‘I’m gluten intolerant, so why can I eat bread in France?’
GLUTEN and I are not friends.
We're not on an auto-immune footing of hatred, but gluten and my stomach do not like each other. I'm lucky to not have coeliac disease, people with this condition can never ever eat gluten, I am just one of those rather common people who has a gluten sensitivity.
Except, it seems, in France! That's right, in France I can eat all the wheat I like, gorge on bread, indulge in pastries and not have a single symptom. What?
I'd heard about this strange phenomenon that some people who react to wheat in Australia find they can eat wheat in France - but it sounded too good to be true.
It stemmed from the rules regulating the quality of their ingredients that prevented preservatives and additives being added to food, according to a report in SBS last year.
Naturally, I didn't think it would be true. After all, the bread still contained gluten.
But… joy of all joys, bread of all breads, it was!
I rather gingerly ate my first croissant, pecking at the perfect pastry, savouring the first crescent-shaped delight I'd had in 10 years. I smiled a deeply satisfied smile but also awaited the cramping and bloat that seemed inevitable - but nothing. OK, I thought, I can eat a little? Maybe? I'll behave and just have one serve of gluten a day…
This did not happen, I ate it at every meal. The thrill of biting into a proper baguette, raspily crunchy on the outside, lusciously soft on the inside was too good - for someone who has spent years eating those stupid small squares of cardboard that companies pretend are gluten-free "bread" this was my nirvana. I happened to be staying above a boulangerie in Paris and literally woke up to the smell of bread and pastry every morning - all self-control was abandoned and I devoured every different kind of viennoisserie they offered, stumbling over my high school French in a fever to order the flaky layers of pastry. A classic croissant, a pain au chocolat, pain au raisin (my fave, who doesn't like things with pastry cream inside them), chausson aux pommes, croissant pecan plait, almond croissant these became my breakfast each day.
And the bread! How could just a torn off hunk of baguette taste so damn good? Paired with comté cheese from the local fromagerie I was in French food heaven. Even a baguette bought at the train station was delicious, with gourmet ingredients and yet again, damn fine bread. I thought of the sad soggy sandwiches you can buy at our train stations, in their plastic triangles, that you sniff at dubiously before deciding, food is fuel, and eat discontentedly. Even transit food was good in France.
While in Paris I ate a palmier the size of my face while waiting to board the barge on the Canal St Martin (well, this was eaten in several efforts). My travel companion and I had bought eclairs for afternoon tea so as we watched the locks let water into the canal and the barge rose up in height we clinked eclairs like a glass of champagne, both oohing and aahing at the first bite. Mine was an éclair au café, filled with pastry cream that tasted like the perfect sweet cappuccino. The coffee in Paris might not have been great, but their coffee eclairs were sublime.
At a restaurant in Paris I ordered a divine salted caramel mille feuille. I was in fact full from my incredible beouf bourgignon but the novelty of being able to order a dessert that wasn't ice cream was too much for me and I decided to believe there was a separate dessert stomach. The mille feuille was enormous, and I could only eat half, but as that pastry shattered in my mouth and the perfect caramel pastry cream glided across my tongue I was one happy girl!
Down in the south of France in a charming town called St Jeannet, I breakfasted on the terrace of my BnB each day with the other guests, all of us asking how a piece of bread and butter could be so good - actually I'm not even going to get started on how good French butter is, I'll be here all day. Any calorific self-control I might have had in France had promptly departed after that first croissant and I would sit at the table in the Cote D'Azur sun having eaten a croissant, fruit and fresh yoghurt and think that's enough, I don't need anymore, but my hand would reach out to the freshly baked slices of baguette and transfer this wondrous yet so simple staple to my mouth. Luckily this was a yoga retreat so I burnt off some of the bread with repeated downward dogs…
Before catching my train back to Paris I went to the local bakery and asked for a quiche, he gave me a pained expression before telling me, this batch wasn't my best, I don't want to sell it to you, but I've got more in the oven, come back in an hour and I'll sell you one of those. It didn't matter to this baker that I might have had to leave and not buy anything from his store, his pride wouldn't let him sell anything that wasn't perfect. I did return and bought a spinach quiche and another pain au raisin before making my way to Nice train station. As the TGV train rocketed toward Paris at 300km/h I unwrapped my freshly made quiche and felt my eyes close in appreciation of the perfect pastry, the flavourful filling and crunch of pine nuts at the end.
So in love with pastry was I that I attended a croissant making class at a cooking school called Le Foodist. I was now determined to bake my own croissants once home, I'd import some French flour and make it happen (a quick google search had shown me this was totally possible, if slightly expensive). I made dough, bashed butter into shape and rolled and rolled the pastry, asking exacting questions to the amusement of our teacher. I packed up my six croissants in a box and walked out proud, stopping at a shop to buy some ham and cheese. I then sat on the banks of the Seine, behind Notre Dame and made my own croissant sandwich for love. It was sunny, I was wearing my brand new French trench coat, I was eating croissants I had made myself and I was in Paris - life was good!
It was a sad reality to return to Melbourne airport and see the counters of baked goods and remember that I could not eat them, that's right, I'm a gluten-freak, back to reality.
But I've ordered some French flour and it's on its way to me… finger buns crossed that I don't have a reaction!
I have even researched the differences between the wheat in France versus what we have here, and it appears it all comes down to the ingredients.
SBS spoke to a French baker in September about baguettes who revealed the biggest difference between a French baguette and some Australian loaves is the absence of sugar, fat, or enhancers.
He also explained that the Aussie variety of wheat is much more "glutenous".
After my bread-filled experience I'm looking into importing French wheat and growing a paddock on our family farm, but that might be going one step too far…
Susie Mackenzie is a freelance writer. This article should not be treated as medical advice, and if you think you might have a food allergy you should see a medical professional.
This article originally appeared on BodyandSoul and was reproduced with permission