Having to stick to a special diet isn’t necessarily easy anywhere, but in France it’s downright difficult. Let me explain: France is a foodie society. When you go to a restaurant here, you are entering the chef’s domain. Second guessing his or her decisions concerning the menu is a huge faux pas…you just don’t do it! And yet…
When my son was 1, we discovered he was lactose intolerant. “We’ll deal with this pretty easily,” we said. With the plethora of non-cow milk options in France, it’s not a problem. So when my daughter complained of stomach aches (“it hurts, it doesn’t hurt”), we assumed she was lactose intolerant like her brother. But in her case, the discomfort continued and even worsened. We talked to the doctor who suggested it might be a gluten intolerance. Unlike allergies however, there are no tests for a food intolerance besides taking out the suspected food or doing a colonoscopy to see the state of the colon. Ultimately, we opted for the gentler option. But at first, we decided the pain of eliminating gluten from her diet was worse than her physical pain which she seemed to handle well. However, when she came home saying her stomach hurt constantly, we knew the gluten had to go. Within two weeks, she felt better. She was sleeping better, her stomach felt better, and she was calmer.
As this all happened toward the end of the school year, we thought nothing of the hassles we’d have to deal with at the cantine…until September rolled around. I assumed that it would be enough to just provide the school with a doctor’s note explaining her condition and to send my daughter to school with a good old American lunch box. I talked to the school director who told me I needed a PAI and put me in touch with the medecin scolaire. I thus entered into the spiral of French school administration. It turns out, however, that the spiral wasn’t too winding, and we were quickly able to find our way. Once I knew the lingo, got past the rude secretary and obtained an appointment with the doctor, everything went fairly smoothly. We saw the doctor, I explained Suzanne’s symptoms and gave her the note the first doctor had given us. I expected the worst from the French administration, but the medecin scolaire was actually quite understanding. And although obviously unhappy in her job, she made an effort to be helpful and not to scare my 5 year old. She wrote about Suzanne’s food intolerance in her permanent record and gave me a note to give to the school, telling me it would be automatically renewed every year unless she was told otherwise. We are lucky that Suzanne is so conscientious about what she can and cannot eat. The only hassle now is making sure we check the school menu every day to be able to send Suzanne to school with gluten-free food on days that the menu is gluten-packed.
So what is a PAI? It’s a Projet d’Acceuil Individualisé. According to the Cìrculaire n° 2003-135 du 8-9-2003, “Il convient de tout mettre en œuvre pour éviter l’exclusion et l’isolement dans lequel la maladie peut placer l’enfant ou l’adolescent et de développer l’adoption de comportements solidaires au sein de la collectivité.” What this means is that a school must do everything it can to ensure that all children, whether they are handicapped or suffer from chronic illness or food allergies, be accepted in school.
The problem with gluten in France is that it’s omnipresent, even in places you wouldn’t imagine it to be. Finding gluten-free options in France, the land of the baguette, can be both expensive and difficult. Most large supermarket chains do carry gluten-free products, but many of these are inedible and most are full of additives and sugar. Organic stores are usually the best bet for decent tasting, relatively healthy, gluten free products. Here is a list of important ingredients in French and English for gluten-free eating and where to find them:
- gomme de guar/xanthane – Guar or xantham gum are used to bind gluten-free food and can be found at organic stores
- farine de riz – Various types of rice flour (brown, white and glutinous) can be found at both organic and Asian stores. Glutinous rice flour is used in higher quantities to bind food.
- fécule de pomme de terre – Potato starch is sold in supermarkets and is used in cakes and breads.
- farine de mais – Corn flour, not polenta, can be found at organic stores. It works well in most baked goods.
- Maizena – This is the brand name for corn starch, which can be found in any supermarket. Corn starch can be used in all baked good, sauces, as a thickener…
- farine de quinoa – Quinoa flour is available at orgnic stores while quinoa grain is found at supermarkets.
- farine de teff - Teff is an African grain. Teff flour can be found at organic stores
- farine de millet - Millet flour and flakes can be found at organic stores. Both can be used in baking. The flakes can replace oatmeal.
- Farine de pois chiche - Chick pea flour can be found at both organic or North African stores. It is most suited for savory baking.
- petit épautre – Einkorn is an older cousin of wheat. It is low in gluten but not gluten-free. Do not confuse it with épautre (spelt) which is high in gluten. It is a great alternative if you are only mildly sensitive to gluten. Einkorn pasta and bread is fairly easy to find at organic stores and it’s tasty too!
- farine de tapioca – Tapioca flour is sold in Asian or African stores and works well in baked goods.
- sarrazin sometimes called blé noir - Buckwheat or kasha is easy to find in supermarkets. It can be used in baked goods, to make crèpes and in breads.
***I have purposely not put soy on this list because I don’t like how it tastes, nor do I like the texture of soy flour.
Asian stores are a good resource for rice pastas. I regularly buy both brown rice (called cargo rice) and white rice noodles. If the person can tolerate gluten in limited amounts, you can also try soba noodles, which are made of buckwheat.
Finally, I have not perfected my own gluten-free flour mix, but have found that all of the brands bought at French supermarkets are not very tasty because they are made with either mostly corn or mostly soy which both give a chalky taste to your baking. The best gluten-free flour mix I’ve found comes from England where the gluten-free market is much more developed.
France 5 recently had a very interesting show on gluten called Faut-il avoir peur du gluten, which I highly recommend even if you don’t have a gluten issue. For more information on gluten free living in France, you can also get in touch with the Association Française des Intolerants au Gluten (AFDIAG)
Eating gluten-free in France may be difficult, but it is POSSIBLE ! So give it a try, and feel free to share in the comments your tips and your experiences ! Best of luck!