Countries such as France, Italy, and England are justifiably famous for their cheeses and other dairy products. Imagine England without clotted cream, France without Camembert, or Italy without Parmigiano-Reggiano. If you have a dairy intolerance, you have to avoid all these foods and many more. Even something as simple as steamed milk in your morning cappuccino can ruin your day.
Here are my top tips for enjoying dining in European countries while avoiding foods that I can’t eat without intestinal consequences.
Lactose or milk protein intolerance can complicate your life even at home. Avoiding milk, cream, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and many other delicious foods is challenging. On the bright side, intolerant individuals usually can tolerate small quantities of dairy products, especially if consumed gradually over the course of a day rather than all in one meal.
For myself, I don’t have problems eating a sauce that has been finished with butter, or baked goods that contain some milk or yogurt. A cheese sandwich or a tub of nonfat yogurt, on the other hand, will cause very unpleasant digestive distress. I need to be careful, but not paranoid.
It is critical to understand that these intolerances are not allergies. A true dairy allergy can mean a life-threatening reaction to even small amounts of dairy, and is way beyond the scope of an article like this one.
Do your homework before you go
Study up on the regional cuisine of your destination. If you already know which dishes are normally dairy-free, you can choose an appropriate restaurant and meal based on the menu posted outside. For example, in classic French cooking “Sauce Mornay” contains milk and cheese. “Boeuf Bourguignon,” on the other hand, is a wine-based sauce. While the latter may contain a little butter, it would be the safer choice for those with a dairy intolerance.
Spend some time learning the language basics of the country you plan to visit – pay particular attention to food vocabulary. Get a small dictionary or language app for your phone so you can check a word on a menu. Many travel guidebooks have information about foods, and you may even find special food guides for European cuisines. I have books on Italian and French foods, and have found both tremendously helpful in choosing meals.
Make it yourself
Try seeking accommodation that has at least basic kitchen facilities. If you prepare your own breakfast and snacks, those are at least a few meals you don’t have to worry about. I’ve used self-catering accommodations in London, Paris, and Rome, and really enjoyed shopping for local ingredients to do a bit of cooking. In Rome I found soy milk, while in Paris I bought coconut milk for coffee and cereal. Both of these are available in England, but I was also able to find almond milk, which is what I prefer at home.
If you don’t have access to a kitchen or don’t want to cook, stop at a local market to pick up snacks or fixings for a dairy-free picnic.
Do what you need to do
- Ask a server for help in ordering if you’re not sure which dishes contain cheese or a cream-based sauce. Choose accordingly. You don’t need to be “that customer” who tries to demand recipes be reworked to suit.
- Learn to drink your coffee black. In Rome, I took to adding sugar to my espresso, which I never do at home.
- Deconstruct your food if you need to. At the café inside the Palace of Versailles, I couldn’t find anything dairy-free for lunch. I ended up with a ham and cheese sandwich, and just discarded the cheese. I did get some curious looks from fellow diners, but I didn’t let that stop me.
When you return from your vacation, share your experiences and tips for dairy-free travel with the rest of us! For dairy-free travelers to England, I would like to recommend the “Caffè Nero” chain of coffee houses. At Caffè Nero you can order coffee drinks with soy milk. I was always able to find cheese-free sandwiches there too, something which can be tricky in England. Caffè Nero will even make oatmeal with soy milk, which makes it a great stop for a dairy-free breakfast.
Related content by this contributor
Visiting Europe? Rent an Apartment in Your Destination City
Turn Your Smartphone into a Travel Guide with the Right Apps
Best Smartphone Apps for Getting Around in a Foreign Language
Lactose Intolerance. Pub Med Health, National Library of Medicine.