I live in Brussels, Belgium with my husband and 2 children, Amber aged 4 and George 5. We have been here 3 years and have another year to go. George had an egg allergy as a baby which he subsequently grew out of, but then went on to develop a mild allergy to sesame which was being managed by the NHS in the UK. We avoided all seeds and nuts as a precaution….he accidentally ate a breadstick containing peanuts where he went into anaphylactic shock nearly 2 yrs ago here in Belgium. We saw an allergy specialist in both UK and Belgium and prick tests show he is allergic to sesame, most tree nuts, pine nuts and sunflower seeds…
If I was to be honest, I just wanted to come home to England, but here we still are!
We have had a range of experiences living here in Brussels and travelling to other European countries which I thought other parents may find interesting/useful if they are planning a trip away.
French and Flemish (type of Dutch) is spoken here (Flemish in the North and French in the south and Brussels). English is understood and spoken to varying degrees across the country especially in Flanders and Brussels. All products have ingredients in both languages and occasionally English. I do not speak French or Flemish and have managed to get by with English and poor Spanish!
As Belgium is the land of praline chocolates; I do not trust any such product (either as chocolate on its own or chocolate biscuits, hot chocolate, ice-cream etc), labelled as containing nuts or otherwise. As with the UK, I do not buy any products made on the premises such as in bakeries or supermarkets (including sausages etc) due to cross contamination issues. Almond croissants are common here and sesame is everywhere. I have yet to find a processed bread product that does not refer to sesame or nuts, the only products I do buy are processed tortilla wraps and pita bread. I have invested in my own bread-maker although it is difficult to find quality bread flour that is free from nuts and sesame. All European countries need to comply with the European food labelling law but I tend to choose products that have a “may contain milk” or other allergen (not including nuts of course!) as I feel more confident that cross contamination issues with all allergens have been considered. As with the UK I don’t purchase any “artisan” products.
Fortunately as we live close to the UK, our car is fit to bursting on return trips from the Ashford Sainsbury’s. We are also fortunate to have a couple of stores in and around Brussels which stock British products such as Stone Manor and Homes Shop Abroad.
I have also learnt not to presume that a “safe” product in the UK is safe abroad. I bought some Quorn pieces the other day and noticed that the factory it’s produced in contains nuts, which is different from UK Quorn pieces. This was particularly annoying! It is also a surprise to see that some general cooking oils may contain nuts. For us, eating out is off the menu and likewise to treating the kids with ice-cream from ice-cream parlours. I tend to buy a box of ice lollies from the supermarket and treat the kids this way and when we return to the UK we feast in Pizza Express as many times as we can!
My most anxious moments are leaving my son at school. He started his new English/French school a month after his allergic episode and it has been a constant uphill struggle to educate his teachers. I was finally invited to give a presentation this week to 50 teachers at the school and it was well received. There doesn’t appear to be nay national “every child matters” policy as there is in the UK. To be fair, it seems nut allergies amongst Belgian kids are not as common as the UK. I have been told that mustard and celery are common allergens in France and I find it fascinating that such differences exist in neighbouring countries. Epi pens are 50 euros each here, we have 2 at school and 2 at home, but our health insurance (no national insurance here) covers about 70% of the cost. Piriton equivalent is about 10 euros a bottle.
I go through phases of whether I want to travel to other countries with my son due to my anxiety regarding his allergies, but we have been to Slovenia, Spain, and Portugal so far. We have found it easier to choose self-catering accommodation so we can prepare my son’s food although this means its not much of a holiday for me! Bread is the main issue and I have even taken frozen bread in my suitcase! We always take plenty of safe snacks to last the holiday and have discussed with my son that if he wants to experience travelling to new places he has accept that the food may not be very exciting. One day we couldn’t find any safe food, so resorted to my emergency tin of baked beans which he had to eat cold. We also take an emergency packet of freeze-dried “mountaineering” food just in-case. I then cook him everything he wants on our return home.
We have had issues with Mark Warner in Portugal where despite informing them at every opportunity about my son’s allergy (including talking to the chef), he prepared some rice crispy chocolate treats using unsuitable chocolate. It was only from my knowledge of living on the continent that made me question the chocolate and wanted to see the packaging. On inspection of the Belgian chocolate used, we noted it contained nuts. We have also purchased mini bread sticks in Spain which stated the ingredients on the packet, only to find them filled with sesame. I was also surprised to find that processed/packaged ice-lollies sold everywhere in Andalucia often stated that they may contain nuts.
Despite the extra challenges that living abroad creates, we are trying to live life to the full and are in the process of organising a 3 week camping trip through Germany and Switzerland this summer. I have decided that I am going to learn how to make unleven bread as fresh safe bread is always my biggest headache when travelling. My advice would be to take cereal, bread and plenty of snacks for the holiday, self-catering eases the eating out anxiety and to stay vigilant with all unknown foods and ice lollies.
Groundnuts – l’arachide
Peanuts – cacahuetes
Nuts – noix
Almonds – amandes
Sunflower – tournesol
Walnut – noyer
General nuts – fruites de coque