TRAVELING GLUTEN FREE IN EASTERN EUROPE, Part 1, GERMANY
In the spring of 2016, I took a trip to Eastern Europe. I traveled to cities and countries that were part of the Soviet bloc until the fall of the Berlin wall. Since then, the cities and countries have developed and modernized financially, culturally, and socially. Economic advancement and freedom have changed these countries significantly. Would I find gluten free food easily in my travels? I had some successes and some disappointments, but, I managed to eat well and even have local dishes prepared gluten free.
Berlin was the first stop on my trip to Germany followed by Magdeburg, Potsdam, Dessau, Wittenberg, Meissen, Dresden, and Bad Schandau. All cities were formerly behind the “iron curtain.” Generally, this part of Germany is still recovering from abject neglect under the communist regime. Run down, shabby houses, farms, and buildings are everywhere. But, so are new, modern, and refurbished buildings. Much of this is thanks to the taxes from the former West Germany. Also, attracting new industry from around the world is providing jobs and a much needed income stream. Refurbished communist plain grey utilitarian apartment buildings are now sporting balconies, larger rooms, insulation, bright colors, and exterior artwork. Dubbed “commie condos” by visiting Americans, these housing units dot the landscape everywhere in the larger cities of the former Soviet bloc.
Not surprisingly, gluten free is not easy to find. You should prepare before embarking on a trip to Germany. For shopping purposes, Aldis, (a German based supermarket) is found in most of the large cities of Germany (as well in the U.S.) They have a good supply of gluten free products. Kaisers, another supermarket chain in much of Germany carries gluten free. The Apothekes (German drug stores) are plentiful everywhere. However, unlike the Farmacias (drug stores in Italy) availability of gluten free food is spotty to mostly none. Smaller towns in Germany are generally very difficult places to find gluten free items to buy as well as restaurant food. If you are stuck and have to take what is available, find someone in the restaurant who speaks English to translate for you so that you can explain food preparation without cross contamination. Also, some mom and pop smaller stores will carry a limited selection of snacks and packaged food that is gluten free. Schar products are found everywhere gluten free products are carried. Italian gluten free pasta is the most popular and plentiful. A few American brands such as Bob’s Red Mill, Glutino, and Genius Bread are available.
A note about sausages in Eastern Europe, they are a staple food in the countries I visited. Many types are made from a variety of meats and are abundant everywhere. Most restaurants and all stores have them. But be careful, contrary to much of the sausages, wursts, and kielbasas being gluten free here in the states, this is not the case in Germany and other Eastern European countries. Rather gluten free sausage is the exception. Most sausages contain barley or wheat thickening. Always make sure that the sausage you are served is “glutenfrei.”
Plan to stay in larger, well known hotels that cater to Americans. Most will serve a large breakfast in the morning that will have many gluten free options. They will have gluten free bread and a few will also offer gluten free baked goods. The bread and bakery is usually individually packaged. You can take some of it with you for later in the day or to supplement your gluten free meal that evening. Just like the sausages, many of the deli-like breakfast meat slices offered at the buffet may have gluten. Although bacon is gluten free, the European way is to drain the fried bacon on slices of bread. Find the chef or hotel restaurant manager to help you determine the gluten free options. They usually speak English (servers knowledge of English is hit or miss.) You will have no problem finding English speakers among the hotel desk personnel that will advise you on how to get to the restaurants you have found that offer gluten free. The larger American based hotel chains offer gluten free in their lobby restaurants. The staff speaks English and the chef is usually familiar with the diet. Although a more expensive option, it may be your best choice in smaller populated areas of East Germany.
My hotel in Berlin was situated next the Gendarmenmarkt which was centrally located and was a great shopping area. There were several restaurants with gluten free offerings near me. Maredo (Italian) and Cha Cha (Brazilian) were two that had a few other locations around Berlin. I ate at Augustiner which was a traditional Brau Haus. There was no gluten free beer, but they did have hard cider. I had gluten free bratwurst and red cabbage with horseradish mashed potatoes. Augustiner also has several locations around Berlin and its environs.
Your gluten free choices in the former West Germany are more plentiful and English is spoken by a greater amount of the populace. A selection of many more westernized restaurants that offer gluten free is available. Before leaving for your trip, google “gluten free Berlin Germany.” Maps, blogs, and suggestions for where to eat and buy will pop up. Restaurants may close so make sure you are looking at information that is less than 6 months old. Two apps that I like to have with me on my tablet (or phone) are Gluten Free Roads and Find Me Gluten Free. Both use GPS to find gluten free shopping and eating near your location. Always carry protein or snack bars with you to insure that you have something to eat. Another great option are small metallic bags of non-refrigerated tuna or salmon.
One more note on finding gluten free. On a previous trip to Germany, I visited Nuremburg. On the main square in the middle of the city is a year round farmers market. There is a stand that sells gluten free Lebkuchen cookies. Nuremburg is where the spicy, citrusy Lebkuchen originated. The gluten free version is plain or covered in chocolate. Yum! Look for the cart with the red and white striped awning advertising “Glutenfrei.”