French Food Before Taillevent
had been inhabited for milleniums when the Celts arrived in France
from the east as part of the Hallstat culture (variously said to
go from 1200 to 700 BCE century to 475 BCE) , which is sometimes
called “pre-Celtic”. The culture conquered by Caesar
was part of the later La Tène
450 BCE to the 1st century BCE). Both of these extended through
much of Europe and archeological finds in France often closely
resemble those from farther east.
Why the Romans called the Celts in
France “Gauls” has been debated, but never
definitively explained. Caesar went further and called all the
inhabitants of Gaul by that name, though some groups there had
probably preceded the Celts and others (like scattered Germanic
groups) come after them. By
the time of his conquest, the culture of the Celts – including the Druidism
they might themselves have adopted from Britain – was
certainly dominant, but geography alone would have created strong
distinctions between the various groups in France and quite
possibly some had languages and traditions which have simply been
lost along with most French Celtic history. While the Gauls
themselves seem to have had at least rudimentary writing, the
druids forbade the keeping of records; what we know comes from
archeology and scattered classical writers whose accounts of the
“Gauls” (or the “Keltoi”) may refer to any
one of a number of groups and only fortuitously to the majority of
600 BCE, Greek Phocaeans founded Massalia (later Marseilles).
Greek culture brought a number of influences to the Celts, though
which exactly is often uncertain. The Gauls would later attack
both Rome and Delphi and had had extensive contact with both Greek
and Roman cultures by the time of the conquest. While Celtic
culture remained distinct at that point, it already bore deep
influences from such contacts.
Druidic worship may have
reflected early use of acorns as a major staple. But pigs (a favorite
food of the Gauls) eat these as well and no doubt favored trees which produced large quantities of them.
Caesar said the Gauls had been
fierce but that “their proximity to the Province and
knowledge of commodities from countries beyond the sea supplies to
the Gauls many things tending to luxury as well as civilization.” Food and wine loomed large in such luxuries.
Griddles and cauldrons were used
for cooking; possibly small ovens too.
The inhabitants of Massalia would
have first eaten Greek food (which probably influenced the local
Celts as well). Later they were highly influenced by the Romans
and probably somewhat by local Celtic usage as well.
DAIRY, FISH AND GAME
Roman writers commented on the Gauls'
excessive love of meat. Though the druids were known for their
worship of trees, the mistletoe ceremony was meant to protect pigs
and cattle; a mistletoe potion was said to promote fertility in
The Gauls had begun as hunters, but
ate mainly domesticated animals in the centuries before the
conquest. Pork was often the favored meat, though in some areas
beef, mutton or goat dominated. Typically animals were smaller and
leaner. Gallic pigs may have been domesticated from
wild boars (which were then very large). The Romans found some
Gallic pigs huge (some were described as “as dangerous as
wolves”), but their own might have been very small; also the
Gauls had both small and very long breeds. In general, Gallic swine were said to be the biggest and much exported to
Italy. Supposedly the pigs got so fat in spring they could no
longer walk.The Cisalpine Gauls
(those settled in Italy) were said to call their foraging pigs with horns,
each of the intermingled pigs recognizing its owner's horn. The Gauls made numerous
pork products (charcuterie) which were exported to Rome.
Dog and horse were also eaten, but
Of game, stag was hunted, though
it is not always sure it was eaten. Wild boar and roe deer were
certainly eaten. Two different types of hare are mentioned; one
was very large; the other was all white. Rabbits were abundant
near Marseille, but as pests, not game. Wild animals still
included aurochs (wild ox), onagers (wild ass), wild goat, and
probably elk. Auroch remains are found in older graves, less
later, as meat came increasingly from domestic animals.
Some Gauls were said to use
poisonous arrows (with hellebore) for hunting and to think it made
the meat more tender.
Chicken (then small) has been found in many Gallic graves; geese were also eaten in some
Those near the sea ate fish.
Linguistic traces exist of eels, salmon and possibly herring. A
wide range of seafood was eaten near the sea
(as in Brittany for instance), including food that could be
gathered on foot – soft shell clams, mussels, scallops, limpets, periwinkles, sea urchins,
crabs, velvet swimcrabs and brown crabs – and at sea – ray,
rock fish, mackerel, dogfish, tilefish, snapper, cod, and porpoise.
techniques near Marseilles included using lures with lines and
boxes, harpoons, drag nets, floating nets and fixed nets. Earlier
fishing was done along the coast; more was done at sea later.
