Of all the courses in a fine meal, the one most likely to include dairy is dessert. And it is usually impossible to exclude the dairy from a dessert that includes it. You can’t take the cheese out of the cheesecake or the butter out of the pie crust (yes, you can make both of those vegan, but that is another matter – your average mainstream restaurant is unlikely to have vegan desserts available).
So what you do when it comes time to order dessert? Simple. Just skip it. If you’re on vacation eating at a fine restaurant, chances are you are already going to be stuffed by that point anyway. You’ll have had a huge salad and an equally massive entree, and it will be quite natural to say, “no more!” Chances are equally great that your traveling mates will be stuffed by this point too, and won’t want anything further. So you can easily skip dessert, steer clear of the trickiest part of the meal for avoiding dairy, and not feel embarrassed or conspicuous in doing so.
There are only two instances where it will be hard to carry out this strategy. Let me describe them to you and then I will tell you how I would handle them.
In the first instance, you’re eating with your travelmates, and it just so happens that when dessert-time arrives, they all want to order something. And you don’t want to look conspicuous by sitting there with nothing in front of you. So you want to order something. What should you do?
Well, the safest thing you can order is a dessert-y beverage, namely, either coffee or a dessert wine (port, sherry, muscato, etc.). Many restaurants will list wines on their dessert menus. If you want to be a little more adventurous than that, order a bowl of sorbet or a fruit plate. If you are in a restaurant in a country where you don’t know the language, this latter suggestion may be tricky to carry out. Look for some help from the person at your table who speaks the most of the local language, or maybe you’ve made friends during your meal with someone at a nearby table who speaks both English and the local language. Either way, do your best to communicate with the server. The last thing you want is a bowl of fruit floating in cream or an ice cream with fruit in it.
In the second instance, what about if you are in a home, or a small restaurant where you’ve made friends with the host or proprietor, and they bring out some elaborate dessert that they spent hours making, and it’s a local specialty, and they insist that everyone has to have some? Well, you can protest that you can’t eat another bite, but they will probably insist that you have just a little piece, and you don’t want to say no and be impolite.
So I think the best strategy is to take a very small piece, let it sit in front of you untouched, and then when the host comes around, make a big show of taking a tiny piece from a part that has the greatest likelihood of not being dairy-rich, popping it in your mouth, and telling them how delicious it is. If you are incredibly allergic, you might even want to keep the morsel in your mouth without swallowing it and then spit it into a napkin when no one is watching. But under no circumstances should you feel compelled to eat the whole piece and take the risk of making yourself really sick and ruining some of your precious vacation time. If you leave your dessert mostly untouched, by the time everyone else is finished, someone will probably offer to eat your piece too, or the host will take it away and say “didn’t you like it?” and you can say it was very good but you really were stuffed.
This second scenario will happen very rarely. Dairy allergy and lactose intolerance are now so common that pretty much anywhere you travel, people are bound to be aware of them, and not expect you to eat something that contains dairy. More often than not, they will offer you an alternative, like a glass of port or cup of coffee or some fruit.
In fact, I would say it’s a sign of how hospitable a person or their establishment is as to whether they do offer alternative desserts. And when a restaurant is hospitable by making you up a nice fruit plate or the like, don’t forget to tip accordingly!