Has Gluten-Free Become a Thing in France?
France generally doesn’t tend to fall in for fad diets. The Atkins craze that swept the States in the early 2000s barely made a blip in the Hexagon. The past two years, however, have seen a noticeable rise in restaurants and bakeries that are actively marketing their food as sans gluten, or gluten-free.
Laura Sims, an American living in Paris, has been gluten-free (GF) for seven years after being diagnosed with wheat allergies. Back in 2008 in Paris, she found “there were far fewer options than there are today and many of them did not taste very good. It led to feelings of deprivation and I had this partly irrational fear that I wouldn’t be able to find enough to eat.”
The good news for those who must avoid gluten-filled goods is that now there are options – we’ve listed a bunch of them here – and they’re actually pretty good.
Gluten-free fare began to gain a higher profile in 2014 when some of the products from Chambelland, a dedicated gluten-free bakery that grows and mills its own alternative flours, started showing up in Alain Ducasse’s temples of haute gastronomy. The Michelin-starred chef serves the crusty, flavorful, and incidentally gluten-free rice & buckwheat loaves as one of the first bites at the Plaza Athenée and finishes the meal at Le Meurice with some of their cakes.
Chef Daniel Rose of the highly-regarded restaurant Spring and the recently opened La Bourse et La Vie has also adapted to the “necessity” of accommodating dietary restrictions. “We try to offer a French approach to things and offer items that are naturally gluten-free,” he says. Almost every item on the menu at Spring can be made without gluten or is naturally without gluten to begin with, and gluten free toast is on-hand and available. Meanwhile, the entire lunch and dinner menu at La Bourse et La Vie, with the single exception of a tarte au citron for dessert, is “naturally sans gluten so they’re not missing anything.” Diners don’t notice that there’s no gluten in their pot-au-feu or steak frites since those recipes rely on meat, potatoes and vegetables. Other recipes like the fried quail utilize traditional French ingredients like buckwheat flour to add a nice, nutty flavor without gluten.
Not all Parisian chefs are as broad-minded as Rose, however, and GF diners shouldn’t necessarily expect to be obliged. If a restaurant doesn’t designate itself as gluten-free, chances are it won’t have gluten-free ingredients on hand unless they are already in dishes on the menu. Rather than make requests for accommodation, Sims will ask what foods have wheat or gluten in them and then simply avoid those. “In the U.S. restaurants sometimes have gluten-free replacements – bread, pasta, things like that – but I haven’t found that in France. Sometimes I ask them to leave off something that isn’t integral to the dish – no bun on the burger, no breaded goat cheese – but usually it just seems easier to eat around it. Often there are only a few ‘safe’ items for me on a menu, but at least that makes it easy to decide what to order!”
Nonetheless, good quality restaurants that care about ingredients and sourcing fresh products (like most within our restaurant guide) should be able to tell you exactly what is in each dish and guide you to a menu option that will be gluten-free. As Sims explains, “Luckily the French don’t usually sneak wheat, corn or soy ingredients into unexpected products and dishes the way Americans sometimes do, so it’s usually easy to predict which items need to be avoided. Sauces are tough, though, because chefs will sometimes use flour to thicken them.”
Generally in Paris, you’re more likely to find chefs willing to make accommodations if you call ahead and let them know your dietary restrictions when booking. Steakhouses such as Au Boeuf Couronné, Le Severo, or Bistrot Paul Bert that focus on meat and potatoes are usually a good bet for finding naturally gluten-free options. Foie gras, rillettes, most cheeses and charcuterie that you’ll find as starters or small plates at a wine bar are just fine. Sims relies heavily on rice cakes for her bread replacement and has learned to always carry them in her purse for any charcuterie or cheese plate emergencies.
Another classic French favorite that is naturally gluten free is the galette – a buckwheat crêpe from Brittany. Those with severe allergies (and good taste) are better off going to a reputable crêperie like Breizh Café, Josselin, or Little Breizh because the flour used will be pure blé noir or sarrasin (two terms for buckwheat). Crêpe stands on the street sometimes mix buckwheat with glutinous pastry flour.
Another classic Paris splurge that gluten free diners can dive into during the cold months is a platter of raw oysters. Our favorite spots for oysters during the season (September to April) are Clamato, Huîtrerie Régis, Le Dome du Marais, L’Avant Comptoir de la Mer, and Le Baron Rouge.