One writer says the Gauls fed
horses and cattle with fish.
Romans later made charges of
ritual cannibalism but these are questioned. Archaeological
evidence shows some extraction of marrow from human beings, but
The Greeks may have introduced
Gauls to farming. Despite a common caricature of the Gauls as
simple forest dwellers, they often had carefully laid out farm
complexes and in many ways seem to have been sophisticated
farmers: the “Gallic auger” was praised as a tool for
grafting; the Gauls used marl, limestone and chalk to fertilize
Plants regarded as weeds today,
such as lambsquarter
and orache (atriplex
may have been eaten. Santonicum,
said to be similar to wormwood (absinthe), grew near Saintonge and
was used as a medicine in Rome. Linguistic
roots suggest the use of acorns, apples, berries, blackberries,
blackthorn (sloe), wild garlic, hawthorn, hazelnuts, mallow, mast
(from beech trees), mulberries, nettles, nuts, tubers, onions,
rape (canola), seaweed, strawberries and watercress. Some Roman
writers said all the fruits of Italy could be found in the
southern part of Gaul (Narbonne), but others disagree.
The Greeks may have introduced
olives and some types of apples and pears. The Gauls had specific
types of medlar, peaches, wild carrots (or parsnips), and onions.
The Gauls long ate acorns, which
typically are processed into flour and so were probably eaten as
gruel and flatbread.
Pliny famously noted that the
Gauls used the foam (yeast) from cervoise
(a primitive beer) to leaven their bread (women also used it for
their skin). This was probably limited to certain regions,
however, since it required grains with sufficient gluten, while
hulled barley (orge vetu)
and einkorn were dominant in northeastern Gaul and millet (panicum
could be planted in spring and grew quickly) was often the
“back-up” grain (and was cultivated less as improved
farming made production of others more sure). Aquitaine, in
particular was said to favor millet and panic wheat (panicum,
the broader category) was said to be grown all over Gaul. These
are all difficult to leaven and so were probably used as
flatbreads and gruel. (In eighteenth century Gascony, millet bread
was made by cooking the flour with water in a cauldron until it
was hard enough to break and then slicing it into pieces; lacking
contrary details, it is easy to imagine the Gauls doing something
Bread wheat (triticum
aestivum) was less common, as were compact
wheat (triticum compactum),
a sub-species, and spelt,
sometimes also considered a sub-species; but it may have been
these Pliny was referring to. One type of spelt was known as
brace, which may have been used to make malt and so
possibly is the root of the word brasserie (brewery).
Some Gauls used a complex
mechanical thresher; others used a comb and scissors for the
harvest. Harvesting with the latter was “high”, taking
just the ear. A second harvest may have been used to cut “low”
in order to gather the stalks for straw.
The Gauls had grain silos (where
they sometimes buried their dead). They used horsehair to sift
Bread (that is, sophisticated or
risen bread?) was said to have been introduced by Greeks. The
druids carried a loaf in the mistletoe ceremony.
Celtic women were said to take
bowls of gruel into the baths to eat with their children.
The Gauls were most known as
drinkers of primitive beer, though they liked wine (primarily a
drink of the elite) when they could get it. Various terms are
mentioned by classical authors, notably cervoise, which was
made of infused barley or millet; this term endured and for a long
time was the standard French term for “beer”. Zythos
(originally an Egyptian term) might have been the same. Curmi
is another term that was
mentioned. Other drinks, made from wheat, were purino
and korma. One or
both may have been made with honey. Hops would not be used in
France for centuries, but the Gauls sometimes added wormwood
(absinthe), which has a similar preservative effect, to drinks.
infusion is specifically mentioned as a method for making these in
Gaul, but malt was used in Spain and some evidence of it has been
found in Gaul, so more sophisticated means may also have been
The Greeks probably introduced
wine to the Gauls (though grapes have been found in France from
Neolithic times). Some think they also introduced them to beer (which is typically traced back to Sumeria via the Egyptians and
the Greeks). The Gauls produced some of their own wine early on
(especially near Marseilles), but with time Roman wine was
preferred. Sixth and fifth century (BCE) Greek production has been
found, as well as some light fifth and fourth century Gallic
Unlike the Romans, the Gauls
tended to drink their wine unmixed. The Romans often portrayed
them as too subject to drink and credited the failure of one of
their assaults on Rome to the Gauls' getting drunk on the Roman
wine. The Gauls put salt, vinegar and cumin in wine. Wine was also
made from mastic and Gallic nard, though with must added. They
might also have used wood
of the dwarf olive,
the germander for a similar purpose. A drink called dercoma
made of wine and water is also mentioned.
