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French Food Before Taillevent


An Overview of the Stories


An overview of the stories

As mentioned at the start, one of the reasons food before Taillevent has been little studied is the sense that information is lacking for earlier centuries. How much useful information exists for those centuries? One way to judge that is to see how many stories appear in the data. Does the history of medieval spices, for instance, come down to those found in the fourteenth century or can one trace variations over time? Was "bread" simply that or did the word shift in meaning over time?

In fact, for those who care to follow them closely, a number of stories appear in the data in the tables that follows. However since not every reader will care about the details, here is an overview of some of the developments which they reveal.

Meat, fish and game

Early evidence shows that the Gauls first lived off whatever game and fish Nature provided. Very likely, France's earlier inhabitants had as well. This meant hunting animals like deer, boar and the monstrous wild ox (auroch) and catching or gathering whatever aquatic life was within reach from land. Over time, however, the Gauls - probably under the influence of the Greeks and Romans - developed sophisticated farms and later evidence shows that they also ate far more domestic animals than game. These included pigs, who could be left to graze in the woods, but also sheep and goats, as well as barnyard fowl. While pork was preferred in many areas, this varied by region. In addition to gathering shellfish or catching fish in rivers and streams, some now made it far enough out to sea to catch fish only found there.

Long before Caesar's conquest, the Romans loved Gallic pork and their domination only expanded that animal's importance in the French diet. Their rule brought, to those would afford it, culinary sophistication which included the use of game and fish preserves and probably imported meat as well. This also included tastes for wild asses, snails and other previously unmentioned foods. Even their use of pork included, for the more sophisticated, a preference for parts like the teats and womb of a sow.

The Franks yet again loved pork; the Germans in general were said to have a pronounced taste for meat. Among the common ranks, this simplicity probably blended well with that of the surviving, poorer Celts. For some time, however, upper class Franks did their best to adopt Roman ways and ate with their own version of Roman sophistication. Though cattle were typically reserved, at least for a time, for labor, the same classes often ate beef and archeology has shown in general that it was more important in the French medieval diet than the documentary record suggests.

No doubt game continued to be important, even if animal husbandry now existed all over Gaul. As Christianity went from being officially accepted to having a real hold on the population, meatless (fast-day) meals became more important and eel is frequently mentioned as the commonest alternative to meat; over time herring increasingly would be as well.

While some Roman sophistication might have lingered by the time of Charlemagne, the main meats for many were pork and beef, the main fish herring and eel. Some, including a number of monks, ate a variety of other fish, including pike and salmon, yet continued to mainly eat pork (in a number of forms) for meat. Feudal game restrictions were unevenly put into place and even peasants probably ate small game such as rabbits. Hunting larger game required, at the least, resources more likely to be available to the wealthy.

At the start of the Capetian period, France experienced such terrible famines that claims of cannibalism were recorded. Once things improved, the picture for the poorest classes became uneven. Some records show workers being paid in part with meat and so eating it regularly if not daily; others show them being given little more than bread and drink. But for those of any means more meats - even whale - were available. The wealthy now had a wide variety of game birds, different fish and other foods available, prepared in increasingly sophisticated ways. Two centuries before Taillevent, kings and the Church were trying to rein in what was regarded as excessive luxury in dining. Yet in Taillevent's own time, one wealthy household still consumed a great deal of pork. At the same time, a public feast included beef. Within two centuries, pork held far less importance in the French diet and beef and lamb had come to the fore - for those who could still afford to eat meat.

Grains and baked goods

The Gauls probably began (like some Native Americans) by eating acorns. The first grains they cultivated were, as in much of early Europe, einkorn, panic wheat, millet and barley, as well as some, but far less, bread wheat and spelt. Pliny noted that some leavened their bread with yeast - that is, with the foam from making primitive beer. But most of the Gauls' grains would have been difficult to leaven and so were probably eaten as gruel or flatbread.

The Romans introduced far more bread wheat and possibly rye, which, along with barley, became one of the less favored grains. In general, they made a wide variety of breads, many of which were probably introduced into Gaul. They also used several leavening methods, notably sourdough, which became the standard method in France for over a millennium. Bakers (pistores) are recorded in some Gallo-Roman cities and probably existed in many others.