Additional dining options can be found by looking beyond traditional restaurants and toward Paris’ expanding portfolio of youthful, international-looking cafés and casual dining establishments. In fact, among younger Parisians, a veritable scene has started to emerge. Earlier this year, no less an arbiter of style than US Vogue featured a slideshow highlighting healthy restaurants in Paris, citing which were gluten-free. There’s even a dating service called Glut’Aime for those who don’t “aime” gluten and are searching for a wheat-free mate (or at least some wheat-free dates).
Most of the places on Vogue’s list, and the date spots for Glut’Aime lovebirds, are informed by Paris’ increasing appetite for international cuisine and craft coffee. When local bartender Gwladys Gublin was put on an enforced GF diet for several months, she found Paris’ burgeoning craft coffee scene to be a godsend. “The nice coffee places all have gluten-free options,” she says. “If you go to Lockwood or KB Café, you’ll see they have gluten-free goods. They’re the ones showing the Paris scene that it’s possible to have an open mind about allergies.” Sims’ favorite restaurant is the cozy coffee shop Thank You, My Deer. “Their sandwiches and desserts are amazing, and the women who own it are the sweetest.”
Many of the Mexican options in our guide utilize corn tortillas and will naturally be gluten-free as a result. Gublin used to seek out Café Chilango for tacos orJardin des Pâtes, which has been around for decades but specializes in organic pastas, many made with alternative flours that happen to be gluten-free.
For gluten-free groceries, Sims recommends Naturalia, a widespread chain from where one can order products online for delivery around France.
Those with a sweet tooth will be happy to know that France has always had a wide range of desserts that are naturally gluten-free. Flourless chocolate cakes feature on many dessert menus, along with chocolate mousse, crème brûlée or île flottante made of softly whipped egg white floating in a pool of crème anglaise. There’s almost always a fresh dairy option such as fromage frais or faisselle which are two types of cultured fresh cheese similar to yogurt that are often paired with jam or honey.
At the bakery, look for financiers – a dense cake typically made with almond flour that are a perfect afternoon snack. Meringues can be found at most corner patisseries, or you could seek out Aux Merveilleux de Fred which offers meringues enrobed in flavored whipped cream and chocolate shavings. Calissons, from Provence, are a marzipan-like treat made from almond paste, candied melon and citrus which traditionally tend to be safe.
Macarons, the colorful cookie sandwiches that have exploded in popularity in recent years, are made from almond flour, egg whites and sugar, and are a great naturally gluten-free dessert or gift. Our favorites include Pierre Hermé, Grégory Renard, and Pain de Sucre.
The gluten-intolerant won’t miss much at chocolate shops, either. Pâtes des fruits, caramels, and chocolate bon bons are, by and large, naturally without gluten so stock up. See Our Guide to Chocolate & Candy Shops for your best options.
Despite not being required to be gluten-free anymore, Gublin continues to return to Chambelland simply for the quality of the bread and heartily recommends the five grain bread, orange flower bread stick, focaccia with sesame seeds, and the coffee.
Sims agrees that the prospects for gluten-free gastronomes are less grim these days. “I sometimes miss things like GF pizza and beer, but France is blessed with an abundance of delicious naturally gluten-free foods. So I fill myself up on chocolate, wine, olives, cheese, and charcuterie, and I’m just fine.”
Celiac Travel has free cards that you can print out and take with you to restaurants that explain in French what celiac disease is and what foods needs to be avoided. Below are a few additional vocabulary words that may be helpful when navigating the dining scene.
- sans gluten = gluten-free
- pannée = breaded
- croûte = crust
- farine de sarrasin = buckwheat flour
- blé = wheat
- blé noir = another term for buckwheat
- riz = rice
- chataigne = chestnut
- Our Gluten-Free Guide to Paris
- Our Guide to Decent Coffee
- David Lebovitz’s fantastic compendium of gluten-free dining & bakery options in Paris
- Niépi – a French magazine devoted to the art of living without gluten.
- La Semaine du Sans Gluten – A week’s worth of seminars and events promoting gluten-free dining in Paris at 14 locations throughout the city.
- Gluten-Free in Paris – a website dedicated to discovering the best GF addresses in the city of carbs.
- L’Association Française Des Intolérants Au Gluten – The French association for the gluten intolerant.