Originally posted on October 27, 2014
“Soy alergica al gluten.”
This is a phrase I repeated over and over again during a recent trip to Spain. It was my first trip to Europe since going gluten-free in April 2013. I was worried about cross-contamination. Even more so, I was worried about my lack of Spanish language skills and my inability to ask the necessary questions required to make me feel safe eating in any dining establishment. A call to a friend in Barcelona for guidance was helpful. Apparently gluten intolerance and celiac have been in the Spanish news because of the rising number of cases in children. In the end, a couple of different strategies kept me safe and can help you, too!
When you have a food allergy or food intolerance, it is no time to be spontaneous. Nothing ruins a trip faster than an allergic reaction. Planning ahead is key. Figure out where you are going. Look up restaurant reviews on travel sites like TripAdvisor. Read and ask questions on traveler forums like the ones found on Rick Steves’ Europe. Someone else with your same challenge has already been to where you are about to go. Learn from them.
Once you have researched restaurants, you will probably have a good feel for the dominate local dishes. Look up recipes online and in books. Where is gluten present? With what dishes will you have to be extra vigilant? It turns out that much of Spanish cuisine does not use flour, not even as a thickener for sauces. Also, when reading dishes, pay attention to preparation methods. While flour is not used as a thickener, bread is in dishes like Romesco sauce and Gazpacho’s thicker Andalusian cousin, Salmorejo.
Travel with an idea of what restaurants you want to visit. If your food challenges are severe, email the restaurant ahead of time to see if they can accommodate you. No sense wasting your precious and limited vacation time going to restaurants where you cannot actually eat. And at the restaurant, every table usually will receive a basket of bread. So before the party gets started, ask where the bread is sliced. Oftentimes in Spain this is done in the bar area rather than in the kitchen.
Then once you have done all this legwork, be open to synchronicity. The traditional breakfast in Spain is a pastry or small sandwich with jamon and a café con leche. I stuck with a Spanish tortilla which is often found at breakfast in cafes and bars. Made of just four ingredients – eggs, potatoes, olive oil, and salt – I knew it was a safe way to start my day. In San Sebastian, we used TripAdvisor reviews to find a bar that people raved about for breakfast, especially the many varieties of tortillas served. Located in the basement of the city’s wonderful public market, La Bretxa, Bar Azkena it turns out has another claim to fame: it specializes in gluten free pintxos. Pintxos are small snacks and you can make a meal out of three or four of them. So not only did we make Bar Azkena our breakfast place the three days we were in San Sebastian, we also dropped by for lunch. In fact, the bar takes its gluten free pedigree so seriously it has gluten free bread available for patrons with gluten intolerance or celiac disease.
To recap, to have a safe trip overseas, plan ahead:
- Read restaurant reviews online.
- Join travel forums and ask about how to eat safely at your destination(s).
- Research local cuisines and traditional preparation methods.
- Learn enough of the local language that you can clearly communicate your health concerns and understand responses.
- Email restaurants beforehand and inquire about their ability to meet your needs.
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