Initially, much of this would have continued under the Franks, though many also ate grains as porridge. But as cities declined, bakers would have increasingly been attached (as they later were) to rich households or monasteries. Individual households would have been obliged to make their own bread, often flatbread cooked on the hearth. The Romans had had some pastries, but without professional bakers these probably fell away in all but the richest households. One sweet baked good, the flan, is first mentioned in this period, when it was probably a honey cake; over time it would evolve into a cream-filled tart.

By Charlemagne's time, most bread was probably limited to the spherical boule (ball) which would become the standard French bread until almost the eighteenth century. But Charlemagne's own bakers made "works of fine flour" which would, at the last, have been finer breads. It was also at this time that two finer products diverged from standard bread. The first communion wafers - essentially small waffles, stamped with religious symbols - and pain bénit - a 'blessed bread' made by a congregant and divided among the congregation - appeared. Over time, the first of these, at least, would evolve into French pastry. By the early Capetian period, unconsecrated wafers (oublies) are already recorded as a standard treat. By the twelfth century, the wafer-makers (oublayeurs) became the first pastry chefs. But the first craftspeople to bear that name (patisseurs) made pasties, pastry shells filled with various meat or fish pastes that became pâtés. These appeared sometime after the Crusades and became standard aspects of French medieval food. It would several centuries before the two trades combined. Meanwhile, by the thirteenth century, pastries (as sweets) included wafers, nieules (in Latin, nebulae, or clouds), flans, tarts, echaudés, and darioles. "Cakes" (gasteaux) began to be mentioned, but were still finer breads, not the sweet product we know today.

Around the twelfth century, different names began to appear for breads, often referring to their specific use (for the morning, for the servants, for clerics, etc.) While "bread" (pain) by default still referred to the boule, bread overall had become a category which included numerous variations. Probably the shape as well varied, though surviving images uniformly show spherical bread. The one major exception was the rectangular bread baked hard in order to support slicing (trancher). There were called tranchoirs (trenchers) and seem to have first appeared around the thirteenth century. They were only used in affluent households, where they were distinguished from pain de bouche ("bread for the mouth"). Over time, the latter became a term for a finer white bread.

Through this whole later period, some regional variations existed (long breads, for instance, are specifically mentioned in Alsace). Rye was often used for servants' bread; barley was often fed to animals.


The Gauls were said, early on, to make various "beers", which they may have first learned to make from the Greeks in Marseille. They also drank water with honey. It is not clear if they already drank the fermented version of this (hydromel or mead), which would later become a standard French drink. They first learned wine-making from the Greeks, though some may separately have learned it from the Romans. Certainly, they loved Roman wine and those who could afford it drank it.

Wine-making expanded under the Romans, except possibly for one period when, in theory at least, many vines were to be ripped up. But by the end of the Roman period wine was being made in almost every region in France, even if it remained hard to find in some areas. Some wines, like those of Bordeaux, had already gained a reputation. Some wines were also imported from the East. Cervoise - one of the Gauls' primitive beers - remained popular as well, primarily in the north.

Most of this continued under the Franks, though as infrastructure decayed, monasteries were increasingly the main wine producers. Paris began to be known for its wine (as it would be for centuries), as did several other regions. Beer (cervoise) was not yet made with hops, but was often mixed with herbs, like absinthe, which may have had a similar preservative effect. Hydromel, perry and cider are also mentioned in the period.

By Charlemagne’s time, a number of spiced wines and fruit wines are mentioned. Using feet to crush grapes was common enough for the Emperor to forbid it. Hops are mentioned in association with brewing, though not yet specifically as an ingredient in beer.

Even as beer production increased in Normandy, cider production did as well and ultimately dominated as that regions' drink.

More specific regional variations in wine are mentioned in the later centuries. Spice wines - piment, hypocras, clairet - became standard in rich households. By the twelfth century, England was importing French wine.

Spices and other seasonings

One common idea of medieval food has spices appearing after the Crusades and then dominating the food of the time. This is misleading in at least two regards. One is that spices were expensive and so their use was limited to the wealthy; spices were never characteristic of medieval food in general. The other is that spices had been used in France from its earliest days and never fell fully out of use.

