Stepping foot in Spain this June brought back a lot of memories. In 2010, only months after being diagnosed with celiac disease, I began my study abroad program in Madrid.
I had no idea what to expect as a celiac in Spain. Back in America, gluten-free products had just begun to arrive on grocery store shelves. My gut had only started healing, and I still struggled with adjusting to my gluten-free diet. Combined with the stress of leaving everything familiar behind, I had additional concerns: How will I communicate with my host family about my diet in Spanish?
I was lucky to have a wonderful host mother who understood how important it was that I not eat gluten. I never went hungry and she prepared every meal for me from scratch – always making sure it was gluten-free.
Would restaurants understand my needs?
Going out to eat in restaurants was challenging. I had to choose menu items that were naturally gluten-free, and there was little understanding of safe kitchen practices regarding cross-contact. Halfway through the semester, I discovered one of the hot chocolate drinks I enjoyed regularly at my school actually contained barley malt. The lack of knowledge surrounding celiac disease and the gluten-free diet was extremely frustrating.
Fast forward about 10 years and the gluten-free scene in Madrid is completely different!
I was overjoyed by the changes, improvements, and awareness of the gluten-free diet in Madrid. Gone were the concerns from my early celiac days, and instead, they were replaced with sincere understanding, community, and the chance to truly embrace the Spanish cuisine and culture.
Where would I find gluten-free food?
Many restaurants today have the “F.A.C.E.” blue sticker in their windows, on signs, or menus. It stands for Federación de Asociaciones de Celíacos de España – the Association of Celiacs of Spain. If you see this, it’s a sign that a particular restaurant has been deemed safe or good for those with celiac disease! Use the words “sin gluten” or “Yo soy celiaco/a” to communicate gluten-free or celiac in stores, restaurants, and hotels. A translated restaurant card with your dietary needs written in Spanish can serve as a useful tool for your travels if you do not speak the language.
Here are some of the most delicioso spots for gluten-free food in Madrid, Spain!
The Spanish eat a predominantly Mediterranean diet. While the regional foods may vary, they generally consume large amounts of olive oil, fish, and fresh vegetables, along with grains such as potatoes, rice. Common dishes throughout the country include paella, tortilla de patatas, and a variety of tapas (called pintxos in the Basque region). Red wine, olives, cured ham, and sheeps’s cheeses are also found on many menus. Coffee is enjoyed in small cups, and one of the most famous dessert items in Madrid is chocolate con churros (chocolate with churros). Finding these dishes as gluten-free during my first visit to Madrid was minimal. Today, you can find all of them around this bustling and cosmopolitan city!
There are multiple dedicated gluten-free facilities in Madrid, many of which are bakeries and cafes. Head to Sana Locura, LAIB, or Celicioso for pastries, sweets, cupcakes, and other treats to enjoy with a cafe con leche. The strawberry cupcake I tried at the Puerta del Sol location of Celicioso was divine, and the staff is super friendly. My husband and I went twice to Celicioso and were never disappointed!
One of the most exciting culinary moments during our time in Madrid was the chance to actually try Spanish churros. I spent my entire study abroad semester watching friends enjoy these delectable treats, but I never got to partake. Thanks to Maestro Churrero, I was able to enjoy gluten-free churros. Maestro Churrero offers churros are fried separately in their own fryer and served with a warm and thick chocolate sauce. A perfect mid-morning snack!
Spaniards typically enjoy a small breakfast. It’s best to hold out for lunch, the biggest meal of the day, which is eaten around 2 p.m. For delicious and filling lunch, visit El Arrozal for their paella valenciana. While the ingredients in paella like rice, chicken, vegetables, and spices are usually safe, the broth used to thicken the rice can contain gluten. El Arrozal specifically makes their paella’s gluten-free, and even bakes fresh bread from scratch to serve at your table. The fresh bread is served with an herb butter and tastes so good, you won’t believe it’s gluten-free!
Bread is a big component in Spanish meals, but you’ll be able to find gluten-free versions in many local places. Check the supermarkets of Mercadona, Lidl, Carrefour, and Dia for gluten-free products. El Corte Inglés, one of the most popular department stores in Madrid, has everything from clothing to housewear to food. They have an extensive selection of gluten-free products available, especially products from Schar. There are multiple locations of El Corte Inglés around the city.
After a siesta or sightseeing in the afternoon, it’s time for tapas. Spanish families typically eat much later in the evening, around 9 or 10 p.m., so it’s common to enjoy a small snack earlier in the evening. You can try out some of the local tapas bars for a glass of wine and plates of patatas bravas, or plates of jamon Serrano, maybe even some manchego cheese. The best tapas bars with safe options included Bar Mentrida, Taberna la Concha, and La Lina.
A favorite tapas dish for many is a plate of croquetas, which are deep fried and filled with cheese, meat, or other savorey items. It may seem like a no-go for gluten-free eaters, but the restaurant Solo de Croquetas is a must stop. It is a dedicated gluten-free facility serving up celiac safe versions of croquetas for everyone to enjoy.For a late dinner, visit the other dedicated gluten-free facilities in Madrid, such as As de Bastos or Kint. If you are vegetarian, visit Restaurante Vegetariano Aremesia Sol, for a facility that is not only 100 percent gluten-free but also vegetarian!
The nightlife in Madrid is not to be missed, and both restaurants and bars will stay open very late. After dinner, visit a flamenco bar. Flamenco bars offer a chance to enjoy a glass of wine while admiring the music and dance of flamenco. Visit Las Carbonaras, just off Plaza Mayor, for an excellent show and a drink.
Coming back to Madrid after all these years was like reuniting with an old friend. As I strolled through Puerta del Sol, marveled at the Spanish spoken around me, and remembered my time here, I did so with a new confidence. There are so many safe places to enjoy a gluten-free meal in this historic capital city. Madrid’s gluten-free scene has changed for the better, and I look forward to returning again soon!