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  • Writer's pictureAli

What it's like eating gluten-free in Madeira

So for all of you who didn't realise, my 'guess the pic' photo last week was of a Madeira guide book (from a very knowledgeable chap at Lonely Planet). That said, he didn't focus on dietary requirements, so here's the lowdown on what it's really like for coeliacs.

There's that trusty coeliac restaurant card!

Before you go:

I packed the essentials: suncream, sunhat and 3 laminated Portuguese gluten-free restaurant cards.

I know some people rely on their phones to show another language what they mean by gluten-free but I feel this has its dangers in two ways: (1) my phone might run out of battery and (2) the staff often want to show the phone to the chef, which means they take away my phone. Neither is reassuring.

Taking 3 laminated cards means I can lose one, get baby sick/sticky fingers/wine on it, and generally not despair if the waitress takes the card away.

The good news:

1. Most of the main meals are naturally gluten-free. Madeirans seem to favour local, simple cuisine. By this I mean fish or meat and potatoes, either boiled or grilled, and they don't tend to add floured sauces or batter. The good places cook the food beautifully, although my dishes always seemed to have a mountain of garlic on them (sorry, hubby!).

2. All the places serving chips cooked them in a separate fryer. In the UK this seems to be rare (unless you go to McDonald's). The reason they do it? Most of their food isn't deep fat-fried and therefore doesn't go in with the chips. The sauces are also reassuringly "sin gluten". Hoorah!

Look at those chips! Even the sauces are gluten-free!

3. One of their favourite puddings is naturally gluten-free: the passion fruit dessert made from condensed milk. It's similar to panna cotta and is delicious!

Madeiran passion fruit pudding
Tucking into that Cornetto - mmmm!

4. The icecream shops all seem to sell gluten-free Cornettos. I made sure I took advantage of these and had four within 48 hours. Just to be sure they were good, of course.

This gluten-free chocolate cone was everywhere!

5. Although I wasn't able to enjoy the famous honey cake they make, I was given an interesting dessert of hot chestnuts with sugarcane syrup sauce. I wouldn't dash over to have it again but it was lovely to try.

The bad news:

1. There aren't a lot of gluten-free snacks readily available in the shops. At least, not the same type of healthy snacks I'd expect in the UK. You can find crisps and chocolate (like Lays and Toblerone) and specialist crackers (like Schar) but I didn't see a range of snack bars like Nak'd or Eat Natural (or their equivalent). For vegans (or those who need egg- and/or dairy-free) this could prove annoying.

2. There didn't seem to be a lot of places selling fresh gluten-free alternatives to food that usually contains gluten. Since returning, I've googled whether you can get gluten-free alternatives and it is possible, but it didn't seem to be the norm.

3. If you want a coffee - and who doesn't when they're enjoying a European holiday (or as close to Europe as one might get) - you'll have to put up with UHT milk. Madeira's so small there's very little chance of importing a dairy product with a short shelf life. Cheese is available, though.

All in all, I'd say it was easy to eat gluten-free. Not once was I glutened. If I went again (and I'm definitely planning to - the place is amazing!) I'd take lots of little snacks with me and seek out Belmond Reid's Palace - the place that boasts a gluten-free afternoon tea (or so I'm told - it may just be gluten-free options while everyone else gets to tuck into the good stuff*).

* If you've been to Madeira and you reckon there are a lot more gluten-free places to enjoy, please let me know below!

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