Gluten-Free In France: Stepping Out Of The Shadows, Heading Upmarket
For those in the haute cuisine world of French food, a no-gluten diet (whether by choice or health requirements) has long been a virtual source of shame. But bakers, chefs and pastry makers are now taking the diet to whole new levels of taste and variety.
PARIS — The "gluten-free" aren’t hiding anymore.
Whether they avoid the grain protein by choice or by obligation — due to taste, allergies or an intolerance — many stick to a diet seen by the outside world as a little bit funny, or perhaps simply just bland.
For some, being gluten-free even came with some amount of self-consciousness: about being that person, the one who announced at the beginning of dinner that they wouldn’t be eating that bread, or that pasta, or that pastry — or about coming across as precious and complicated, or worse, as a killjoy for everyone else’s gustatory pleasure.
For those who feel that it is hard to speak up, it's often easier just to keep the gluten intolerance to themselves and eat only the vegetables at meals, abstaining from bread and dessert to avoid stomach cramps.
But the times, they are a-changin'. Living without gluten used to feel punitive; now it feels more like an option. The number of gluten-free products has exploded, in both quantity and quality, and there’s never been a better time to join the "no-glu" camp.
In supermarkets, bakeries and restaurants, there are increasingly varied alternatives to gluten. And demand is just as high — €1 billion per year in sales in France alone, according to Nielsen. The research consultancy found that 3% of French households were gluten-free in 2019. Now, that number is 4.4%, which is twice as high as the number of “strictly vegetarian” households.
According to market research firm Kantar, the frequency and number of purchases, as well as the average amount spent for gluten-free products, continues to increase — up 6% compared with 2019.
In this context, it’s hardly surprising that gluten-free alternatives are becoming increasingly chic.
Before, gluten-free meant less tasty. But now, bakeries have worked on different ways to produce bread that can still seduce those with refined palettes. As a sign of the times, at the upscale Bon Marché department store in Paris, the food section contains more and more gluten-free products.
"There’s a growing wave," says Ferréol de Bony, director of purchasing for the posh Left Bank department store. "Like with everything, you have to follow the rule of three B's: bon, beau, bio (high quality, aesthetically pleasing and organic)," she says. "Everything begins with taste, then packaging, and if possible, a touch of good storytelling."
Michelin stars for gluten-free
If the no-gluten crowd is looking for a symbol that merges quality with originality, they’ve found it in Nadia Sammut, who turned the restaurant l'Auberge la Fenière into the first Michelin-starred restaurant where the cuisine is gluten-free and lactose-free.
L’Auberge la Fenière is a family restaurant founded by Sammut's grandmother Claudette and then taken over by her parents, Reine and Guy. Over its 50 years in operation, it became known as one of the great restaurants of southern France.
Sammut never imagined that she would also join the family business. Born in 1980, she worked at perfume manufacturer Guerlain before running a gastronomy-focused tourism agency. She felt no intense culinary calling, although cooking ran deep in her family.
But in 2009, everything shifted. As a child, Sammut had always had a hard time digesting milk and bread. Finally, in 2009 she discovered gluten was acting like a time bomb, slowly destroying her body from the inside.
I had to rethink everything.
"I found myself completely bedridden, incapable of walking, hospitalized for two years, and that's when I understood that food — my link with my family — was what was cutting off my life," she says.
Some would have resigned themselves to their new fate, or become deeply depressed. Deciding that laughter was the best medicine, Sammut instead decided to change her life and turn her weakness into her greatest strength.
"'Gluten-free,' as a turn of phrase, excludes," she says. "I decided that I had to rethink everything and open a restaurant for people with severe food allergies like me — but do it in a way that proves that it's possible to offer an incredible gastronomic experience. Food is a chance to be together with other people, but my allergies were keeping me separated from them, and I didn't want that to go on."
Like her mother Reine, Sammut is self-taught, dreaming up and testing her own recipes. Between 2015 and 2018, she worked alongside her mother before taking over the restaurant with her partner Ernest, overseeing what she calls a "free" kitchen.
In her greenery-surrounded restaurant, where she grows her own vegetables, there is no menu. You go to l'Auberge la Fenière as a passenger on a culinary journey, borne along on chestnut chips with fennel seed, shaved turnips with fleur d’oranger vinaigrette, chickpea tory, clay-baked asparagus, sea bream marinated in shio koji followed by goat cheese ice cream or caramel-glazed chickpeas for dessert.
And for breakfast, a choice between savory and sweet, with pancakes made from chickpea or chestnut flour. Everything is light, served in small doses, so the diner can take their time to truly taste and appreciate.
"I want to leave the boundaries of normal cuisine — the kind that is impoverishing our soil and our palettes," Sammut says. She's now planning to construct a new building at the edge of the restaurant’s own farmland, which was previously home to grapevines and an equestrian center.
Her objective: a 33-room hotel and a brand new gastronomic restaurant in a superb wooden space. "I want to speak to everyone, not just those who can't eat gluten," she says.
