Bread was important to the Romans in a way it had not been to the Gauls. In fact, some credit the Romans with introducing bread to porridge-loving “Barbarians”; the classic dichotomy is between the bread, oil and wine of the Romans and the porridge, meat, dairy and beer of the Gauls and Germans. (Kertzer. Barbagli). This was exaggerated of course; the Romans had long eaten porridge and the Gauls not only had a form of flat bread, but may have learned to make leavened bread from the same people as the Romans: the Greeks. Still, in the broad lines, it is true that under the Romans bread first took on the importance in France which, if much diminished, it still has today.
If you are new to early French history, the first thing to know about Gaul in the period after the Roman conquest is that it was part of Rome. Today we call those who then lived in Gaul “Gallo-Romans”, but that is a modern term; to themselves and others of the time, they were simply “Romans”. Romans, it is true, who were often descended from Gauls and who even kept some awareness of their distinct identity, just as a Texan, though American, remains a Texan. But Romans nonetheless.
Cities like Paris, Lyons and Marseille were then Roman cities. Some, like early Paris, were even laid out on a Roman template, with, for instance, a forum and an amphitheater (one of which still survives in Paris). While these were not exact clones of Rome itself, the life in them was probably as like life in the capital as life in Omaha or Austin is like that in New York or Los Angeles.
This is important in reference to bread because, even where direct evidence is lacking, it would be surprising if certain key Roman institutions did NOT exist in these cities. Certainly, just enough survives to show that some did; nor is it reasonable to assume that because we lack evidence of others that they did not.
Matterne and Lepetz provide this overview based on archeological finds from the period in the north of France:
Wheats dominate among the cereals. Two types of wheats confront each other: grains like bread wheat and husked wheats like spelt and emmer. The latter possess a half-fragile ear and resistant husks. Processing of cereals with husked grain after the harvest is thus longer and more complex than that of naked grains. Husked cereals must be beaten several times to obtain clean grain.
The cultural demands of the three wheats also differ. Spelt possesses a great rusticity and a particular tolerance for drought. It bears thin and light soils which develop a highly draining secondary substratum, which is why it was cultivated in the Bronze age in Champagne-Ardenne. Emmer requires more fertile and well prepared soils but nonetheless remains easier to cultivate than bread wheat which requires deep and well-structured soils.
The authors go on to say that wheats like bread wheat represent the greatest proportion of remains found for the whole Gallo-Roman period from the first century on. From the second century, they are especially dominant in the south of Picardy and the Paris region. Husked wheats were confined to the north of Picardy, until the fourth century, when they start to spread to the south.
Other evidence shows that bread wheat was a new arrival whose culture started to spread at the end of the first century.
Rye, initially a weed, began to be cultivated from the first century on, mainly in the Ile-de-France (greater Paris region), but may first have been used as forage for livestock.
These grains would remain the main ones in French bread making for centuries. Bread wheat and spelt would be used for the better breads; barley and rye, often in various mixtures, were used in breads for servants and the poor or those, like monks, who wanted to humble themselves.
Per Pliny, millet and panic were grown in and near Aquitaine and millet would still be found there over a millennium later, even if this never became a general French grain.
The Gauls have also a kind of spelt peculiar to that country: they give it the name of "brace," while to us it is known as "sandala:" it has a grain of remarkable whiteness. Another difference, again, is the fact that it yields nearly four pounds more of bread to the modius than any other kind of spelt.
A modern reader, in visualizing flour and bread, will probably imagine relatively pure and homogeneous products. But even under the Romans – for a long time, France's most sophisticated rulers – flour was not necessarily appetizing. Excavations at Amiens of a large granary from this period reveal what was probably a common state of affairs in the larger cities: part of the grain had spoiled from humidity, some had begun to sprout and at least eight varieties of insects had infested it, sometimes over several generations. Note the authors "The case of Amiens is... not unique. In general, one notes, in the Roman era, obvious difficulties in keeping stocks in good condition." (Matterne, Yvinec and Gemehl) Some of these problems may have related to Roman culture itself: the tendency to centralization, for instance, which increased the need for storage. The same long distance transportation which helped increase the availability of grain may also have introduced some parasites from the East and resulted in some spoilage en route.
Not only was the bread of the Romans not good in general, but further it was often toxic, even for the military population which power had so much interest in managing since, more and more often, the army made the emperors. if the stored cereals were bad in military granaries, if they were in the civil granaries of distant provincial cities, it is likely that they were everywhere, except perhaps in the very large cities where the circulation of goods was faster and above all in Rome where it was necessary to avoid displeasing the plebes.
