Top Tips for a Gluten Free Holiday

pinocchio jpeg gf.jpgI've been writing this blog in my head for the last 10 days as we travel around Italy with our two kids strapped into the back seat fighting over some bit of plastic or who called who stupid.  I think you may get the picture. Despite this current stage of annoying behaviour it's been a very relaxing and successful holiday.   Unlike previous holidays in Italy, our experience of gluten free living on the road has been quite hard and at times a little soul destroying.  Although awareness of what gluten free means is good in this part of southern Italy, Puglia to be exact, they don't seem to have the ability or indeed the willingness to do anything about it.  This is in sharp contrast with the north, where most restaurants and hotels even in very small and remote villages offer gluten free pasta, bread and menu options without any hesitation.  I guess the education campaign hasn't trickled down to Puglia yet.  So while it's still fresh in my mind, here are my top tips for surviving a gluten free holiday.

GF Food- what's available- well in the part of Puglia we were in, the answer is not a lot.  We seemed to eat a great deal of sausages and meat which was lovely and very different from what we would eat in England.  Vegetables are always a bit of an afterthought and apart from the usual vegetables a la griglia (ie, grilled), there wasn't much else to choose from.  So if you are a vegetarian, you might want to rethink the whole eating out thing.  The standard salami and cheese board, was a bit of a life saver  but it got to be a bit of a standing joke after awhile.  We only found two restaurants that served gluten free pasta.  It's got to be said that gelati, in all shapes and sizes was available everywhere and for the most part gluten free.  I brought a few gf cones with us and although I felt a bit embarrased producing them out of my bag in the gelateria, the man behind the counter was fine about it.

I was relieved to see a gluten free section in the larger supermarkets, but there wasn't much variety.  The bread was pretty awful and the quality of the products (with exception of the pasta) was not impressive.  The local chemists also stock gf foods, mainly the Dr. Shar range but this was only available in the large towns and in the large chemists on the main drag.  The best selection of gf food was at the Hyper Coop- just outside of Lecce, but on the day we were there, it looked like it had been ransacked. So we were obviously not the only ones in Puglia looking for gf food. 

In the markets and supermarkets you can buy wonderful produce, fruit and vegetables, meats, cheeses, fish etc so in truth you won't really go hungry especially if you have somewhere to cook and prepare food.  We had some amazing feasts of barbequed prawns, chicken marinated in olive oil and Sicilian lemons with the local oregano and some really tasty little spare ribs served up with Marc's truly spectacular roast potatoes.  He's not too keen on sharing the recipe for these, so you will need to badger him into letting you in on the secret. So if you are planning to travel to this part of Italy- come prepared.  Bring some basics with you especially things like breakfast cereal, crackers, biscuits and maybe even a pizza base or two for emergencies and a few gf cones for that special midnight gelati run.

Introducing alien food-  the excitement of being in a new place with different food and different customs can turn even moderately adventureous eaters into reluctant eaters.  This can be very frustrating partcularly when you are already have a major restriction like gluten.  So my advice is to go easy with new foods and introduce one new thing a day. Take them to a local market and let them soak up the atmosphere and give them some money to buy something from the stall holders.  You can also take them to a supermarket and give each child the task of selecting items for the trolley.  It's amazing how once they are absorbed in a task and have some ownership and control, they are more willing to accept that funny vegetable or strange fruit that previously was a huge problem. 

Eating out- a big big challenge!  As always look for places that do simple home cooked food.  Unfortunately in Puglia many places could not offer any gluten free alternatives and this really took it's toll.  My usually very tolerant Ruthie broke down in tears when for the umpteenth time a waiter at a cafe announced that the very fancy looking chips in the glass containers contained glutened.  We all felt terrible and we really did feel how miserable it must be to always have to be left out  especially when it just doesn't have to be that way.  We did have some good eating out experiences and these were usually places where the owners really took a lot of care and attention and made sure our girl was happy. 

trullo puglia jpeg.jpgSelf Catering- this is a life line!  I completely understand that for many the idea of having to cook meals on holiday is just not what it's about.  Equally, the stress of having to find gluten free food on the go 24/7 and the tediousness of eating at the same hotel restaurant  day in and day out can really suck the joy out of any holiday.  So my tip is prepare simple meals using local ingredients. Don't try and recreate what you might make at home using every saucepan in the cupboard.  Keep it basic and simple making the type of meals you might make when you are camping.  I've had my eye on The Camping Cookbook by Annie Bell for awhile and this is the sort of thing I would pack in my bag, to give me some ideas for quick tasty suppers. 

Hotels-well this remains a huge challenge. If you are going to go this route then you must do some research before you book. Make sure the hotel can supply gluten free items for breakfast and for all of the main meals.  Pack a good supply of treats so that you don't end up having to take out another mortgage. 