More than a chef or hotel manager, Nadia sees herself as a precursor to a broader movement. She consults for people in the food business who are looking for ways to push their practices further, and has also financed a mill in the south of France that produces flour from vegetables. And because not everyone can travel all the way to l'Auberge la Fenière, she also sells cookies under the brand Kom & Sal.
Clémentine Olivier making gluten-free bread and pastries.
Clémentine Oliver pastry seduction
The "gluten-free" road is necessary for some, but potholed nonetheless. Making good gluten-free food that isn't wildly expensive, while also bypassing the most common types of flour and convincing restaurants to lean in to gluten-free bread and pastries — it’s not easy.
At the heart of Paris’s 19th arrondissement, Clémentine Oliver is on a mission. She had to change her dietary regime for her own health, and now she wants to help those who suffer from similar allergies to eat everything found in the best French boulangeries.
Like Nadia Sammut, Oliver comes from a long line of chefs. The grand-daughter of Raymond Oliver, triple-starred former chef of the Grand Véfour, and the daughter of Michel Oliver, considered to be the inventor of bistronomie and the author of 30 recipe books that have sold millions of copies, Oliver initially took a different path and spent 15 years as a psychologist at Paris’s prestigious Pitié-Salpetrière hospital.
But in 2010, she was diagnosed with celiac disease, learning that gluten was at the root of the physical illness she was experiencing.
"I changed my eating habits, and that saved me," she says. “But I was very unhappy. I drooled every time I saw others sharing lemon cakes, or soufflés without me."
Moonlighting amateur to high-end pâtissiere
She dove deep into every gluten-free cookbook she could find, but, unsatisfied, turned to her father for cooking lessons. For the next two years, she kept up her career as a psychologist all while spending hours in the kitchen with her father before and after work.
"I would get up at 5:00 am to try out things in the kitchen, but I didn't say anything about it to my colleagues," Clémentine remembers.
Her first cookbook, Je cuisine sans gluten et je me régale, was an immediate hit when it was published in 2012. She got certified as a chef and pastry chef two years later, then quit her hospital job and began baking gluten-free bread and pastries in her studio apartment with the goal of supplying high-end restaurants.
It’s impossible for a gluten lover to tell the difference.
Helped along by her father and her own talent, she soon created a ficelle for Guy Savoy and a fougasse for Alan Passard, then began delivering to chic hotels like the Ritz and Crillon in Paris, as well as Monaco’s Louis XV and Eden Roc in Cap d’Antibes.
Bread, cakes, cannelés, cookies — Clémentine Oliver’s secret is that what comes out of her oven is gourmet and delicious. It’s impossible for a gluten lover to tell the difference between a “real” baguette and her gluten-free variation, with its soft interior and crackly crust.
But the COVID-19 pandemic was particularly tough on business, and despite working six days a week and sending samples to France’s finest hotels and restaurants, it's been difficult for Oliver to scale up without a significant initial investment. Instead, she's winning clients over one by one, by selling directly to individual consumers via her website.
Adriano Farano, bread of the future with ancient grains
France didn't really need yet another baker — certainly not one who had never baked a baguette before. But it would have taken more than that to discourage Adriano Farano from diving into breadmaking in 2020, just as France went into its first lockdown.
An Italian who studied at Sciences Po in Paris, Adriano, left for California to continue his studies and launch a media startup, but left Silicon Valley in 2019, hearing the call of the baguette. "I wanted to go back to France and start a bakery," he says. "My wife told me I was crazy."
Two years later, the result is excellent. Because restaurants had just shut their doors as the first loaves were coming out of Farano's oven, his first customers were people passing by his workshop in Paris’s 20th arrondissement.
Success was immediate, and despite an initial plan to sell to restaurants, Farano built a business strategy around distributing bread through storefronts without ovens. Today, he has five points of sale in high-pedestrian areas around Paris, allowing him to sell directly to consumers and keep startup costs low. To increase his customer base, he also sells bread through organic Biocoop grocery stores, which makes up about a third of his total sales. An entrepreneur at heart, he also imagines selling bread by subscription.
In line with his atypical profile for a baker, Farano made two defining choices: first, he hasn’t gone all-in on gluten-free, but rather uses an ancient type of wheat from Sicily that is much easier to digest when fermented with all-natural yeast. As a result, most people who are allergic to gluten can eat his products.
Second, he made his business a startup. "I’m the first boulanger in France to have the status, innovative early-stage startup," he says. He innovates, invests in R&D, and, as he explains in the entrepreneurship course he teaches at his alma mater Sciences Po, the business has a strong growth trajectory.
Farano says most bakeries use basic bread as a loss-leader to get customers to spend money on pastries and desserts, but he offers only a reduced line of bread and dough.
Farano returned to France after his time in California with a desire to engage socially and gustatorily with the home of the baguette. He points a finger at the excesses of industrial agriculture — which he says has created mutant wheat — and at an agrifood industry drowning in salt and sugar.
"Bread, pasta, pizza: it's a third of what we eat. We have to take it back," he says. For Farano, the target isn't just gluten-free bread — it's the bread of the future.