If you had asked me before this trip where my top two most anticipated countries were for food, I would have answered with France and Italy. Italy did not disappoint – the gelato, my goodness the gelato! – but France on the other hand… well, I’ll get to that. If I could summarize my gastronomic experience in France in a word, it would have to be unaccommodating.
Soy milk (don’t even bother asking for almond) for your coffee? Are you kidding?
Lactose free? Never heard of it.
Gluten free? Get out of here.
It was honestly exhausting some days trying to find food while we were out. There are now more vegetarian options in restaurants than there used to be, but they almost always consist of pasta without meat, which doesn’t help me at all. Gluten free just does not seem to be a thing there. Of course, going without carbs for a few days won’t kill me, but one does eventually get tired of fish. Sometimes you just want a big, beautiful salad done the way only a vegetarian restaurant knows how. I also hate drinking dairy milk, but you do not want to see me without my morning (and afternoon, since backpacking is exhausting) coffee, so being forced to drink it daily was not fun.
Another frustrating element to French culture is the fact that everything is closed on Sundays and most things on Mondays. In Paris we stayed in a gorgeous little apartment we rented through AirBNB, but as a result were a fair bit outside of the city in a suburb called Sartrouville. Want a coffee on a Sunday morning? Fat chance! I know I shouldn’t complain about these things – it’s foolish to go travelling and expect things to be just like they are at home – but a lot of little things add up sometimes.
Anyway, we did manage to find a few hidden gems, which I will share with you now.
After despairing of ever finding a vegetarian restaurant in Paris, then finding one and walking for an hour only to discover it was closed (it being Monday), we hit the jackpot. Our lovely friend Asha moved from Toronto to Paris several years ago, and we were making plans to meet up for dinner when I mentioned the difficulties we were having. Turns out she lives right next to a vegan restaurant – a vegan restaurant, in Paris! How fortuitous! And then it turns out to be absolutely delicious.
It’s a cozy, rustic little restaurant that’s small enough that you would probably miss it entirely if you weren’t looking for it, but close enough to the Louvre that you could definitely incorporate it into your day without sacrificing time. Even if it is out of your way, go anyway, because the food is that good!
Our host, who I think is also the owner, was a vivacious and friendly Frenchman who went out of his way to get us a table as quickly as possible. They’re very busy, so make a reservation if you can, otherwise you’ll be eating dinner at 9 like we did. Again, worth the wait (and apparently typical to French dining culture – most restaurants don’t even open for dinner until 7:30).
Everything is labelled for gluten, so you know exactly what you’re eating. Conor had a seitan beef bourguignon which was just insane. Seitan is not gluten free so I couldn’t have it, but the sauce smelled spot on, the texture looked amazing, and more importantly, Conor was in heaven. He said it tasted exactly like beef, which is pretty damn impressive. My friend and I both had the veggie burger, which is a bunless (and delicious) quinoa patty served with rice and stewed veggies, and topped with the most incredible vegan cheese I have ever had in my life. I really don’t know how they did it. It was so flavourful and creamy, and complemented the burger really well. It was a beautiful meal. Following that, I had a vegan chocolate mousse, and I’m pretty sure I was making an “O” face the entire time. It was rich, decadent, smooth, chocolatey heaven. I don’t even have the words for this mousse.
St. Antoine Market
Lyon is a big foodie destination, so of course, we had to include it in our itinerary. It’s a beautiful little city and, quite honestly, fit my imagined vision of France much more than did Paris. Less crowds, more rustic beauty, and (forgive me) more people riding bikes with baguettes and little dogs in their baskets (I swear!). Anyway, there are literally hundreds of restaurants within a few blocks of each other. Lyonaise food, however, is typically quite rich and meat heavy, so the real draw for us was the farmer’s market. The St. Antoine Market, right on the riverbank, is a wonderful treasury of local produce, antipastos, and cheeses (along with cured meats and freshly baked breads). This is where locals go to buy their food, and rightly so. Everything is incredibly fresh and therefore incredibly flavourful. Conor and I decided to stock up here and have ourselves a picnic in the old city, which involves a fair climb and made us feel like we had earned our lunch for sure. I wish I had written down the name of the cheese we bought, but whatever it was, it was great. And for like 5 euros we got a massive bag of amazing olives, which ended up lasting us several days and taking every subsequent meal or snack to the next level. But more on that in my next travel post.
I managed to find myself a gluten free baguette from an out-of-the-way and rather dismally stocked health food store, but it was pretty atrocious. You know what I’m talking about – hard, crumbly, and tasteless. I would literally have killed for some of Conor’s bread from the market (pictured here)!
Lyon being a city full of restaurants, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a gluten (and pretty much all allergens) free restaurant, but surprised I was. Located in the new part of the city, this restaurant gets a B+ in my books. The decoration is rather garish, the menu small, and the food wasn’t particularly exciting. That is not to say that it wasn’t good, – I very much enjoyed my salmon – but I wouldn’t have chosen this restaurant if it weren’t gluten free. That being said, they do serve little freshly baked gluten free buns that are pretty fantastic, so it was worth it just for that. I feel no shame in admitting that I snuck a few in my purse to enjoy on the train ride the following day… with my lovely cheese and olives from the market, of course! Backpacking changes you.
