It's official: "France" and "gluten free" are a love match! Explore Provence and Lyon without missing a tasty beat while eating gluten free. Unwind the flaky layers of a buttery croissant and surprise your tastebuds, then open wide as you toss in a few petites chouquettes — all gluten-free wonders.
Gluten free is trending in France as it's become popular among those who do not have celiac disease, making delicious gluten-free options more commonplace for those without a choice, including 100% gluten-free establishments. "Sans gluten" (pronounced "sahn gluten") is the French term to memorize, locate on menus, and tell your server.
Our gluten-free journey begins in agriculturally rich Provence, the southeastern-most province of France, and culminates a short distance north in Lyon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After flying into Marseille, relax as a passenger on France's convenient rail system, or rent yourself a fun little car and hit the road. Our initial stops owe their charm to history, where, once upon a time, medieval walls protected a city from its enemies.
Peasants living inside the fortress worked the land with permission from the medieval knight, the sole owner. There would have been a miller to grind the wheat, a stonemason to cut the rock for construction, a carpenter, tailor, blacksmith, falconer, armorer and, the one I love best, baker.
Centuries later, the Provençal walls of Aix-en-Provence and Avignon (55 miles apart) beckon the curious traveler to what's hidden inside today. Entering through one of the arched gateways, watchtowers high above their heads, visitors are welcomed onto the cobblestone streets. The city's alive with sounds of ancient and modern music, shops displaying period costumes or current fashion trends, and jewelry boutiques with gemstones the colors of the sunset and sea.
Provence indulges the senses travelers enjoy most with the aromas and flavors of world cuisines. Peppery basil, woodsy rosemary, earthy Indian spices, fresh-picked strawberries and baking bread all compete to turn heads in their direction while visitors meander the maze of medieval streets. Which, of course, is the best way to experience the cities.
Aix-en-Provence, nicknamed "The City of a Thousand Fountains," was built over hot springs. It's also home to one of the most expansive and bustling markets I've experienced and the magnificent Cathedrale St. Sauveur.
Fanny's Bistro is a stunning pop of red on a secluded street, at 11 rue Chastel. Fanny Jehanno's warm and caring personality overflows into the preparation of her food while she looks after your gluten-free needs. She sources meat and fresh produce locally. Portions are generous and satisfying, but you must leave room for Le Délice de Fanny, her great-grandmother's fondant au chocolat recipe, learned through many treasured hours baking by her side.
Nearby, Green Bowl (greenbowl.fr) serves up local market-fresh ingredients and a variety of gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian options, including homemade gluten-free chocolate chip cookies and a creatively delicious, creamy coconut milk and matcha green tea panna cotta. You'll find this corner gem in a bustling part of town at 3 rue Emeric David.
Are you game for something unexpected? If so, make a reservation, not because it's a fancy or expensive restaurant, but because it's tiny. Aux Petits Oignons (aux-petits-oignons.business.site) seats about 18 people, outside dining only, and fills up fast. It serves specialty gluten-free hot dogs, including a vegan option, on homemade gluten-free buns and the most perfectly crispy french fries, dressed with bleu cheese if you like.
The hot dogs come loaded with your choice of sautéed onions and mushrooms, amazing cheeses, special sauces and more. Wine and artisan beer are available, too. Homemade gluten-free desserts include dôme au chocolat and a seasonal favorite during my visit, mango cheesecake (also vegan). In the case of Aux Petits Oignons, located at 2 rue Peyresc, this family-run and extremely friendly gourmet hot dog and fries sidewalk hotspot is just the right size. Text your reservation request for lunch or dinner to +33 06.18.19.00.96; you'll receive a confirmation text back.
Avignon is known for one of the most famous Roman aqueducts, the Pont du Gard. And the world's largest medieval Gothic structure, comprising 10 towers, resides in the city center, the grand Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes).
The palace houses tapestries and frescoes, and its square is a stage for summer entertainment during the Festival d'Avignon. During the three-week-long festival, founded in 1947 and held each July, the entire city turns into a stage for plays and street performers. But there's no acting when it comes to eating well and gluten free in Avignon.
Interest in health runs deep in the Beaupere family. Sébastien Beaupere, owner of Maison Violette in Avignon, recalls being introduced to the gluten-free concept 25 years ago. He received lessons on digestion and health while attending sports school, and his rugby team ate gluten free. This practice fell right in line with the beliefs of his veterinarian parents, who always said, "Grains are the body's fuel. It's important to respect one's body; therefore, the quality of the fuel put in it is important."
After operating a restaurant at the northern edge of the Pyrenees mountains in Pau, France (the birthplace of King Henry IV), Beaupere became a chef consultant in Avignon. The desire to own a place of his own again stirred within his heart, leading Beaupere to the vibrant and gritty seaport city of Marseille. There, he added a bakery to his restaurant as customer requests to purchase his bread poured in.
Beaupere moved his family to Avignon in 2006, establishing Le Carré de Blé (The Wheat Square) in the location of Avignon's oldest bakery, dating to the late 17th century. In 2012, he sold Le Carré de Blé and opened Maison Violette the next year — the first of three locations in Avignon.
First to catch your eye is the heart-shaped bread suspended in the shop windows. Next, the medieval stone walls and dark wood-planked ceilings draw you in, while the smiles and cheerful greetings of the bakery staff bid you stay. And you'll be glad you did!
While the menu was always 100% organic, the bakery added gluten-free items to its daily offerings in 2014. Maison Violette grinds its flours in a dedicated gluten-free facility to prevent cross-contamination from other grains. Product development follows Beaupere's imagination of what can be milled and blended to create traditional textures and flavors while remaining gluten-free.
