Wheat. It gets about a bit.
Whether you’re among the increasing number of people being diagnosed with Coeliac Disease (an incurable genetic disease whose only remedy is to avoid gluten for life), or simply prefer to avoid this pesky protein for health reasons, finding food that’s safe for you to eat is no mean feat. Throw in a trip abroad, where language issues compound the problem, and things can get hairy.
I was diagnosed with Coeliac Disease in my early 30s, following decades of severe stomach pain. After three years in Barcelona, I’ve figured out a few ways to make living with the condition a bit easier. The plethora of fresh produce on offer in the city’s markets certainly sweetens the deal.
Spain is no different to most western countries, in that it has a heavy reliance on wheat as a huge part of the traditional diet. Just like in the UK, waiters here will think nothing of bringing you a basket of bread before you’ve even ordered, and tend to look flabbergasted when it’s rejected.
On the plus side, I do think that the Spanish are much more clued up than their UK counterparts in the catering industry when it comes to the terminology. The phrase you’ll need is “soy celíaco” (or “celíaca” if you’re a woman), which you’d do well to follow up with a “no puedo comer gluten/harina de trigo” (“I can’t eat gluten/wheat flour”). Most waiters in Barcelona will nod sagely at this point, and take you seriously.
The good news is, as a Coeliac in Spain you have three amigos on your side: rice, eggs and potatoes. Standout stalwarts on a Spanish menu that are naturally gluten-free include paella (rice with seafood/meat), Spanish omelette (tortilla española or tortilla de patatas – eggs, potatoes and onions), and patatas bravas (a cross between chips and potato wedges, served with a spicy sauce).
But what about the tapas, the cakes, the god-damned pizza, I hear you cry? Yes, I know, I know. Read on.
Best gluten-free brunch: Copasetic
Copasetic is so effortlessly accommodating to those of us on a gluten-free diet, it makes you wonder why other restaurants don’t also up their game.
Owners Therry and Omar are welcoming and attentive, the menu is varied, amazingly Coeliac-friendly and economical, while portions are generous and presented with creative flair. Oh, and you can even take your dog. Not to mention their ‘give something back’ initiative, whereby you donate a nominal euro which provides a coffee or sandwich to a person in need. Cool, eh?
For the best gluten-free brunch in Barcelona, (and I’ve sampled a few Barcelona brunches in my time), Copasetic is unrivalled. The menu offers GF dishes ranging from crepes (sweet or savoury) and pancakes to hamburgers (meat or veggie). For something ultra-healthy, try their organic quinoa with Greek yoghurt, banana, blueberries, nuts and honey.
I took my Coeliac parents (I know, statistically incredible) to Copasetic for a full-on brunch recently, and my poor Dad almost wept with joy at the sight of his gluten-free crepe – it had only been 26 years since he’d last tasted one. Beer-loving Coeliacs don’t miss out, either – try the light, gluten-free organic Belgian beer to wash down your meal of champions.
Address: Carrer Diputació, n. 55 (left L’Eixample district).
Best gluten-free sandwiches: Conesa
Grabbing food on the go as a Coeliac is where it all starts to go horribly wrong. Fast food is an inherent homage to gluten: think sandwiches, wraps, bagels, crepes, hot dogs, pizza, pasta or cous cous salads. See the dilemma?
If it’s one of those days you really can’t face a full sit-down meal just for the sake of getting something to eat, head to one of the two Conesa sandwich bars in Barcelona. There’s one at the heart of the old town, in the Gothic quarter and another in the district of Sants, not far from Plaça d’Espanya.
The bread itself is certified as gluten-free by the Coeliac Association of Catalonia and is regularly tested by outside inspectors to make sure there’s no cross-contamination.
The choice of fillings is satisfyingly generous, too – for something typically Catalan, opt for the llom i pernil (pork loin and ham), or, when the calçots are in season, the botifarra de calçots (sweet onion sausage with Romesco sauce). Vegetarian versions include escalivat (roast peppers, aubergines and onion with blue cheese) or the suitably Spanish manchego cheese with tomatoes and fried peppers.
Address: in the Gothic quarter, at Llibreteria 1, just off Plaça Sant Jaume, and a second venue in Sants on Creu Coberta, no. 80.
Best gluten-free bakery: Baci D’Angelo Patisserie
Up and running for less than a year, Baci D’Angelo is the gluten-free bakery Barcelona was crying out for. I only wish they could clone themselves.
This pretty patisserie is located very close to the Clot metro stop, and produces homemade gluten-free everything – from bread (part or wholly baked, as you prefer), to crepes, muffins to full-blown birthday cakes. Most days you can simply drop by and they’ll have something gluten-free ready for you to take away, but to make sure you’re not disappointed, give them a call or order direct on their website – they also deliver.
For locals, Baci also offers regular roll-your-sleeves-up workshops, where Coeliac clients are walked through the basic techniques of gluten-free baking.
To give you an idea of quality, here’s a recent gluten-free birthday cake I ordered, just for the hell of it. God it was good.
