In recent years Paris has seen the blossoming of many wonderful gluten free restaurants (blog posts from my recent trip here). France used to have a reputation for being difficult for vegetarians with its meat based meals and as being equally hard for coeliacs with its croissants, wonderful patisserie and general lack of understanding on why anyone would not want to each such delicious food items.
So in advance of our trip to south west France, I wondered whether Paris’ new interest in catering to those with allergies / intolerances would have filtered down to the rest of France. In short, the answer was a big non.
It wasn’t impossible to eat out, and in fact we ate out somewhere different every day during our holiday, but it was a challenge. And luckily for my recently returned anaemia, it involved a lot of red meat. We may bemoan our chain restaurants in the UK but at least they can be relied upon to have standard procedures, staff training and information readily available on allergens. France is a country of (mainly) small independent restaurants and they simply do not have the same information as you might be used to back in the UK/US. It is possible to eat out you need to be prepared!
Here’s a few observations and tips if you’re planning to visit France:
Be wary of non specified items the menu: At each meal, the dish described on the menu was not exactly as was to be served. Where there was a description on the menu, it turned out be more of a general idea than a full list of component parts. Ingredients (sometimes of the wheaty variety such as croutons or nuts sprinkled on salads) were simply not listed on the menu meaning a high potential for unexpected passengers in your meal. On one occasion I was served a steak with a <surprise> great mound of pasta, which I promptly had to send back to the kitchen.
- You will need to ask the waiter to describe every item in the dish to avoid potential allergens from being in your meal
- I’ve written previously on eating gluten free in France, you might find some of these tips helpful
- Check on cross contamination with chips/fries as you would at home. I usually scan the menu first to see if there are any other breaded items listed which may be cooked in with the chips and then ask
(Lack of) allergy labelling: During 10 days in France I didn’t see even one single allergen noted on a menu. Neither did I see a note on any menu or any sign displayed in any restaurant asking diners to speak to staff about allergens in the their dishes. I thought the EU allergen labelling rules applied Europe wide, but seemingly not in the part of France I was visiting.
- Don’t expect menus or restaurants to display/have readily available the level of allergen information we are used to having in the UK. Use translation cards to explain your dietary needs or learn the words in French for the allergens
Vegetarians: Generally I found very little choice for gluten free vegetarians on menus. And if your child is a gluten free vegetarian, they will have very few/no options for eating out. Omelettes were featured regularly on many menus which is at least one possibility. We even discovered l’Omelettaria in Bergerac where there were a number of veggie options and this was the only place I saw which had a child’s vegetarian meal offered (so long as they like eggs, that is!).
- Explore the fabulous local weekly markets and pick up beautiful fruit and vegetables. Make up for limited choice to eat out in restaurants by having wonderful picnics in a picturesque spot instead
Service stations: We drove from London down to the south west of France so stopped a number of times, mainly thanks to two small voices in the back of the car screaming “Daddy, park car! Get out! Walk!” Whilst I’m thrilled at how they’re turning into small people able to communicate what they want, singing 62 verses of Old Macdonald’s Farm in one go deserves a break.
Service stations in France are located at regular intervals along roads. Aire stations (which under French law must be no further than 20kms apart) range from those with petrol stations, restaurants and small convenience shops to those which are little more than a clearing alongside the road with a picnic table (and no toilet).
The only pre packaged item I found to eat in any Aire station with a shop/restaurant we stopped at was this tuna salad – complete with test tube of oil/balsamic. It also contained a chocolate chip cookie but both the cookie and the salad were in separate sealed packaging so OK. Otherwise in some service stations there were packs of cheese and ham – but they weren’t sold in all service station shops.
- If you can, do what the French do and pack a picnic and find a nice roadside Aire station to stop at. Sadly my food organisational / time management skills do not extend this far so I took some emergency snacks in case there was nothing gluten free.
Kids meals: While I am not a particular fan of kids meals, in France many of the dishes from the regular menu were not really suitable for my just-turned 2 year olds. The default kids meal everywhere involved steak haché (basically a good quality hamburger but no bun) and frites. This should be gluten free as it’s essentially just chopped steak with seasoning. Some places had a poached fish fillet and other chicken nuggets (not gluten free) but generally there was little choice. However, as above, I discovered that what was listed on the menu was often not as provided. Mostly the menus stated dessert was ‘Un glace’ – an ice cream. What, in fact, the restaurants offered under the auspices of un glace varied from delicious homemade ice cream to a fluorescent coloured ice pop in a frozen plastic tube to a bowl of Smarties.
- If you want to avoid disappointing the kids, make sure you ask at the outset what’s on offer (or simply pay the extra to order what they want!)
In general I found it was possible to eat out gluten free in France but I ate a LOT of steak and confit de canard. I speak French quite well but in any case I always travel with the language cards as a backup.
Have you travelled to France recently as a gluten free diner? How did you find it? Perhaps you live in France? I would love to hear your feedback on gluten free dining in France.
Resources for gluten free restaurant dining:
Gluten Free Roads – Very useful app but didn’t have many places listed near where I was in France
Sortir Sans Gluten – Searchable for restaurants (in French but easy to navigate)
French Coeliac Society – their guide (in English) to eating gluten free in France. Contains some phrases to help explain your dietary needs
Manger Sans Gluten – searchable map for gluten free shops and restaurants (also in French but super easy to navigate)