For much of its early history, Rome’s greatest foreign enemy was Gaul, a nation of Celtic tribes in France. Gallic culture is largely overshadowed by accounts of battles and propaganda, but I’ve taken a closer look at what life was like as a Gaul with this flatbread recipe.
A photo of the stacked pieces of panic bread I made on a plate.
Through the haze of an early July morning, a large, distant crowd of people could just barely be seen moving over the crest of a hill. An awful din filled the air: swords beat against brightly painted shields, long-necked war horns bellowed, and the people howled like wolves. The nascent city of Rome was under attack from a vicious nation to the northwest: the Gauls.
The year was 390 BC, and the Senones, one of the many Gallic tribes, were marauding northern Italy. Led by their imposing chief, Brennus, the Senones had recently ended an unsuccessful siege of Clusium, an Etruscan city once the dominion of the legendary king Lars Porsena. Roman ambassadors interfered with the siege and sided with the Etruscans, their sworn enemies, disobeying diplomatic agreements with the Gauls in the process. Infuriated, Brennus led a force more than 12,000 men strong to ransack Rome.
Before they could reach Rome, the advancing Gallic army was intercepted by 24,000 Roman soldiers at the confluence of the Allia and Tiber Rivers some eleven miles north of the city. Brennus made quick work of his enemy’s slow and outdated phalanx formation and continued marching toward the capital.
Once they breached the gates, the Senones quickly captured all of the city except the Capitoline Hill. The majority of the city’s residents were holed up in the citadel, which the Gauls besieged for seven exhausting months. Only if the Romans forked over 1,000 pounds of gold would the Gauls let up, Brennus declared. The blockaded Rome refused to surrender, so the siege continued.
Both sides were crippled by famine and the Gauls had been blighted by malaria, but the Romans decided to cut their losses and pay ransom to regain control of their city. The opposing parties met, with the Romans bringing their gold and the Gauls providing balances and counterweights.
After putting the gold on the scale, the Romans cried that the weights were rigged against them. Brennus tossed his sword on the scale and angrily shouted “Vae victis!” or “Woe to the conquered,” which essentially means that those defeated in battle ought to be at the mercy of the victors, and attempts to ask for leniency will be punished harshly.
This philosophy didn’t go over well with the Romans, and from that moment on (at least allegorically), the Gauls were despised as the growing empire’s greatest enemy. Apart from this one instance, the Gauls seldom invaded Rome, but they were constantly antagonized.
Gladiator fights, one of the most regular forms of entertainment, based some of their fighter classes off Rome’s foreign enemies. Early on, these included the Samnite (creatively based on the Samnites), the thraex (based on the Thracians), and the gallus or murmillo (based on the Gauls).
So we know what the Romans thought of the Gauls, but who were they actually? By looking beneath the mask of stereotype and propaganda, the Gauls become much more than just boar-eating, beer-guzzling barbarians (though they did like beer quite a lot).
The Gauls, generally speaking, were the inhabitants of the region of Gaul (Gallia to the Romans), which roughly corresponds to France today. The vast majority of Gaul’s inhabitants were Celts who spoke Gaulish, an extinct Indo-European language related to modern Irish and Welsh, and more distantly to Latin and English. Although they’re frequently grouped because of shared linguistic and cultural traditions, the tribes of Gauls were by no means at peace with one another.
War frequently erupted between them, and tangled systems of alliances developed. Many tribes, like the Arverni and Helvetii, were violently opposed to Roman expansion and fought back against incursions into their territories. Others, like the Aedui, were valuable allies of Rome and were preyed upon by the other Gallic tribes, but also, confusingly, helped the Gauls. In any case, the Gauls didn’t always get along with each other and seldom got along with the Romans.
To the Romans, war seemed to be the essential (and lone) facet of Gallic culture. Virtually all of the information we know about the Gauls from Roman sources deals with fighting — Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum (Gallic War), one of the densest descriptions of ancient Gaul, is a prime example. But how do we know anything about food then, you might wonder, if that’s what this blog is all about?
Good question! This is where archaeology comes in. The French National Museum of Archaeology’s recent excavations of Gallic sites at Lattes, Paris, and Acy-Romance have discovered carbonized foods, tools, and animal remains, which shed light on the daily lives of the people who lived there centuries ago.
