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Guest Post: My Gluten Free Life in Spain

In this post, we welcome Katherine Tolley, a Celiac currently living in Barcelona, Spain...

Corte-Ingles-Barcelona-gf-aisleIn the fall of 2013, after a year of reoccurring mononucleosis, an aggressive case of pneumonia, and a constant, unexplained fever and feeling of vertigo, I was diagnosed with Celiac disease. I was somewhere between my junior and senior year of college, living at home, and doing everything possible to help heal my body – especially my digestive system. A semester abroad studying the arts was a requirement for my design degree, and I was terrified after my diagnosis to even leave the house for fear of cross-contaminated food and more illnesses. I had been planning on studying in Barcelona, Spain, but as the time drew nearer and I read more about their cuisine (Tapas! Fried calamari! Churros! Toasted bread rubbed with fresh tomatoes and olive oil!), I become increasingly nervous. After months of research and printing gluten-free dining cards in various foreign languages, I packed my suitcase full of gluten-free oatmeal packets and set off for the unknown. And to my never-ending delight, what I found across the Atlantic was a country that understood my needs far better than almost every place I had been to in the United States.

Gluten-free-crepes-at-Copasetic-BarcelonaOf course, it wasn’t smooth sailing in the beginning. I struggled to communicate my diet in pitiful high-school level Spanish, and the cheap tourist bars my friends and I chose at first were not the safest places for those with gluten issues. After a rocky start and an incident involving poorly labeled cookies on a weekend trip to Dublin, I finally found my footing. My error had been trying to explain a gluten-free (“sin gluten”) diet – which is a trendy diet in America and England, but completely unheard of in Spain. Why on earth would a Spaniard willingly cut out gluten? During my first few weeks in Barcelona, I encountered confusion and bread-filled plates, until one waiter looked at me puzzled and asked if I meant to say I had Celiac disease!

From that moment on, all I had to say were two magic words, “Soy celíaca” (celíaco – if you are a guy!) Suddenly, the waiter's face would light up in recognition, a new menu would be fetched, or the lengthy explanations and helpful advice would begin. In Spain, Celiac disease is understood as not an allergy but the illness it really is, and with this understanding comes the careful and conscientious preparation of food. Even in restaurants not specifically advertising themselves as “gluten-free” or “Celiac-friendly,” I found dozens of possibilities after a short conversation with a waiter (and, in some cases, the head chef).

Crema-catalana-at-Insolita-Gea-BarcelonaMy moment of relief that the Spanish understood my dietary needs happened in a small corner restaurant right next to the modernist World Heritage site, Hospital Sant Pau, and a short walk from the Sagrada Família. There, in Insòlita Gea, Celiac diners are met with an incredible Menu del Día (starter, entrée, beverage, and coffee or dessert) -- all for a reasonable price that changes according to the seasons). The friendly staff will also warn you about certain gluten-contaminated plates. Their crema catalana (the Catalan version of crème brûlée, shown here) is one of the best in the city, and if you’re not in need of an entire meal, they serve fresh salads daily. You can read my detailed review of the restaurant on GlutenFreeTravelSite.

Once I realized I could eat just about anywhere (within reason!), I felt free to wander the winding streets of the Gothic Quarter in search of new restaurants. I was told at Bacoa Burger (one of the best burgers in the city, according to locals) in the neighborhood of El Born that they could prepare me a burger without the bun. At the gorgeous Santa Caterina market right next door, I feasted on delicious slivers of dry-cured jamón and manchego cheese from various vendors. El Born Centro, an old market that was excavated to reveal medieval ruins, includes its own Catalan-history-and-independence-themed restaurant with a menu marking all the plates that are “apto para celíacos” (appropriate for Celiacs).

In the corner of Plaça Sant Jaume I found the best surprise of all...Conesa, a decades old, family-run sandwich shop (for lack of better word) that serves up hot pressed sandwiches on normal or gluten-free bread. Nearly all the sandwiches offered on their extensive menu can be made gluten-free on the separate panini press, and they come wrapped in paper with a sticker assuring the customer that the unbelievably delicious taste of the gluten-free bread is safe to eat. The entire menu is well labeled, with the sides such as patatas bravas and quinoa salad, vegetarian options, and sauces all clearly marked.

