Monday, 12 January 2015

Gluten-free Austria: belly-busting good times and bewildering EU food labelling laws

I'm fresh from a week of steaming Alpine soups and giant sausages, all of them gluten-free.

But forgive me if I don't beat my strudel-swollen belly in glee. Austria is a fine place to dine if you have to lay off gluten. But in the wake of the new food labelling legislation, it's not all sugar-sprinkled, jam-crammed, chocolate-drizzled loveliness. (Though there was a bit of that.)

Austria's mighty fine free-from

Let's start with the good and the great. There is some fantastic catering for special diets in Austria.

The wintry playground of Obergurgl was a hell of a way to burn
off the donuts (that's right, donuts). Image © Anita Isalska 

This ski trip in high-altitude Obergurgl was booked as a package. It was a winter adventure in honour of Grande Madame Free-From, AKA my mother, who was celebrating a special birthday. (She's 21 again, would you believe.)

The Wheaty Eater and I usually stay away from package holidays that include meals. It's hard to judge at the point of booking whether a place can cater for gluten-free, plus you can't usually be assured you'll get value for what you pay. The prospect of paying the same price as Wheaty for evening meals, if the only gluten-free offering is salads? My thrifty heart declines.

But organising a trip for a big group ended up much simpler in package form, so we took the leap. It helped that we'd had some good experiences on previous travels in Austria: take a bow, Gasthof Torwirt in Radstadt, with your legendary gluten-free schnitzel.

Plenty of places in Obergurgl promoted their ability to cater for special diets. But the place we settled on, Hotel Olympia, blew expectations out of the water.
Let's see... Tyrolean apple soup with gfree roll, fish terrine, pork roast and
cream-topped plum sorbet at Hotel Olympia. Dribble. Image © Anita Isalska

Hotel Olympia had a triple dietary challenge. There was me, of course, eating free from gluten. But also present for the celebration of Grande Madame's birthday was a vegetarian brother (tricky, in pork-hungry Austria) and his girlfriend with the double-whammy of veggie and gluten-free requirements.

Yet Hotel Olympia juggled it all with aplomb. Fish terrines and trios of pork were whisked out sans gluten. Vegetarian and gluten-free options often looked just as good as the carnivorous counterparts, with potato croquettes crisped up with gfree crumbing, seared white asparagus, and Tyrolean apple soup among highlights of the double-requirement cuisine.

We were happy, and most importantly so was Grande Madame – being a proper matriarch, she likes to see everyone in the party well fed. Good times rolled, and after a week of multi-course meals, the whole family was rolling too.

New food labelling legislation: mixed results in Austria

Beyond the waist-widening wonders of our hotel, fortunes were mixed. I was occasionally delighted to see clear allergen labelling in Austria, thanks to the snappily named Food Information Regulations EU1169/2011.

Even casual piste-side cafes often marked up which allergens were in their dishes, leading me to an especially gut-busting currywurst and chips. Gluten-free, and instantly regrettable as I waddled back towards the ski lifts.

You're beautiful, but disgusting. Odi et amo, gluten-free currywurst.
Image © Anita Isalska
But in some places, allergen labelling was used to warn against everything on the menu. Everything. We gluten-freers often joke about baked potatoes being the only safe port of call in cafes, but I encountered eateries in Austria where they marked up their spuds with a gluten allergy warning.

What in carbo-heck were they doing to their potatoes? Or is the new legislation already being misinterpreted or misused?

Baked potatoes, now with added gluten?

Here's my take on the new allergy labelling legislation, entirely based on my EU travels since the rules kicked in: it's good news overall, but there is plenty of potential for new frustrations for gluten-free travellers.

Some cafes and restaurants are seizing the labelling challenge. They're rolling up their sleeves and committing to declaring a dish gluten-free on their menus, and maintaining it as such. Where this happens, coeliacs and gf-lifestylers rejoice and chow down.

But there's a flip side. Certain other restaurants and cafes I encountered in Austria were going so allergen-markup-crazy that they labelled everything from salads to baked potatoes with an "A" (on the allergen key placed around most Austrian eateries I saw, the "A" flagged gluten-containing cereals as ingredients in a dish). Luckily the one below, at a cafe in Sölden, was safe from such confusion.

My first instinct when I saw allegedly gluten-containing potatoes on a menu was that the cafe was covering itself legally, in case of cross-contamination risks. Maybe they just love to fondle a spud with floury hands before they serve it up. Or perhaps they're anxious about a stray breeze depositing a speck of wheat flour on a potato, and would rather not risk declaring it a gluten-free zone.

After all, who can blame them for feeling the fear. If you're an independent business owner, you're probably terrified of being held accountable for someone with an allergy or intolerance keeling over due to a misplaced crumb.

But that's not it. The legislation applies to intentional allergenic ingredients, not cross-contamination. This either means there's a slew of cafes in Austria that genuinely sprinkle flour on their potatoes (seriously, halt that behaviour already), or the legislation is being anxiously misinterpreted.

Food service industry and coeliacs: can't we just be friends?

For coeliacs like me, the idea of greater overall clarity in food labelling is worthy of ticker-tape waving, shirt-tearing jubilation. But it's irksome to see that in practise, it might cause some food providers to shy away altogether.

What I want is honest dialogue about the ingredients and preparation of my food, not to be held at arm's length by a petrified food service. I'm not preparing for a nuclear legal assault, I'm looking for a bite to eat.

Like other gluten-free gourmands, I'm watching with interest to see how the new legislation shapes up Europe-wide. But having seen mixed interpretations of the rules during my trip to Austria, this seasoned coeliac isn't surrendering her emergency food stash any time soon.