The bread oven is rather well preserved. It appears as a circular mass of compact earth more or less hard and baked about 1.30 m wide outside. Inside, a hemispheric cavity filled with earth and cinders was emptied, its upper cover having partially disappeared leaving an opening of 45 cm. At the base, the sole or floor in very baked earth having 80 cm in diameter opening on a mouth 30 cm long, 30 cm wide and 40 cm high, oriented northwest. The walls are very baked, smooth and demonstrate long use... the floor... rested on a not very dense of shards of Gaulish pottery
In an urban context, a bakery oven functioning in the second half of the first century before J. C. was uncovered on the site of Lattes: its base was made of dolium fragments... [A discovery in the Vaucluse was of] a service room bearing to the North a half-buried dolium, a monolithic vat and, in the wall, the mouth of a bread oven 1.61 in diameter with red bricks joined by mortar. Another oven was found in the digs of the antique port quarter in Toulon:... In the rest of Gaul, another oven was found.... in Seine and Oise. It involves a circular constriction 2 m in diameter inside, built of stones and tiles, partially buried, whose peak alone must have gone beyond the old ground level; the walls were [made up of tile fragments, then two rows of bricks between three rows of stone, at the top of tiles]: the mouth was marked by a flat stone. This site was occupied from the first to the fifth centuries. At Bliesbruck (Moselle) [among a group of buildings along a street, each organized around a courtyard]... in the corner of one of the courtyards, was a set of two ovens whose soles were completely made up of tegulae bound to the clay. In the surrounding area, were found the remains of older soles and the fragments of a mill.
LXXIV – Recipe for making depsiticus bread.
Make “well-kneaded” bread as follows. Wash your hands and the mortar [or mixing bowl] well. Put the flour in the mortar, add water bit by bit, mix all this well. Once the dough is made, shape it, bake it under the earthenware pot (bell).
At the present day, however, the leaven is prepared from the meal that is used for making the bread. For this purpose, some of the meal is kneaded before adding the salt, and is then boiled to the consistency of porridge, and left till it begins to turn sour. In most cases, however, they do not warm it at all, but only make use of a little of the dough that has been kept from the day before.
Unfortunately, archeologists never seem to analyze finds of bread to determine exactly how they were leavened. But the two slashes on the round bread found in the Var are reminiscent of those found on French breads since the end of the eighteenth century. One explanation for the latter is that they were to release gases produced by using yeast, which was stronger than sourdough. Were the slashes on the Gallo-Roman bread merely decorative, or did they serve a similar purpose? If so, this would suggest that the bread was leavened with yeast, as in those referenced by Pliny.
It seems to me quite unnecessary to enter into an account of the various kinds of bread that are made. Some kinds, we find, receive their names from the dishes with which they are eaten, the oyster-bread, for instance: others, again, from their peculiar delicacy, the artolaganus, or cake-bread, for example; and others from the expedition with which they are prepared, such as the "speusticus," or " hurry-bread." Other varieties receive their names from the peculiar method of baking them, such as oven-bread [Furnaceus], tin-bread,[Artopticeus] and mouldbread.[Clibanis} It is not so very long since that we had a bread introduced from Parthia, known as water-bread,[Aquations] from a method in kneading it, of drawing out the dough by the aid of water, a process which renders it remarkably light, and full of holes, like a sponge: some call this Parthian bread. The excellence of the finest kinds of bread depends principally on the goodness of the wheat, and the fineness of the bolter. Some persons knead the dough with eggs or milk, and butter even has been employed for the purpose by nations that have had leisure to cultivate the arts of peace, and to give their attention to the art of making pastry.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION:The History of the European Family: Family life in early modern times (1500 …), ed David I. Kertzer, Marzio Barbagli 2001
Roth, Jonathan, Jonathan P. Roth, The Logistics of the Roman Army at War: 264 B.C. - A.D. 235 1999
Apollinaire, Sidoine (saint.), Oeuvres de C. Sollius Apollinaris Sidonius v3 1836 245
Matterne, Véronique, Jean-Hervé Yvinec, Dominique Gemehl, "Stockage de plantes alimentaires et infestation par les insectes dans un grenier incendié de la fin du IIe siècle après J.-C. à Amiens (Somme)", Revue archéologique de Picardie, v3 1998
Gregorius (Turonensis), Les livres des miracles et autres opuscules de Georges Florent ..., Vol 2 tr Henri Léonard Bordier
Du Cange, Charles Du Fresne, Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis, Vol 3 1840-1850
Manière, Gabriel, “La station gallo-romaine des Aquae siccae à Saint-Cizy (Haute-Garonne)”, Gallia, vol 38 1980
Lindet, M. L. , “Les Origines du Moulin a Grains”, Bulletin de la Société d'encouragement pour l'industrie nationale Vol 99, Issue 2
Rule, Margaret, Jason Monaghan, AGallo-Roman trading vessel from Guernsey: the excavation and recovery of a third century shipwreck, Guernsey Museum & Art Gallery 1993