Family illness is the inspiration behind a new cake business in York. MAXINE GORDON reports

RACHEL Pickard had been ill for three years with bloating and weight loss before she was diagnosed with coeliac disease, an auto-immune condition which damages the gut.

Sufferers have to switch to a gluten-free diet to avoid symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating and fatigue.

This means they have to cut out many staples from their diet such as pasta, cakes, biscuits, breakfast cereals, most types of bread, and a variety of sauces – basically anything that contains gluten, a dietary protein found in wheat, barley and rye.

For Rachel, as a busy mum-of-two and someone who loved baking as a hobby, it was a tough diagnosis. What made it even harder was that her younger daughter Poppy, seven, was also diagnosed with the same condition.

Rachel, 30, from New Earswick, said: "We were diagnosed within a month of each other – coeliac disease can be hereditary."

To keep things as normal as possible, Rachel was determined to keep baking.

"Having to suddenly follow a gluten-free diet was such a big change for us.

"Baking was my hobby and I used to bake for fun. The first time I made a gluten-free cake it was rubbish, but I persisted."

Patience and trial and error paid off – and soon Rachel had worked out how to make the perfect gluten-free cakes, brownies and biscuits. The secret, she said, was to use gluten-free flours and raising agents and vary baking techniques.

She was so pleased with the results that she decided to launch her own business: The Mixing Bowl – York, selling an array of tasty treats, all gluten free, through direct order and also from Shambles Market every Wednesday.

When we popped over to meet Rachel last Wednesday at her market stall, she was proudly standing by a table full of produce that she had baked the day before. Smiling and bubbly, she admitted she was wearing thermals to keep warm in the February cold. A giant flask of hot drink was also at hand.

She was on a high after selling out of all her produce on her last market day. Best sellers included millionaire's shortbread and chocolate orange brownies, while Rachel admitted her favourite was the lemon drizzle slice. Also on sale was a vegan banana bread and carrot cake slice, with prices from £2 to £2.20.

She said she didn't want to overtly label the bakes as "gluten free" because she wanted to attract as many customers as possible.

"Some people we sell to don't even realise we are gluten free. I don't want people to see the cakes as gluten free and think 'I don't need that'. We want them to appeal to everyone.

"I've had people ask if any of it is gluten free and when I say all of it, their faces light up.

"One lady bought some cake for her husband and said it was exciting to find something nice for him to have. It was a lovely feeling."

Launching the business has been a positive move for Rachel following her and Poppy's diagnosis 18 months ago.

She said: "We very quickly had to change our way of life. Everything changed literally overnight.

"I had to find new recipes and ingredients that did not contain gluten.

"Kitchen appliances had to be changed or deep cleaned to prevent cross contamination.

"Eating out became very difficult. In a lot of places, you are given a big file that contains the ingredients to each dish. I have to go through it and check what I can eat. Usually a manager has to check it too. In most places there aren’t many gluten-free dishes available, so eating out has lost its appeal."

When the family go out now, Rachel makes sure she has lots of gluten-free snacks with her.

She said the charity, Coeliac UK, had been invaluable at the start and that she and Poppy had held bake sales to raise funds and help raise awareness of the condition, which is said to affect one in 100 people in the UK, with up to half a million more people undiagnosed.

Both Rachel and Poppy are feeling much better on their gluten-free diet. The condition prevents the gut absorbing nutrients from food and can stunt growth in children and lead to delayed puberty. Rachel said: "Poppy has shot up in height and even done a triathlon while I have started to feel better, have more energy and started putting on the weight I lost when I was ill."

Looking ahead, Rachel would like to provide gluten-free bakes to cafes and other eateries – and spread the word that you can still enjoy a tasty treat even if you have coeliac condition.

And she said baking with her daughter has helped normalise their illness. She said: "It has been a big thing for my daughter. But she is taking things in her stride. You can feel a little bit left out with this. We did a bake sale at her school – and people didn't even realise the cakes were gluten free!"

Find out more on Facebook: @mixingbowlyork

Coeliac disease - fact file

An estimated one in 100 people in the UK have coeliac disease, but more than 500,000 people are undiagnosed and may be struggling with unexplained symptoms.

Coeliac disease is a condition where your immune system attacks your own tissues when you eat gluten. This damages your gut (small intestine) so you are unable to take in nutrients.

Symptoms, including diarrhoea, abdominal pain and bloating, indigestion, constipation and can include more general problems such as: tiredness (fatigue) as a result of not getting enough nutrients from food (malnutrition); unintentional weight loss; an itchy rash (dermatitis herpetiformis); problems getting pregnant (infertility); nerve damage (peripheral neuropathy), and disorders that affect co-ordination, balance and speech (ataxia). Children with coeliac disease may not grow at the expected rate and may have delayed puberty.

To get better, sufferers need to eliminate gluten from their diet. Gluten is a dietary protein found in wheat, barley and rye and commonplace in many staple foods such as cereals, pasta, cakes, bread, certain types of sauces and some ready meals, and most beers.

It's not entirely clear what causes the immune system to act this way, but a combination of genetics and the environment appear to play a part.

It can be tricky and take time to diagnose, so speak to your GP if you suspect you might have coeliac disease. You can undertake a self assessment online at

Sources: NHS and Coeliac UK