Holiday in Portugal with a nut allergy

We’ve just returned from our first abroad holiday post peanut allergy diagnosis. I thought I would report back on our nut allergy triumphs and fails, in case anyone else is thinking of travelling to Portugal in the near future…

The journey

Check in

We flew with Monarch airlines. My first nervy moment was at check in at Manchester airport. As our suitcases trundled off along the conveyor belt, I asked if it would be possible for us to board early on account of my son’s nut allergy. My request was met with a blank look. Despite my three calls to Monarch customer services (before booking, immediately after booking and a couple of days prior to departure, when I was assured everything was in place), my son’s medical condition hadn’t been noted on “the system”, as promised. Computer was saying dunno.

The check in lady at Manchester amended our notes for our outbound flight but warned us to visit the Monarch desk in Faro on the return leg, to make sure the gate staff and crew were aware for the journey home. Somewhat indignant, I went to the Monarch desk at Manchester airport, who assured me that the medical notes were definitely on our booking for both legs of the journey.

On checking in for the return flight, we were failed by “the system” once more. The computer was showing no record of my son’s allergies. What followed would have been quite comedy, if it wasn’t so serious. Basically, me saying “no amendoim, no fruta seca” repeatedly, reinforced with jesturing “no” (picture a hand jive move) and pointing at the computer monitor whilst saying “need notes!”. With the help of a translation card, we overcame my lack of Portguese and the check in lady’s lack of English, and details of D’s allergy were again added to the system.

The flights

I’m pleased to report that once the initial customer service fail was overcome, the Monarch gate staff and cabin crew were fantastic on both legs of the journey. On the way out, we were allowed to board first, so I could get to work with the dettol wipes on the tray tables, arm rests and area around my son’s seat. The crew also made not one, but two, announcements advising that they would not be selling nut containing foods and asking passengers please not to eat nut containing snacks during the journey.

Aside from one passenger who insisted on eating their toblerone (“I’ve just paid a fiver for this”), the people in the rows around us complied with the request. One delightful chap on the outbound journey had a bit of a rant, saying “I’m tempted to open a bag of nuts and see what happens”. Then again, he had another moan later when he couldn’t lower his tray table fully as his stomach was in the way… so the world was seemingly out to inconvenience him that day.

Whilst the PA announcement was greatly appreciated, hearing it actually knocked me for six on the flight out. “Today we have a young man on board who is severely allergic to nuts…”. It might have been the 3AM start taking its toll but the announcement made me feel extremely sad. I’m not usually prone to self pity about D’s allergy, but this brought the fact of his allergy home. I felt sad that a young boy had to board with the special assistance group, sad that the allergy singles him out. Luckily D was unaware of the announcement and was able to simply enjoy the thrill of going on a plane. And I had to give myself a shake and make appropriate excited comments as the flaps on the wings moved and we could see clouds, rather than dwell on all things nut allergy.

The hotel

Restaurant and take away

We stayed at the Four Seasons, Vilamoura. Although we had an apartment, our rate included breakfast. We set off expecting to fully self cater and with the attitude that any meal out would be a bonus. I had emailed the hotel twice prior to departure to ask if the restaurant could cater for nut allergies and had not had a reply, so I didn’t have high hopes that we would be eating there at all.

However, on arrival the manager told us they were aware of D’s allergy and they knew he must avoid peanuts and “dried fruits” (nuts). He mentioned several items on the children’s menu that were safe, such as fish fingers, chicken nuggets and some pasta dishes. He advised us to mention the nut allergy to his staff each time we ordered food (which of course we would), just in case he wasn’t around to supervise D’s meals.

This was fantastic, as we were able to eat in the hotel bar area and order from the take away menu (I went to the bar to order this, rather than risk mis-communication if I phoned down).

Buffet breakfast

The other thing which was excellent about the hotel – and a pleasant surprise – was the breakfast buffet. I had packed Weetabix and had been expecting to use these, with a bowl of milk from the hotel. However, the hotel had individual boxes or Kelloggs cereals, each labelled with the ingredients in English. So D had the option of Chocos or Special K (Chocos won), plus yoghurts and a selection of whole (as opposed to prepared) fruits. There may well have been other “safe” items (for example, the cooked breakfasts), however we had enough to go at from the prepacked items on offer.

Eating in: the supermarket shop

As well as our packed lunches for the plane, in our suitcases I stashed:

  • Weetabix
  • Bagels
  • Tortilla wraps
  • A bag of pasta and a Dolmio stir in sauce
  • Fabulous Bakin’ Boys chunky butter flapjacks

This way I knew that, arriving mid-afternoon, if the worst came to the worst, we just needed to find a tub of the ubiquitous Laughing Cow cheese and a carton of milk and we had the first 24 hours covered.

Once we found our feet, we shopped for groceries at AliSuper (Atrium Vilamoura) and, more often, Jafers (in the Old Village). Jafers stocked a raft of familiar brands, for example, Dolmio, Heinz, John West tuna, Nescafe, Oreos, Philadeplphia, Robinsons squash. Many brands had the ingredients listed in multiple languages, including English. Dolmio and John West (for example) had completely English labels.

Before we travelled, I had familiarised myself with the various terms for nuts (for example, “amendoim” for peanuts and “fruta seca” for nuts). One element I wish I had paid more attention to was the other common allergens, as this would have made reading contains boxes and may contain labels quicker. For example:

  • Ovo – egg
  • Peixe – fish
  • Leite – milk
  • Sementes de sesamo – sesame
  • Soya – soya
  • Trigo – wheat

For a detailed list, see the translation materials on the Allergy Action website.

