Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Gluten-Free April in Paris

Sitting in La Terrasse du 7ème, a busy Parisian café just down the street from where Napoleon Bonaparte received his military training at the imposing Ecole Militaire, I was overcome with panic. Before being seated, I’d cautiously asked the headwaiter, David, who was impeccably dressed in a lavender-colored shirt, if he spoke English. He smiled and answered that yes, he did. Then, I bravely gave him my French-language gluten-free dining card. He read it, tucked it into his pocket, gave me a menu, and then walked away. A few minutes later, a different waiter appeared. He didn’t speak English and he didn’t have my card.

Already self-conscious about my inability to speak French, and very much aware of the reputation for rudeness among French waiters, I wondered if I’d gone too far by not only speaking English to David, but also by having given instructions about what I could and could not eat. According to most accounts, it was going to be difficult for me to get gluten-free meals in France. The main reason being that celiac disease still is not well-known in France. It was also pointed out that French chefs don’t take kindly to being told how to prepare food. Dinner at La Terrasse was my first stab at dining out in Paris, and it didn’t seem to be going well.

My friend, Sharleen, and I had arrived in Paris about eight hours earlier, flying into the smaller of the city’s two airports, Orly. It was the first time in the City of Lights for both of us and we were excited about visiting the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Musée du Louvre. Yet we both also wondered how we’d fare in a place infamous for its disdain of anyone who can’t speak the local language, overall insolence, and dislike of Americans (though Sharleen is from New Zealand).

It didn’t take long to bump into our first trial - the airport assistant whose sole job, it seemed, was to help bewildered tourists navigate the ticket machines for the public buses. Surely he had a right to get testy with foreigners. “Parlez-vous anglais?” I asked. “Yes, a little,” came the mildly-accented and modest reply, followed-up with friendly instructions to catch the Air France Bus that shuttles passengers to various downtown destinations. He said we should buy our tickets directly from the bus driver.

Ah, yes, the bus driver. Balding, round-faced, and squinty-eyed. He hated his job and apparently everyone who boarded his bus. Spouting commands I didn’t understand, he glared down from his imperial perch as we struggled to hoist our bags up the narrow bus steps, his eyes daring us to speak a word to him in anything but French. “Deux,” (two) I said, counting out exact change in euro. Then, after having carefully observed the movements of the person in front of me, I plucked my tickets from the onboard ticket machine and found a seat, feeling a little weary.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all my years of travel, it’s that no matter where I go, there will always be those people who are pleasant, and those who are not! The classically-dressed lady to whom I asked with a quizzical lilt in my voice, “Métro” - she was nice. Though I didn’t know the words she spoke, her motions said to follow her from the shuttle bus to the subway station because she was going that way, too. The man who worked at the Métro ticket counter, he was just indifferent. Or maybe lazy. My guidebook said a carnet (10 single tickets sold for a discounted price) could be purchased from either a human or a machine. The Métro worker pointed to the machine.

Riding two stops to the Ecole Militaire subway station, we emerged onto a busy street and walked the short distance to the Hotel Eber Mars. Nearby were numerous restaurants and shops, including a health food store called Naturalia that had a great selection of gluten-free food. From the hotel, it was then another easy walk to the Eiffel Tower, which was the first place we headed after we checked in, dumped our bags, and munched on fruit, nuts, cheese, and snack bars we’d brought with us.

The weather in April that Sunday afternoon was sunny and warm. Families with young children picnicked and frolicked on the grassy expanse of the Parc Du Champ De Mars that stretches from Ecole Militaire to the base of the Eiffel Tower. Young people quietly congregated in circles to socialize, sip wine, and play their guitars. The scene certainly looked enticing, but we had other plans – an energizing and unique orientation bike tour of the city.

