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  • Phyllis Morrow
    Phyllis Morrow

    France sans Pain: How to Travel Gluten Free in France

    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

    Celiac.com 11/15/2007 - When I was diagnosed with celiac disease a number of years ago, I had the misfortune of being directed to the local hospital’s dietician for counseling. After she confessed that she, too, was celiac I anticipated some great tips for managing the new dietary regime. To my surprise and disappointment, she gave me less information than I had already learned from the internet between the time of diagnosis and my appointment. Then she sighed, “You’ll see. After a while, food just becomes less important to you.”


     


    To someone who has always enjoyed good cooking and good company, that was clearly unacceptable – and it was utter nonsense. I promptly went to the bookstore, bought Rebecca Reilly’s excellent cookbook, “Gluten-free Baking,” and made a delicious gluten-free French apple tart. I put some whipped cream on the side and brought a slice to my internist, leaving it at lunchtime with thanks for a life-improving diagnosis and a suggestion not to send celiacs to that dietician. There have been too many fabulous gluten-free meals in my life since then to count.


     


    When I retired in July, I was ready to take on new gluten-free adventures. My husband and I decided on a six week self-guided bicycle trip, variously camping and staying in inexpensive lodgings throughout southernFrance. Of course, I had to figure out how to manage celiac disease in this land of patisserie (pastry) and pain (bread). But I was determined to have a “pain-less” trip.


     


    To cut to the chase, we had an incredible time and I ate wonderfully. We had gourmet picnics, restaurant meals, and dinners cooked on our camp stove. I only got sick once. For fellow celiacs contemplating European travel, I’d like to share here what I learned, including specific brands and general suggestions for how to get along. I do have the advantage of reasonable fluency in French, but with a little help you can manage without that.


     


    First, I suggest you go to: www.afdiag.org. This is the website of the “Association Francaise des Intolerants au Gluten” (French association of the gluten-intolerant). On this site, there are several particularly useful pages. One has a handy chart of foods that are “interdits” (forbidden) side by side with those that are “autorises” (allowable). I carried a print-out of this page and used it in restaurants, butcher shops, etc. I found it considerably more detailed than something like a “cuisine card” (such as the gluten-free restaurant cards available at Celiac.com). It shows particular types of regional sausages, for example, that are safe for celiacs, and so helped me pick out pates and cured meats after consultation with each charcutier (butcher) that I encountered. Of course, there is no substitute for being able to explain your needs and discuss a menu with the chef, but this page is a great aid. With this page and the help of a bilingual friend, I suggest you study up in advance, as well, on basic terms for wheat, rye, barley, oats, and food starch, as well as words for celiac-friendly grains such as corn (maiz), buckwheat (sarrasin), rice (riz), etc. Also, a restaurant card might be more helpful to someone who doesn't speak French than it would be for me.


     


    Another useful afdiag.org page, if you are lucky enough to be invited into any French homes, is titled “Recevoir un Intolerant.” This gives information and advice to anyone who offers to host you. Through a biking network on the web, we had arranged contacts with a few people who gave us meals and a place to stay, and I sent them e-mails in advance politely explaining that I am gluten intolerant, and giving the link to this page.


     


    The site also has a list of gluten-free product lines and distributors. Brand names that are exclusively gluten-free or that include some gluten-free products include not only those that are typically imported to theU.S., such as Dr. Schar, but also French and other European brands, including Valpiform, Gluta Bye, France Aglut, Barkat, and many others. By the way, the site also links to an alphabetical list by country of national gluten-intolerance organizations, which is a great resource for any traveler.


     


    Grocery Stores


    My travels were in southernFrance(the Dordogne/Lot/Vezere area, the Luberon,Provence,Carcassonne). We shopped frequently and I combed grocery stores in larger cities, includingAvignonandToulouse, smaller ones, such as Apt, and tiny villages and hill-towns for gluten-free options. In general, groceries, including the big chains such as Hyper Champion, did not seem to carry exclusively gluten-free products, such as baked goods, and I had to watch for hidden gluten in many brands, including yogurts and canned goods that, from myU.S.experience, I might have expected to be gluten-free. This was something to be cautious about in the organic food (“bio” or “biologique”) sections of regular grocery stores, too.


