Eating gluten free in France

About this time of year when the kids have gone back to school, and the days are growing shorter, I get a hankerin’ to visit Europe, specifically Italy (I’m Catholic after all), France and England. I have nothing against other European countries. These are just first on the list, and not specifically in that order.

Today, I got far enough to do a bit of searching on the Internet about eating. For me, food and travel, are even more intertwined than the average traveler. I must eat gluten and dairy free so I often take food with me as I go. I now find the United States pretty easy to navigate food-wise because people are more aware of food intolerances and allergies than they were only a few years ago. Some places like Portland, Seattle and NYC are even easier, and in general, larger cities are easier than smaller ones. Still, I found some real gems in coastal towns like those in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. With a few suggestions to waiters, it was very easy when we went on vacation in May.

However, consider you’re traveling to another country where you don’t speak the language. Even England carries a different accent and uses different wording from the U.S. The other day, I was explaining to Bear we actually speak American in the U.S., not proper English, and like all countries, we have our own dialects and phrasing. For example, I don’t think Europe has as much hip hop slang like the kind which comes out of my kids’ mouth.

But I digress.

Let’s say we’re planning for a Grand Tour, a trip of a month or more as in days past. I don’t know when I’ll get to go, but it’s good to be prepared. Pretend we are flying to Paris, and we’re going to do all the gardeny, touristy things we can like:

Here are some of my tips to make your trip easier. Although I haven’t yet traveled to Europe, I still travel a lot for my job, and some things remain the same especially when we fly.

  • Before you go, head over to one of the translation companies and have cards printed for your allergies. I like Select Wisely’s cards which are $9.95, where you can choose your language and allergens. Another good one is made by Allergy Translation. It’s been my experience if you say you allergic to a food, you have a better chance of conveying the information to staff, and they will take you more seriously. Sometimes, if you say you have an intolerance, it confuses the chef and other restaurant staff. While not scientifically accurate, anyone who’s had a bad experience being glutened or eating dairy will tell you it’s miserable and may spoil your entire trip.
  • Next, pack some food of your own for the flight. You never know if those gluten free meals are going to also be dairy free. I’ve noticed many times a slice of cheese is part of the meal, and you can’t necessarily go vegan because, while vegans don’t eat any dairy (although they make fine nut cheeses), they do eat wheat. So, hedge your bets. It’s a long flight. Carry nut butters in disposable packages and hope it’s not a no peanut or tree nut flight. I always carry peanut butter and an apple or banana. Also, carry rice cakes or chips, whatever you like to eat. I’ve noticed on my last two flights that they’ve had salsa and tortilla chips. The flight attendants totally understood my wanting to see the ingredient lists. You may need to dispose of your carry-on food before you reach customs because some countries don’t allow food from other countries into theirs. I discovered this in Hawaii which is actually a state, but you get my drift.
  • Keep some gluten free food bars with you like Kind Bars. My faves are the Cranberry Almond, Mango Macadamia and Almond Cashew. They taste good enough to be dessert although if the dessert is chocolate mousse, you may want to go to the la salle de bain and have a good cry. I also love Two Moms In The Raw gluten free granola, created by a woman who has Multiple Sclerosis and began eating raw food as part of her health regimen. The blueberry granola is so good you won’t mind watching someone else eat a croissant, well, not much anyway. For other ideas of packable food, try this gluten free backpacking list.

Ah, la belle France, not the easiest country for consuming no wheat or dairy. However, I found some good websites, with great advice. An older post from 2007 on David Lebovitz’s blog contained great information on gluten free eating in Paris. Let’s look:

  • Even with your cards, know the words for basic ingredients like soy sauce (sauce de soja), wheat (blé), gluten (gluten). He also encourages you to get a French menu translator. I couldn’t agree more.
  • Ethnic restaurants. Even in Oklahoma, ethnic restaurants are the mainstay of my gluten and dairy free eating experience. Indian, Mexican, South and Central American, one Italian (where they cook my pasta for me separately), Thai (my fave) and Vietnamese, all have gluten and dairy free options. Paris is the same.
  • Natural food stores. He suggests three common ones in the post, Naturalia, La Vie Claire and Biocoop. Their websites all looked good to me.