Pain au chocolat is just one masterful example of Beaupere's talent and dedication to excellence in creating gluten-free baked goods. His formula consists of chestnut, lupin, buckwheat, rice, soy and lentil flours to create the flaky, crispy exterior and paper-thin layers classic recipes are known for, while the luxurious dark chocolate interior perfectly oozes with each bite. Oat, millet and chestnut flours are part of the secret to Maison Violette's light-as-air, delicate croissants.
Unexpected ingredients in Beaupere's bread have a purpose: Coal and anise, which aid digestion, and antioxidant-rich curcumin paired with iron-rich raisins. His bread is both nourishing and delicious.
Beaupere is currently developing a new flour made from eggplant. Crazy, right? Yet my bet's on Beaupere. There wasn't a pastry or bread I tasted that even whispered "gluten free" to me. All I wished for was to be hungry again, and soon! Thankfully, you can enjoy breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack at any of the Maison Violette boulangeries within the walls of Avignon.
Carrying on the family's love of health are Beaupere's wife, Agathe, a dietician; their son, Victor, a chiropractor; and their daughter, Violette, a lawyer. What might a lawyer have to do with health? This one is the inspiration for the bakeries' name, a respected and trusted brand in the region supplying more than 30 restaurants with private-label baked goods.
The enterprise has further expanded with a new production facility, which opened in July 2019. "There's nothing quite like working in a purposefully designed space," Beaupere says. "It's a real pleasure." It includes an area for teaching workshops for customers who have experienced the quality gluten-free baked goods and want to try their hand at home. I recommend reserving a seat in advance when planning a visit to Avignon - and come hungry!
Ready to roll to our next adventure? Lyon, a two-and-a-half-hour drive north, has a story to tell about another exceptional baker.
Oh, what one might do for the love of a lemon meringue tart.
What began as an innocent love of these petite, cloud-topped sundrops culminated in unexpected dreams come true for Grégoire Vandenesch. Five years ago, at age 19, while a university student, Vandenesch discovered he was both gluten and lactose intolerant. This revelation rerouted the GPS of his life.
As a cash-strapped student living in tight quarters who had never, ever baked anything before, Vandenesch rose to the challenge of taking care of his health. His first decision — replicate his beloved lemon meringue tart as simply and budget-friendly as possible.
Friends wondered about Vandenesch eating so strangely and thought he was a bit crazy for starting to bake. It wasn't long before he won his friends over with his flavorful food. Not everything Vandenesch made was a home run, yet his friends were always eager to give new recipes a try. This encouragement turned out to be the reassurance Vandenesch needed, as balancing studies and cooking could become overwhelming at times.
Turning his kitchen into a food lab, Vandenesch spent weekends adapting classic cake, cookie, and tart recipes into gluten-free treats. The more success he had, the less stressful changing his diet became. "From these new food boundaries," explains Vandenesch, "was born a passion for the pastry, for the taste, for the colors and the pleasure of having fun discovering cakes I liked."
Vandenesch applied his photography skills to food and loved it. He found other people with celiac after posting images of his pastries on social media, and they were soon asking for his recipes. Marrying his love of food photography and baking "was the turning point in my life," Vandenesch declares.
Launched in 2014, Vandenesch's blog (delicesansgluten.com) gradually gained momentum. He posted his recipes, and followers gave great feedback. Vandenesch's goal to keep gluten-free baking as low-cost as possible hit a chord with his readers. He blends mainly rice and almond flours and potato starch; his recipes are also dairy free and often egg free.
Two dreams took form in Vandenesch's mind and heart: One, open a 100% gluten-free bake shop, and, two, write a cookbook.
It made sense to produce the cookbook first. Vandenesch stepped into the shoes of an author, editor, graphic designer and publisher. And he manages all shipments, even orders placed on Amazon. "It's more than a collection of recipes," explains Vandenesch. "Délice Sans Gluten is an invitation from fruits, spices and chocolate into an adventure that is gluten-free pastry."
Taking little time to celebrate his publishing achievement, Vandenesch was soon researching the ins and outs of opening a patisserie in his hometown of Lyon. Wearing the hats of contractor, renovator, interior designer and employer, Vandenesch cut the ribbon on his bake shop, Chez Grégoire (chezgregoirepatisserie.fr), in just under one year.
The tall glass storefront allows full view of the L-shaped pastry case bursting with the colors found in raspberry, lemon, blueberry, chocolate and coconut cream. The interior is bright, airy and cheerful, evoking the same sensations as the pastries.
Chez Grégoire is on a tranquil side street at 6 rue Constantine near Place des Terreaux, Lyon. Place des Terreaux is the spirited district across the river from Old Town Lyon. It is an eclectic mix of old and new, where medieval architecture resides proudly among newcomers such as McDonald's, whose patrons fill an expansive sidewalk cafe, enjoying friends and W-Fi.
A stroll along the river affords views of La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière, sitting high up on the hill.
Vandenesch has designed a comfortable and modern space while respecting the medieval heritage of Lyon. It's the perfect spot to rest your cobblestone-weary feet while refreshing your spirit with a lemon meringue tart (of course!). I think you'll need a chocolate-pear pastry to go with it, and a couple of shortbread cookies are just the thing for dipping in your café.
Relax and stay awhile. And before resuming sightseeing, pick up a copy of Délice Sans Gluten. It doesn't matter that it's written in French. The images will transport you right back to Chez Grégoire, Place des Terreaux, Lyon, and lemon meringue tarts.