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Gluten-free Traveller: Viva Italia!

So much more than pasta

When my husband-to-be and I told people that we were going to Italy for our honeymoon, everyone had the same reaction. “What! That’s the land of pasta and pizza. You have celiac. What are you going to eat?” I smiled and said, “you’ll see.”

For months, I’d been doing research. On chat boards and blogs, dozens of people wrote about safe, spectacular meals in Milan and in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna.

In Italy, food is a way of life. Eating produce in season, using local products, everything organic – these are recent trends in North America. But in Italia, generations have been making the same red sauce from the recipe passed down from mother to daughter.

And so, with the giddy expectations of a honeymoon after a joyful wedding, Danny and I boarded a plane to Rome. Just in case, I packed gluten-free energy bars and trail mix. But I never touched them.

In Gubbio – a tiny town nestled against a mountain in the region of Umbria – we ate a three-hour lunch in a 12th century restaurant. When the waiter brought an amuse bouche of roasted barley, I demurred. A moment later, a small martini glass appeared before me, filled with fresh buffalo mozzarella, red bites of tomato, and a flourish of green olive oil. It was unlike anything I have ever tasted.

In Norcia, also in Umbria, at the town’s best restaurant, I asked a waitress about eating safely. In broken English and gestures, she told me that two celiac chefs worked there. When the waiter set down a sizzling platter of black-truffle risotto, I couldn’t speak.

Officially, one in 250 people in Italy has celiac disease, but anecdotally, the incidence is higher. Over the past decade, the country has responded; every child is routinely screened for the disease. I was told that adult celiacs are given two paid days off a month, in order to buy and prepare their food. Drugstores stock shelves of gluten-free chocolate croissants, almond biscotti and focaccia.

The last day of our trip was in Rome, and Danny and I went for our final cup of gelato. Eating gelato proved easy, because every gelateria offered cups along with cones. As I was savouring my last bite, my gaze fell upon a box at the counter. It’s label read, “Il cono per tutti.” A cone for everyone. It was a gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free cone. I ordered one more, in a cone. How could I resist?

In the culture that loves its food, eating gluten-free is graciously easy. Besides pizza and pasta, food in Italy also means grilled sardines, chickpea crepes, chewy salumi (cured meats), and forest chicken roasted in myrtle and wild thyme. In 10 delicious days of eating through Italy with my darling husband, I never once grew sick. I have never eaten so well in my life.

Next issue: A bumpy trip back

For Shauna’s Italian-inspired “White Beans in Red Pepper Sauce” – see Allergic Living magazine’s Wnter 2008 issue. To order that issue or to subscribe, click here.

Shauna James Ahern’s first book,
Gluten-Free Girl, published by John Wiley & Sons, is now available.

Shauna James Ahern’s and Daniel Ahern’s new cookbook is Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, published by John Wiley & Sons. Their blog is

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