Bite-Sized History of France

Eat Like a Peasant (or a Templar)

I've been reading this fun little book called A Bite-Sized History of France, which I warmly recommend to any of you out there who love food, France, and fun little facts.


The authors are married, a Frenchman to an American woman, and they write with humor and a good eye for the ridiculous. Ex:

Today the Ban des Vendanges [date which the wine grape harvest can officially begin] is mainly an occasion for celebrating and promoting wine, but it remains a minor administrative hassle for vintners if they want to harvest any earlier. So, all in all, the Ban des Vendanges is very French, as France is traditionally a big producer of both wine and administrative hassles.

As the title suggests, the authors proceed chronologically through the great country's history, seen through the lens of food anecdotes. Along the way, I learned how food became a marker of social class in the Middle Ages. Because most vegetables were grown and consumed by peasants, to supplement their meager diet of whole grains and infrequent meat, "nobles shunned most vegetables, especially root vegetables, which grew underground." The same nobles also pooh-poohed fish, associating it with Catholic fast days. They wanted lots of meat, especially game (because of its warriorlike association with hunting) and fancy birds like heron, swan and peacock. And at the top of the desirable-menu-items list? Phoenix and salamander. If only they weren't so hard to find! 

Such a rich diet among the nobility made diseases like gout and cardiovascular problems common, and it's not like bossing peasants around burned many calories, in between crusades. At least, for all the bummers of feudalism (like oppression, disease, overwork, and always having to hand over the lion's share to the Man), those peasants got their exercise and ate healthy when food was to be had! And since, as the book points out, 95% of France belonged to this Third Estate, they had hundreds of years to get in shape for the Revolution, when they could chop off the heads of the First (clergy) and Second (nobility) Estates. (I'm not done with the book yet, but I really hope I get to a chapter titled, "The Peasants Strike Back, a.k.a., the Reign of Terroir."

Another group that did pretty well, dietarily and otherwise, were the Knights Templar. These warrior-monks, who may or may not have looked like Chow Yun Fat--


took as their mission defending Christian-won sites in the Holy Land after workaday Crusaders headed home. So they combined monkish habits with other, decidedly unmonkish habits.

The diet of the Templars very much resembled that of other monks, but they were allowed to eat meat three times a week. It is actually thought today that their restrained eating habits, which involved lots of vegetables, fruits, and fish, were responsible for the noted longevity of Templar knights, which back then was seen as a sure sign of divine approbation.

My mom tells me that my stepdad has been diagnosed with a precancerous growth in his intestine, which gave me a chance to climb on my soapbox and urge them to eat like peasants and Templars. Vegetables, vegetables, vegetables! Fruit, fiber, fish, whole grains! Throw away the processed foods when he's not looking!

Call it the revenge of the Second Estate. After disdaining all those healthy foods as too peasant-y and getting ousted and decapitated in the French Revolution, now it's the richest 5% in the world who are eating all the healthy foods and leaving what they deem the dregs to those who can't afford to eat otherwise. Sigh. Plus ça change...

The book is full of lots more good stuff, and I'll probably post again on it, but in the meantime I urge you to call on your inner Medieval French peasant and get out to the Market for some strawberries, greens, peas, tomatoes, tuna, and -- that old peasant favorite-- turnips! (Parting factoid: according to Bite-Sized, before the discovery of the New World and the world-shifting Columbian Exchange, turnips were the original second ingredient of cassoulet, not white beans!)