Balenciaga and Baguette


I’ve been a fan of the department store El Corte Inglés for years. What began as a flirtation with the ubiquitous Spanish chain when I first encountered it in 1999 in Madrid turned into a full-fledged love affair after a couple of subsequent trips to Barcelona, where I learned that the store doesn’t just carry souvenirs, clothing, toiletries, housewares, and electronics, but some of the most exquisite shoes I’ve ever seen. How could you not fall in love with a store that carries beautiful pumps by Balenciaga – and sells them at a reasonable price?

I couldn’t imagine that my passion for El Corte Inglés could get any deeper, but that’s exactly what happened on my last visit to Spain. While I was researching my trip (my first to Spain since being diagnosed with celiac disease), I came across the association Celíacs de Catalunya, which provides information for gluten-intolerant people who live in the Catalan region. In addition to recommended restaurants (which includes some information on other parts of Spain, too), the website provides a list of stores that sell celiac-safe foods, and I spotted El Corte Inglés on this list. After a visit to the store’s website, I was entranced. Was it possible that the department store’s supermarket division really stocked gluten-free croissants by Proceli, madeleines by Adpan, and baguettes by Special Line El Corte Inglés, with each product priced between 2 and 5 Euros? I suspected I was dreaming.

It turned out to be reality. While not every El Corte Inglés supermercado carried the full range of products that appear on the store’s website, every single one carried enough gluten-free goodies to thrill me and my taste buds. Not only was I able to enjoy baked goods sin gluten every day of my trip, but many of the products were vacuum-sealed and dated five months ahead (though once the package is opened, the contents need to be consumed within a few days).

In addition to my almost daily visits to the supermercado, I had to drop by the shoe department once or twice, too. Even with so many packages of Proceli croissants in my suitcase, I managed to find room for one more pair of Spanish-made shoes. The croissants are long gone, sadly, but the shoes are enjoying their new home in New York.

(A note on language and translation: The El Corte Inglés website is in Spanish, while the site for Celíacs de Catalunya is in Spanish and Catalan. You can translate some of the pages using Google. To view the options at El Corte Inglés Supermercado, you will need to enter a Spanish postal code. Can’t think of one? Type “1” in the box and a drop-down menu called “Centros de Recognida” will appear. Pick any option on that list and it will bring you do the main page for the supermarket. Because of the frames on this page, I find Google’s translator doesn’t work with it. Click on the first drop-down menu and select “Alimentos dieteticos”; in the second drop-down menu, select “Productos para celiacos”; on the third drop-down menu, click on each selection in turn to find gluten-free beer, cookies, breads, pastas, and other products.)

Open Skies

On March 30th, 2008, traveling between the United States and Europe may get easier… or at least more competitive. That’s the day that the new transatlantic flight pact (commonly known as “open skies”) goes into effect, allowing airlines to fly between any two airports in the regions. In the past, a British Airways flight en route to New York had to originate in the UK. Now, it could originate in Paris or Prague. Open skies is being hailed as a significant change in the travel industry — though charges to compensate for increasing fuel prices may mean that the price of a ticket won’t drop that much.

I know that no one chooses an airline based on its willingness to offer gluten-free meals, but if the amount of competition for your travel dollars increases, this is an issue to keep in mind. When I flew to Lima, Peru, last fall on American Airlines, I was dismayed to discover that there was no gluten-free meal for me on the flight there or back. Both my husband and I had called American to confirm the request, and I’d even mentioned it to the gate agent in New York; she checked and found it in the system. However, once I was on the plane, the flight attendant informed me that no gluten-free meals were available on the flight, period. This was because American Airlines had defined it as a “short” international flight, since it lasted only six hours (I had flown on American from New York to Miami, where I caught my connecting flight to Lima). The flight attendant was as helpful as she could be — she got me three mini-salads, which were naturally gluten-free — but there wasn’t much to be done (this is why I always have a celiac-safe protein bar in my bag).

This was a stark contrast with my flight to Santiago, Chile, a year before. That time I flew on LAN, which quickly became my favorite airline. Say what you will about how unpleasant it is to fly these days, but LAN’s friendly, helpful staff made it a pleasure. Not only did I get some surprisingly tasty gluten-free meals on my flights to and from Chile, but even the snacks were gluten-free. (I’ve had positive experiences with gluten-free meals on British Airways and Swiss International Air Lines, too, but this was the first time that even the snacks were safe for me.)

I just checked with American Airlines, and they are offering gluten-free meals on all of their flights to Europe. This makes sense, since the competition is about to get stiffer. But, in case you’re flying to Peru anytime soon, take note — there are still no gluten-free meals on American’s flights to Lima, but there are on LAN’s.

Pure Bliss


In my restaurant-reviewing days, I had a bias against virtuous food, which I defined as anything you ate because it was supposed to be good for you, rather than because it satisfied your taste buds. I have nothing against broccoli (it tastes good to me, at least when paired with hummus or tzatziki), but I gravitate towards creamy cheeses, gamey meats, and dreamy desserts. When I first read about the raw food movement, I was horrified. I considered low-fat mozzarella an abomination; what could I say about a cuisine that made “cheese” out of nuts?