La-Lluna-gluten-free-dessert-BarcelonaIf chowing down on a hot sandwich stuffed with peppers, sauce, and Catalan sausage for less than €5 in the center of historic Barcelona isn’t good enough, the best ice cream in the city is just three doors down. Just as I was licking my fingers after my first ever lunch at Conesa, I saw a big sign that advertised gluten-free ice cream cones. Then I saw the Trip Advisor stickers, the various awards, and photos of the artisanal gelatos that had won medals. As I entered Gelaaati! di Marco for the first time, I nearly swooned looking at all the flavors available. The girl behind the counter understood that I was Celiac and not only changed her gloves, but got new scoops for each flavor I ordered, carefully scooping ice cream from the center of the containers just in case they had been contaminated by the nearby tiramisu flavor. My mascarpone and pine nut gelato disappeared so quickly that I went in and bought another cone before continuing on my blissful stroll through central Barcelona!

I couldn't be happier with how things have turned out for me in Spain. Since I'd had less than a year to adjust to my diet in the United States before I came over here on that first extended visit, I prepared myself for constant vomiting, near-starvation, miscommunications, desperation…the usual nightmares for those traveling with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivities. To my delight, I had encountered something radically different...a world where “Celiac disease” is just a little bump in the road, and an amazingly delicious gluten-free meal is not only possible, but prepared with care by understanding chefs.

La-Nena-Barcelona-gluten-freeI live here now, in part because I really enjoy the quality of gluten-free bread and the coffee, in part because I fell in love with the city, and in part because I also fell in love with a Spanish man. I drag him around to all the restaurants I have heard about and make him order gluten-filled items so that I can recommend a place full of delicious options for all. Our most successful day included afternoon churros (for him) and chocolate (for me) in La Nena in the neighborhood of Gràcia. La Nena offers gluten-free sandwiches (shown here) and other snacks as well, which we devoured while playing Uno and other card games in the family-friendly bar. After a walk through the neighborhood, we stumbled into Manchitos, a Mexican restaurant with corn tortillas and tacos so good I always eat until I feel I am about to explode!

For date nights, we treat ourselves to the delicious and exotic flavors at Mayura, an Indian restaurant in L’Eixample. We also recently discovered La Lluna, tucked away behind Las Ramblas. We ordered an entirely gluten-free, Spanish meal that was out of this world good, including the beautiful dessert shown above (read my full review here.) The Menu del Dia is on the pricier side, but the quality is incredible, and with a bottle of cava two people can eat for under €50 (a bit more if you crave one of their gluten-free desserts!). La Fonda and Copasetic are also great options for a long lunch or brunch with friends. Copasetic is the perfect place for anyone with a food allergy as well, because their entire menu specifies items that contain nuts, lactose, gluten, soy, etc. The staff is very knowledgeable and the food is always fresh and well-prepared. (Read my review on GlutenFreeTravelSite.)

I still miss my American kitchen and easy access to Whole Foods at times, but when I have the urge to cook in Spain, it couldn’t be easier. For special occasions I get gluten-free baguettes from Celiadictos, a dedicated gluten-free bakery (and heaven on earth with its wall full of GF cookies and cakes!). For fresh produce, there is a store on almost every street corner in residential areas of Barcelona for vegetables and fruit by the kilo. Other necessities like gluten-free pasta, cookies, and snacks, can be found in the “dietética” section of most supermarkets, but I find the best to be Mercadona and Carrefour (my personal favorite). There are also entire stores (albeit smaller) that cater to special diets, also known as “dietéticas” and they are easy to find throughout Barcelona. Just remember to always look for those magic words, “sin gluten!”

Celiadictos-gluten-free-barcelonaEating gluten-free in any foreign country can present a challenge. And personally, I had always felt embarrassed saying I had Celiac disease and needed help ordering. Doing so in a foreign language was even more intimidating. But in Spain, I quickly found I didn’t need to be embarrassed. The restaurant staff and chefs are always eager to prove to me and other Celiacs that we can eat just as well – and sometimes better than! --  everyone else, all while maintaining our gluten-free diet.

To read more about Katherine's ongoing dining and travel adventures, follow her on her Blog.