     


    Rice cakes were easily available in a pinch, and instant polenta made a quick camping meal after a long day on the bikes. Both were common products even in small stores. Where buckwheat crepes are a regional specialty, you can sometimes find them, pre-packaged, in the refrigerated section of grocery stores. They were delicious filled with fromage blanc and heated on our camp stove, then topped with fresh fruit and/or one of the many fabulous jams that are available everywhere. Of course, you can find many other delicious gluten-free foods to eat at any grocery, particularly in a country that excels in  cheeses, olives, fruits, vegetables, chocolate and wines. French stores also often have roasted or vacuum packed pre-cooked beets and potatoes, which make simple additions to a meal if you have no easy way to cook.  And there were some serendipitous finds such as a wonderful tinned almond cake, a regional specialty of Provence (made by “L’Amandier de Ventoux” from Biscuiterie de Provence). In the town of St. Remy, the artisanal cookie bakery also made several gluten-free almond-based cookie variations that were exciting.  


     


    “Bio” Stores


    But the real treasure troves are found in just about any “magasin bio.” “Bio” or “biologique” is the French term for “organic” and a “bio” is a health food store.  When I inquired about products “sans gluten,” I was often told that there is increasing interest in gluten-free foods, and even the smallest “bio” stores had them. We celiacs are benefiting from a trendy idea among health-conscious consumers that gluten is suspect – and hey, let’s enjoy the sudden proliferation of choices! The bigger “bio” stores had very wide selections. There, I found packaged gluten-free muesli, cereals, muffins, small cakes, and cookies of all sorts. Some stores carried cookies from “Aux Biscuits d’Antoine,” a dedicated gluten-free French bakery; I was leery about trying their buckwheat and grapefruit flavored cookies, but they turned out to be tasty, especially with hot tea. In general, the gluten-free cookie brands ranged from numerous types that resemble good non-gluten-free European packaged cookies (filled wafers, “sandies,” etc.) to purist health food-type selections (whole grains and unprocessed sugars). While salty snacks are not as prevalent inFrance as they are in theU.S. (the French think of us as a country of between meal nibblers and over eaters), some choices are available (Barkat brand pretzels are terrific). Some snack bars were gluten-free, including an interesting if crumbly one made from chestnuts (Domino Chataigne from Grillon d’Or).


     


    Bread


    Best of all, just about every “bio” carried several types of bread, all of which were vastly better than the dense, flavorless rice breads that are the default choice in U.S. health food stores. The breads included both “white” breads (including baguettes) and whole grain options. In my pre-diagnosed life, I always preferred European type breads, so I enjoyed sampling these. There are many choices in the Schar line, including “Sunna,” which resemble whole-wheat rolls.GlutaBye,FranceAglut and Valpiform all make different varieties of “pain campagnard” (country-style bread) based on rice flour, buckwheat flour, nut flour and other ingredients. Quinoa or teff flours are sometimes included. All have a nice sour taste, like that of a good light rye, because they are based on a levain (sourdough). I used to be very fond of the dense, German-style, thinly-sliced rectangular whole rye breads, and I was thrilled to find several gluten-free versions of this type of slow baked, long shelf life bread. Pural (“Bio c’est la vie”) makes a levain based “Glutenfrieies Volkornbrot” (German whole grain gluten-free bread/ “pain complet sans gluten”) with whole rice, millet, buckwheat, lupin flour (lupin is a type of bean but, thank heaven, it does not have the bitter beany taste of garbanzo and fava bean flours), and sunflower seeds. A similar bread, also German-made, was the Bio Kerniges Buchweizenbrot (organic buckwheat bread) based on buckwheat sourdough, corn, sunflower seeds, millet, buckwheat, soy, rice, apple fibers and honey. The wide variety of languages on the labels for these products suggests that they are distributed in many European countries. [by the way, friends traveling inNorwaybrought back a box of gluten-free Wasa crackers (Knackebrod) that were phenomenal. I contacted the company but found that this particular product is made by their Swiss subsidiary and they were unaware of anyU.S.distributors.]