These are just a few of his tips. Before going to Paris, I would read his entire selection of posts about eating gluten free. Note, he isn’t limited to GF eating. He’s just providing a service.

Another good place for information is Celiac Chicks. A guest post from Danielle, Mrs. G.F., was full of wise information, some of which validated Lebovitz’s experiences. She also wrote another post on her own blog, Recipe for a Gluten Free Life. One tip was to learn a bit of French to speak as she ordered. My understanding is that French people (like all of us no matter what country you live in) appreciate visitors trying to be polite. Her sentence was: “‘Bonjour  Monsieur or Madame. Je suis desole. Je suis allergic au gluten. Qu’est que vous me recomende?’ (Hello, sir or m’am. I am sorry. I have an allergy to gluten. What do you recommend?)” I would just add “au laitiers” to the sentence for dairy, or “au caséine” might even be better.

You may notice she worked very hard beforehand to make her trip a success. I’ve found that to be a good policy. For example, I attended the GWA’s annual symposium in Dallas, and before I went, I called the hotel and discussed the meals. Although GWA is very accommodating for lots of meal choices, I’ve found talking to a person directly often helps too. Plus, like in my imaginary trip to Paris, I looked ahead for where Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are located. I also brought my favorite peanut butter, Justin’s Nut Butter Organic Honey Peanut Butter. They also make Justin’s Nut Butter Natural Maple Almond Butter. Both are great.

To the above information, I would add searching out vegan restaurants. Many vegans do eat gluten free, and they do so in creative ways. Just show them your card, speak your bit of French and ask nicely. Also, raw food enthusiasts (which isn’t all that raw because much of it is dehydrated) also eat a lot of wheat free items. Plus, if you’re dairy free too, you can eat their cheeses. I still miss cheese, and when I can’t stand it anymore, I ask Bill to take me to 105 Degrees in Oklahoma City where I can eat nut cheeses to my heart’s content.

Other suggestions for any type of travel are to eat during  the slower times of day. In each country, those times may be different, but I’ve found if I hit a restaurant when they aren’t as busy, they have more time for me, and there is less chance of cross contamination, a gluten free nightmare. Another tactic which works well for me is to say as best I can, “I’m so sorry to be a pain. It’s just that I get sick.” I find waiters to be very kind and accommodating if I approach the problem this way, and I always encourage them. This is similar to Danielle’s advice above. I’ve also found that if a waiter provides me with special consideration (like makings sure my food is okay at banquets), I look them in the eye, sincerely thank them and then tip well. People want to help you. They don’t want to make you sick, but they’re busy, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that.

Someday, I’ll get to Paris, and when I do, I’ll use the above tactics to help me navigate. In the meantime, I love hearing about others’ experiences, gluten free or not, so please share.

Oh, and as Julia Child would say, ‘Bon appétit.”

22 Comments

  1. I speak French and I had trouble figuring out what I was eating in Paris. It was delicious, but I had to consult a French/English dictionary to translate some of the words in the menu. I am available as a travel companion to Paris!!! My advice is to skip the Louvre and go to the Centre Georges Pompidou instead. The Mona Lisa is tiny and mobbed by foreign tourists. I loved the modern art collection at Pompidou and the view of the city from the top is outstanding — free (or at least it was when I was there and no lines like the Eiffel Tower). I hadn’t started gardening when I visited though and I wonder what I missed. I hope I get to Paris again some day!

