France might have the best bread in the world – baguettes, croissants, brioches, and much more. And don’t forget the pastries! Is there anything better than a rich French éclair?
But what if you can’t eat any of it? An estimated 7% of the population has a gluten intolerance of one sort or another. Can those unfortunate people eat safely in France? How do they navigate food stores and restaurants?
I faced this dilemma a few years ago when I was diagnosed with celiac disease, the most severe form of gluten intolerance. Given that my wife and I live part of the year in Provence, this was shocking news indeed—what would I eat? The good news is that we figured it out and now I eat very well! Let me share some of what we’ve learned.
Gluten-free dining out in France
My first tip is to eat in small, family-run restaurants whenever possible. They are more likely to cook fresh rather than reheating dishes from a restaurant supplier, so they know what’s in the food (gluten seems to find its way into many dishes.) Plus, these restaurants are often run by a couple with one spouse in the kitchen and the other in the dining room, so you have a direct line to the chef if you have any questions.
The very best of these restaurants, where everything must be homemade, are marked with the Maître Restauranteur (Master Restauranter) symbol. This is a government designation for those chefs who meet very exacting standards. Restaurants run by a Maître Restauranteur can be a bit pricier than average but the food is guaranteed to be good. And because everything is homemade, the food is less likely to have the odd bits of gluten in it.
One good point about French restaurants is that the law requires them to list the allergens in their dishes. Things like gluten and soy and nuts—14 allergens in all. If the list of allergens is not included with your menu (look in the back) just ask your server and they will get you a copy.
Another tip is to let the restaurant know about your gluten intolerance when you make your reservation. They always appreciate the heads-up and sometimes that allows them to prepare things like gluten-free bread for you.
If you happen to be in the south of France and in the mood for a fantastic meal, of the best gluten-free restaurant in the world is just outside of Lourmarin. L’Auberge la Fenière is the only entirely gluten-free restaurant with a coveted Michelin star.
Insider tip: While crêpes are off-limits, their close cousin galettes are just as delicious and are gluten free. They are made with buckwheat (which, despite its name, is not related to wheat.)
Gluten-free shopping in France
Most supermarkets now have gluten free sections. Look for the words Sans Gluten. One bread that is widely available and quite good is Genius brand from the UK.
Even better than supermarkets are the organic (“bio”) food stores that you find all over France. Two nationwide chains are Naturalia and La Vie Claire, and there are regional chains as well.
Outdoor markets are a great place to shop because most of what you’ll find is naturally gluten-free. Fruits, vegetables, olives, cheeses, and all the rest. And if you are at the meat stand and not sure about what’s inside a sausage, just ask because the person selling it is probably the butcher who made it!
When reading labels, key words to look for are blé (wheat), orge (barley) and seigle (rye.) And for those like me who are particularly sensitive to gluten, the way to find certified gluten-free foods is to look for the gluten-free symbol.
Insider tip: It is amazingly easy to make a delicious French tart because you can buy frozen crusts that you just thaw, unroll and cook. And there are gluten free versions!
Resources to help you with your gluten-free requirements in France
If you are worried about the language barrier at French restaurants, there are French-language documents you can bring with you to explain your situation. Here’s a free version and here’s a more sophisticated one for a modest price.
You can find restaurants with the Maître Restauranteur designation here (sorry, it’s in French.)
Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Silicon Valley and Provence. He is the author of One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are We French Yet? Keith & Val’s Adventures in Provence. Read more at Life in Provence.