By Scott Meeks
I've noticed lately that a lot of gluten-free foods are being marketed with an eco-friendly spin. But if gluten-free basically means wheat-free, then what's so green about that? To find the answer, I headed to The Happy Tart, a gluten-free patisserie in Alexandria, Virginia.
"I think a lot of people who eat gluten-free are very in touch with their bodies," explained Emma Cech, owner of The Happy Tart. "They're very in touch with where things are coming from and they want to have the best ingredients."
Emma's explanation was simple, but it was a real "light bulb" moment. While there isn't a direct connection between being gluten-free and green living, people who suffer from wheat allergies often opt for whole and natural ingredients. And they truly understand the power of food.
"Even if the restaurant says they've got a gluten-free menu, you're relying on people in the kitchen to follow gluten-free protocol to make sure there's no cross contamination," noted Emma. "So every time you go out there's always a risk that you're going to have a reaction and you're going to feel sick."
It's estimated that two million people in the United States may have some level of gluten intolerance, also known as Celiac Disease. Symptoms range from stomach pain to seizures.
"I really wanted somewhere where gluten-free people could come and have an amazing variety of choice," said Emma. "And know that they were safe and that they could eat anything here."
The tart's happy history
Emma Cech's dream of opening a French-style bakery became reality in January 2012 when she opened The Happy Tart. Before that, she spent more than a year researching, baking and converting all her favorite recipes into gluten-free varieties. That's not as simple as it sounds. She works with eight different wheat-free flours to bring her sweet treats to life.
"I blend them (the flours) for each different product," Emma said as she reached for a jar of cookies. "So for the sugar cookies and the dark chocolate crackles, they had different blends because I'm looking for different properties."
Emma's passion for gluten-free baking was born during her time in culinary school when she was diagnosed as gluten intolerant. Her son also suffers from the condition. But Emma turned lemons into lemon tarts and now her business is a true standout.
"A lot of gluten-free products are made on a large industrial scale and so they need to have a lot of preservatives," added Emma. "I don't like eating chemicals. I want to eat real food and I think a lot of other people want to eat real food too."
Butter, eggs, and cream -- it's all in there. No one said The Happy Tart was a health food store! But there are some healthy elements like fresh fruits and vegetables. Emma is already mingling with folks at her local farmer's market so she can incorporate more local ingredients into her pies and pastries.
"I use fruits and vegetables that are in season so if people ask me for a strawberry tart in the winter I say "no" even though it pains me," added Emma. "I won't buy fruit that's not in season."
Thanks to Emma's website, www.happytartbakery.com, gluten-free people from all over are making their way to her store. And Happy Tart products are already popping up at local eateries. Their gluten-free pizza crust is on the menu at a nearby pizzeria and Emma is hoping other restaurants will follow suit with her pastries and pies.
But the coolest and greenest Happy Tart brainchild will be their vending bicycles!
"We're hoping to have a fleet of vending bicycles that will go to Old Town and go to Shirlington and go to Crystal City," said Emma. "We really believe in reducing your carbon footprint."
Now that's what I call Green and Gluten-free!
Scott Meeks is a passionate environmental journalist, lifestylist and author. You can learn more about him and his eco-ways at www.crunchyscott.com.