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The Formation of Culinary Culture and the Preferences of Consumers Considered from the History of Distribution

Hiroyasu Kimizuka
Associate Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University
2018.2.19

Why Is So Much Wine Consumed in Brittany?

The Brittany region of France is famous for their traditional galette, a type of pancake made with buckwheat flour, and alcoholic apple cider. However, according to statistics taken in 2005 (see the chart below), the beverage that was consumed the most during that year in Brittany was wine. Why is it that in a place known for its cider production, wine is the local beverage of choice?

Chart: Type of alcoholic beverage consumed more than once a week by men and women aged 15 to 75 (2005)
  Brittany France[1]
Liquor with high alcohol content (rum, etc.) 20% 17.2%
Beer 21% 19.7%
Wine 45% 43.2%
Other (cider, etc.) 14% 9.2%

Source: OFDT, Atlas régional des consommations d'alcool 2005, p. 129

Coastal Trade in Europe and the Beginning of Wine Consumption in Brittany

The Breton peninsula is surrounded by ocean, and the people who inhabit it have been deeply tied to the network that spans across the ocean since ancient times. According to the Greek philosopher Posidonius, the kings that ruled this land were already drinking wine that was shipped along sea routes. Later during the age of the Roman Empire, Brittany served as a central hub for trade routes between Aquitaine, a major wine producing region, and the British Isles. This is how the people of Brittany became familiar with wine by way of sea routes.

During the Middle Ages, the wine trade that connected northern and southern Europe became increasingly prosperous. However, war broke out between England and France in the 14th century, threatening the safety of coastal trade between Aquitaine and the British Isles. When confronted with this, the Duchy of Brittany built the port of Saint-Mathieu on the western coast of the Breton peninsula to avoid the dangers of transport by ship. Wine that was shipped from Bordeaux in the Aquitaine region was unloaded once at the port of Saint-Mathieu and temporarily kept in a storehouse before being transported to England. This is how the wine trade prospered between Saint-Mathieu and Bordeaux, thereby spreading the custom of consuming the wine of Aquitaine, especially among the aristocrats of western Brittany,

Connection between the Spread of Wine Consumption and Traders

In the 17th century, in the inland areas of the Breton peninsula, techniques for producing cider were introduced from Normandy. As a result, the common people of Brittany began consuming cider as their main beverage. Conversely, wine from Aquitaine gradually became a luxury product consumed only by the wealthy people. However, in the western part of the Breton peninsula, where there were no locally produced alcoholic beverages, the import of wine from Aquitaine increased. The trade routes of wine that was established in the Middle Ages continued here.

As urban populations grew in the 18th century, the amount of alcohol consumption among the common people increased, and the consumption of reasonably priced wines from Aquitaine, such as those from Blaye and Libourne, also increased. The commerce networks of traders supported the wine trade between the port in the region of production and the western part of the Breton peninsula. Some of the wholesalers from Libourne and Blaye sent their relatives to the markets in the port towns of Brittany, entrusting them with selling wine. The traders who moved to the port city of Landerneau in the western part of the Breton peninsula received wine from their relatives in Blaye and Libourne, and sold it through retail trade in the town and the outskirts, as well as to pubs and eateries. Furthermore, the traders learned about the preferences of local consumers through retail trade, and described them to wholesalers in Aquitaine through letters. The tastes of consumers were communicated to the wine wholesalers by way of the network of traders that connected the wine producing regions with the consumption regions, resulting in the selection of wines that suited the tastes of the consumers. The people of the western coast of the Breton peninsula preferred red wine from Libourne and Blaye.

The Tradition of Wine Consumption Started by Traders

In the beginning of the 20th century, inexpensive wine produced in the French colony of Algeria began getting imported especially for the consumption of people in western Brittany. It's interesting to note that the merchant who first began selling this wine in Brittany was a wholesaler from Libourne. The network of traders that was established between Brittany and Libourne by the 19th century contributed to continuing the culture of wine consumption in the region through the import of a new product, Algerian wine.

Today, the tourist guidebooks that cover the region of Brittany introduce cider as the region's most popular drink. However, in reality, the people of Brittany drink as much wine as any other region of France. This wine-consuming culture was formed as a result of commercial activities of merchants who engaged in trade that connected northern and southern Europe, and has been passed down from generation to generation. I find that one of the most fascinating things in researching the history of products and traders is to be able to discover the curious ties that connect the interactions of people in the past with the lives of people today.

[1]^ The proportions of beer and wine consumption in France are unclear, and the numbers are uncertain. This is why they do not add up to 100 percent.

Hiroyasu Kimizuka
Associate Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

Hiroyasu Kimizuka was born in Chiba Prefecture. He earned his Ph.D. in 2014 (History: Université de Bretagne-Sud). He is an expert in modern French socio-economic history. He researches the socio-economic structure of modern Europe by studying the circulation of foodstuffs such as wine, seafood, coffee and spices, and the merchants who trade them.
Major publication: Bordeaux et la Bretagne au XVIIIe siècle. Les routes du vin, Rennes, PUR, 2015.