The Gauls had, at the least, some herbs available for flavoring: mint, absinthe, wild anise. They were said to love cumin, which later was imported and may already have been then, though a wild variety of cumin also grows in some parts of France. They also used vinegar and lard for seasoning; they knew of oil (via the Romans) but disliked it as unfamiliar. Salt occurs naturally in some parts of France, both from the sea and mines, and certainly some Gauls used it, since they made a range of pork products.

The spice most mentioned in Roman literature is pepper. But the Romans used a wide variety of other spices, including most still used today, with the notable exceptions of cinnamon, which was reserved for funerals and medicine, and clove, which did not come into use until almost the end of the Empire. Ginger and saffron were mainly used for medical dishes (for the sick) until after the same time. They also used several distinctly Roman spices, no longer used in food today, including spikenard and costus. Silphium was so prized that it was wiped out and after Nero's time was already replaced by asfoetida (still used in India) in this period.

Roman cooking also used honey, broth and vinegar as seasonings and above all garum, a fish sauce thought to be much like the fish sauce still used in some Asian cultures. Typically this was an import, made with mackerel, but a cheaper version was made with tuna fish and may have been produced in Gaul itself. Though only the rich in Gaul could have afforded true garum, probably variants of it were used by those of lesser means, if not necessarily in the countryside.

The Franks had simpler ways and probably the mass of Franks ate much as the Gauls had. Honey and vinegar were both used as seasonings; pork fat is mentioned later as well and may already have been used. The Frankish kings, however, tried to maintain Roman luxury and ate a modified version of Roman cuisine (though no doubt along with their traditional fare). A few spices - pepper, cloves, nard, costus, coriander, costus, dill, fennel, ginger, spikenard, and sumac - are mentioned specifically for food; by the seventh century several of these were still being imported at Marseilles.

Spices were never generally available, but as the Roman infrastructure fell away, their use was probably increasingly limited to the most advantaged classes. Changes in the exporting countries - notably the rise of Islam - also impacted the spice trade. But for those who could afford them, spices continued to be available in the West, either from Italy or, later, via northern routes.

Though Charlemagne's own tastes were simple, he is recorded as having served spiced meals and as having received spices on several occasions as gifts. Since he also had garum kept on his estates, the finer food of his time probably still reflected some effort to imitate Roman models. The Carolingian period overall is probably the last one where this was so.

Salt was in general use for preserving pork. It was not cheap – transport alone raised its cost - but it had not yet become as expensive as it would be. Still, it was unlikely to have appeared on common tables, where vinegar, pork fat and mustard remained the most common seasonings. Garum and other specifically Roman seasonings seem to have disappeared soon after Charlemagne's time. The most common spice mentioned in the (very rare) records of specific meals was pepper. Since this too was imported and extremely expensive, the lack of other spices (which would have been available through the same trade routes) probably reflected a decline in sophistication more than a lack of availability.

Just before the first Crusade (1096) a writer in Italy complained about dishes "reeking of Indian spices", so these were still available in Europe.

The dramatic revival of the spice trade after the first Crusade was probably not only due to the renewed access to the East, but to its cultural influence. A number of developments in French food suggest that the Crusades introduced the French to a whole range of culinary possibilities; products like verjuice (very similar to the Persian ab-ghooreh ) suddenly became standard in French cuisine. The part novelty played in the use of a variety of spices can be inferred from the fact that in later centuries salt and pepper were again the dominant spices, even though many others had now become common in France.

Between the eleventh and the fourteenth century, some specific shifts can be traced. Cinnamon, ginger and clove all became standard ingredients. Zedoary, said to resemble ginger, was mentioned from late Carolingian times until the start of the fourteenth century, but then disappeared from cuisine. Pepper was still used, but came in several varieties, notably long pepper, whose use did not continue long after the fourteenth century (perhaps because it resembled the chili peppers found in America). The same is true of paradise seed, a relative of cardamon that is standard in the Viandier, but unmentioned several centuries later. Spikenard and costus are mentioned glancingly, but were no longer standard.

