Monday, September 19, 2011


A view in the southern Czech Republic town of Znojmo

 By - Diane Lachtrupp Martinez
Special to the Times Union  

     Explaining that you have gluten and dairy allergies to a waiter is challenging enough but asking for gluten-and dairy-free meals in Czech takes it to another level.  Preparing for a recent trip to Czech Republic with my mom, who speaks a little Czech, and by brother, who speaks none, I knew I’d need a better knowledge of the language than my one Czech song, if I was to avoid the socially averse physical reactions of food allergies and, possibly, a trip to the ER.  I thought preparation, good manners and charm were needed to ensure that I could get food that I could eat.

Gluten-free meal on Delta Airlines.

      First the airlines.  We asked our travel agent to request a gluten-and dairy-free meal.  That being done I decided to start working on my Czech pleasantries so that I could garner waiter cooperation.   Food is important to me and I wasn’t interested in an endless parade of grilled chicken on a mixed green salad.  I wanted the real deal -local Czech food.  I consulted my Czech dictionary and found out that please is “prosím” and that thank you is “dĕkuji  vám.”   Further research revealed the phrase “I am allergic to…” “Jsem allergicka na…” and I looked up the word for wheat “pšenici” and milk “mléko” to finish my phrase. 
      Before going, I searched for useful web sites and I found these useful for information: (for restaurant suggestions), (for purchasing gluten –free products) and for articles about traveling gluten-free in different countries including the Czech Republic.  Most of the web sites were geared to Prague and had little regarding some of the smaller cities that we would be traveling to.

      As a final preparation, I took along some gluten-free bread and crackers and some rice cheese.  While getting settled in your new digs, you may not have time to search for the closest health food store or market.  I always travel with my bread and cheese, so I can enjoy a sandwich anywhere and toast with my eggs.  My go-to snacks are hummus, nuts and dried fruit.  While other travelers may be able to grab a quick yogurt, health bar or cheese as a small meal, I am limited.
      Once on our way, we found Delta had honored my request as a gluten-and dairy-free passenger and delivered to me a respectable dinner of flavorful chicken, rice, vegetables, salad and a fruit salad.  Before landing in the morning, they provided me with a rice cake, fruit and meat and cheese.  Truth be told, my food looked better and fresher than my fellow passengers who were dining on the regular fare.
      But, I had yet to be put to the true test.  After checking into our hotel by the Charles Bridge, we ventured out for lunch.  We happened upon a Czech/Austrian restaurant in an open square.  I tried out my phrase  ” Jsem allergicka na pšenici ” on the waiter and he tilted his head to the side in confusion.  I repeated it several times and eventually he understood, broke into his excellent English and corrected my phrase to include the word for gluten “lepek” as opposed to wheat.  Our waiter,  Hanza, was generous and tweaked and rehearsed my phrase.  My pronunciation of the word for dairy had been so laughable Hanza suggested I stick with the word for milk to express myself.  After a tasty meal of boiled beef, grilled fish, potatoes and vegetables, I left the restaurant with a satisfied tummy, a new confidence and an invaluable piece of paper that now read “Jsem allergicka na lepek” and “Jsem allergicka na mléko.”
      The following day we stopped for lunch at a small restaurant in Staré Mĕsto (Old Town) where they were offering beverage, soup and bread for 75 Korunas about $4.50.  After a couple of tries with my new allergy statement, the waitress understood and said in Czech that the lentil soup contained no lepek or mléko.  Without prompting, she added a rice cake to the side of my bowl.  Although it was one of our simplest meals, I was touched by her thoughtfulness.  We communicated through my one sentence in Czech, her 10 words of English and my mom’s understanding of a few words.
      Our final morning in Prague, and after two days of eggs and toast, I decided to try and communicate a favorite meal of mine to the staff at our hotel.  The buffet breakfast was lovely with fruit, eggs (no milk) sausages, smoked meats, cheeses, yogurts, croissants and an assortment of breads.  It was heavy on dairy and gluten, so I was limited.  I brought my bread and rice cheese down to the dining room and tried to ask that it be grilled panini style.  After a couple of minutes of incomprehension,  the dining room staff sent me to the kitchen to talk to Tatiana, the cook, who spoke absolutely no English.  After five minutes of pointing to pans, butter and my bread and rice cheese, we were making a grilled cheese sandwich together.  Thrilled with my communication and my new breakfast, I headed back to the dining room, my mother and brother wondering what had happened to me.  
      About halfway through our trip my brother,  frustrated with witnessing my thrice daily long communications with the wait-staff, suggested I simply write it down.  Of course that’s a great idea for those who are shy to try the language, but I wasn’t.   I was there to take in the culture, eat the local food and try to speak their language.  I was meeting with great success with my sentence and, as a result of my allergies, was enjoying great experiences with the local Czechs.  He suggested his idea more than once and I ignored it more than once.
      While staying in the small town of Mikulov, near the Austrian border, we decided to go for lunch in the nearby chateau town of Lednice.  Soon after arriving, we received directions to a local restaurant; and local it was.  Our waiter spoke not a word of English, the menu was completely in Czech and my trusty allergy phrase seemed to mean little to him.  After a five minute futile discussion of the menu, the man at the table next to us could not take it a moment longer and broke into our conversation and offered his help.   We welcomed it and soon were eating a delicious gluten-and dairy-free meal of roast pork, potatoes and vegetables.  We sent a round of beer to the helpful man and his table companions and enjoyed our conversation with them which……. would not have occurred if I did not have food allergies.
      As to shopping for food, the large markets in Prague contained gluten-free products and dairy alternatives.  In the small city of Znjomo, I found a health food store that had a number of gluten-and dairy free-products, a helpful proprietress who spoke only Czech and a friendly customer who stepped in.  Gluten-and dairy-free issues are definitely on their radar.
Gluten-free bread from the health food store in Znojmo
Note the wheat symbol crossed out in the upper right corner.

     So- go forth and travel with your food allergies to the Czech Republic.  Remember  to contact the airline and hotel in advance and practice your Czech pleasantries.  If a molecule of gluten is an issue for you, stick to the restaurants listed on the web sites.  If your allergy is not as severe, then dine in mainstream restaurants, practice your phrase with enthusiasm and a smile and expect cooperative waiters and shopkeepers.  If  you must resort to English as your means of communication, ask politely if they speak English. Don’t assume.  Finally, take satisfaction in the fact that there are many wonderful Czech meals to be had without gluten and dairy.


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