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Going against the grain: a guide to being gluten-free in Brussels
Many countries are taking a closer look at gluten, a protein found in certain grains, including wheat, barley and rye, ubiquitous in Western diets. In the US and the UK, the trend to eat less gluten has taken hold, with gluten-free or “GF” foods marked on every menu.
Belgium, like much of Europe, has been somewhat slower to join the charge.
Some people truly can’t eat gluten. About one percent of the world's population has celiac disease, which causes serious adverse reactions in the body after exposure to gluten. A slightly larger percentage have allergies to wheat alone. Both of these groups should avoid eating any wheat-based products altogether.
More common today - and the reason why “gluten-free” has become a movement - is a growing number of people being diagnosed as having “gluten sensitivities”. Being sensitive to gluten means that ingesting it can lead to digestive problems, fatigue and headaches.
Some people call this idea of sensitivities hokum, others claim it’s the road to good health. Regardless, more and more people are saying that they feel better when they eat less gluten and, little by little, Brussels is responding to a call for gluten alternatives.
The Belgian diet is a gluten-heavy one, filled with hearty breads, delectable pastries, and many other specialties from sauces to sausages that use wheat flour as thickening or bulking agents. (Not to mention wheat and barley based beers.)
Many typical Belgian foods are far from gluten-free. As far as sweets go, waffles, speculoos, most cakes and pastries are all off the table. However, you can often find GF versions of these foods at Brussels many bio shops and health food stores (find a map to such stores here). Also, chocolate, of course, is gluten-free.
While carbonade and vol au vent aren’t gluten free, some Belgian classics are. Moules frites, for instance, ordered marinière or au vin blanc, are not much more than mussels and fries. Careful with some of the more complex mussel sauces, though; they can contain flour, so it’s always best to ask. You also have chicons aux gratin and tomatoes stuffed with grey shrimp.
Of course, no gluten means being left out of an important part of Belgian culture: beer. But more and more gluten-free varieties are appearing on shelves and in cafés.
Green’s, brewed by Lochristi’s De Proef for a UK company, is not only gluten-free but completely allergen-free. Brewed using millet, sorghum, rice and buckwheat in place of wheat and barley, their lines rival any regular craft beer. Mongozo from The Netherlands also makes a refreshing beer that is organic, gluten-free and fair trade.
But the most common GF beer you’ll find in Belgium is Brunehaut, which, instead of using alternative grains to brew the beer, uses barley that has undergone a process of deglutenisation, making it safe for people with gluten allergies or sensitivities.
When people talk about gluten, one often pictures large bowls of pasta and pizza pie, which makes it surprising that there are quite a few Italian restaurants with gluten-free offerings in Brussels. A popular one is Il Veliero, just off Place Jourdan. They have an entire menu of gluten-free pastas and pizzas and are also amenable to making good Italian dishes dairy-free as well.
Near the Cemetery of Ixelles in the heart of the ULB region, Italia in Tavola has a nice back garden and good GF pizzas and pastas. Finally, Toscana 21 in the Sablon and its sister hole-in-the-wall near Parc Cinquantinaire Canto 21 both offer gluten-free pasta options along with some of Brussels best Italian food.
Beyond Italian, other restaurants are also taking pains to add gluten-free options to their menus. For lunch, the most reliable and easy to find is the chain Exki, which has locations all over the country. Also, Meme Café near Saint Gery lets you to make any of its lunch offerings gluten-free by requesting spelt bread or a gluten-free wrap.
Last but not least, the city’s vegetarian restaurants, while not gluten-free, are likely to provide some appropriate options. Dolma, for instance, offers an expansive buffet that always has plenty for non-gluten eaters to choose from. And while not vegetarian, restaurants focusing on organic and raw foods such as Soul, Yag and Tan will be particularly accommodating to gluten-free requests.