Verjuice, which may have started as the tart juice of a specific grape, soon existed in different forms, some (both green and white) based on grapes, some on grains (beer) or apples (cider), some made from sorrel.

Sugar was first introduced (from the East) as a medical ingredient, but was common in cooking by the fourteenth century.

Spices remained expensive through most of this period, but by the mid-fourteenth century, some, notably cinnamon and ginger, were being used in public or municipal meals.

While the Romans had had a number of complex sauces, seasoning had become minimal by the Crusades. With the increased availability of spices came more sophisticated ways to use them and cooks made several standard sauces, such as cameline (cinnamon) sauce. While private cooks continued to prepare these, sauce-making itself became a trade and later accounts often list sauces bought ready-made.

It should be clear from all the above that the history of spices and seasonings from the Gauls through the fourteenth century was a complex one, with several distinct phases and one, too, that never completely fell away.

Fasting (meat and meatless meals)

During most of French history, a fundamental distinction applied in food: the difference between meat and meatless (fast-day) meals. This was due to the Catholic obligation to fast during Lent and on certain days. (In theory, fasting - eating almost no food - was distinct from abstinence - avoiding certain foods -, but the terms were used loosely.)

This practice has a complex history, one only hinted at in the data that follows. It began with the earliest Christians and had roots in both Roman and Jewish practice. If the first Christians were often limited to bread and water or xerophagy (eating only dry foods), by the late Roman period, it was already extended to a range of non-animal foods, at least in some areas; several writers describe the lack of consistency between different groups regarding whether to eat no food from living creatures, only fish, fish and birds, etc. The Church itself seems to have taken time to establish any coherent position on this subject.

Overall it seems that it was still largely an ecclesiastic obligation at the start of the Frankish period. Wider public observance seems to have begun with Lent, which had grown longer over time (to forty days) but also allowed for one meal a day as opposed to complete abstinence. A council at Orleans in 541 made this obligatory for everybody in the Church, not just the clergy. It is probably not a coincidence that as fasting became a more general obligation it also became less rigorous. Not only was fish allowed, but for a time birds were considered "meatless" as well, since they were created on the same day as fish. Some monks were allowed to put pork fat on their greens in regions where olive oil was hard to find. Nor did all monks rigorously follow the obligations of their rules.

Fasting became not only a spiritual but a legal obligation. In the most extreme case, Charlemagne made it a capital crime for the Saxons (who had bitterly defied him) not to fast on Lent.

All through this period various Church councils and synods were fine-tuning exactly which days were fast days and which foods were acceptable or not. An early concern was to distinguish orthodox Catholic belief from Judaism and various heresies, with the result that fasting was sometimes forbidden as being too “Judaizing” or too extreme. Some decisions also concerned excess luxury in eating or simple distaste, as when one pope banned the eating of horses.

The history of the practice is complex and continued to develop in future centuries. But whatever its shifts over the centuries, the obligation to fast or abstain at different times was a constant concern in French dining from early in the French monarchy.


A key issue by the time of the Revolution was the grip of tradespeople's corporations, which by then controlled production and employment in a number of domains. This institution, which played such a large part in Old Regime history, first appeared in the medieval period.

The Romans had similar organizations called collegia . Several of these have been documented in cities in Gaul; others very likely existed even if no evidence of them survives.

Like most Roman infrastructure, these probably survived in the first centuries of Frankish rule but then disappeared as cities declined. Certainly, any official organizations of tradespeople were gone by the time of Charlemagne, who explicitly banned sworn organizations. But soon after his period evidence is found of tradespeople acting in concert (not in cities, initially, but in the communities which grew up around monasteries). In subsequent centuries, such groups became more formalized. Some corporations, such as that of the butchers, would later claim a long earlier history when they were formally recognized.

Scholars continue to disagree as to whether medieval corporations arose on their own or were direct heirs of the Roman collegia.

In 1260, Etienne Boileau, the Provost of Paris, established statutes which described the functions of the various corporations (guilds). By then many of these had presumably existed for some time. From this point on, corporations were an official part of life in Paris and later in other cities. With all the upheavals that followed this period, corporations remained central to French commercial life until the French Revolution.

June 16, 2012