Now for my more general tips- which apply to gf and non gf alike.  Going on holiday is something you look forward to all year, but there is a moment when you suddenly realise it's us (meaning the parents) and them- I think you know who I mean.  On our pre-departure evening, sitting in the lobby of the Holiday Inn in Stanstead (if you were there I am sure you will remember us) there was a moment when I thought, I don't know if I can face this- two weeks in a secluded villa with two very crazy kids.  I jotted a few notes here and there and tried out different strategies, so what follows is a rather rambling list of ideas and suggestions which may make your holiday even more enjoyable. 

pencil case jpeg.jpgKeeping  the kids entertained- in Italy you can find wonderful pencil and marker sets which you can purchase in the COOP or in a Cartoleria.  Ours were three tiered and contained an assortment of coloured pencils and coloured markers along with protractors, rulers, scissors and glue  sticks.  In essence everything you might need to create a masterpiece. These portable art cases can go anywhere, they look impressive and are particulary good in restaurants when you are waiting for your meal. We also found some really lovely art design books, where children are encouraged to use their imagination to create a picture and not just colour in.  I think these are called The Anti Colouring booksOurs was an Italian version of this which made it completely charming.

Making potions and beauty scrubs from bits of leaves, herbs (rosemary and lavender for example) and stuff that is readily available like sea salt and olive oil, proved to be a big hit with the kids.  Once they got into this, we extended the concept to making rubs and spice mixtures for marinades to use on the barbeque.

This then lead to the forming of The Cookery School- on the covered porch, where lots of buckets,  pots, pans, water bottles and kitchen utensils were used to make pretend soups, puddings, milkshakes you name it.  Lucia age 3 loved doing this and spent most afternoons playing quite happily mixing bits of water,stones, earth, bugs into spectacular concoctions for me to try.  A real chip off the old block that one.

On a similar theme, you can also set up an outdoor classroom using whatever bits and pieces you have to hand, Making chalk paintings outdoors is also bound to be a big hit and these can be washed away when you're done so you won't lose your deposit.  We used the cardboard tubes from paper towel rolls as story boards and the kids loved drawing and telling a story on these "story rolls" .

First Aid Kit- there is a  joke in our family that my first aid kit takes up one whole bag allowance.  My justification is:  there is nothing worse then having to wait around a desolate square in the full heat of the day waiting for the Farmacia to open and then having to explain your child's symptoms in a foreign language to a completely perplexed pharmacist.   Non-negotiable essentials includeCalpol/Nurafen, Piritin, something to soothe stings or mosquito bites, Diarlyte, Pepto Bismal, Immodium are absolutely essential in case you or your child gets gluttened.  Dettol or antibacterial spray for cuts and grazes,  ibuprofen or paracetamol (for mum and dad)  plasters, Savlon and Tiger Balm.  Oh and some PG Tip tea bags, because when things are going pear shaped, nothing soothes your nerves better then a nice cuppa tea.  For tummy aches, I would keep a couple of cans of Coca Cola in your fridge.  This always worked for me as a child and I think the sugar and bubbles are quite good when you are feeling poorly.

Donald Duck jpeg.jpgSightseeing- don't be too ambitious.  Young children like really simple things like being in a swimming pool and going to a park.  It amazes me how oblivous they can be to their surroundings.  Where possible introduce different forms of transport, boat, train, bus, funicular, donkey etc.  Get into the local swing of things and stay out of the midday heat.  Take them to the park at night to watch the local children going wild. This really freaked our children out. They couldn't quite believe what they were seeing.  If possible take some audio CD's for the car.  I really recommend the collection of Roald Dahl stories read by the likes of Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Geoffrey Palmer.  They are brilliant!

lulu sleeping jpeg gf.jpgI love the idea of a daily ritual- something a little bit indulgent that you do everyday during the holiday and kids like this too.  There is something nice about having a routine when you haven't got a routine like having a pre-breakfast swim, drawing together in the afternoon, having a mid afternoon snooze or having gelati at midnight.  

Discipline- this can really go out the window when you are on holiday and you can easily find your lovely children have turned into monsters. Getting the balance right is not easy, but on the whole make sure they have plenty of space to run around and burn up energy.  Keep them busy and don't take them to fancy uptight places where you know they will misbehave.  Have something in your bag which you can turn into a game or a distraction, like a pen and notebook to play hangman or a box of jelly beans which you can use to play memory or counting games, a pack of marbles, some balloons or some bubbles.

Marc's tip- let older children take on new challenges letting them do things you wouldn't normally allow them to do at home like walk around the roof tops or help light the barbeque! 

Have a great holiday and please feel free to add some tips of your own. 

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