  2. Ann says:

    I am gluten- and dairy-free too and I made it in Paris with very few problems. Since I am also Catholic, I understand your hankering to go over. I suggest going to España instead! It is far easier to eat gluten- and dairy-free there and the Christmas season is amazing! (Mass at Notre Dame during this season was also quite magical though. It was by candlelight and it was funny to have tourists watching us, but so it goes!) As an Italian-American, I have enough of that in my life. I know. That’s weird—but it’s so true!

  3. yolanda says:

    I am glad to have found your blog. I grew up on a Red Dirt Road in MS and have found memories of it. I would love to visit Paris and Italy.
    I found your blog via Good REads.

  4. I have empathy Dee. When I visited Paris in my twenties I did not have the allergies I have now. It is hard to travel and eat out, when you cannot eat cow dairy . . . especially in France. I hope you get to go soon! You have some great tips here. Fun post too!

  5. Dear Dee, Your post makes me feel so glad I have no food allergy or intolerance! But one of my grandsons has severe food allergies. I will pass the tactics in your informative post to my daughter.
    Monet’s garden … it is wonderful to dream on this rainy December day! Pam x

  6. Thanks for all the info. This is all so encouraging. I hadn’t even gotten as far as thinking about gluten-free eating while traveling in Europe. There’s still so much to learn.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      MMD, I hope it helps. GF/CF is a long climb for many of us.

  7. Layanee says:

    I know you will be visiting Paris soon and for now the armchair traveling will help you be well prepared.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Layanee, my fingers are crossed. One day.

  8. Eliza says:

    That sounds like a challenge! I don’t have a gluten allergy, but my mom spent a lot of time on business trips (which she used to visit Monet’s Garden and other joys) in France. Her problem? She doesn’t eat cheese or butter. Talk about the wrong place to find dinner!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hi Eliza, thanks for stopping by. It is a challenge, but one I meet and kind of enjoy at that point. It’s made my cooking more exciting. That’s for sure.

  9. Frances says:

    Dear Dee, what a helpful and still entertaining post. I dream of traveling to France as well, and even without food allergies, think planning ahead and being prepared, learning some phrases and being polite will go a long way in making for a pleasant trip. May you eat well and stay well, my friend. 🙂

  10. Sue in Milan says:

    Can’t help about France, but here are some tips for Italy.
    This website lists hotels, restaurants etc that cater for gluten free diets : http://www.celiachia.it/dieta/fuoricasa/ristoranti_etc.aspx

    If you’re cooking for yourself, awareness is growing in Italy now. you used to have to get products from the chemist’s (and still can) but more and more supermarket chains are now stocking gluten free ranges. If you’re in the north, go to the Esselunga chain. It’s not wonderful, but you won’t starve 🙂

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Thanks so much Sue. I plan to go to Italy as soon as the kids are a bit bigger.

  11. Cyndy says:

    Hi Dee, A few years ago my family traveled to Italy for Mom’s 70th birthday, and my niece with the severe nut allergy had an allergy card with her – really helped her and her mom relax and enjoy the trip! Hope you get to make that Grand Tour sometime soon!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hy Cyndy, I hope I do too. I think everyone’s experiences are so helpful here.

  12. Gail says:

    Dee, A marvelous and informative post! I feel blessed to not have food allergies~except to mango! gail

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hi Gail, just something I pulled together one day when I was playing around. 🙂

  13. CurtissAnn says:

    Honey, the greatest thing I have learned is what you say: People do want to help you. When I remember that, everything is so much easier. My attitude is wanting to help them help me, and we all do well. Take me with you when you go.
    xxxooo
    Rosebud

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Rosebud, you know I want you to accompany me. Of course!

  14. Thank you for your very informative blog on travelling gluten-free (especially the translation card tip).

    I travel frequently… I’ve practised saying gluten-free diet in a couple different languages. Of course, sometimes I’m misunderstood (awful accent on my part). Cards are way better. Mind you, the staff need to be literate.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Cristina, thanks so much for stopping by. I’m glad I was able to help. I haven’t traveled outside the U.S. since I went gf/cf, but I’m ready to try.

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