Like with Roman cuisine, it appears that grain was the basis of the Gallic diet. Einkorn, emmer, and spelt, all forerunners of modern wheat, were choice crops, but barley, millet, oats, and flax were also grown. As I was reading about the Gauls’ fare, I came across a grain I wasn’t at all familiar with: panic. This word isn’t etymologically related to what the Romans felt when their city was sacked, but rather derives from panus, the Latin word for “millet”.
It’s very closely related to that plant: both are tall grasses that produce lots of small, light-colored seeds. One of the most widely cultivated varieties of millet, common or proso millet (Panicum miliaceum), is a type of panicgrass.
According to Pliny the Elder, panic was eaten in ancient times by the people of Gallia Aquitania, probably referring to the Celtic population there (Natural History XVIII). And peasants in southern France made bread and porridge from the grass until the 19th century, a testament to the grain’s robustness and possible proof of panic’s consumption in ancient times.
So, we know what the Gauls ate, but how were those grains served? Again, parallels between Gallic and Roman cuisine appear: gruel, cakes, and breads would have formed the foundation of the average diet in ancient France.
I didn’t feel like making more porridge, so I figured I’d try my hand at baking bread. But I soon learned that the Gauls probably didn’t do too much proper baking. Some of the ingredients we are so familiar with today, like baking soda and instant yeast, weren’t isolated and sold on a large scale until the late 19th century.
Leavening in the form of a starter, much like sourdough today, is assumed to have been the most common method ancient bakers employed. The Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians probably made their bread this way. The Gauls used barm (the foam from fermenting beer) as leavening, though it seems more plausible that they normally would have eaten some sort of flatbread. Their neighbors, the Etruscans, are believed to have developed the precursor of focaccia, so the Gauls could logically have made a similar sort of thin bread.
In several significant ways, however, staples of Gallic cooking differed from those used by their Roman contemporaries. Instead of wine, the Gauls drank beer; in place of garum, they used salt; and they swapped oil for butter. This last difference particularly appalled the Romans — I’m not completely sure why. Pliny writes the following about how “only barbarians ate butter”:
From milk, too, butter is produced; held as the most delicate of food among barbarous nations, and one which distinguishes the wealthy from the multitude at large. It is mostly made from cows’ milk, and hence its name; but the richest butter is that made from ewes’ milk.
Naturally, I’d include salt and butter in my flatbread, but what about the flour? I wanted to make bread from panic, but I had to substitute proso millet instead (my grocery store, unfortunately, isn’t a field in the south of France). I encountered a couple of other dilemmas as I was working in the kitchen: millet is naturally gluten-free — the Gauls were ahead of their time! — so I found it tricky to use it alone to make bread.
But don’t panic — I mixed a cup millet flour with a cup of spelt flour, which has gluten, as both were grains the Gauls would’ve used. Additionally, I couldn’t get a hold of millet flour, so I took whole millet seeds and ground them in an electric spice mill to make my own (a blender would probably work just as well). But without further ado, this is my take on Gallic bread:
1 cup of millet flour
1 cup of spelt flour
¾ cup of milk
3½ tbsp of butter
½ tsp of salt
Mix the millet and spelt flours and salt in a large bowl. In a small pot on the stove, slowly heat the milk and butter, stirring until the butter is just melted. Take off the hob and pour into the bowl with the flour. Knead together until a smooth dough forms. Let the dough rest, about half an hour. Slice the dough into four pieces and roll them into rounds. Cover the bottom of a large skillet with a thin layer of olive oil and bring to medium heat. One at a time, slide the dough into the pan and cook for about 80 seconds on each side — they should come out light brown with some darker spots. Dry off any extra oil, and serve.
Pictures of the ingredients and a piece of the finished bread.
This bread is a bit mealy, probably a result of the millet, but it’s not anything off-putting. In terms of taste, this bread is nothing distinctive. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great, but it tastes like pita or naan or just about any other type of flatbread.
I served the bread with extra butter and honey, and I thought that made it really delicious. Or you could throw it on a plate with a pile of fava beans, a few collops of bacon, and an aurochs horn of beer, and, ta-da, you’ve got yourself an authentic Gallic meal. Whether or not this recipe truly channels the Gallic spirit through cooking, I strongly advise against trying to plunder a city afterward!