     


    In two “bio” stores, I found the holy grail of gluten-free breads: freshly baked, with an excellent crumb and chewy European-style crust. These were 100% buckwheat (“pur sarrasin”) breads made by local bakers. The two stores that carried them only got them once a week and had a few loaves, which were quickly snapped up by eager customers. While I was never able to chase down the bakers, from whom I wanted to learn a few tricks of the trade, I was astounded at how good these breads were. They were nothing like the leaden buckwheat loaves that I have eaten (or rejected) in theU.S. I once bought one of these at the Flying Apron in the University district inSeattle, a bakery that has otherwise delightful gluten-free baked goods, and it became a running joke – we used it as a doorstop for a while. I brought home some levain sarrasin (buckwheat sourdough starter) fromFranceand have been experimenting in my kitchen, but have yet to get beyond the brick phase myself. Searching for recipes on the internet, to date, has not helped. Anyway, these breads are treasures to seek out.


     


    I was, however, happy to find a German-style whole-grain gluten-free bread when I returned to the U.S. Made by “Bavarian” (which also carries a number of similar but non-gluten-free products, so be careful) this gluten-free bread has a several month shelf life and contains whole rice, whole corn, millet, and sweet lupin flour.  It has a very good taste and holds together well.


     


    If readers have other sources for gluten-free European breads in this country, please do share them. And happy travels!


     


     


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    This was a a great article.. I have moved to France last year and now run a Full holiday for Gluten Free. Even with France being a bit behind you can always find Gluten Free food.. you will just have to shop a bit harder... Your Gluten Free cards are the best thing to have with you in France.. But there are some now B&B that cater solely to Gluten Free people. Please enjoy France...

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    Excellent article! You gave such specific information that I am looking forward to using it on my trip to France in April. This will be my first France trip since being diagnosed. You've taken the worry out of it! MERCI

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    Guest Lisa Kinyon- Coggins

    Posted

    Hi Dr. Morrow! I used to be your student (1990- 1994) at UAF (don't know if you will remember me) and just got diagnosed recently (within the year) with celiac myself!I actually just e-mailed Dr. Kwatchka today hoping that she would forward it to you, all in the hopes of getting travel advice from you...then I found this article!

    I have been refusing to travel with my hubby to France or Italy because I was not sure I could handle finding proper food and then the challenge of not eating 'off the list' items, but perhaps now I will go forth with confidence! We are definitely doing the gluten free microbrew fest in Belgium 2009, so I think we will add France to the travel plans. Thank You for this great article! I am ordering the bread you refer to in a few minutes. Thank You!

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    What a find! I have recently been identified with severe gluten intolerance. One of my biggest fears- regrets is traveling safely. I've been to France many times and enjoyed all the wonderful breads and pastries. Now, I have been concerned that I may never be able to return with the dietary restrictions necessary to stay healthy. I am so relieved to discover that my travels are not over. This diet and lifestyle is still new to me. Thank you for your insights and encouragement. I hope to find other similar articles.

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    Thanks for the helpful suggestions! My 10 year old son is Gluten Free and we are going to France for 2 weeks in July. He is dreading not being able to eat all the good bread - but with your advice we may come through it OK!

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    Guest Bonnie Robinson

    Posted

    My 16 year old daughter was recently diagnosed with celiac. She is scheduled to go to France and Spain next May with a school group. Nicole is also a vegetarian so we were very concerned about this trip. This has made me feel a lot better.

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    Excellent article. Added substantially to our ever growing portfolio of gluten free info. I will be working in Biarritz for 6 months and this will be invaluable.

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    Guest Neil Sochasky

    Posted

    I am presently in France, and am having a hard time finding staples (like rice/rice-cakes, quinoa, etc) that I can be sure are gluten free (that is, not contaminated at their manufacturing facilities). Too many labels are unclear, and the people at afdiag.org were (rude &) outright misleading (or dangerously ignorant) of what products/brands are safe for celiacs. This may be because they are focused on helping people with gluten intolerance rather than severe celiac dietary concerns. If anyone out there can help find a rice band that is safe, or a quinoa supplier that doesn't use the same machine to sort wheat, I'd be much obliged.