The Fat Tire Bike Tour group that day consisted mostly of Americans. Ranging in age from mid-20s to 50s, and from a variety of backgrounds, we peddled together past a dozen or so well-known sights, including Napoleon’s Tomb, the Rodin Museum, and Musée d’Orsay. While not strenuous, especially since there were numerous information and photo-op stops, the tour did require a bit of nerve to venture into Paris’ wide and heavily trafficked streets. Our reward was a light refreshment reprieve at a charming outdoor café in Tuileries Garden. Most of us imbibed in a glass of wine; many of us commented on the brilliant blue sky, the leafy green chestnut trees that shaded us, and the warm and friendly demeanor of our waiter. We all agreed Paris was beautiful.

It was with that same warm and fuzzy feeling that Sharleen and I selected La Terrasse du 7ème for our first French meal. We both thought the menu could satisfy our dietary needs (she eats vegetarian), and the place itself looked every bit the classic Parisian café, with small intimate tables spilling out onto the wide city sidewalk, all of them positioned for optimal people-watching. When I’d presented the headwaiter with my dining card, he hadn’t appeared offended, and I assumed he took it to the kitchen for a small tête-à-tête with the chef about what meal they could provide for me.

Prior to my trip to Paris, I had, like always, researched the destination in order to pinpoint both my sightseeing priorities and possible places to eat. While my list of things to see outlasted the amount of time I had, information about gluten-free food was short. At one time someone had started a website specifically for celiacs in Paris, but it no longer exists. The celiac listserv provided the name of only one restaurant known for its celiac awareness, and it is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays – the two full days of my trip. So I was winging it, relying only on a few guidebook references i.e. “good dinner salads,” and my French-language dining card.

Breakfasts in Paris were surprising fairly easy, as long as I didn’t breathe in the sweet aroma of just-baked pastries that are a staple of the French diet. Though not freshly baked, the health food store did sell packaged gluten-free chocolate croissants that satisfied me. Lunch was generally eaten on the go, much as we did prior to the bike tour, supplemented with yogurt, cheese, and fresh fruit purchased at one of the many small grocery stores around the city.

For me, shopping in the local stores is often as exciting as visiting the prominent landmarks. At a shoe store on Rue Cler, near my hotel, I was on a mission to find the perfect pair of ballet shoes, the latest style in Paris. The store is owned by a father-son team. The father spoke not a word of English, and he knew I didn’t speak French, but that didn’t stop him from talking. The son, who spoke some English, seemed genuinely thrilled we were there, and was eager to know what we thought of Paris, how we found the people, and did we like the food.

Yes, we loved the food. At La Terrasse, once I gesticulated wildly enough to the slightly confused (or was he slightly amused?) waiter, he understood that I wanted to speak with the headwaiter. Approaching the table with my dining card in hand, David didn’t know why I needed him. Apparently, I’d been too wrapped up thinking my celiac disease would give the French another reason not to like me, and hadn’t realized they’d make for me whatever I wanted. A silly thought, I know, because celiac disease does not define who I am, only what I can and cannot eat.

That night I dined on a thick medium-well done steak (the French like their meat rare), and the most incredible butter-drenched garden-fresh green beans I’ve ever eaten. David recommended a glass of full-bodied red wine from the French Côtes du Rhône region. The next night, dead on our feet after wondering about the Louvre for several hours, we ate in the underground shopping mall food court located near the inverted pyramid of the Louvre. I showed my dining card to the two young women working at a place called Le Libanan, and enjoyed a filling meal of Lebanese roast chicken, fava beans, and a cucumber and tomato salad. Probably the easiest gluten-meal I found in Paris was an omelet. Served for lunch and dinner at many cafes, it’s often accompanied by a simple green salad.