Silly me. One of my favorite restaurants in New York has turned out to be a raw food spot. Pure Food and Wine is just south of Gramercy Park (see photo above) on Irving Place. My husband suggested it just after my celiac diagnosis, when we were casting about for a romantic spot to celebrate our anniversary. At that point, I was nervous at the thought of eating anywhere but my own home. My husband and I called Pure Food, asking question after question to establish the staff’s ability — and willingness — to prepare a gluten-free meal. Finally I decided to give it a try.

The restaurant was a surprise: the long, lean room mixed natural woods that echoed the restaurant’s earthy mantra with bordello-red walls that reflected a distinctly sexy aura. The server was well-informed and helpful, pointing out the few items I wouldn’t be able to order on Pure Food’s extensive menu. It was a moment of pure bliss: I was just getting accustomed to the idea that there were so many things I couldn’t have that being offered so many choices felt like freedom. When the food arrived, I was pleasantly surprised: a Caesar salad with pine nut “parmesan” and nori doesn’t sound decadent, but it turns out it is. And the zucchini and roma tomato lasagna was better than any wheat-noodle version I could remember. Dessert was even more satisfying: not only could I order my own, but I could steal what my husband had ordered.

Like I said, pure bliss.

Pure Food and Wine [address] 54 Irving Place, New York, NY [tel] 212-477-1010 [email] [web]

Mi Casa Arequipa Es Su Casa


I’m wary of Trip Advisor. Praise is often overstated and criticism can be downright nasty. I know from reader responses to my guidebooks that some people have funny ideas about what makes an establishment lovely or loathsome. (One man wrote to me, demanding that I remove a restaurant from Frommer’s Toronto. The reason? He’d picked up a “bad vibe” from a waitress there.) Still, Trip Advisor can be a valuable guide. It led me to Casa Arequipa, after all.

Arequipa is Peru’s second-largest city, a monumental wonder carved out of sillar, a ghostly white volcanic rock (the city lies at the foot of El Misti, a volcano best described as “currently inactive”). It’s known as La Ciudad Blanca — the white city. For all of its beauty, Arequipa is probably the most overlooked inhabited spot in Peru: the standard tourist itinerary allows a day at most to visit the city’s two top attractions: the Universidad Catolica de Santa Maria, home to the world’s most famous human sacrifice (Juanita, the Inca maiden whose well-preserved body was found in a frozen crevice of Mount Ampato), and the Monasterio Santa Catalina (the photograph above shows one of its cloisters). After taking in these sights, people decamp to the Colca Canyon or the Cotahuasi Canyon.

I spent four days in Arequipa in November, and I wish I’d had longer. My charming casa-away-from-home was a big part of the reason why. Casa Arequipa bills itself as a boutique bed and breakfast, and with only seven rooms in a renovated colonial mansion, the staff is devoted to caring for each guest. Breakfast is included in the rates, and it’s no buffet brush-off; meals are individually prepared. When I explained my dietary concerns to the staff, they responded with delicious omelettes, fresh ham and cheese, and fruit plates. They also surprised me with their thoughtfulness: one staff member called my next hotel to explain celiac disease to the staff there. Another staff member talked to the tour operator for my Colca Canyon trip, to make sure that I’d be able to eat at the restaurants we’d be stopping at on the way in and out.

Casa Arequipa has other charms, too: the rooms are decorated with antiques and decked out with modern amenities; the staff acts as your own private concierge service, making reservations for tours, meals, and spa treatments; and the casa is located in Vallecito, an upscale neighborhood that’s a 10-minute walk (or two-minute cab ride) to the Plaza de Armas, the historic town square.

One more thing: Casa Arequipa’s owner divides his time between Arequipa and Washington, D.C., where he operates a restaurant called Las Canteras. I haven’t checked it out yet – and I have no idea whether it will be as amenable to requests for gluten-free meals as the Casa Arequipa – but I’ll definitely be visiting it the next time I’m in D.C.

Casa Arequipa [address] Av. Lima 409, Vallecito, Arequipa, Peru [tel] 51-54-284-219 [email] [web]

Stalking Jamie Kennedy


I’m a groupie. Not for rock stars or actors or even authors (well, maybe for Ken Bruen and Joyce Carol Oates and the Hard Case Crime writers), but for chefs. Toronto’s Jamie Kennedy is one I’ve been stalking for years. He’s a co-founder of the local chapter of the Slow Food movement, and his commitment to environmental issues, organic agriculture, and local producers is legendary. A decade ago, when I had a steady gig reviewing restaurants for Toronto Life magazine, Kennedy owned the sublime JK ROM, the restaurant at the Royal Ontario Museum. After that well-loved spot became a casualty of the museum’s ambitious renovation plan, the chef opened a new spot downtown.

The Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar is a perfect tapas restaurant. It’s only slightly larger than a cubbyhole, with tables for two lit by candles and barstool perches for those too tired (or hungry) to wait for a table. If you’re not familiar with Ontario vintages, this is one of the finest places to get an education: wines are available in half-size glasses, all the better for sampling. Ask the staff what distinguishes an Ontario Riesling from an Alsatian one, and you’re likely to get a taste of each along with an explanation.