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    I am presently in France, and am having a hard time finding staples (like rice/rice-cakes, quinoa, etc) that I can be sure are gluten free (that is, not contaminated at their manufacturing facilities). Too many labels are unclear, and the people at afdiag.org were (rude &) outright misleading (or dangerously ignorant) of what products/brands are safe for celiacs. This may be because they are focused on helping people with gluten intolerance rather than severe celiac dietary concerns. If anyone out there can help find a rice band that is safe, or a quinoa supplier that doesn't use the same machine to sort wheat, I'd be much obliged.

    Hi Nick. I live in France and can verify whilst it is difficult it is not impossible to find foods. In fact I would say that most French people are more aware about our issues, certainly more so than in the UK where we are considered as food lepers.

    The Schar brand is excellent, they make some breads (bagutte) that dont need refreshing the oven are really good. Also their Mix Pain (B) is fab. The resulting loaf is generally light and falvourulll, I only use a bread machine however.

    Gerble make some good stuff, they are normally located in the dietique section. Not all there products are sans gluten, its the ones with the purple label.

    I will check the quinoa and rice I buy and get back to you. I am going to the supermarket today so will attempt the get some more info.

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    I just move to Versailles a month ago. Although, I found the article interesting, it is a bit misleading. The French put wheat in everything! It is used as a filler. Just as the US uses corn as a filler, they use wheat because culturally they believe corn should be used as animal feed. I have found wheat in most for that would usually be ok in the US. It is in their nuts, sesame seeds, pine nuts, corn chips, corn tortillas, jams, ice creams and most chocolates. A lot of people have also reported that you can eat the french fries because they tend to (but not always) use designated fryers in France. The problem with this is unless you a going to a very high end restaurant the fries are frozen, and any package of frozen fries here contains wheat! The person who wrote the initial article also talked about the packaged buckwheat crepes, well any packaged buckwheat crepe I have found seem to also contain added wheat flour. Maybe she just got lucky, but you really need to be able to read the French labels! Another very strange thing I have noticed ( but have never read a thing about) is that a lot of cheese in the shops and the open markets sits on wheat straw! How can this be safe? I talked to a guy in the cheese shop and he said that it is actually aged on it. I am very perplexed by this. I have an appointment with a French celiac doctor and nutritionist here and plan to bring this up with them. My original understanding was that cheese was ok, except blue cheeses in Europe. If anyone has any info on this I would really appreciate it. My last comment would be that she talks of eating almond flour products ( and even wheat free bread) from a bakery. Well, if it is being made in a bakery it is being cross contained by all the other wheat based products. If you have celiac, how is this OK? I don't want to be a total bummer, but being overly optimistic about the state of Gluten-free in France does not help anyone. If I had known the true situation, I never would have agreed to move here for my husband job. (p.s. The Celiac association in France states on its website that there are no "safe" restaurants in France-not very encouraging!)

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    I just move to Versailles a month ago. Although, I found the article interesting, it is a bit misleading. The French put wheat in everything! It is used as a filler. Just as the US uses corn as a filler, they use wheat because culturally they believe corn should be used as animal feed. I have found wheat in most for that would usually be ok in the US. It is in their nuts, sesame seeds, pine nuts, corn chips, corn tortillas, jams, ice creams and most chocolates. A lot of people have also reported that you can eat the french fries because they tend to (but not always) use designated fryers in France. The problem with this is unless you a going to a very high end restaurant the fries are frozen, and any package of frozen fries here contains wheat! The person who wrote the initial article also talked about the packaged buckwheat crepes, well any packaged buckwheat crepe I have found seem to also contain added wheat flour. Maybe she just got lucky, but you really need to be able to read the French labels! Another very strange thing I have noticed ( but have never read a thing about) is that a lot of cheese in the shops and the open markets sits on wheat straw! How can this be safe? I talked to a guy in the cheese shop and he said that it is actually aged on it. I am very perplexed by this. I have an appointment with a French celiac doctor and nutritionist here and plan to bring this up with them. My original understanding was that cheese was ok, except blue cheeses in Europe. If anyone has any info on this I would really appreciate it. My last comment would be that she talks of eating almond flour products ( and even wheat free bread) from a bakery. Well, if it is being made in a bakery it is being cross contained by all the other wheat based products. If you have celiac, how is this OK? I don't want to be a total bummer, but being overly optimistic about the state of Gluten-free in France does not help anyone. If I had known the true situation, I never would have agreed to move here for my husband job. (p.s. The Celiac association in France states on its website that there are no "safe" restaurants in France-not very encouraging!)