Address: Carrer Valencia 656 (Clot district).
Best gluten-free pizza: Il Piccolo Focone
Finding gluten-free pizza is somewhat of a Holy Grail for Coeliacs. Oh, the streets of foreign cities I have trudged, in the vain attempt to track down a slice of bloody edible pizza that won’t poison me.
It’s a phenomenon that I’m hoping changes soon, but Italian restaurants in Barcelona don’t tend to hold a supply of gluten-free pasta for Coeliac clients, the way their Scottish Italian compatriots do. And, frustratingly, gluten-free pizza is even more elusive.
(Beware of the Telepizza adverts for gluten-free pizza, by the way. In reality, while everyone else gets to customise their topping and watch the base being rolled out before them, what Coeliac clients get is a frozen, ready-made pizza whose toppings can’t be customised and which resembles something only slightly less pliant than a brick. Oh, and which costs you a whopping 18-odd euros.)
Il Piccolo Focone is a welcome exception to the rule. Dishing up gluten-free pasta, pizza and desserts (even tiramisu), the owner has first-hand experience of the Coeliac condition, with close family members affected by it.
Inside, the place is cosy, down-to-earth, and the staff exceptionally sweet. Pizza!!!
Address: Carrer del Dos de Maig, 268 (Sant Martí district).
Best gluten-free tapas
Tapas can be tricky, if you’re restricted to a gluten-free diet. Spanish and Catalan food is glorious – the freshest seasonal ingredients, globally fêted chefs and abundance of products from mar to muntanya. But try being a Coeliac on the tapas trail and see how far you get.
Take the usual suspects, for example. Bombas (an ostentatious potato croquette), calamares (squid, usually battered in wheat flour), croquetas (deep-fried and wheat-battered mashed potato), empanadillas (wheat-based savoury pastry), pan con tomate (tomato-smeared baguette), pinchos or montaditos (slabs of bread adorned with a variety of tasty toppings). All of this is a no-go area for the gluten-free diner.
The good news is, not all tapas have to be deep-fried and rebozados (battered in wheat flour). Coeliac-safe options include my friend and yours, Spanish tortilla, wholesome grilled prawns (gambas a la plancha) or the Catalan cod and roast veg favourite, escalivada (esqueixada in Catalan). Other naturally wheat-free tapas to try are pulpo a la gallega (Galican-style octupus), boquerones en vinagre (anchovies marinated in vinegar), and the Spanish speciality, jamón serrano (Serrano ham).
I’ve yet to come across a tapas restaurant that serves up montaditos or pinchos on gluten-free bread (we can dream, right?), but in the meantime, some lip-smackingly good places to try are Lolita Tapería (Carrer Tamarit, 104, Sant Antoni district) and the little-known Poble Sec hangout of Bar Ramón (Carrer Blai, 30, Poble Sec district), whose papas arrugas (wrinkled potatoes from the Canary Islands) are beyond anything you’ve ever tasted on Earth.
Best gluten-free slap-up supper: La Lluna
Located down a dark alleyway in the old town’s Gothic quarter, just a couple of cobbles from the Ramblas, La Lluna is a classy joint worthy of a meal on a special occasion. The sense of old-world opulence makes it feel a bit like dining on the Titanic, minus the violins, but if you can get past that, the Coeliac diner is likely to leave a satisfied wee soul.
La Lluna is one of very few restaurants I’ve found in Barcelona that bother to mark which items on their menu are actually gluten-free, and the choice is varied (there’s also a decent vegetarian menu). Then there’s the sheer joy of being served warm gluten-free bread (albeit with a 1€ suppplement) with your meal. Considering it’s smack bang in the middle of Barcelona, the prices aren’t half bad either.
Address: Carrer Santa Anna, 20 (Gothic quarter).
Best gluten-free supermarkets: El Corte Inglés or Día
Mention to anyone in Barcelona that you’re Coeliac and nine times out of 10, you’ll hear “Oh, did you know Mercadona do a great gluten-free range?”
I’m not quite sure how Mercadona, a large Spanish supermarket chain, has managed to pull this off, but kudos to the Marketing team.
In reality, this is what the Coeliac client can expect (bottom row only, mind):
To be fair, there is the odd desultory GF frozen pizza scattered about the place, but essentially, that’s it.
Give it a miss and if you’re feeling flush, head to the Corte Inglés on Plaça de Catalunya, which stocks a brilliant variety of gluten-free products. A more economical option is the supermarket chain Día, which stocks a fairly good ‘free-from’ range as well, with all the store cupboard essentials.
Finally, I like Catalan organic food stores Veritas when it comes to gluten-free cakes, biscuits and sweet pastries. Again, it’s not the cheapest, but the pre-packaged baked items are fresh and lack the tell-tale crumbly consistency that seems to plague products sin gluten.
OK, I think I’ve used the word ‘gluten’ enough times for one lifetime. Feel free to leave a comment below if you need any specific advice on life without wheat in Barcelona, or of course if you know of any good places for Coeliacs. Cheers!