Jim Chevallier's Web Site



French Food Before Taillevent


An overview of the stories

Comparison of early/mid and late medieval food


The Gauls

France 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 culture (from 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 Gaul's inhabitants.

Around 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.


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 animals.

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 less.

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 places.

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.

Fishing 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 not widespread.


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 land.

Plants regarded as weeds today, such as lambsquarter (chenpodium album) and orache (atriplex patula), 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 miliaceum, which 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 similar.)

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 grain.

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.

Only 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 used.

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 (Celtoligurian).

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 ground-pine,  and 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.


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 in Franche-Comté. 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 disputed).

Strangers were fed before being questioned.

Young men were punished for growing fat.

The druids forbade the keeping of written records.


Description of Gauls dining:

The 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, called θυρεοὶ, 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 individuals).

Mutton 12.1% of remains, representing at least 55 individuals (15.6% of individuals).

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 individuals).

Also (under 2% of individuals) goat, boar, stag, hare, beaver,marten, birds.

Fish remains found from pre-conquest era on Mediterranean coast:

Lattes (near Montpelier): Gilthead sea bream, sea bass , mullet, eel, sole, red mullet, sardine, garfish, mackerel, turbot, horse mackerel, some flatfish, anchovy, John Dory.

Olbia (near Marseilles):garfish, sarma salpa, sea bass, gray mullet, smooth-hound, angelfish, scorpion fish, eel, sea bream and wrasse.

Marseilles: Bogue, red mullet, eel, sea bass, turbot, ray, small mullet, silverside, anchovy, sardine.

Grave offerings/funereal meals:

Animal 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?

Graves near Soissons: Pork, beef, mutton, roebuck, hare.

June 16, 2012