The Celtic Diet – Part 2 – Beverages

The rich Mediterranean imports found in early Celtic sites between the seventh and fifth century BC in Southwestern Germany, Switzerland and Eastern France provide evidence of the role of consumption practices in feasting. Imported ceramic vessels have been interpreted as an attempt by the Celtic elite to imitate Mediterranean wine feasting. In the Mediterranean imported plant oils and grape wine was identified and evidence points towards Celtic appropriation of Greek customs towards these foreign vessels. Both Greek and local wares served for drinking grape wine and other plant-based fermented beverages. A wide variety of animal and plant by-products (e.g. fats, oils, waxes, resin) were also identified. Honey and millet were also common in beverages in early Celtic drinking practices, such as mead and millet bear.

The study suggests the early Celts used both imported and locally made drinking vessels to drink Greek wine and local beer. Whilst beer was drunk by everyone, warriors drank millet beer while the elites drank ale made from barley or wheat and imported wine (which they later produced).

A.T. Lucas states ale and mead were common intoxicants from ancient times. However, alcohol wasn’t really that important to the ancient Celts. It grew in popularity and Ireland’s oldest pub, The Brazen Head, in Dublin dates to 1198. Whisky in Ireland and Scotland (Whiskey) only goes back to medieval times and was widely distilled from the 15th century onwards. The Irish immigrants in America took the recipe over with them. Irish law prohibits unlicensed private distillation of whiskey, but like the moonshine in America, poitin is often illegally brewed in the hills of rural Ireland. The ancient history of alcohol production and use in Ireland provides some insight into how alcohol may have developed such cultural significance in the Celtic world over time. However, ancient Celtic binge drinking did not involve alcohol, but milk.

According to Caesar, The Britons “live on milk and flesh” and this is borne out in Celtic mythology. For example, as a baby, Brigid drank the milk of a sacred cow that came from the spirit world. Her association with the sacred cow reflects the Celtic reliance on the animal for sustenance; milk was an important theme throughout the year, especially during the cold winter months when hardship threatened. Cian owned a magic cow whose abundant milk made everyone want to possess her. Our early ancestors were besotted by milk, they worshipped it and their daily life revolved around it. Cows provided hide, meat, currency, and milk.

The ability to digest into lactose in milk into adulthood in modern Europeans is the result of a genetic mutation (genome) and is largely absent in other cultures. As cattle and other livestock have been farmed in western Eurasia since long before, you would expect such a mutation to already be widespread by the Bronze Age. But DNA samples taken from this period, shows that it only existed in 10% of the population, which indicates that the widespread use of milk and dairy products like cheese, etc. gradually increased.

In ancient Ireland hospitality was a duty, and milk held huge significance in our ancient hospitality rites. To refuse a drink in ancient Ireland would cause great offence and considered a hostile and aggressive gesture. In modern times, it is the equivalent of refusing a cup of tea. Milk was later to become affiliated with the miracles of early Irish saints. St. Fechin of Fore, St. Bridgid, St. Ciaran of Saigher, St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise and St. Samthanne all performed miracles with milk.

The Celtic thirst knows no bounds and the Celts took to drinking tea with the same enthusiasm as they had for milk and alcohol. The Celtic love for liquids (whether it is tea, milk or alcohol) is engrained in our cultural fibre and identity.

When I was growing up, milk drinking was still encouraged to develop healthy bones and teeth and it is only in the last couple of decades that it has been link to high cholesterol. Full fat milk is now replaced by skimmed (basically coloured water) and semi-skimmed (which is a fair compromise).

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