It was also nice knowing that I could order anything off the menu without having to worry about it making me feel sick. If you are celiac or have any other intolerances, this is definitely the place for you.
Most people imagine that Italy would be a gluten sensitive person’s worst nightmare, but that is really quite far from the truth. Italians are very aware of celiac disease – everyone gets tested for it in their early years – and since their cuisine often relies so heavily on carbohydrates, it seems they were pretty quick to come up with options for their poor, pasta-deprived citizens. Many restaurants offer gluten free pasta and pizza, or have an entire gluten free menu, and all of them are at least knowledgeable about it if you ask. Grocery stores are well stocked with gluten free breads, cookies, and cereals as well. I was literally about a hair’s width away from mailing myself 10 packages of savoiardi cookies for making tiramisu at home… I still think I should have! You just can’t find those here.
Dairy is a little tougher to escape, so I went through a pretty hefty amount of Lactaid while we were here. A cappuccino in France will run you between 3.5-6 Euros (no joke, it’s ridiculous), but in Italy? 1.5-2 Euros. How could anyone resist? I’m only human, man!
Obviously, pizza was my top priority upon our arrival in Rome. I had been putting off my cravings for weeks, knowing that if I was going to find good gluten free pizza anywhere, it would be here. Voglia di Pizza was the most centrally located of the restaurants I found that serve gluten free pizza, and the prices are good, so it was our first stop. Despite being centrally located it is also difficult to locate, nestled in between a bunch of little streets, so make sure you’ve got a good map and some good shoes. It’s nothing fancy to look at, but the pizza is pretty darn good. Make sure to let the staff know that you’re ordering from the gluten free menu; they offer pretty much everything on the menu gluten free, but you have to specify. The staff is pretty unpleasant so you don’t want any confusion there!
I ordered a pizza bianca con funghi and polished off the entire thing. The crust was thin and crispy and cooked perfectly. We also got tiramisu for dessert that was excellent. I would definitely go here again.
It is a well known fact that the best gelaterias in Rome are next to Trevi Fountain. What could be better to escape the heat while admiring this beautiful landmark than eating some fantastic gelato? But what people don’t know is that Il Melograno is the best of the best. Seriously, their gelato is insanely good. If you go, order the chocolate orange gelato. Yes, that’s right: chocolate orange! Genius. It’s actually perfect in every way. Plus, they offer gluten free cones (bonus!) and I swear, they give you way more gelato when you order in a cone – and yes I’ve compared. Trust me, do the right thing, and get as much gelato here as frequently as humanly possible while you’re in Rome. I still dream about it, some nights.
While we were in Rome I started to develop tendinitis in my foot – that can happen when you walk 8-10 hours a day for a month! – so one day I found myself alone at the hostel feeling quite sorry for myself. I needed to rest up and stay off my feet so that I could continue with the rest of our trip, but was also pretty upset about missing out on a day of sightseeing, so after a few hours’ lounging, I spent the extra couple of euros to hop on the subway and travel to another pizza place I had been dying to check out.
La Soffita Renovatio feels much more like fine dining than Il Voglia. The interior is spacious yet cozy, and the decor is elegant. The servers are also really friendly, which was a nice change. They offer almost everything on the menu gluten free – I was VERY tempted by the focaccia and gnocchi – but I was there for some real Neopolitan pizza, and that’s what I got. I ordered the Pizza Napoli with anchovies and it honestly blew me away. I like a crispy crust, but there’s something about a really soft and gooey pizza that gets me every time. It was still thin crust and had some crispy bits, but it was nice and soft in the middle, which you never find with gluten free pizza. I loved it.
Let me start off by saying that we stayed in Florence for two days, and ate at Panino Vegano both days. This place is great. It’s like a little taste of home in the middle of Italy. The menu is very simple and straightforward – choose your veggie burger patty, choose a homemade sauce, and two sides – but as a result, everything they offer is bang on. I tried both the chickpea burger and the okra burger and each was fantastic. The carrot mayo is crazy good (I need to figure out a recipe for myself!) and the hot and cold veggie sides round the meal off really well. Both desserts I tried were also very good – a not-too-sweet honey cake and a chocolate cake, both drizzled with a beautiful soy cream. Everything here is gluten free and vegan, and they even sell a few gluten free grocery items along the wall.
I have five words for you: Squid Ink and Cuttlefish Risotto. If you haven’t had this before, have it now. It’s great. And black! Oh, and they offer gluten free pasta too.
I will keep this similarly short: GO TO GROM. Every single travel blog and guide to Europe mentions this place. Every. Single. One. The gelato at Trevi Fountain blew me away, but Grom beats it, for sure. The quality of ingredients they use is just unparalleled. I had espresso gelato that had such an incredible depth of flavour, so intense and rich. Conor had a Sicilian lemon that was just the opposite – beautifully light and tart. So so so good!
Next Up: Our perfected hostel meals – breakfast, lunch, and dinner.