My most elaborate meal in Paris was at Les Fous de l’Ile, located on the Ile St. Louis, the little dinghy of an island attached only by a bridge to the historical core of Paris, the Ile de la Cité. My dining partner was a young doctor I’d met two days earlier on the bike tour. By chance, we found ourselves standing in line together at the Musée d’Orsay, waiting to view French Impressionism art of the 1800s, and agreed it’d be fun to have lunch together afterwards at a typical French bistro. Confidently presenting my dining card to the owner/chef of Les Fous (who did not speak English), I got the better meal – a fancy crawfish appetizer and a simple main meal of salmon and vegetables in parchment paper. My new friend ordered andouillette, a fat sausage casing filled with tripe. Much like people, some foods are pleasant. Some are not!

Helpful Information
Naturalia, La Vie Claire, and Biocoop are health food stores you’ll find in Paris.

Below is a List of Restaurants in Paris Recommended by other Celiac Travelers

Biosphere, 57 rue St. Maur, Tel: 01 48 06 08 81 - a gluten-free take-out and food shop

A deux pas du trois, 101 rue Vieille du Temple, 75003 Paris, Tél: 01 42 77 10 52 - an all gf restaurant

Café Barge, 5 Port de la Rapée, 75012 Paris, Tél: 01 40 02 09 09

Le Charlain, 23 rue Clauzel, 75009 Paris, Tél: 01 48 78 74 40

Miss Betsy, 23 rue Guillaume Tell, 75017 Paris, Tél: 01 42 67 12 67

Somo, 168 rue Montmartre, 75002 Paris, Tél: 01 40 13 08 80

Willi’s Wine Bar, 13 rue des petits champs, 75001 Paris, Tél: 01 42 61 05 09

Des si et des mets, 63 rue Lepic, 75018 Paris, Tel: 01 42 55 19 61, Metro: Abbesses ou Blanche - all GF restaurant

Brasserie Balzar, 49, rue des Ecoles, 5th arrond., phone: 01 43 54 13 67, Metro: Cluny-La Sorbonne. A great, classic French brasserie.

Le P'tit Troquet, 28, rue de l'Exposition, 7th arrond., ph: 01 47 05 80 39, closed Sat (lunch), Sunday, Monday (lunch).

Oh! Duo, 54, avenue Emile Zola, 15th arrond., ph: 01 45 77 28 82, closed Sat lunch, Sunday, Monday dinner.

Les Diables au Thym, 35, rue Bergere, 9th arrond., ph: 01 47 70 77 09, closed Sat & Sunday. Metro: Grandes Boulevard.

Clementine, 5, rue Saint Marc, 2nd arrond., ph: 01 40 41 05 65, open Monday- Friday, noon- 2:15pm, 7:30 -10:15pm. Metro: Bourse or Grandes Boulevards.

L'Affriole: 17, rue Malar, 7th arrond., ph: 01 44 18 31 33, closed Sunday.

Boucherie Rouliere: 24, rue des Canettes, 6th arrond. ph: 01 43 26 25 70, closed Monday.

Some cheaper/quicker restaurants:

Cojean is a cafe chain that sells sandwiches, quiche, salads, soups - 6 locations one of them across from one end of the Louvre. Open Mon - Fri, 8am -7pm.

Le Sarrasin et Le Froment Creperie: 84, rue St Louis en I'Isle, 4th Arrond. Serves mainly crepes (not GF), but can also get an omelet and salad.

Cosi: 54, rue de Seine, 6th Arrond., open daily noon -11pm. This is the original Cosi, which now has a similar style restaurant chain in the US. Their salads are made-to-order.

Le Crepe Rit du Clown: 6, rue des Canettes, 6th arrond. Crepes are their specialty but they have "choose your own ingredients" salads.

Noglu Restauration & Epicerie - sans gluten, 16, passage des Panoramas – 75002 Paris. - tél. : 01 40 26 41 24.

Helmut Newcake, 36 rue Bichat, Paris. Metro: Goncourt and Republic. TEL: 09 82 59 00 39
EMAIL : A gluten free bakery.

Desserts are tough in France, since pastry is certainly their specialty, but many places sell meringues, crème brule, sorbets and glaces (ice cream).

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