Recipes & Features

The Coeliac Ballerina - Travelling the World with the English National Ballet

Isabelle Brouwers, First Artist - English National Ballet @whataballerinaeats_glutenfree @bellabrouwers

Posted 15th July 2021

The Coeliac Ballerina

My name is Isabelle Brouwers and I’m a professional ballet dancer, a First Artist with the English National Ballet. London is now undoubtedly my home, but I was born in Germany to Italian/ German parents and I grew up as an expatriate, moving country every 2/3 years. I started ballet along the way, in Romania, when I was 7 years old and I was utterly mesmerised from day 1; ballet quickly became my compass, my purpose and biggest joy and my universal form of communication, transcending the barriers of language and connecting me to the community wherever I moved to. 

I was diagnosed as a coeliac not much later, when I was 8 years old, a factor which, along with my athletic professional passions and multifaceted global upbringing, inevitably shaped my culinary journey thus far.  

I was always an extremely bubbly, energetic and hyperactive cheerful child, however, I also suffered terribly from inexorable insomnia! The problem started escalating just after our move to Mexico City, where I visited countless doctors and sleep specialists, had my brain probed, scanned and tested, awake and asleep, to no apparent avail. 

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It wasn’t until I was seen by my family doctor in Italy later that year on our annual summer holiday that we first heard the term ‘coeliac’, an autoimmune disease that had been very well researched in the country but that no one in our family had ever heard of previously.

He noticed that along with my restlessness and insomnia, I was noticeably underdeveloped for my age, and he sent me for the blood tests and the painful endoscopy which confirmed the intestinal damage that comes along with the body’s inability to handle gluten. 

Due to its nature as a hereditary condition, which can actually manifest itself in many different ways and can develop at any stage in life, he suggested everyone else in the family should get checked too. We found that my mother was the genetic carrier, and that my little sister had a more acutely developed coeliac disease herself, having manifested very different symptoms to mine, suffering with endless complications around digestion and fussy eating later in childhood, often throwing up not long after eating my mother’s lovingly prepared, but unfortunately gluten filled, Italian pasta and pizza dishes...

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Thus began the quest to make the Brouwers household a coeliac friendly one. My mother has always been an absolute magician in the kitchen, so she welcomed the adjustment with creativity, and as is the case with most families with coeliac members, it was easier to make everything in the kitchen gluten free rather than mix and match and possibly cross contaminate. It was definitely a challenging kick start living in a country where the term gluten free was pretty much unheard and where the only gluten free products available in supermarkets were those that in nature were organically privy of the protein.

A convenient and lucky favourite base of many Mexican dishes, however, is corn, and my mother resourcefully used this to her advantage, experimenting with the purest corn flour she could find, perfecting the homemade gluten free bread recipe which became the staple to our packed lunches and pre ballet snack packs. We were also very fortunate to have Italian blood and a Latin language already stored in our memory banks which allowed us to learn Spanish with relative speed and ease, and made it much easier for us to familiarise ourselves with food labels and ingredients lists. 

The biggest adjustment for me as a child was definitely the social one, having to constantly explain what gluten was and where it hid, not being able to share snacks and meals with my friends in break times at school and the dreaded need to reject celebration cake offers at social gatherings. My tireless mother, however, continued to be our unspoken superhero, working away with the bread maker and rice cooker and always making sure we were equipped with our packed lunches (those chunky Pyrex Tupperwares filled with homemade meat stews or curries and rice) and corn bread snacks to bring to ballet. 

The dietary changes we had to make definitely weighed on us a bit as young children, especially having to renounce on some ‘fun variety’ at mealtimes, however, it was amazing to see that it wasn’t long after commencing a gluten free diet that I was finally able to rest for entire nights and my sister was finally able to break free from her gastric unrest; the benefits definitely outweighed the little sacrifices. 

In the meantime, my love for ballet was evolving far beyond that of a mere hobby; my training was becoming more serious and I was preparing for international ballet competitions in the United States and we took this opportunity to arrange a family road trip across the border. One thing that I will never forget was stepping into our first Walmart; supermarket aisles in the US, where the terms ‘coealic’ and ‘gluten free’ were far more widespread and established than in Mexico, were like amusement parks for my sister and I, and a giant relief for my mother, who was finally able to find ready made gluten free breads, pastas, crackers and even treats like cookies, biscuits and cakes in a myriad of guises! The extra excitement (and sugar!) propelled me onto stage in the competition, where I was delighted to be awarded the 2nd place medal, and we returned back to Mexico with smiles on our faces and a trunk, back seat and laps filled with a kaleidoscope of gluten free products that we’d never seen before! 

Our next move took us to the other side of the planet in Malaysia. We were lucky to find a rather large expatriate community in Kuala Lumpur, and found specialised supermarkets selling many imported items, among which were several gluten free staples, but the biggest saving grace was definitely the rice based nature of Asian cuisine and my mother’s resourcefulness in the kitchen, which was also a lot more cost effective and engaging for us as a family! My sister and I would often spend a lot of time spying on and shadowing our mother’s wizardry in all things cuisine related, especially her mastery of curries!

Although I found excellent ballet coaches in Malaysia, my vision for the future at this stage was cementing itself and at the tender age of 11 (which in a career path so specific, short lived and quick to commence is actually normal) I made the definite decision to embark on a fully professional training journey. In 2008, as an ambitious, determined and passionate child, I left the nest and made my way to the Royal Ballet School, the famous ballet boarding school perched idyllically on a hill in the middle of Richmond Park. 

