Introduction to Gluten-Free, Vegetarian Travel in Morocco

Essaouira, © Jasmine Irving
Essaouira, © Jasmine Irving
Souks in Fez
Souks in Fez

All kinds of rich smells find their way into each nostril, sticking to the hairs on their way in. There are the spices which catch in your throat when they’re being ground, the sweetness of incense smoke curling around hanging rugs and eventually resting in the stitching. Then there’s the stench of raw meat combined with dirty water stagnant in the heat. Or the pungent smell of caged chickens and their faeces which make my nose wrinkle and lips twist. Soon this is covered up with fresh bread, the aroma of loose herbs and crepes frying in hot oil. I remember those crepes from the last time I was here, dressed in honey but neatly wrapped up; they made the perfect snack for resting the feet after hours of getting lost in the souks. So what would I eat this time round when most foods available make my body attack itself?

Well, there are lots of ways around it so travelling as a coeliac, although more complicated, needn’t put you off – there are still plenty of adventures to be had. In summer 2012 I spent a month exploring Morocco, and there were ups and downs as I discovered the dos and don’ts of gluten free travel. In Fez, there were many little street stalls throughout the Medina, my friends all got kebab sandwiches dripping in sauce and then I noticed a bowl full of plain boiled rice and another full of boiled eggs. So, I asked for a plate of rice with an egg and it was the equivalent of 30p – bargain. It helps being able to speak French in Morocco. Another very helpful way to get round food issues, which I hadn’t anticipated, was we made friends with the locals in every place we visited; the guys I was with were musicians so the music was a good way to get talking to people. Our new friends talked to people I was getting food from in Arabic to inquire about gluten which worked much better than my bits and pieces of French.

The main point about gluten free travel is to stay in places where you have access to a kitchen then you can’t go wrong. This way you are in control of your own eating, and can easily buy fresh fruit and vegetables from the local markets to cook up anything you like in the safety of your own kitchen! In Morocco, I found the best things for breakfast was yoghurt and fruit, then for lunch something simple and light such as salad and nuts with omelette, dinner would be a big vegetable tagine – a Moroccan dish which is simply delicious. The people I was travelling with were amazing at accommodating my needs, especially as not only am I gluten free but also a vegetarian which makes things even more complicated! We would make a big tagine together and everyone would let me take out my portion first before they all dug into the shared tagine pot with bread.

We didn’t have a plan; we just went where it seemed natural to go. In Essaouira, there was lots of fish to eat and I even tried an octopus tagine (I should really start calling myself a pescetarian considering Octopus is not vegetarian…). Marrakech, there are plenty of amazing food stalls in the main square and a Moroccan friend we had made who joined our travels, talked to the stall holders for me to make sure I could get something to eat. Street prices are so cheap. Of course, there are travel cards you can get online which explain coeliac disease in different languages, so have a look on coeliac UKs website or google “gluten free travel cards” if your not from the UK and download them to show to anyone you will be getting food from. There’ll be more detailed blog posts about the different places we visited in Morocco but this is just an Intro.

So, my Main tips for your gluten free back pack are :

-Substantial emergency snacks, i.e gluten free cereal bars
-A plastic bowl and spoon (this was very useful when we were camping and I needed to take out my portion of the dinner before everyone else contaminated it with bread)
-Pro-biotics, these boost your immune system which is a great extra protection when travelling and will help your tummy sort itself out if you do pick up anything like Diarrhoea
-Rehydration sachets, again for potential Diarrhoea, that goes for people who aren’t gluten free too!
-Always carry water
-A bag of gluten free muesli for emergency breakfasts when there’s nothing else
-Pick up any packaged gluten free snacks along your travels and keep them on you

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Chefchaouen
Chefchaouen
Fez
Fez

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Gluten-ed in Marrackech

© Jasmine Irving
© Jasmine Irving

The day I accidentally ate gluten was the day things went pretty wrong. It was at Earth vegetarian cafe in Marrakech and I think it was kind of my fault. This time it was just me and one other friend, the others were someone else so I showed my gluten free travel card and the waiter said that was no problem. However when my dinner came out it had a sauce on it which my gut feeling told me was soy sauce, having not eaten for a day after lots of walking around, I just tried to eat around it as I was so hungry and lacked the confidence to ask for a new plate. Also I had never been glutened since diagnosis so I was under the very false impression that just this one time would maybe be okay. Which is stupid and as I now know, being assertive is the most important thing when eating at restaurants as a coeliac.