    Is gluten intolerance just not a problem with the French people, or are they just not aware or informed of it?

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    I'm glad that this article is getting lots of discussion and opinions, especially from others who have traveled in France. It's really helpful to all of us. We celiacs are always in situations where we have to make choices and judgment calls, though. While each of us aims for a totally gluten-free diet, we live in a world (and that includes the US, as much as France) that is essentially not "safe for celiacs." We can feel pretty much assured when we buy gluten-free flours and baked goods produced in a dedicated and certified gluten-free facility, but it would be difficult, not to mention nutritionally insufficient and boring, to eat nothing else. There aren't that many dedicated facilities and they obviously produce a limited number and variety of foods. Unless we pick and process and ship our own fruits and vegetables, and catch, raise, slaughter and package our fish and meat, too, we can't be absolutely positive that even these naturally gluten-free foods make it onto our tables without contamination. Are you someone who throws away a possibly contaminated dish sponge or are you okay with running it through the dishwasher? Each of us decides where to draw the line, every time we choose to put something in our mouths.

     

    While I am tremendously careful about what I eat, I do not wish to be confined to the safe quarters of my own kitchen. I accept dinner invitations and explain my celiac needs. I occasionally go to a carefully chosen restaurant and do my best to get a gluten-free meal. But if you asked me, I'd say (just like the folks at the Celiac association in France) that there's no "safe" restaurants in the US. There are no doubt a few owned or operated by celiacs - but for all practical purposes eating out anywhere is a risk.

     

    I've been back to France since I wrote this article and I had another good trip. I don't think I was any more gluten-endangered than when I travel in the US. The added challenges in traveling are managing language and cultural differences that can keep you from learning what you need to know to make your own decisions as to what you will eat, the kinds of decisions we make every day at home.

     

    Cultural differences can be trickier than we think. For example, I've also traveled in New Zealand (and I hope to get around to writing another article on "gluten-free in NZ"). Compared to France or the US, NZ feels like gluten-free heaven - at least on the surface. People speak English. Many, many New Zealanders are aware of gluten-intolerance. Grocery items are well-labeled, restaurants often offer gluten-free menus, bakeries in many places sell gluten-free items, even street food vendors proudly proclaim "Gluten free!" on certain commodities. Yet I wondered all the time about cross-contamination and I became increasingly suspicious about the actual state of knowledge. Bakeries and delis that offered numerous gluten-free goods, for example, sold them alongside wheat-flour based goods. A natural food store owner tried to sell me spelt cookies. I was astonished to meet a cheese vendor, herself a celiac, that didn't know that blue-veined cheeses can be a problem. So appearances can be deceiving. Would I go back to NZ again? You bet I would.

     

    So, as they say, you pays your money and you takes your choice. Safe travels!

     

     

     

    I did well on this recent trip, relying on "sans gluten" products from "bio" stores; fresh fruits, vegetables and fish from markets and regular grocery stores; and cheeses and olives. I read labels religiously and asked questions when I could. I went ahead and ate items like olives that were, as far as I could determine, gluten-free - though I had no way to know for sure, anymore than I do at home. Yes, I only bought buckwheat crepes that were 100% buckwheat flour. I ate in some restaurants with what precautions I could manage (just as in the US).

     

    On the cheese question: I often bought cheese but I never saw it displayed on wheat straw. I wonder if aging and/or displaying cheeses on wheat straw is customary only for certain types of cheese and/or in certain regions? It's a good heads up and suggests that we should be cautious and ask before buying but personally, I wouldn't stop eating ALL cheeses.

    Here's the thing: we need to strike some balance in our lives. as celiacs, we can spend our lives consumed by such food fear could be a concern - and especially if some cheeses are...

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  • About Me

    I am a 57 year old retired professor and celiac living in Fairbanks, Alaska. The transition to GF cooking was made easier for me because I have always cooked from scratch, whether starting from Alaskan salmon and moose, or fresh vegetables. Living with celiac disease still means good conversation over good food.

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