All the basics
Aside from having had tapas in the US, I really had no idea what to expect from Spanish food. Although I spent time in Barcelona in 2005, I wasn’t celiac at the time and I’m pretty sure I backpacked around making sandwiches as I went and eating hostel breakfasts of toast and cereal – obviously things that are no longer an option. I was also on a much more strict budget – granted, I would probably still mostly eat this way if I could. Although with celiac, one downside is not being able to eat as cheaply when you are out and about, or pick up quick food on the go, the upside is that you spend time looking for restaurants and typically eat pretty well.
We spent a majority of our time in the Andalusian region in the south visiting Jaén, Sevilla, Granada, Cordoba, Gibraltar and Fragiliana, as well as a little time in Madrid (a guide to each of these cities is coming soon!). It turns out there was a lot of gluten free goodness to enjoy! What we found was a general understanding of gluten and celiac disease, but not complete. My husband and I have limited Spanish from high school (although the Spanish my husband remembered seriously impressed me). We had enough to ask a few questions, but not conversational by any means.
Why did we go to Spain? We were visiting friends of ours who had previously spent a year teaching English in Majorca (and we couldn’t visit because of our Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam trip – I mean, it’s not the worst excuse). This year we went to visit them while they were teaching in Jaén. In addition to being gluten free, we were traveling with two pescatarians (vegetarians who also eat fish), one of whom was not celiac, but gluten intolerant as well. Many of these restaurants could accommodate both, and often we ate the same things. In my posts on the specific cities and restaurants, I’ll try to note vegetarian/vegan options as well.
To learn more about what kinds of foods I typically travel with, and navigating airports, check out the TRAVEL TIPS page.
Being Celiac in Spain
Prior to our trip, I did a lot of research finding restaurants that appeared to good be at accommodating gluten free needs. That being said, they also ended up slightly more touristy and with someone usually speaking English (and a little more expensive as well). Although I always started with my "soy celiaca" and attempted as much Spanish as I could, sometimes that wasn’t enough. And luckily, the word for gluten in Spanish is “gluten”. While there was a good general understanding of gluten and celiac disease, I found that being gluten free had the same challenges as what I see here in the US. The main difference is that in Spain it isn’t seen as a fad, it is understood as a disease and taken seriously.
EU Top 14 Allergen Labeling Laws
If you are from the US, you are familiar with the 8 foods required by law to be listed on all food packaging: Milk, Eggs, Fish, Crustacean shellfish, Tree nuts, Peanuts, Wheat, Soybeans.
You will notice that “gluten” is not an allergen label, just wheat. So items can be wheat free, but not gluten free.
The EU has an expanded list and set of regulations. They list 14 of the top allergens, which include:
Cereals containing gluten, namely: wheat (such as spelt and khorasan wheat), rye, barley, oats
Crustaceans for example prawns, crabs, lobster, crayfish
Milk (including lactose)
Nuts; namely almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews, pecan nuts, Brazil nuts, pistachio nuts, macadamia (or Queensland) nuts
Celery (including celeriac)
Sulphur dioxide/sulphites, where added and at a level above 10mg/kg or 10mg/L in the finished product. This can be used as a preservative in dried fruit
Lupin, which includes lupin seeds and flour and can be found in types of bread, pastries and pasta
Molluscs like, mussels, whelks, oysters, snails and squid
Not only is this information required on food packaging labels, but it is ALSO REQUIRED to be gathered and tracked for all foods that are used in restaurants, pubs and cafes and to have the information readily available to their customers. This information was readily available in Spain, BUT, just like in the US, this does not mean that all staff are trained in cross-contamination, or have a great understanding of allergens.
Many menus tackled this in a way that I am kind of in love with, a section of the menu with graphics and allergy designations. Then each menu item listed a number for when something was found in the food (really brilliant idea). On the attached image, you can see it says "gluten" for #1. However, on some of the menus #1 said "cereales" which we discovered meant all grains. So if you wanted the gluten free paella, they would tell you no - because of the rice. And that seemed to be a misunderstanding across the board - if you said gluten free, you might very well get something gluten free, however, it may also be grain free. Great if you are paleo, but, it could really limit your options. We also found that a number of times gluten was confused with dairy, something that happens to me quite often in the US.
The note at the bottom says "Some of the ingredients, manufactured in large production plants, may contain trace amounts of other allergens."
