Wednesday 4 February 2009

Gluten Free Travel in France

[Guest post by John, who is married to Susan's sister. We hope that this post will also appear as an article in the Coeliac Society of Australia's magazine in due course.]
John enjoying a fabulous meal in the Arcachon Basin
In Aug-Sep 2008 my wife and I spent 4 weeks travelling in Scotland and France. I have been a coeliac for 8 years and this was our first overseas trip where we did our own shopping and cooking.

Prawn coconut mango entrée
at le Relais des Cinq Châteaux, near Marqueyssac

In France our 2½ weeks was spread between 4 areas – a few days with family in a country village in the Loire Valley, a few days at a B&B (called chambres d’hôte) near Bordeaux in the south west, a week in the Dordogne in a gîte (= fully furnished place where you self-cater) and a few days in a hotel in Paris.

Foie gras icecream entrée
at le Relais des Cinq Châteaux, near Marqueyssac
At most of these places we self-catered. Even the B&B ended up with a kitchenette, so we did our own thing. We visited many good-sized supermarkets, none of which had any gluten free specialities except rice cakes, which was very disappointing after our success in Scotland. Near the end of our trip we visited a huge supermarket called Auchan that had a delicious range of gluten free biscuits, but no pasta, bread etc. Luckily I had some left-overs from Scotland because I was getting tired of rice cakes and jam for breakfast and rice cakes and tomato and cheese for lunch. Since the supermarkets were so poor my sister-in-law suggested we try a health food shop to look for gluten free specialties. We were half way through our journey before we found one of these and they had all sorts of goodies – pasta, breakfast cereal, bread etc. I am sure they are more common than our experience – but it was the only one we noticed although we didn’t spend our holiday looking in town after town hoping to find a “Bio Co-op”.

Obviously the catering at home or picnic lunches were no problem other than shopping for specific gluten free specialities. One night we ate at the local hotel in my sister-in-law’s village, Preuilly-sur-Claise. The owner spoke good English and following an explanation of my requirements we had a wonderful 3 course meal with GF choices and it was great value too (about 25 euros each, including drinks). We also had a couple of lunches in cafés. My sister-in-law speaks [a bit of] French and explained what I could and couldn’t have. One of them was a very nice 3 course meal and was only 13 euros. I got a bit worried when my plate was whisked away soon after starting to eat because the kitchen realised it had done something wrong – a new plate (looking just the same mind you) was delivered soon after with a stream of apologies. These experiences are both good and bad. On the one hand it spoils your afternoon while you wonder if they got it right – but they did, I didn’t get sick. And on the other hand, you feel confident that they are paying attention to your request, albeit slowly, and will own up to a mistake. This experience was not unique to France – they were able to whisk away my plate in Scotland too and replace it with something similar.

We feel that we got on quite well despite our meagre language skills – nearly everyone spoke some English and was very accommodating once they realised we were trying. With my sister-in-law’s help, we made up a simpler version of the gluten free card which was successful – only twice did the kitchen find it all too scary and I ended up with an extremely bland meal.

We were advised, and we noticed it for ourselves as well, that a café will do almost the same menu for lunch at about half the price of what they charge for dinner. All the café lunches we had were really good. So if you can get yourself organised to sit down for that long at lunchtime, then this is the best value eating you can get.

The eating highlight of our trip was in the Arcachon area, which is famous for oysters, seafood and coastal tourism. We decided to try the local fare and so with guide book in hand we started deciphering the menus in the windows of some neighbouring seafood restaurants. On our second pass, a local lady could tell we were unsure of some of the dishes and she offered to help us read the menu and point out what they were made of and whether we might like them. Feeling quite reassured we headed inside. Our waitress had some English and once she understood what I needed to have, she couldn’t do enough to help us – back and forth to the kitchen offering up all sorts of options and alternate (GF) sauces. It was like pre-coeliac days where you could have one of so many things, the food was fantastic and you were confident the kitchen would get it right.

The third part of the trip was inland of Bordeaux to an area called the Dordogne. There is amazing history and scenery here with castles built by Richard the Lion Heart, the prehistoric Lascaux cave paintings, towns built on or within cliffs, magnificent gardens, numerous outdoor activities (we can recommend drifting/canoeing down the river) and the home of foie gras – so a foodie's heaven. We went to our first large markets at Saint-Cyprien to stock up again. This was a lot of fun – we picked up all sorts of olives, salamis (GF) [in French, saucisson], fruit, veg, cheeses, wine, etc. We took this home to the gîte and ate very well for many days.
Le marché, Saint-Cyprien
The daily trip to the boulangerie (bread shop with lots of pâtisseries) was torture. My wife needed a chocolat éclair or a tarte tatin, or … most days and all I could do was drool. Every shop had meringues though, and it is amazing that they can vary in flavour so much. Be careful though, you have to check each time because occasionally they said they were made with flour. In one stunning shop I asked about something I suspected might be OK. Try as we might the shop assistant couldn’t understand what we were getting at and soon disappeared out the back. When she returned she brought the chef with her whose English was perfect and he pointed out a few different things I could have. Too hard to choose, so I had the lot!

A pâtisserie in Sarlat, in the Dordogne
Paris was the least interesting foodwise as we were totally reliant on eating out. The hotel breakfasts were no good for me and perhaps because we didn’t choose places that were expensive enough the attempt we had at an evening meal was so dull we didn’t try again, being content with a nice lunch from small cafés in side streets.

I certainly won’t be shy about visiting France again and really enjoyed the culture, history and people. And while I have mentioned some of the negative side of eating, it was still only minor and you can usually get quite good food.



Quick note from Simon. Citroën are relaunching a DS for the 21st century today. If this needs explaining: shame on you, but look here.


Anonymous said...

Nice and informative foody trip report .

Back to the vintage car, I see :-)

Susan said...

So how long do you think it will be before we become the proud owners of a vintage French car?

Ken Broadhurst said...

Very interesting report from John. I'm glad he was able to find foods he could enjoy while on the trip. My mother has severe food allergies (no tomatoes, potatoes, herbs, apples, grapes or products made from them...) and I have found the staff in French restaurants to be very understanding and cooperative when I explain her requirements.

Cait said...

Thanks for this. I am starting my research for ten days in France sans gluten. This has been helpful. Caitlyn

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