I said, “I’m going to France!”
And everyone said, “Oh, wait til you taste the bread, the cheese, the wine!”
I said, “I can’t. I’m gluten free and dairy free. I can’t drink alcohol. And a whole bunch of other things.”
They pause for reflection, then say, “Why are you going to France?”
Good question. I had a vision of my boyfriend and me driving through the French countryside, through the gorgeous vineyards (with wine I can’t drink, and he doesn’t either), stopping at amazing places to eat along the way. I heard a rumor that things were changing and there’d be gluten free options for bread. Maybe dairy free options for cheese. But what about everything cooked in butter? Cooked in cream? I’m living on the edge. I booked the trip. 9 nights, 3 in Paris, 2 in Strasbourg, 2 in Beaune, and 2 in Annecy. Along the way, we hit Colmar, Dijon and Lyon too. THEN I did my research. I found about a dozen places in Paris that have gluten free options, or things well marked, you know the kind, destination stops for people like us, people who have to ask a million questions before we eat anything.
And oh yeah, I don’t speak French. At all.
So, add learning French to my preparation for an already lengthy preparation for this trip. I memorized the most important thing first, “Je suis allergic a gluten et lait.” I wasn’t emotionally prepared for the looks I got from every candy store worker, waiter, dining room attendant. They looked at me so sadly as if they’re thinking, “You poor girl. Why’d you come to France? There’s nothing to eat in this whole country for you.”
The good news is everyone knew what I said and they knew what it meant. The bad news is, only about ½ the waiters could actually figure out that cheese has milk in it. Butter is milk. Fried things encased in batter is gluten, and oh yeah, I can’t just peel that layer off. Occasionally I would find the nicest restaurant staff who would try their very best to make sure I could eat. But it was heartbreakingly few and far between.
The good news is, since July 1st, 2015, (we went July 2nd) every restaurant in France is required to have a list for the customers of all allergens in every dish. The bad news is, in about 20 meals, only 2 times was this offered to me. A waiter told me most restaurants are lazy and don’t have it yet.
The good news is, if you’re going to Paris, there are those dozen bakeries with gluten free options. But, unless you know the French schedule, everything’s always seemingly closed when you want to get there. Lunch is generally over by 2, and most places don’t reopen til 7pm for 2 to 3 hours. 3 of 5 places I bookmarked were closed when we tried to go. I was happily beside myself to find an Exki (a chain with really well marked food and several options, including the ONLY gluten free pastry I found, a tiny chocolate brownie) at the Paris airport when we flew home. So I ended up having lots of food stash in my carryon bag for the 8 hour flight back to New York City.
If you’re venturing past Paris, you’re going to have very few options depending on your food restrictions. There are plenty of macarons, but one person can only eat so many of those. And even a woman running a macaron stand (the American kind, not the French kind) told me to not eat anything there. At our 4 hotels, I had various reactions from my servers to my breakfast (breakfast is always included) requests. I had some amazing breads, but I also was brought a 1980’s rice cake. Some places had soy milk, some didn’t. No one went through the buffet telling me what I could eat safely.
If you speak French well, you might have a much better time finding food and communicating with the servers. I was told at the gorgeous, massive, candy store filled with 100% nothing I can eat, that the country’s definitely going in the direction of being more aware and creating more options. And that perhaps, in another 10 years, it will be easier for someone like me to travel in France. It was still beautiful. We still drove around. We met lovely French people every day who were only too happy to help us find our way, and then apologize for how bad their English is. Really? Lovely people. It’s all incredibly rich and yummy, and then makes me feel awful, lethargic and depressed. Not ever worth it. All my reviews of hotels and restaurants are on yelp. Many more photos are on facebook in folders of the town names. Bon voyage!