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French Food Before Taillevent


An overview of the stories

Comparison of early/mid and late medieval food



After the Roman conquest (51 BCE), Gaul became a province of the Roman Empire and its inhabitants Roman, though (much like American states) it retained a regional identity (as did the regions within it). ("Gallo-Roman" is a modern term for people who were then called "Romans", though in some contexts they would refer to themselves as "Gauls".) Gaul soon sent both senators and emperors to the capital. Numerous remains of amphitheatres, aqueducts, baths, etc. today hint at how Roman France once was, even if its population reflected its mixed history. The well-off and city dwellers were Romanized and often (not always) had Roman citizenship; Celtic culture persisted in some of the countryside, though local deities were often given names of Roman gods (somewhat as Santeria associates Catholic saints with African deities). The first Christians in Gaul were martyred but after Constantine's conversion churches began to appear in cities and the upper clergy often came from the best Gallo-Roman families. Gradually the Church established an alternate infrastructure as that of the Empire grew weaker. As various Germanic tribes began to pressure or even make incursions into Gaul, the Romans used some, like the Franks, to defend against the others. As a result, the leaders of many of these groups were often highly Romanized before their subsequent conquest of Gaul in the fifth century.


Urban dwellers and the better off probably ate like Romans. However, since the best Roman food required various imports, those of modest means probably ate modified versions of Roman food. The least advantaged very likely continued to eat the same local products as before the conquest.

Exports from Gaul, some of which had begun before the conquest, made some Gallic products important in Rome. The Gauls continued to export pork products. Gaul wheat, peaches, medlars and onions were also exported; Gallic parsnips and asparagus are also mentioned. Several cheeses from Gaul were noted by Roman authors.

Fairs (emporia) were held in several cities; Germans (otherwise known as fierce) brought their cattle to some of these which was said to lower the price of cattle overall.

Those who substantially adopted Roman ways would have followed the Roman meal times. By some accounts these were:

  1. juntaculum, or breakfast, typically light

  2. prandium, or dinner, which was more abundant

  3. cœna, or supper, the preferred time for more lavish meals

  4. commessatio, variously translated, but generally a late night meal before bed, sometimes said to degenerate into riotous behavior

Some have argued, however, that the Romans typically only had one meal a day.

By one account Roman meals were divided into three major services:

  1. First: fresh eggs, olives, oysters and light dishes

  2. Second: aged (hung) meats, fish and roasts

  3. Third: pastries, preserves, fruits

Eggs might also end the meal.

The upper classes reclined on couches, a custom that has been variously credited to the influence of the East and to the fact that upper class Romans often ate coming out of the bath, dressed in special robes.

The Romans at least used spoons (as well as knives); a rare mention of a two-pronged fork has also been found.


Domestic animals became larger. For cattle, this may have been due to cross-breeding with Roman bovines. The import of German cattle was said to lower the cost of cattle overall. The Gauls were considered excellent shepherds.

The cheese of Nimes (Mt. Losere) was praised. Gallic goat cheese imported to Rome was said be strong-smelling. The cheese of Toulouse was disparaged.

Upper class Romans ate large game birds (peacock, heron) much as would later French kings. Geese were herded on foot from Gaul to Rome.

Mullet (prized by the Romans) was abundant near Nimes; dolphins were used to herd mullet into nets; males were used as lures for females and vice-versa. River salmon were popular in Aquitaine. Shad (which was prized in later centuries) was called “food for the vulgar”; perch, “the dainty of our tables”; mussels, “delightful to the taste of lords and cheap enough for poor folks' kitchens”.

The oysters of Medoc were praised. Those at Marseilles were said to be next best, others were named from other regions, including Brittany.

Tuna fishing was described at Marseilles, using nets (this is confirmed by the quantity of tuna remains found from this period).

Enclosed game parks existed for boar, deer, wild goats, hare, and... snails. Some Gauls sacrificed to Diana (probably a Celtic goddess given that name); others kept a treasury for the goddess, paying different amounts for each hare, fox or roe-deer caught. The money was later used for a festival. Gallic hunting dogs were praised by Roman writers and the objects of trade; but the Gauls also bought dogs from England.


Turnips, which were eaten by people, but also fed to cattle, were profitable.

Figs were grown around Paris (with special straw “coats” for the trees). Cherries, which came late to Rome from the East, were said to have come to Gaul under Claudius (this may refer to specific varieties, since cherry pits have been found in earlier graves). The Romans may have introduced certain types of apples too, which had come late to Rome itself. The Gallic medlar was said to be inferior to others found in Rome; the Gallic peach was the largest.

Pine nuts (common in the Mediterranean) appeared in Gaul during this period; they were used both in Roman cooking and as funeral offering.


More bread wheat was cultivated; Gaul exported wheat to the capital. Barley (which the Romans reserved for dogs, horses and soldiers) became a low-status grain.

