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

Throughout history people have listened to their stomachs.

In ancient times, the Romans widened their empire, but, it turns out, failed to broaden their repertoire of seasonings.

In the cover story, right, we look back 2,000 years to set the mood. We realize it's the "wrong" millennium, but writer Peter Ford's re-creation of a Roman-Gallic feast was too compelling to let the calender get in the way.

Food has been a powerful influence in human events.

The British Navy could not have conquered the seven seas without Persian limes and ship's biscuits. The American Civil War could not have been fought without hardtack and johnnycake. And US soldiers would not have been fit for Persian Gulf duty in the 1990s without MREs, "meals ready to eat."

One of the worst evils in human history - the slave trade - was set in motion by sugar-cane cultivation in the Caribbean.

Lack of food caused vast migrations, such as those that followed the Irish potato famine.

Over millennia, mankind has indeed marched on its stomach.

The idea struck us one autumn weekend, as we were driving down to my wife's family home in Burgundy, pondering how to celebrate the arrival of the year 2000.

Suddenly we passed a roadside billboard, portraying a long-haired warrior offering up his bronze shield in an act of surrender. "Alesia," the sign read. Here, in the rolling pastures now grazed peacefully by cattle, the leader of the Gauls, Vercingetorix, had lost his final battle against the Roman invader in 52 BC.

That's what we would do - re-create a meal that could have been eaten by Vercingetorix or his triumphant enemy, Julius Caesar, 2,000 years ago.

We had the location for such a feast: Our house in Burgundy, an 18th-century blacksmith's home, is large, welcoming, and right in the middle of the territory once inhabited by the largest Gallic tribe.

We could find friends to share the meal - though we would need a fair number to make it a real banquet.

But how on earth would we come up with a menu? Or, for that matter, the ingredients?

Authenticity in all things, we decided, or this adventure would lose its flavor. So clearly we had to rule out potatoes, tomatoes, and anything else that European tongues did not taste until the 16th century.

But if we knew what Gauls and Romans didn't eat, (we had plumped for serving some Gallic dishes and some Roman ones, in a historical gesture of reconciliation), the challenge was to find out what they did eat. And how they cooked it.

My wife, Edith, who already had visions of herself dressed as a patrician Roman matron presiding over the table, undertook with a friend to come up with the Roman food. I happily assumed a role taken from France's favorite cartoon strip, Asterix - that of Obelix, a gargantuan Gaul of supernatural strength and appetite who devours wild boar by the herd - and promised to cook Gaulish.

The first thing I discovered, to my dismay, was that the Gauls hardly ever ate wild boar.

Since roasting and eating a wild boar was half the reason for holding this feast, I began to have my doubts. But a conversation with Christian Goudineau, a professor who is one of France's preeminent experts on life in Gaul, reassured me.

Though the Gauls raised chickens, cattle, swine, and sheep, which accounted for more than 90 per cent of their meat consumption, they did eat other animals, he told me. Horses, for example (as some French still do), and occasionally dogs, bred specially for the table.

And, from time to time, when an aristocrat went hunting with success, they ate boar.

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.

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.

I, meanwhile, was struggling with my boar. Even a small boar is a sizable beast, and the butcher had presented my purchase complete with head, hooves, and tail. This being a family newspaper I shall spare you the details of how to remove a head from a boar, but there was nothing to be done with the hooves except take a hacksaw to them.

Luckily, the village where Edith comes from holds an annual open-air lamb roast in the summer, and I was allowed to borrow the village spit (electrically operated - authenticity has its limits). Luckily, too, we have an almost limitless supply of logs, chopped over the years from adjacent woods, so we had plenty of fuel to keep a roaring fire going for the four hours it took to roast the boar.

That was about all the cooking I had to do. I basted the meat with goose fat (the Gauls were ignorant of oil, a Greek traveler was surprised to discover) and sprinkled it with sea salt, but otherwise left it alone to turn and sizzle in the courtyard.

The Romans, on the other hand, found they had a good deal of preparation. Edith, for example, had to slice and fry her cuttlefish (a larger version of squid), before cooking them gently in honey and vinegar flavored with pepper, lovage, cumin, coriander leaves, mint leaves, and garum. (Garum, which the Romans often used instead of salt, is the liquid that results from fermenting fish in saltwater.)

She also boiled the duck tongues, before sauteing them and serving them - garnished with roasted almond flakes - in a sauce prepared from honey, vinegar, pepper, parsley, lovage, mint leaves, and garum. Sound familiar? Martine, the friend who had prepared more Roman specialties at home to add to our table, also found herself dipping into the same old spice and herb jars: a spicy pumpkin dish (see recipe above), for example, called for pepper, cumin, coriander, mint, honey, and vinegar. Even a pear-based dessert required pepper, cumin, honey, and garum.

In the end, the Roman dishes drew mixed reviews. "Interesting" was a more commonly heard comment than "delicious," though the pumpkin dish went down well. Its strongly flavored, slightly crunchy crust contrasted well with the blander and softer pumpkin mix below.

The duck tongues, interestingly, turned out to have bones in them, which meant that eating them involved sucking a slim piece of heavily textured (chewy, to be honest) muscle off a tongue-shaped bone. But the sauce was good. And the Roman vegetable dishes, such as a lightly boiled lettuce (still crisp, surprisingly) delicately flavored with mint and onions, or carrots boiled with honey and sultanas, went down very well.

Overall, said Martine, "it was a curious experience, but not one that I would call gastronomic. It was not a very imaginative cuisine, and the same tastes cropped up everywhere." We could have varied things, I suppose, while remaining authentic. After all, the Romans put patchouli in some of their food, and rubbed their plates with rue, a bitter leaf used nowadays only as insecticide.

If we have traveled far from our classical forebears' tastes, however, our Celtic roots were all too evident when a guest and I shouldered the boar, complete with its head, to the dining table. Roast boar and lentils offered comfortingly familiar, farmyard flavors that everyone enjoyed, and there was enough to satisfy even Obelixian appetites.

Next year, when the millennium really starts, we are thinking of devising a menu that looks a thousand years into the future. Fine by me. Just so long as wild boar are not extinct by then.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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