Sunday Papers: Accounting for Taste

“There are five elements: earth, water, air, fire and garlic,” an old sign hanging in London’s famous Borough Market once said, quoting French chef Louis Diat. Perhaps ancient European hunter-gatherers would have agreed.

Archaeologists recently dug up evidence of spices in fossilised pots from up to 6,100 years ago. Traces of garlic mustard seeds lined the insides of pots at three sites in what are now Denmark and Germany.

“Our evidence… challenges the view that plants were exploited by hunter-gatherers and early agriculturalists solely for energy requirements, rather than taste,” said lead researcher Dr Hayley Saul from the University of York.

Cro magnon chef
Cro magnon chef

The researchers found the garlic mustard fossils inside broken pieces of cooking pots, alongside fatty chemical remains of meat and fish. From these associations, the researchers inferred an ancient, culinary use for the seeds.

These fossilised traces – called phytoliths, from Greek ‘phyto’ meaning plant and ‘lith’ meaning stone – provide the first evidence for European cuisine, for flavour rather than cooking purely for nutrition.

Plants can absorb silica as they take up groundwater from the soil. When the plants die and decay, they leave behind hardened deposits of silica: phytoliths. Phytoliths have distinctive shapes that allow researchers to infer the type of plant lining the broken slices of pot.

Five of the potsherds came from Neustadt on the coast of Germany and two more came from Åkonge and Stenø in Denmark. Some pots date as far back as 6,100 calibrated years before the present. (‘Calibrated’ means the dates are matched with much more precise tree ring dates.) Other pots are more recent, around 5,900 years ago; after domesticated sheep, goats and cattle were introduced to the area.

Garlic mustard seeds (Source: Flickr)

Evolutionarily speaking, garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is more mustard than garlic, making the opening line of this article border on tenuous but you’ve hopefully forgotten about that by now.

Garlic mustard grows along “damp hedgerows, edges of woods and other shady places” and can grow taller than an Irish Wolfhound. It’s called jack-by-the-hedge because that’s where you’ll find it. You may also hear it referred to by the wonderfully artless name of Hedge Garlic.

While researching this article, I wanted to avoid recycling and churning out another version of what the ample press coverage for this paper already said. Indeed, my original aim for the Sunday Papers series was to avoid altogether research receiving attention from the press. But I like food and kept wondering what the old foragers and farmers might’ve dished up with the peppery black seeds.

One can, unsurprisingly, make mustard. Those with handy access to cows and chickens can roll up a cheeky roulade. If you want to put together a mezze platter, you can’t go wrong with garlic mustard pesto or hummus. I can only assume these particular ancestors cooked none of these. But next time you wander around the danker parts of Europe, keep an eye out for one of the oldest of old spices.

Reference: Saul, Madella, Fischer, Glykou, Hartz & Craig – 2013. Phytoliths in Pottery Reveal the Use of Spice in European Prehistoric Cuisine. PLoS ONE