Spanish Translation Card
We did bring a Spanish gluten free translation card that worked fantastic. This card is specific to Spain, listing many common dishes. Due to our research, I only had to use it a few times. I will say that I did not clarify cross-contamination at every place. I had no reactions. At home I am extremely careful with this. That being said, the few times I have figured out that I accidentally consumed gluten in the past, I have not had a strong reaction. The card did work great, so if you have to be even more careful than I was, I would recommend using it with EVERY meal.
A quick example of how well it worked. The first time we used the card was because the waitress only pointed to a few very limited things on the menu with my "soy celiaca" and we suspected she meant all cereals - and after reading the card she laughed and started pointing out a bunch of other things on the menu. I asked in Spanish if the card was helpful and she smiled really big and said it helped her very much.
...are a little different. The benefit of visiting friends who are living in the country, is to get the low down on some cultural differences. They explained some generalities about Spanish food culture that we experienced to be true:
Breakfast is light – it typically consists of tostadas which are NOT the crispy open faced tacos my husband and I make at home. Rather this is a toasted baguette with something on top like the classic olive oil and tomato jam - like the image towards the top of this post. (Watch how the Spanish do this – they use the knife to make shallow little cuts into the bread, then drizzle on the olive oil so it absorbs better, and then add the tomato jam).
Lunches are the largest meal of the day and are typically eaten later, like 2 or 3 in the afternoon. It is common to see a menú del día, or menu of the day, a type of pre-fix menu.
Dinner is also typically lighter, think tapas, and it doesn’t start until 8 or 9. Many restaurants don’t even open until 8:30 or 9. And if we arrived at 9 we might have been the first people to be seated. Tapas are awesome and cheap. I mean like a few euros, or, even better, are often free with a drink. This is a casual meal with drinks and shared food. And the drinks are only 2 or 3 euro as well.
Tipping & Exchange Rates
Really, tipping in the US is like no other tipping I’ve experienced. I read an article once about what tour books tell people coming to the US. The tourists were told not to be fooled by listed food prices, that they were to take whatever a meal costs and add 20% to it for the tip. Woah. That is one way to look at it that a native doesn’t normally think about!
In Spain though, a tip is fine if you just round up your bill to whatever nearest dollar(s) depending on the price. So for a €19 meal, round to €20 maybe. Or whatever nearest coin you have. The only exception is when someone provides phenomenal service. In one restaurant the waiter walked through each menu item speaking very clear, simple Spanish to make sure we understood what we could order – that is exceptional and we left him a pretty good tip.
Exchange Rates are a big deal! Rick Steves has done a great job explaining it, so I would just check out his info about it - specifically read the section called "Avoid dynamic currency conversion (DCC)". Here is an example of a restaurant in Spain that actually explained it to us on a receipt type print out. But MOST places will just hand you one of those credit card machines and have you choose. You WANT to choose the native currency!
Helpful Resources and Information
Here are a few awesome blogs that really helped me prepare ahead of time. Instead of copying their info here, I have added links with the type of basic information you will find there.
This is the Celiac association in Spain. This also links to organizations in some specific cities. (If you can’t read the sites, use Google Chrome, and you can have an option to translate to English – this is SO helpful! Sometimes an offer to translate pops up, if not, you can right click to get the option)
This page by FACE discusses generalities about eating gluten free in Spain: http://www.celiacos.org/informacion/en-ingles/gluten-free-spain.html
This page by FACE links to local groups in different cities: http://celiacos.org/nosotros/asociaciones.html
Some Key Phrases:
Yo soy celiaca = I’m coeliac
no puedo comer gluten/harina de trigo” (“I can’t eat gluten/wheat flour”)
Gracias por su ayuda = Thank you for your help!
Libre de gluten = gluten-free
Enfermedad celiaca = celiac disease
These grocery stores are common to find in many larger cities, they either have a gluten free section, or have gluten free options (but you might have to dig). See this separate post about what we found in the grocery stores.
Herbolarios Doemi Market (health food stores)
El Corte Inglés
The only one we ate at was Rodilla. I’m not sure how well the others do gluten free, so you’ll want to verify ahead of time.
Jamón is almost always gluten free – and you will see this EVERYWHERE – I’m not kidding.
Tortilla de patatas
Instead of listing all the foods I researched here, I am just going to send you to the two blogs I mostly referred to:
More Information for each city
I have posted about each city we visited, check out: Seville Food and Seville Tourism, Granada Food and Granada Tourism, Cordoba Food and Cordoba Tourism, Jaén, Gibraltar, Frigiliana, Tarifa, and Madrid.