Here’s a rather glorious rant about the realities of food acquisition and consumption over the past couple of millennia, which aggressively disposes of the more romantic stories that some “foodies” have taken to telling themselves and each other over the last few years:
The fact is, up until very recently, it was a daily struggle for most people to get enough calories to survive. Food choices were utterly monotonous in most parts of the world.
A while back, I was reading about southern Italy in the Dark Ages (Before the Normans, by Barbara Kreutz) and was struck by the frequent mention of chestnuts as a food staple. I got curious about the attributes of chestnuts, having never worked with chestnuts or chestnut flour myself. Google quickly brought me the following information:
Basically, chestnuts deliver only about one-third the calories of wheat, 1/7th the protein, and half of most other nutrients. Nutritionally, it’s an extremely poor substitute for wheat, but chestnut trees will grow in more mountainous regions where wheat won’t (you also find chestnuts in the cuisine of southwest France, especially near the Pyrenees), so it’s better than nothing if you’re trying to survive on marginal land. Something to consider next time you eye some extravagantly expensive little package of chestnut flour in a gourmet food shop, while reading about the fabulous health benefits of chestnuts compared to that nasty, glutenous wheat…
And from the Where Did They Come From department: here’s an article summarizing arguments for Celtic peoples arising along the Atlantic coast and spreading themselves and/or their culture inland, vs the traditional model of culture arising in the Alpine highlands (La Tene, Hallstatt) and spreading north and west.