Slightly confusingly, some products had Spanish labelling. Oreo, for instance, were labelled:

“CONTIENE TRIGO, GLUTEN, SOJA. PUEDE CONTENER TRAZAS DE LECHE”

Which I gather means “Contains wheat, gluten, soya. May contain traces of milk” (which tallies with their English packs). With no knowledge of either Portuguese or Spanish, the warnings were simple enough to make out.

Many food labels also had a phrase such as “manténgase en sitio fresco y seco” immediately after the ingredients and allergy information. I did have a brief dither as to whether this could be referring to nuts and factories, but it simply means the product needs to be stored in a cool, dry place!

The key words to look out for (as well as amendoim, fruta seca and the specific names for tree nuts) are:

  • Contém (or “contiene” in Spanish) – contains…
  • Pode conter (or “puede contener” in Spanish) – may contain…

For example. a packet of Nacional spaghetti was labelled “Pode conter vestigios de ovo” (may contain traces of egg) and a Calippo lolly “Pode conter vestigios de leite” (may contain traces of milk).

One final point on Portuguese labelling – remember your glasses! My eyesight is shocking but I’m fine reading UK labels (with glasses on and in a good light!). However, some Portuguese ingredients lists were positively microscopic. Probar ham, for instance, had tiny white writing over a pale green back photo. I don’t know if they have different font size rules in Portugal, but be prepared to squint!

Eating out

Il Lamparo, Vilamoura marina

On our first afternoon, we ventured down to the Vilamoura marina. The walk took longer than expected as we got lost on the Pinhal golf course … in the rain. Walking round the marina, there weren’t many restaurants which looked hopeful. Chinese, Thai, Indian, ice cream parlours, pubs with men shouting at football on the TV. Very little leapt out as either nut allergy or child friendly. So when our son announced “I feel hungry” followed by “We go in dat cafe, mummy?” at each eatery we passed, the pressure was mounting to find him some safe food, and fast.

Having read a favourable review from another nut allergy family on TripAdvisor, I was relieved to spot Il Lamparo. Never mind that there wasn’t another customer in sight and they were still hoovering and laying tables, we approached the lady at the doorway. I explained that my son had a nut allergy (mentioning no “amendoim” or “fruta seca” whilst waving my freshly laminated translation card). Her initial response was to apologise and say her manager wasn’t there. Cue: “I feel hungry mummy. We go in dis cafe?”.

Whilst in the UK, this exchange would have made us try elsewhere, I put it down to the language barrier (and particularly my woeful lack of Portuguese). So I tried my lines again and handed over the translation card. She disappeared to talk to chef and returned to tell us all was fine. Still feeling slightly uneasy, we took a seat (as they finished hoovering) and placed our order.

Our waitress returned to ask to re-read the translation card several times and took it into the kitchen a second time to show the chef. The card doesn’t mince words and includes the line  “My child can die if he eats this food”. I figured that any restaurant that said “yes, come in” after reading the card was pretty confident of its ingredients and cross contamination controls.

After we ordered D burger and fries, the waitress came back from the kitchen to say the burgers had been made earlier that day (i.e. when the kitchen wouldn’t have been on heightened alert for the presence of nuts), so would we like to choose something else? She recommended the chicken and fries as a safe option (which incidentally came with Heinz ketchup in sachets). I think we relaxed a bit from that point on, as they were clearly aware about the need to avoid cross contamination.

Other possible eating options at the Marina

Later in the week, we had lunch at Figo’s Cafe on the Marina. We showed our waiter the translation card and he said they could make a meal for D. Although the children ended up eating the sandwiches we had with us, this would be one we would try again if we went back to Vilamoura.

It’s also worth mentioning that there is a both a Pizza Hut and a Costa Coffee on the Marina. We didn’t eat at either. However, for anyone else travelling to Vilamoura, being chains, it may be possible to research their menus prior to departure.

Four Seasons, Rua de Andorra, Vilamoura

After day 1, we tended to mainly eat in the hotel for the rest of the holiday. The hotel staff inspired confidence in the way they catered for D’s allergy. Each time we ordered food, I began the nut chat and was assured “yes, room 71”. D’s dietary requirements were known to all the staff. If they were unsure about an ingredient, they double checked with us. One time, we were asked whether he could have “óleo de girassol” (sunflower oil) and on another occasion whether the hot dog buns with a “may contain gluten and wheat” label were okay.

We had one hairy moment when a waiter brought a bowl of peanuts to our table with our drinks. That actually proved quite useful, as we were able to say to D “if that happens, you just say ‘no thank you’ and they take them away again”.

Aside from that one tiny incident, the service was all extremely reassuring.

In summary…

Travelling to Portugal and knowing zero Portuguese (I’m ashamed to admit not even hello, goodbye, please or thank you) threw us massively outside of our nut allergy comfort zone. We’ve reached the point in the UK, on home turf, of feeling confident (or as confident as you can be) in terms of supermarket shopping and in going to restaurants. The announcement on the flight, even though greatly appreciated, was a reminder that we are living with a serious condition. Deciphering Portuguese food labelling required extra concentration. Eating out, even with excellent service, felt like a leap of faith.

Monarch came good. The Four Seasons looked after us very well. We would have eaten again at Il Lamparo.

Am I glad we did it? Yes. Would we now holiday abroad again? Absolutely. Would we return to Vilamoura? Indeed. Just maybe not in rainy March…

6 comments

  1. Hi Louise, am really glad you’ve had a successful first holiday abroad – thanks for sharing your experiences; your blog post has made me feel a lot more confident about our first post-nut allergy diagnosis trip abroad over Easter too. Aside from the mealtimes, I hope you had a relaxing, fun time and I’m happy to hear that you haven’t been put off going overseas again. Hope you don’t feel like you need another holiday now to get over the stress of navigating your way around labels, menus and making yourself understood!

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