Throughout my training at the Royal Ballet School, I was lucky to be boarding with a few fellow coeliacs, which meant the kitchen staff in our canteen had become well acquainted with the precautions necessary for our meal preparations. The transition on a social level was also much smoother than what I’d experienced in ‘normal’ schools in the past. I no longer felt like an ‘outsider’, running after school to my ballet practice and having to politely refuse meal offers at the few social events my busy schedule allowed me to attend. I was finally in my natural habitat, in an environment surrounded by fellow passionate budding dancers. Academics were embedded into our daily schedules in the morning, leaving afternoons dedicated to fulfilling and refining our artistic passion with the most illustrious coaches. Meal times became a social event, communally enjoyed in our canteen, where I knew my special necessities had been well taken care of in advance without need for constant explanations and questions. 

Something that truly fascinated me, and relieved me of many stresses and worries, when I arrived here in London was how well understood coeliac disease, and other alimentary intolerances, were in comparison to my previous experiences in Mexico and Malaysia. Supermarkets here were well stocked for people having to follow allergen specific diets, and all the restaurants I visited were highly sensitised and aware of specific requirements, offering delicacies like gluten free pizza and pasta which I’d hardly ever come across in the cities in which I previously lived. I was amazed at the convenience and social freedom of living as a coeliac here and I’m amazed to see it getting better every year, with the emergence of many more specialised ‘free from’ brands, all constantly tweaking and perfecting their recipes to create grain based products which taste deceivingly close to the gluten filled ‘real deal’, as well as restaurants and take away chains which are constantly expanding their menus to accommodate to more specific dietary requirements. 

Throughout my years in professional training, my parents continued with their expatriate lifestyle and travelled to colourful and exotic corners of the world, and I had the great fortune of visiting them on my school holidays. Their next moves saw them travelling the African continent, and alongside discovering beautiful new vibrant cultures, they were able to explore entirely new culinary realms. The natural diversity of the continent allowed us to discover a whole new variety of nature’s own gluten free goodies, such as teff and cassava, which to this day remains one of my favourite flours to use in gluten free cooking, with its rich flavour and dense texture, and we were able to explore and appreciate a new diversity in the use of pulses and exotic fruits and vegetables in our meal preparation.

I finished my boarding school training at the Royal Ballet School in 2011, and moved on to the English National Ballet School, fulfilling my childhood dream of becoming a professional dancer with my acceptance into the English National Ballet company in 2014. Leaving boarding school was an adjustment, but one that I welcomed with open arms, and since the age of 15, I’ve been living independently and self sufficiently, rooming at first with friends and colleagues and now with my sister. I’ve been an avid and somewhat experimental ‘cook’ throughout, trying to emulate my mother’s culinary wizardry and creativity and explore my own diverse tastes, and making full use of the plethora of new gluten free delicacies I continue to discover around the city. 

These years have definitely positively shaped my views towards my coeliac disease, and the subsequent need to be extra aware of the ingredients in my food. I no longer see it as a deterrent to my creative curiosity in all things culinary, an obstacle in satiating my adventurous appetite or a hindrance to my social life. I prefer to see it as a means to true awareness and complete mindfulness around the provenance of my food, and a way in which to be more in tune with exactly how I fuel my body. My profession is extremely physical and unfortunately short lived; my body is my tool and I feel a personal responsibility and joy in keeping it running healthily, with an eye towards longevity. I believe my coeliac disease put me at an advantage in this respect, as I’ve had to be very aware of my nutrition and what I eat from a very young age.

Unfortunately, injuries in a profession as physical as mine are an inevitable byproduct of our strenuous work. My adamancy to recover from these physical setbacks as quickly and efficiently as possible was a catalyst for some personal research I undertook into the healing and medicinal properties of foods and a well balanced diet. Although the myriad of lockdowns we’ve experienced in recent months have definitely placed a big toll on our social and professional advancements, they have actually given me the opportunity to have more time to follow my culinary passions and concrete some of the knowledge that I’d gathered myself in regards to sports nutrition and the medicinal properties of food. I completed a correspondence course in sports nutrition during our first national lockdown, receiving my sports nutrition diploma in March, and it was fascinating for me to gain more insight into how much difference our nutrition can make in our physical and mental well-being.

With my upbringing taking me to so many diverse countries and allowing me to savour so many richly varied cultures, I have definitely evolved into a true adventurer at heart, and this does reflect itself in my culinary tastes. I love experimenting with and trying new foods and recipes and, although my coeliac disease does limit the amount of ingredients I can play with, I’ve learned to adapt and be creative with what is at my disposal; the result in my kitchen is a colourful, and often eccentric, amalgamation of global culinary delights. 

I love winding down after a long day of training and rehearsals with some creative output time in the kitchen, combining the knowledge that I received throughout my diploma, the amazing variety of exotic produce available in the Brixton markets near my home, and my own vibrant imagination to create new recipes, exploring variety within my gluten free constraints and presenting my meals in an ‘artistic’ manner. I now share these creations online through my Instagram platform@whataballerinaeats_glutenfree, which I established to keep my own creativity fuelled and to inspire the coeliac community to be adventurous with their nutrition. Following a gluten free, healthy and balanced diet doesn’t have to be bland or uninspiring; there is no need to sacrifice on creativity, variety or taste to achieve your goals, especially with the ever growing variety of gluten free brands of cooking ingredients and ready-made products now easily available in every supermarket!


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