No vines or olive trees or fruit
trees grew in the interior towards the Rhine.
The Cisalpine Gauls (living in
Italy) are said to have invented the barrel (amphorae and
wineskins continued to be used however). The Gauls drank from
earthenware vessels, sometimes animals' horns and possibly from
defeated enemies' skulls.
The Gauls drank water with honey
(directly from the honeycomb, by one account). There is some
dispute as to whether they drank hydromel (mead) which was later
very common; it seems likely they did, since the mixture would sometimes
have fermented naturally.
Like the Germanic tribes (and some
Gauls were very close to these) they also drank milk.
HERBS AND OTHER SEASONINGS
Cumin was the preferred spice of
Gauls. This, like anise (another favorite), grew in a wild form
but may have been imported (as it was later sometimes). Salt was
used in at least some areas; salt frying pans (for extracting salt
from seawater) have been found in Brittany; salt mines were known
Gauls may also have produced (very impure) salt by pouring sea
water on burning wood. (The Gauls' production of pork products
also implies some form of salting.)
Vinegar was also used for
flavoring (presumably in regions that produced wine?).
The Gauls disliked oil (which was
unfamiliar) and used butter and lard in its place.
The best morsels were served to
the most admired warriors (this was sometimes physically
Strangers were fed before being
Young men were punished for
The druids forbade the keeping of
Description of Gauls dining:
Celtæ place food before their guests, putting grass for
their seats, and they serve it up on wooden tables raised a very
little above the ground: and their food consists of a few loaves,
and a good deal of meat brought up floating in water, and roasted
on the coals or on spits. And they eat their meat in a cleanly
manner enough, but like lions, taking up whole joints in both
their hands, and gnawing them; and if there is any part which they
cannot easily tear away, they cut it off with a small sword which
they have in a sheath in a private depository. ...But when many of
them sup together, they all sit in a circle; and the bravest sits
in the middle, like the coryphæus of a chorus; because he is
superior to the rest either in his military skill, or in birth, or
in riches: and the man who gives the entertainment sits next to
him; and then on each side the rest of the guests sit in regular
order, according as each is eminent or distinguished for anything.
And their armour-bearers, bearing their large oblong shields,
stand behind; and their spear-bearers sit down opposite in a
circle, and feast in the same manner as their masters. And those
who act as cup-bearers and bring round the wine, bring it round in
jars made either of earthenware or of silver, like ordinary casks
in shape, and the name they give them is ἄμβικος.
And their platters on which they serve up the meat are also made
of the same material; but some have brazen platters, and some have
wooden or plaited baskets.”
Animal remains from dig near Beauvais (end of
La Tène period):
Beef 30% of remains,
representing at least 47 individuals (13% of individuals).
Pork 47.3 % of
remains, representing at least 202 individuals (57.2% of
Mutton 12.1% of
remains, representing at least 55 individuals (15.6% of
Dogs 3.1% of remains,
representing at least 15 individuals (4.2 % of individuals).
Horses 3.7% of
remains, representing at least 10 individuals (2.8% of
Also (under 2% of
individuals) goat, boar, stag, hare, beaver,marten, birds.
Fish remains found from
pre-conquest era on Mediterranean coast:
(near Montpelier): Gilthead
sea bream, sea bass , mullet, eel, sole, red mullet, sardine,
garfish, mackerel, turbot, horse mackerel, some flatfish, anchovy,
sarma salpa, sea bass, gray mullet, smooth-hound, angelfish,
scorpion fish, eel, sea bream and wrasse.
Bogue, red mullet, eel, sea bass, turbot, ray, small mullet,
silverside, anchovy, sardine.
remains found in Gallic graves in Seine and Marne (5th-3rd c.
BCE?): Beef, pork, goat, horse, dog, rooster, hare,
stag, raven, crow. Also batracians (frogs, salamanders, etc.) -
but for food?
near Soissons: Pork,
beef, mutton, roebuck, hare.
June 16, 2012