A while back I read an article mentioning a book called Prehistoric Cookery. It had some interesting ideas, so I bought the book.
Unfortunately the book is really a tiny little coffee table book. I was hoping for something more substantial, but it did get me thinking about ancient mesolithic and iron age diets of the Celts.
Scotland and Ireland are disproportionately affected by alcoholism, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and celiac disease. For some time there was a theory that this was because Celts are descended from a "Celtic Fringe" of more recent hunter-gatherers similar to the Finnish and Sami fringe further north. Recently, that theory was seriously questioned by genetic research that showed that Celts are most likely descendants of Middle Eastern neolithic farmers, mixed with perhaps some local hunter-gatherer stock.
It's really quite amazing how ignorant even scientific professionals are about the history of food, such as Colin T. Campbell or the professor in the article about Prehistoric Cookery, Brian Radcliffe, who claims
“The main lesson is that as humans we need a huge variety of food from a range of different sources and food groups, ” he says. “We can see from early man’s experience that it is not good enough to rely upon single sources and single groups of foods because they did not give them the nutrients they needed.
Ugh. First of all, he obviously hasn't read the book he is commenting on, which clearly shows the wide variety of foods consumed by the Celts ranging from fish roe to nettles to berries. Also, he doesn't seem to know about the many groups of indigenous peoples who rely on flesh and are healthy.
The author of Prehistoric Cookery makes some of the same mistakes, saying that "like studied hunter-gatherers" the diet of ancient Celts would have been 80% plants, which is NOT true. Hunter-gathers studied get most of their calories from meat. Isotope studies indicate that the Celtic diet in the Iron Age was very high in meat.
Mesolithic Celts seem to have eaten deer and wild boar. Their remains are typically on the shoreline, where they left shell middens and probably ate seaweed, roe, and whole fish. Early grains cultivated were mainly oats. Barley and early forms of wheat swept in later, but oats remained very important. Perhaps that is why their teeth in the Medieval period were better than the more wheat-centric English.
Weston A. Price visited the Isle of Lewis in Scotland and found that the natives were remarkably healthy and had beautiful teeth despite their "limited" diet. A diet of fish and oats might seem limited to us, but they ate parts of the fish that we typically don't:
An important and highly relished article of diet has been baked cod's head stuffed with chopped cod's liver and oatmeal.
I do think it's important to note that the oat eaters of the mesolithic were just not as healthy as their hunter-gatherer ancestors. Their bones were smaller and less sturdy. Traditional agrarian diets aren't bad, but I still don't believe they are optimal.
Here are some foods that I would definitely like to eat more of from Prehistoric Cookery include:
- Laver, a type of seaweed prized by the Welsh. We might think of Seaweed as an exotic Asian food, but people from all over the world have been harvesting it for a long time.
- Fish stomachs and roe. At least roe is fairly tasty...can't say the same for fish stomachs, though they are much cheaper :)
- Marsh plants. Sea beans(Salicornia) are fairly tasty and can actually be found at some NYC Greenmarkets and Fairway when they are in season.
- Ox tails and marrow bones. I already eat marrow bones and they are wonderful and cheap fatty treat.
- Nettles and other wild herbs. I already gather these often and will post more about them in the Spring.
The traditional bread was nearly flat and rather tough. It's interesting because since breads persist in Scandinavia. A local NYC bakery does the real thing. The Celts also fermented their oats.
On the subject of Ireland, it's also good to note that of course the potato was introduced very late. It spurred population increases that ended up being disastrous when the potato famine hit. Before potatoes were introduced, the diet of the Irish probably resembled that of the Masai, as they also relied on their cattle herds for both dairy and meat.
Cattle blood, not potatoes for Cuchulainn