The restaurant was empty apart from us, despite it being a fantastic vegetarian place to eat out. After trying to eat around it then giving up, I told him it had soy sauce in it and he looked genuinely upset, said the cook must have forgot, apologised wholeheartedly and told me that of course I didn’t have to pay for my meal. This is why I would actually recommend this place to eat out in Marrakech – it was the only place I went that fully understood the gluten free thing even though that seems contradictory as they put soy sauce in my dinner! But had I pointed this out to them before trying to eat it anyway then it would have been fine. I was in such a strange mood from exhaustion, hunger and now from eating gluten that I just awkwardly apologised then left and burst into tears. That night I was sick and had the most awful diarrhoea I have ever experienced which lasted a week. A few days later I had a splitting headache, a fever, I fainted and slept none stop for a night and day, feeling full of fatigue for days complete with stomach cramps. I felt so ill and was in so much pain that I wondered what the point in me ever trying to travel was. I told myself I was just a burden to the rest of the group and that I shouldn’t have even come.

But this was just the gluten talking and I still had three weeks of exploring to do. After a few days of taking it easy, drinking lots of water and rehydration sachets, taking pro-biotics (which I brought with me from UK) and other tablets that I got from the local chemist (who were really helpful), and eating just plain boiled rice and bananas, I started to feel better. After that I didn’t once look back and had the most amazing time. The months, and even years, after diagnosis is all one big learning curve so I suppose making mistakes here and there is part of that. I definitely learnt the hard way to always trust my gut feeling, be assertive and never eat anything I’m even slightly unsure about because it’s just not worth the consequences.

© Jasmine Irving
© Jasmine Irving

Paradise

Paradise Valley, © Jasmine Irving
Paradise Valley, © Jasmine Irving
Paradise Valley, © Jasmine Irving
Paradise Valley, © Jasmine Irving

The sound of running water trickles past my ears as I repeatedly shake parts of my body to get the flies off. The warmth of the sun soaks into our skin as we lie lazily beneath palm trees, I look around and think to myself “No wonder this place is called Paradise Valley.” We were told to come here by a friend we met in Essaouira so we got on a local bus and jumped off in the place he had described to us. The minute we had gathered in a huddle on the dusty road side, a friendly man came over to us and took George with him to show him his garden. Minutes later the two came back with a huge squash that looked like a pumpkin, all different shades of green and yellow. It was a generous gift from him to us and it proved very useful when we were camping out in the valley with just firewood and a tagine pot. We had no idea how to make the next stop of our journey but pumpkin man put us in a van, our rucksacks strapped to the top and our bodies packed inside sat on top of each other.

We got dropped off somewhere and had no idea where we were. The beauty of the place was breath taking but it was starting to get dark and I was wondering what on earth we were actually going to do. Everyone I was with are go with the flow types who frequently told me to just “chill out” so I put my trust in their trust in the idea that things always work out and off we marched, clambering over rocky terrain with bags full of vegetables and snacks (always be prepared food-wise!). We met a very helpful man who guided us to a place we could camp and’ started a fire to make tagine on before night fell. Upon arrival, some of us jumped in the clear river by our camp and had an evening swim with the fish and turtles. A very welcome cool down and wash after being covered in dust, dirt and sweat from the days hot sun. Again, I took my portion from the tagine pot first before everyone else dug in with bread. Take a bowl and a spoon with you whenever you go backpacking – they prove very useful.

The next week consisted of waking up to the sound of fish jumping in the water and birds singing in the trees, washing ourselves and clothes in the river, cooking on an open fire, climbing over rocks, drinking fresh water from the stream, sleeping on the earth beneath the stars, crapping in the bushes, swimming in the river, exploring caves and living hand in hand with nature – as it should be. This was one of the most valuable weeks of my life, so I am glad that I didn’t let being coeliac put me off travelling. With a load of fruit, vegetables and a camp fire you can’t go wrong so where there’s a will there’s a way and we just have to figure out how to do it.

A very lovely man ran a little cafe by where we were camping and he did omelettes, tagine and other dishes so breakfast and lunch was covered here. Also of course, always take snacks with you wherever you go, in Morocco I found that the best snacks I could buy from the street shops were yoghurts, packets of toasted corn, dairy lee triangles, and from super markets there was more choice, packets of nuts etc. Then there was all the gluten free cereal bars I’d brought from home, squashed in my rucksack. Of course I was jealous of my friends eating copious amounts of bread for 1 Dirham to keep their tummies from growling but that’s just the way it is. We met some really nice guys in Paradise who invited us for dinner too and they were very understanding when I explained about being coeliac, we had a delicious bean stew, omelettes, tagines, fish. You’d be surprised how easy travelling gluten free can be, all you have to do is give it a go :). As our friend Youssef said “Never a problem in Paradise!”

Paradise Valley, © Jasmine Irving
Paradise Valley, © Jasmine Irving
Paradise Valley, © Jasmine Irving
Paradise Valley, © Jasmine Irving
Paradise Valley, © Jasmine Irving
Paradise Valley, © Jasmine Irving
Paradise Valley, © Jasmine Irving
Paradise Valley, © Jasmine Irving
Paradise Valley, © Jasmine Irving
Paradise Valley, © Jasmine Irving