Rye (absent in earlier graves) may have been introduced by the Romans.

A kind of whitened grain was used by the Romans called alica. It is not specifically mentioned as being in Gaul, but may have been.

The Romans invented water mills and these were mentioned in Gaul; but most mills were hand-turned.

The Gauls' use of yeast for bread disappeared (for over a millennium); Romans probably introduced the “sour dough” method for leavening bread which became the standard French method. (This was also more suited to a wine-centric culture, since yeast typically came from beer.) Romans also used millet as leavening and this method too was later found in France. Other Roman leavens included wheat-bran with must, vetch and cakes of barley meal.

"Roman-style" bread was sold in Gaul. Presumably this meant bread leavened in the Roman way (any leavened bread may have been new to Gauls who did not use the beer foam-method mentioned by Pliny); it may also have referred to bread made in the shapes (scored, slightly raised disks) found in Pompei.

The bakers of Gaul chose Mercury-Artaius (from the Greek Artos, meaning bread) as their patron. Roman collegia (like guilds) existed in cities in Gaul for bakers.


Gallic wine was produced and sometimes exchanged with Roman wine. Bordeaux was already famous for its wine. Vines then included Biturica, Spionia, Balisca and Arcelaca. Biturica (probably from Bordeaux) was praised among second-quality wines and said to be resistant to bad weather. The wine of Vienne (Côtes de Rhone) was said to be made with pitch, though one author said it naturally tasted of it and another said this was very expensive. It was said to lose its quality if the vines were planted elsewhere. Wines were produced above Nimes. The wine of Beziers was only known within Gaul. Raetica (near Nice) was said to give wine “without strength”. A kind of “liqueur” was produced in the Narbonnaise by stopping fermentation with cold. Smoke and pitch were often used in making wine; the wine in Marseilles was said to be inferior and “cooked in smoke”, but was sent as far as Egypt. Vines in Burgundy (Côtes de Nuit) were said to be overrated.

Some wines came from Cyprus and Gaza. Gallic grapes were used for Roman wine.

Paris was already said to have good vines (though not yet known, as it would be, for its wine).

Wine in the Alps was put in wooden barrels, but said to stand frozen if these burst. Fires were used to keep it from freezing. In more moderate regions, wine in jars was sometimes buried to keep it from the weather.

Flat-bottomed amphorae produced in Marseille were requested in Alexandria (Egypt).

Wine merchants had powerful corporation in Lyons; utricularii (wineskin producers) had corporations in several cities.

The Romans drank wine with water; drinking pure wine (as some Gauls still did) was frowned upon.

Several tavern cups show specifically Gallic designs; cups exist with inscriptions mentioning both beer and wine (in one case, pure wine – merum – which Gauls drank). One found in Paris might have been used both for cervoise and spiced wine (conditum).

References to beer are all to cervoise, not korma or other pre-conquest “beers”. Dryers for cereals have been found which might have been for malt.

Diocletian's decree against wine may have forced Gauls back to cervoise, etc. (Accounts differ as to whether it was enforced.) Probus restored vines to Gaul and had soldiers help plant them.

A drink called dodra is described as being made from broth, water, wine, salt, oil, bread, honey, pepper, and herbs, but is not mentioned other than in that description.


Garum (fish sauce from mackerel) was the most common Roman condiment. An “inferior” fish sauce was made from tuna fish. Garum (and other seasonings) were made on the coast of Brittany and along the Mediterranean coast of Gaul.

Honey, vinegar and broth were all used generously as well.

Roman spices, etc.: Salt, black and white pepper, anise, caraway, celery seed, costus, cumin, dill, fennel, flea-bane, ginger, laser, laurel, laurel berries, lovage, malabathrum, marjoram, mastic, mint, mustard, myrtle berries, onion, origany, pennyroyal, rocket seed, rue, saffron, sage, savory, spikenard, sumac, thyme, and tarragon.

Cinnamon was known but not apparently used for cooking in the western empire. It seems to have been in the eastern, however.

Pepper was sometimes replaced with dried juniper berries.

One type of nard – one of the more luxurious Romans spices – was called Gallic nard and was sometimes adulterated with hirculus, an herb that grew with it and was said to smell like a goat.


Romans had had a taboo against slaughtering draft animals (beef) for food, except for rituals. This seems to have fallen away.

Women were banned from the kitchen.

Hunting was explicitly considered open to everyone (as opposed to later feudal limits).

Collegia – like guilds – existed in Roman Gaul, including:

  • suarii – pork butchers

  • pecuarii – sheep and goat butchers

  • boarii – beef butchers

  • pistores – bakers

  • cervesarii – brewers

  • ospita – beer sellers



Food for the poor:

From spelt pottage-making meal, that...furnishes the tables of the common folk” (i.e., porridge); turnip and rape were also mentioned as food of the poor.

