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Dinner was, well, a boar

An ancient repast of roast wild porcine - with all the fixin's - is prepared in France to celebrate the turn of another century

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Most of what we know about Gaulish cuisine, however, is guesswork from the bones and other remains unearthed by archaeologists, such as grains, pollen, and kitchen utensils found around ancient hearths.

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Greek and Roman authors wrote some accounts of the Gauls' habits, but they don't provide much to go on, and the Gauls, of course, wrote nothing down at all. "We know what we know from digging up bones, so our understanding of Gaulish cuisine is somewhat skeletal," joked Patrice Meniel, a paleozoologist.

Digging up bones, though, can tell a paleozoologist a surprising amount. A giant deposit of pig bones dating from about 2,000 years ago, for example, was found on closer inspection to contain almost no hind legs. Conclusion (supported by Roman texts of the time) - the Gauls preserved and exported hams.

Ham, however, was not what I had in mind as the centerpiece of our feast, so I went to the butcher at our local market in search of boar. Fully grown specimens run to about 170 pounds, which was more than 16 of us could reasonably eat, I thought.

But spit-roasting just the ribs or a haunch would not provide the spectacle I was planning.

Eventually, my butcher tracked down a hunter who had a special permit to shoot in a forest that had been declared overstocked with game. That gave him the unusual right to shoot young boar; I was promised a marcassin, - a skinned and gutted boar that would weigh about 40 pounds. Ideal.

Knowing that the Roman contingent would be coming up with all kinds of bizarre dishes, I stuck to Gaulish simplicity in my choice of vegetables.

Lentils have been cultivated in France for 2,000 years, Goudineau had told me, so I decided to serve boiled lentils flavored with bacon (if the Gauls made ham, they made bacon, I reckoned), salt (extracted from the sea), bay leaves and thyme (both of which grew wild), but no pepper, of which the Gauls were ignorant.

My wife encountered none of my problems in finding out what her people ate. A gourmet cook named Gavius Apicius left the most extraordinary collection of Roman recipes for posterity, and contemporary accounts tell us quite a lot about him.

Born around 25 BC, Apicius was not only rich, he was extravagant: Hearing that the shrimp off the coast of Libya were unusually large, he chartered a boat to go and see.

Disappointed by what the North African fishermen offered him, he sailed home empty-handed.

Apicius's collection of recipes, "The Culinary Arts," - hardly the Roman equivalent of "The Joy of Cooking" - represents the summum bonum of high-class imperial cuisine and inventiveness around the time of Jesus. Apicius concocted dishes of camel heels and cockscombs, and peacock tongues, and sows' teats stuffed with sea urchins.

He fattened his geese on dried figs.

Peacock tongues, we realized, would be hard to come by these days. But you never know what you are going to find at Tang, the premier supermarket in Paris's Chinatown. There, among frozen goodness-knows-what, my wife found two bags of duck tongues. Under the circumstances, a reasonable substitute for peacocks, she decided.

She gave camel heels a miss. Some culinary fantasies are best left as fantasies. But in a country where offal is highly prized, we thought we would be able to track down sows' teats. (Apicius specified the teats of a sow who had given birth but not yet suckled her piglets; we were not so choosy.)

But we were out of luck. Even a restaurateur friend who telephoned all his tripe suppliers came up empty.

Instead, Edith chose to cook one dish of cucumbers, eggs, and lambs' brains, another of minty cuttlefish, and a third of duck tongues in a sweet and sour sauce.