As a language student, going on Erasmus was something I knew would be an integral part of my degree. Living in another country has many challenges; a new culture, new people and a new university system. However, for a student living with a dietary requirement, a whole other element is involved in deciding where you want to live for a year…
It’s important to note that a gluten-free diet is still something relatively new to me. I was diagnosed with coeliac disease just over two years ago. That means that the news that I could no longer have the traditional student luxury of a cheap bowl of instant noodles for dinner broke just before college
“…my past two years in Dublin have been spent hanging around the gluten-free section in supermarkets, convincing myself that spending a fiver on a packet of gluten-free chocolate digestives qualifies as self-care.”
As a result, my past two years in Dublin have been spent hanging around the gluten-free section in supermarkets, convincing myself that spending a fiver on a packet of gluten-free chocolate digestives qualifies as self-care. It has been a tricky world to navigate. But it is something that has forced me to cook things myself from scratch, and it has made me appreciate food a lot more.
To give Dublin a fair assessment, it’s not a bad city for gluten-free food. I do have options. They are just very limited. It also means that I complicate every lunch, dinner, and takeaway night that my friends plan. They are very polite about it but I know that a lot of the places in Dublin that do offer gluten-free options are a lot more expensive than normal — especially on a student budget. So, after two years of expensive groceries and my friends secretly resenting eating out with me in Dublin, the time came to study abroad. And where did I choose as my Erasmus destination? The land of pizza and pasta, naturally! Yes ok, ok, maybe not my smartest decision… Or was it?
After living here for a few months, I can say wholeheartedly that Italy is the perfect place for a celiac to live! One of the main reasons is that their outlook on food and eating is wholly different to what it is back home. Here, in Ireland, we all enjoy a nice meal out from time to time, but I think, especially for students, the motto is often that “we eat to live, we don’t live to eat.”
“For Italians, their lives revolve around food. It is such an important part of the social culture when people come together to eat and to talk.”
For Italians, their lives revolve around food. It is such an important part of the social culture when people come together to eat and chat. They also take great pride in their food and their native recipes. That interaction from This Morning between Gino D’Acampo and Holly Willoughby always comes to mind when I’m talking to an Italian about food: ‘’If my grandmother had wheels, she would have been a bike’’ — Tell an Italian that you’re “putting your own spin” on their country’s recipe on pain of death (or on pain of very angry hand gestures).
As a result of this outlook on food, the Italians want everybody to be included in mealtimes and they want everyone to be able to try their food. Every menu I look at in a restaurant has an allergen index, so I don’t even have to ask the waiter what options they have. Most places offer gluten-free pizza and pasta (for a slightly higher charge) and oftentimes they have a risotto, which is naturally gluten-free. The city that I’m living in this year has not one, but two whole supermarkets dedicated solely to gluten-free food, and every other supermarket has a good range of items to choose from. They even have a gluten-free McDonald’s burger! It’s paradise.
In Ireland it’s thought that every 1 in 100 people have coeliac disease, however, the problem often goes undiagnosed and it can be mistaken for other bowel issues such as IBS. In fact, many people don’t discover they have coeliac disease until they are in their forties and fifties as routine testing is not carried out. In Italy, children are routinely screened for the disease once they begin to show symptoms. Italian law requires that gluten-free food is available in schools, hospitals and public places. You can even get a Master’s degree in Coeliac Studies. A 2019 report from the Italian Government noted that the diagnosis of coeliac disease increased by 57,899 from 2012 to 2017. Italians are simply so much more aware of the disease and therefore have better equipped themselves as a society to accommodate these people.
I found Rome to be a great spot for gluten-free food. Whilst I was surrounded by all of this beautiful art and history, I was tracking down the gluten-free bakeries that I had read about online. They definitely exceeded my expectations. One tip I have is to look out for the Associazione Italiana Celiachia (AIC) accredited restaurants which you can trust to cater for your gluten-free needs. So, if you are a celiac, I know it can be daunting but don’t let your dietary requirement hold you back from visiting one of the best countries in Europe for food. I promise you, you’ll love it.