked.

And in food-related illness I found many parallels. There are few illnesses in which food does not, or at least cannot, play a significant role. And as with some of the less than promising ingredients I was presented with in my historical experiments, the challenge was to make tasty and appealing dishes when whole rafts of crucial ingredients were off the menu. 

And a thousand odd recipes (on our website) and over a dozen books later, I am still at it!! We are just about to publish a book of low histamine recipes through our new publishing arm, Curlew Books.

What is the most satisfying part of the work you do?

Probably being able to help – in terms of information and moral support – people who often do not get a great deal of support elsewhere. Namely, those with obscure, food related conditions (such as histamine sensitivity) which are not recognised by mainstream medicine and for whom there is very little help out there.

However, I do also enjoy the writing (I run personal blog as well as maintaining our FoodsMatter website). I also enjoy cooking but only when I can experiment. I am not really that interested in the ‘business’ or the techniques of cooking (although I greatly admire others’ expertise in these areas) and I am constitutionally incapable of following a recipe, either my own or any else’s. 

How do you see the food writing world changing and evolving since you began working?

To be honest – by the time I have kept up with the research, the regulations, the stream of new freefrom products and the constant scandals in the food allergy world (such as the death of Natasha Adnan Laperouse from eating an unlabelled sesame seeds in a Pret a Manger baguette) I have little time to read ‘normal’ food writing.

However, I am very happy for the Guild to encourage members to write about and do all the foodie things that I totally fail to do, and totally delighted when Guild members such as Joanna Blythman or Bee Wilson take up the cudgels in one of the many worthy causes that are out there.