Ancient Foods, Modern Tastes

Last year, I read a fascinating article about ancient wine found in Israel. Though the wine itself was of course long gone (even the best wine storage has limits), researchers were able to analyse residue left behind to learn more about what it might have tasted like, and how it could be replicated for modern drinkers. What they learned was that this particular wine wouldn’t be to modern tastes; it was flavoured with a variety of herbs and spices, and had a highly medicinal profile, reflecting other ancient wines from around the region, which were used as part of medicine, not just as a beverage at the table.

Studies on ancient food always intrigue me, and I love that we have the capability now to analyse the remains found at archaeological sites to come up with ingredient lists and an approximation of what things might have tasted like. Some foods would be familiar to us today; bread and beer, among some of the earliest complex prepared foods, haven’t changed that much in thousands of years. Of particular note is the fact that many lower class foods are still familiar and widely used in low-income communities and regions of the world, reflecting the fact that centuries of tradition are sometimes hard to argue with. Others, however, particularly those foods eaten by the upper classes, would be frankly unappealing to most modern palates, reflecting how food has changed over the centuries.

Priorities were different thousands of years ago, or even hundreds of years ago, when food played a complex and important role in society, but one slightly different than the role played today. Like today, food was used as a sign of status and wealth, and like today, the rarer or more unusual the ingredient, the more powerful the person who could serve it or afford to buy it. But unlike today, rarity was determined by different standards, and issues in the successful transportation and handling of food led to the development of different tastes—like the heavy use of salt and spicing to preserve foods and partially mask the taste of foods that were starting to go off. Heavy spicing itself was also a show of power, as only the wealthy could afford to import rare spices.

At Roman banquets, people ate doormice and peacocks and other meats that wouldn’t seem appealing to most people today; in fact, for most Westerners, the idea of eating mice is repulsive, and only shows up in novels where desperate starving people seize on anything to eat. Yet, Roman and Greek culture lie at the root of much of Western culture, so it’s fascinating to me that there once was a time when our cultural and genetic ancestors relished things like stuffed doormice and regarded them as a delicacy.

News reports on reconstructions of ancient food often seem to carry a tone of disbelief or surprise that people actually ate or enjoyed the thing under discussion, or they note that modern people probably wouldn’t like it very much. Unfortunately, they don’t often explore the factors that have led to shifting tastes in Western (and other) societies, talking about why the flavour profile of, for example, wine has changed so much over the centuries; modern wine would be utterly confusing and unfamiliar to our ancient counterparts, just as their heavily flavoured and dressed wine would taste completely bizarre to us.

It makes me sad to see so much of the history of food erased, because it provides so much insight into the present and the way we view, interact with, and ultimately prepare food. As an important aspect of society and culture, food often gets short shrift, which strikes me as rather odd; this is not just about foodie culture and the use of food as a status symbol among members of the food movement, but the larger role of food in society. Our wealthiest and most powerful exert their social status through food, which is the ultimate consumable in many ways. One of the most powerful ways to demonstrate wealth, after all, is to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on something that will only exist for a few hours, if that, before being eaten.

While we might not recognise the most formal, elegant, and rare dishes our ancestors treasured, we would definitely recognise many of their social attitudes about food and culture, and in that mutual recognition, we might also find some explanations for larger social trends. People often seem eager to discount the role of food in society and culture, even though it is a pillar of our lives, the thing we require to sustain us, the staff of life, in the case of bread, a thing of intense personal expression and power for those who can afford to use it that way, and a source of constant stress, tension, and nervousness for people who live in a state of food insecurity.

While many of us might not want a brimming glass of that ancient wine (which likely would have been served watered due to the intense flavour and preferred tastes of the time), that wine is an important part of our heritage. Not just in a historical winemaking sense, but also in a cultural one, and I for one would be intrigued to see people replicate it and give it a try. They might not enjoy the results very much, but in giving it a go, they would learn so much about culinary history, the lives of winemakers and the people involved in wine production, and, of course, their own taste buds.