For luxury meal:

Bread made with Libyan wheat, wines of Chio, Gaza, Falerne.

Funerary meals and offerings:

Pork; beef, wild boar, mutton; goat; dog; cat; rabbit; hare; eggs; rooster, chicken, goose, pigeon; vegetables, bread, salt; oysters; plums, hazelnuts; fruit preserves, honey. Gutus – pottery or glass pitchers with “nipples” for feeding babies (possibly ) – have been found in infants' graves.

Remains found in central Paris:

Pig, wild boar, beef, sheep, goat, hare, rabbit, poultry, oyster, mussel, snail.

Fish in the Moselle:

Chad, tench, bleak, trout, barbel, gudgeon, grayling, chub, salmon, eel-pout, perch, pike, sheat-fish (catfish).

Fish remains found in Marseilles:

Tuna (large quantities), sardine, anchovy, mackerel, horse mackerel, small bream, red mullet, sea bass, turbot, flatfish.

ROMAN IN GENERAL (Well-off Gallo-Romans would have eaten at least some of these)

MEAT: Wild boar (neck; from Tuscany), ham, bacon (Cerratan or Menapian), chitterlings (from virgin pig or pregnant sow), suckling pig, kid, Lucanian sausage, sow's paunch, udder/teats, hare (thigh), rabbits, dormouse

BIRDS: Thrush, turtle-dove, birds from Libya or Phasis, chicken and eggs, capon, pullet, wild-fowl, pheasant, partridge ("rarity"), wood-pigeon, duck (breast and neck), peacock, crane (Thrace), fat goose liver (foie gras), heathcock, flamingo (tongue), blackbird

SEAFOOD/SHELLFISH: Mullet, turbot, eel, “sea-lizard” [eel?], pike, lamprey, carp, char (liver), coracinus, sea-hedgehog, prawn, gudgeon, sturgeon, John Dory, barbel, red herring, anchovy. moray, parrot fish, oyster (Locrian), lobster, crab, shrimp, sea-urchin, cockles, mussels, snails and sea-snails

VEGETABLES: Asparagus (wild and from Ravenna), fresh cauliflower, beans, haricot beans, olives (Andulusians), black olives, mushrooms, truffles, cabbage (in oil or boiled in nitrate water), cabbage sprouts, mallows "to aid digestion", leeks (Arician and Tarentine), mint "the antidote to flatulence", lettuce "a laxative", beets

SPICE: Pepper (frequently, even exclusively, mentioned in literature, though many other spices appear in Aspicius)

FRUIT: Figs (Carian, Chian and Libyan), dates (Thebes), plums (Syrian/Damas), apples (Ancona and Tivoli), candied plums, grapes (Venusian, Alba, Gallic), raisins, pears, chestnuts (roasted), quinces (with honey), service berries (for avoiding diarrhea), citrons, pomegranates (Nomentan and Libyan), cornel berries, melons, cherries

CHEESE: Cheese of Nimes (Mt. Lozere/Gevaudan), Luna cheese, Trebulan cheese (toasted or in water), baked cheese

SWEETS: Cake, cheesecake, phallic pastry

INFERIOR: Boiled snout of mutton, tuna fish, wine tasting of resin, Pelignian wine, Marseilles wine, Veieintine wine (Campanian), Rhodian biscuit

COMBINATIONS: Candied figs with onions, shell-fish and cheese; sausages on porridge; slices of egg on anchovies with rue; gourds made into various foods; lobster with asparagus; lamprey with shrimp cooked in garum, wine, white pepper, vinegar, and arugula; capers and onions in sauce; crane with salt and flour; sauce of lees and anchovies, black and white pepper; soup with sea-crabs and mullets; lettuce, snails, eggs, barley cake, sweet wine and snow with Andulusian olives, gourds, shallots (served to guest); boar stuffed with live thrush; boar with turnips, lettuce, root vegetables, celery, brine, wine dregs; lamprey with squillids, sauce with wine, oil, brine; inula and arugula cooked in shellfish brine; ostrich eggs stuffed with peacock egg yolks with figpecker in them "like foetus"; hares with wings added; dish of birds' tongues.

WINES: Falernian, Opimian (a vintage of Falernian), Caecuban, Chian (sometimes mixed with Falernian), Setian, Laletanian, Nomentan, Cretan, Surrentine (a lighter wine), Trifoline, Signine (against diarrhea), Tarragonese, Spoletine, Massic, Aminaean (in Picenum), perfumed wine (with spikenard, myrrh, etc.).

Snow was used to chill wine; ice too.

Honey was sometimes mixed with wine

Mulled wine and broth was taken after the bath.

Metheglin – spiced mead.

ACCESSORIES: Golden table service; woolen table cover on citron table; toothpicks of lentisc wood; feathers of Phoenicopterus (for instance, flamingo) used to provoke vomiting; one cup for water and one for wine..

June 16, 2012