Thursday, August 29, 2013

Prehistoric Spice

Garlic mustard plant
 (Wikimedia Commons)
Garlic mustard seeds
(Wikimedia Commons)
A recent analysis of burned prehistoric food remains found in Denmark and Germany suggests that people have always sought to make their food taste better. The food remains in question contain remains of the seeds of a plant we know of as garlic mustard, which has a strong flavor,* but little if any nutritional content. The researchers in question, who hail from the University of York, have concluded:
...despite the modest number of samples, it is demonstrated beyond doubt that the use of spice was practised regularly during the decades when domesticates were introduced in the western Baltic is now established that the habit of enhancing and altering the flavour of calorie rich staples was part of European cuisine as far back as the 7th millennia cal BP....**
More technical details about the York survey may be found in this article from the Popular Archaeology website. Think about those early humans, if you will, the next time you remark upon the spiciness, or lack of spiciness, of your own food.

*  I'm unfamiliar with the garlic mustard plant, and I've seen different descriptions of the flavors imparted by the plant. The Popular Archaeology article I've cited says that the seeds have a "strong peppery, mustard flavor". The Wikipedia article on the plant notes that the flowers, leaves and fruit of the plant, as well as its seeds, may be used for seasoning food: "The chopped leaves are used for flavoring in salads and sauces such as pesto, and sometimes the flowers and fruit are included as well. These are best when young, and provide a mild flavour of both garlic and mustard," and the leaves smell like garlic when crushed. Likely  how the garlic mustard plant makes your food taste depends upon what parts of the plant are used, and how the parts are prepared.

** "cal BP" is an archaeological term meaning "calibrated years before present". "Calibrated" means, roughly, "as measured using the radiocarbon dating scale". More details may be found here and here.

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