An important feature of Celtic life was feasting which was, more than probably, a euphemism for wildness and drunkenness but which nevertheless served as the main way to maintain group cohesion and to build external relationships while, at the same time, asserting or promoting individual social status. Strangers, under the code of hospitality, were allowed to eat and drink before being asked their name and business.
Bards would be in attendance, proclaiming the praises of the individuals involved, accompanied, possibly, by music. Feasts were also the time when a raid on a neighbours territory would have been proposed with warriors making drunken vaunts or boasts aimed at securing their own prestige and fame.
So what would have been on the menu at a Celtic feast?
Available crops would have included wheat, barley, oats, rye and peas. Grains would then be ground down in hand powered querns (mill stones) to make a coarse bread.
The choicest cuts of meat, the prime ribs or the succulent part of the thigh, were reserved for the champions and kings and a warrior attempting to undeservedly help himself to the “champion’s portion” could easily lead to bloody conflict. (In my novel, Raiding Cúailnge, that was how Fergus mac Rioch inherited the throne when his brother the king, was accidently killed in just such a dispute.)
Fish and meat, hung above the fire to preserve the food, would have a rich, tangy taste from the chemicals in the smoke. Rock salt would also be a vital ingredient in preserving food. Meat, along with beans, grains and herbs would then be stewed in a covered clay pot cooked on embers in the hearth and served to everyone else along with wild fruits, nuts, herbs, mushrooms, fish, periwinkles and oysters
Bronze cauldrons, the largest one having a capacity of 70 gallons or 318 litres, would have been used for brewing mead or for heating milk to make cheese. The great bronze vase of Vix, found in the tomb of a Burgundian princess at Vix who died in about 600 BC, held about 1200 litres. In Ireland, the largest beaker – see earlier note about artifacts – had a capacity of almost ten litres and was found in Derry but because of the shape of its wide, flaring mouth would not have been an ideal drinking vessel as too much would slosh out when raised to the mouth. Instead, drinking horns, made from ox horns or simple iron or wooden cups without a handle, were more common.
Mead was made from honey and herbs and ale was made from barley and flavoured with heather. Wine, of course, was imported and came in amphorae. An amphora was a clay vase with two handles and a long neck. The base was either pointed or formed into a knob, but never flat. Sizes varied with Greek amphorae averaging about 40 litres while Roman amphorae held about 26 litres or so.
More about wine next time!