When I told the server that I had celiac disease, she disappeared with my menu. A few minutes later she returned and handed it back to me. I opened the folded page and saw that the entire thing had been annotated in ballpoint pen. Dishes that were not available in a gluten-free version were crossed out, while potential modifications to others were written in. The server went over the menu with me in detail, pointing out potential problems with cross-contamination. I ended up with tapas-sized plates of asparagus with poached egg and pine nuts, tender duck confit, mushroom ragout, and blackberry sorbet.

I’ve been back to the Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar several times, and have had a menu annotated for me on each visit. I’ve also been to the restaurant with friends who suffer from lactose intolerance and food allergies, and have seen the staff lavish the same care that they do with celiacs.

Sorry, Chef Kennedy – you can’t shake this groupie.

Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar [address] 9 Church Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada [tel] 416-362-1957 [web]

La Dolce Vita in San Diego

It’s no mean feat to find a restaurant that offers something for everyone, but Barolo Ristorante Italiano in San Diego manages. Our dinner party looked like a mission impossible: one gluten-free diner (me), one vegetarian (my husband), two small children (our nieces, three-year-old Eli and two-year-old Zoe), and one pregnant diner (my sister-in-law). The only person at the table who didn’t have a particular dietary issue was my brother-in-law, the genius who found the restaurant in the first place.

He discovered Barolo on Gluten Free in SD, a site that everyone on a gluten-free diet who lives in or travels to the San Diego area needs to know about. Gluten Free in SD is the brainchild of Roxie Johnson and Ken Loomis, and it’s not affiliated with any particular group. It is filled with information about restaurants, shops, and events, and there are links to news articles about celiac disease as well. The site mentions that one of Barolo’s owners has a son with celiac disease, and that the restaurant is well-versed in the condition and conscientious about following the rules.

Barolo lived up to its press. My brother-in-law called ahead to check on the gluten-free status (always a great idea, since menus – and owners – can change). The restaurant reassured us on the gluten-free front; though they were out of gluten-free pasta, they would be able to make risotto or meat/seafood dishes that would be celiac-safe. By the time we arrived that evening, the news was even better: Barolo had a new supply of rice pasta available, so my menu options doubled. I started with the Insalata di Mediterranea, a delicious spinach salad with feta, tomatoes, and onions in a fig-infused balsamic dressing. For the main course, I had the Penne all’Amatriciana, with prosciutto and dry ricotta cheese in a tomato sauce. My only regret was that by the time I was finished, I was too full for dessert (the gluten-free lemon sorbet is imported from Italy… just one more reason to return).

The restaurant’s website doesn’t mention its gluten-free offerings, unfortunately, but take a look to get a sense of the offerings (the staff told me that, except for the ravioli, gnocchi and lasagna, any of the pastas can be made in a gluten-free version, and some of the meat and fish plates are already celiac-safe without modifications). Barolo is an elegant restaurant with thoughtful service and plenty of variety. In addition to its gluten-free offerings, it was nice to find an upscale eatery that provides booster seats and a special menu for the ragazzini.

Barolo [address] 8935 Towne Centre Drive, San Diego, CA 92122, [tel] 858-622-1202 [email] [web]

Gluten Free in SD [web]

Welcome to the Gluten-Free Guidebook


It hit me a few months ago, while I was planning a trip to Peru, that much of my research is wasted after I return home. I’m a freelance travel writer, so my trips usually translate into magazine articles or guidebooks. But since 2004, when I was diagnosed with celiac disease, I’ve devoted entire days to figuring out how to follow a gluten-free diet while on the road.

The first trips I took after my diagnosis saw me lugging an embarrassing number of gluten-free protein bars abroad. I assumed that I’d never be able to communicate my dietary needs or ask the right questions about unfamiliar dishes (it’s hard enough in English – how could I do it in Hungarian?). While I still pack some celiac-safe snacks, I’ve found resources that take the worry out of travel (well, dietary worries, anyway), and allow me to savor a destination.

Since my diagnosis, I’ve visited Peru, Easter Island, Chile, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Switzerland, and Spain. I travel to Canada on a regular basis, and I’m often on the road in the US as well. I want to let others with celiac disease or gluten intolerance know about the discoveries – restaurants, shops, products, hotels, tour operators – that have made traveling a pleasure (or, occasionally, a pain). I’ve been writing guidebooks for a decade, and I know that the best ones are like trusted travel companions with an insider knowledge of local secrets. I’ve got plenty of secrets to share.

There are many wonderful websites that help people adjust to – and enjoy – a gluten-free diet. Some feature recipes and luscious photos featuring the results. You’re not going to find that here (unless I can convince some of my friends to share the secrets behind the fantastic gluten-free treats they’ve made for me). Instead, you’ll find information that every gluten-adverse globetrotter should have.

I want to hear about the places you’ve discovered, too. You can reach me at glutenfreeguidebook [at] gmail [dot] com.