Alpine Food Culture Frozen in Time
What’s to eat? Pot-stew, what else? ROBERT ALLEN reports on an enduring ancient tradition
Bolzano / Bozen is the ’Gateway to the Dolomites’. Here the traditional food is quintessentially alpine, where history is never-ending, and where the modern societies of Austrian and Italian South Tyrol have been defined by a fantastic discovery.
The iceman known as Ötzi was found lying in melt-water on a granite slab in a gully strewn with large boulders, a few metres from the Italian border with Austria, 3210 metres above sea level.
Hikers Erika and Helmut Simon, from Nuremberg, made the discovery at one thirty in the afternoon of Thursday, September 19, 1991. They were descending the Finail peak in the Tisenjoch area of the Ötztal Alps. A four-meter-high stone pyramid now marks the find-site.
Ötzi was not, as some have surmised, a herder, bringing animals to graze the rich pastures of the high slopes. And, despite the romantic assumptions, he was not a hunter-gatherer. He came from a valley community – about 1000 metres below Tisen, hardly more than half a day’s hike away – that subsisted on agriculture and herding. Ötzi had consumed bread and deer meat shortly before his absurd death.
Much has been made about the discovery and condition of his mummy, but if Ötzi’s stomach contents reveal anything, it is one amazing fact. The traditional foods of the Alpine regions have not changed much in over 5,000 years.
The general diet of Ötzi’s community would have included cooked, dried and smoked meat (from deer, goat, ibex, pig, sheep), flatbreads (more like biscuits made from coarsely ground cultivated grains), a pot-stew (eintöpf) containing cereals, dried meat and greens, and probably cheese from cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milk.
Carbohydrates from barley, einkorn and emmer grains, minerals and vitamins from berries, fruits, grains, herbs, leaves and seeds, and protein from various meats were essential to the well-being of his community.
Ötzi was undoubtably a hunter, a member of an elite group, skilled in bow and arrow work, an experienced and knowledgeable hiker and tracker, and he was probably killed by accident doing a job that would ensure the survival of his community!
Andreas Putzer is an archaeologist based at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano / Bozen. He believes he has resolved some of the mysteries surrounding Ötzi’s life and death. ‘His diet was based mainly on game, ibex and deer, which links him to hunting,’ he says as a matter of course, stating an undoubtable fact.
Specialised hunting of big game had become a prestigious activity for the high rollers of Ötzi’s community. His clothing and equipment suggest he was integral to the hunting culture. The hunters, says Putzer, made their own weapons. ‘Ötzi had a very sophisticated bow, he used the best materials – the best wood to make the shaft, the best flint to make the arrow-head, jew, which is strong and flexible, for the bow; he was very up-to-date for his period.’
He had an intimate knowledge of the mountain terrain and was blessed with extraordinary stamina. He was fit and strong, a veteran in the use of a bow. His aim would have been straight. Unlike one of his companions!
Ötzi had been shot and this has prompted theories about dark motives. Equally plausible is the possibility that his death was not preordained. Putzer, while not dismissing the idea that Ötzi was the victim of a feud, is more interested in the reasons for his presence in the high mountains.
‘They hunted close to their settlements. They needed to hunt because they could not kill their domestic animals. So we have to think they had crop failure. What do you do if you want to eat? The only possibility is to hunt.’
‘The ibex and deer followed different routes and the hunters would have known where they were at different times of the year. The ibex, in particular, roamed close to where (Ötzi) was found.’ ‘I think it is possible (he was shot by accident). The only strange thing is that they left him up there.’
Strange because Ötzi would have been a hero in his community. The colder climate of the period had reduced agricultural yields, says Putzer, ‘forcing the population to compensate for the loss of calories in the diet with meat derived from hunting activity’. Ötzi provided that food. He died where he fell, preserved by ice that crept imperceptibly over his body for thousands of years.
Now we are fascinated by this iceman, which does not surprise Putzer. ‘There is a fascination because there is a body and humans identity with their own, also we have his clothes, his equipment … the mummy makes this archeological find more human. You see his clothes, we all wear clothes, you discover his physical problems – he had arthrorois and you say “I have arthrorois”; he was lactose intolerant, “I am also lactose intolerant”. This makes him close to people, that is why he is so famous.‘
Today a walker in the high Alps might eat a meal similar to the last one Ötzi consumed, and not be expected to share the same fate!
This is an extract from Ice Trains and Snow Food.