EDITORIAL | Future Foods, part 1


Çatalhöyük dissolves into our senses like a reoccurring dream, but it is not the present or the past, it is the future. Food security has dominated the World’s Fair in Milan this year, and much activity is expected to emerge from it. One aspect in particular; to go forward we must go back – to learn from the ancients.

In the heart of Anatolia, a multi-national team of archeologists presently engages in a dig to painstakingly unearth a settlement believed to be 9000 years old. From their researches they believe that up to 10,000 hunter-gatherer people crammed into tight mud-brick houses and practised an egalitarian, non-hierarchical, self-sustainable style of living based on paganism and symbolism.

Catalhöyük in Anatolia, 9000 year-old egalitarian, non-hierarchical self-sustainable settlement housing 10,000 people

Locally it is known as Çatalhöyük – fork mound – and it is one of the most exciting finds in the history of archaeology because of what it tells us about the gradual transformation from nomadism to sedentism.

More than anything it shatters the long-held assumptions about sedentism and agriculture, the domestication of animals, belief systems and the sorrowful descent into unhealthy sloth and selfish desire. It holds clues, which may take several generations to reveal, about this change in human lifestyle, after millennia as nomadic foragers and clever hunters.

The Çatalhöyük archaeologists expect the earth to reveal many more secrets. Right now they know the inhabitants of the settlement ate wild and cultivated foods – bulbs like garlic and onion, fruits like grape and hackberry, legumes like bean and chickpea, nuts like almond and pistachio, roots and tubers of unknown species, and cereals such as barley and the old wheat varieties, einkorn and emmer, which were cooked like polenta or porridge.

There is no evidence that their animals were domesticated, and that the high presence of boar, deer, goat and sheep bones at the site were the result of enclosures. The people of the settlement continued to hunt and ate fish caught easily in the adjacent river. The cattle bones found at Çatalhöyük do not, say the archaeologists, indicate that the domestication of the wild species was a reason for the settlement.

Ian Hodder, the Cambridge University archaeologist who oversees the dig, says “trying to understand why these people bothered to come together” remains their shared ambition.

Observers believe Çatalhöyük challenges the traditional view about the Neolithic transition. Instead of a coterminous revolution, the belief now is that a shared cultural event sparked the change in lifestyle, something so appealing that everyone left their old tools behind in the wilderness and settled down with new tools.

Forest Honey – one of Europe’s most coveted foods

At this moment in the research at Çatalhöyük and other Anatolian dig sites it is improbable to apotheosise that it might have been something like the discovery of yoghurt, from the accidental fermentation of milk – a product that these new stone age people, being lactose intolerant, had no need for. Yoghurt is different.

It is produced by friendly bacteria which convert the sugars in milk into acid. This souring process curdles the milk, producing yoghurt. The fermentation of milk is believed to have started with the nomadic tribes of central Asia, and developed in Anatolia and the Balkans, gradually spreading to eastern, central and northern Europe.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, scientists studying the bacterial process, realised that yoghurt made with multiple bacteria was more beneficial to health. That research led to the knowledge that yoghurt contained all the benefits of milk – calcium, iron and vitamins A, B and C – plus other life preserving benefits.

Yoghurt can prevent diarrhoea, lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure, and prevent colon cancer. People who are lactose intolerant can eat yoghurt.

But one discovery topped them all, known for centuries by the Turks, that yoghurt, combined with grains or fruits or legumes or vegetables, provided a complete nutritional package.

Food has always been the driver of change, and now it is happening again. If the hunter-gatherers of central Anatolia settled down because they discovered a method of food production that required a sedentary life, it was because they quickly understood the benefits. In Milan the questions surrounding sustainable food security suggest that the answers lie with a new paradigm, one that embraces the need to bring the wilderness and hunter-gatherer techniques back into the heart of the civilisation that began in Anatolia 10,000 years ago.

Despite the rise of organic growing and farming throughout Europe, the move toward grain based fuel, the recycling of food waste, the composting of organic matter and soil science based methods and technologies, there is still a desperate need to maintain the species that are directly responsible for our food supply.

This is not a new debate, it has been ongoing since the mid-20th century, but it is now crucial, and it seems that finally there is movement toward a solution. Ironically, unlike the nomads of Anatolia who listened to their memes, those today who know what to do are being excluded from the means and methods of change.

For many decades these visionaries have argued that honey and the creatures that make it must be protected, and that their natural habitats must be enlarged. Yet we see an absence of the blue, yellow and purple flowers found on plants like borage and comfrey, and very little wilderness among our carefully segregated fields of monocultures.

Honey was and remained into the 20th century the energy food of the forager.

A traveller in a small boat turning out of the Venetian lagoon, southward past the thin streak of land known as the Lido, has the option of stopping at the port of Chioggia.

Built on a sandbar, Chioggia is thought of as an alternative Venice. This is not hyperbole. Everything that is magical about old Venice is wonderful in new Chioggia, especially the food.

This unassuming port still supports a thriving fishing industry. Fishers return with a catch from the Adriatic that includes anchovies, clams, eels, flounder, mackerel, mullet, sardines, scallops and sole.

Our traveller, however, is on a mission. Chioggia is the northern edge of the Po Delta. Shaped like an arrow-head, the point of the delta is the Po di Venezia, the last section of the legendary Po river.

A few kilometres along the river is the Parco del Delta del Po. Here in the town-land of Ca’ Cappellino on Strada Provinciale 37 is the future of the world, if everyone who visits the Museo del Miele goes home with an understanding of the role the humble bee plays in the pollination of plants.

The curators state the obvious. ‘The exhibition aims to give the visitor the opportunity to enter the enchanting and sometimes mysterious world of bees.’ What is not so obvious is the work done by this indispensable yet highly vulnerable insect. Bees produce the pollen that helps to feed the world, and the by-product of this work is honey.

Local beekeepers bring their honeycombs to the museum. After extraction the pure honey is ripened for ten days, packaged and sold to the people who love their regional honey.

These people should not be ashamed for thinking that their miele del parco del delta del Po is among the best in Europe. The millefiori (thousand flowers) honey is a testament to the diversity in the delta in one jar but like the diverse regions of Europe there is more to honey than one source.

Acacia honey, alfalfa honey and wild adicchio honey are products of the Polesine. Whipping these pure honeys into a cream, egg yolk and milk emulsion to form a mousse will bring out the flavour of the various flora. And pure honey will always taste good in biscuits and cakes.

But if you want to know what the bees know, eat it fresh.

Across Europe the production of honey is an essential activity.

In Luxembourg 180 beekeepers produce a mixed flower hard-set honey with the strong flavours of dandelion, meadowsweet and melilot, which they market only in 500 g jars.

In the unpolluted Drawa Landscape Park in the Baltic climatic zone of Poland, beekeepers produce buckwheat, colza, heather, lime and polyfloral honey.

From Barroso to the Serra da Lousã multi-flora nectar produces distinctive Portuguese honey.

In Slovenia, where the Carniolan honey bee is a preserved species, varieties include acacia, chestnut, fir, floral (or nectar), forest, lime and spruce.

The re-emergence of honey as a traditional food product tells us that we are appreciating the significance of the bee in sustainable food security – a thought provoking process.

What is also thought provoking is the call for the establishment of egalitarian, non-hierarchical, self-sustainable settlements at the edges of towns that include mixed crop, forest, woodland and wilderness areas around buildings that house schools and workshops dedicated to the production and cooking of foods within educational and health contexts.

Too much of the educational elements surrounding sustainable food security has been institutionalised, and not enough is being done to embrace an integrated approach that includes the community in the various processes. Celebrating art and food is good for morale, but the issues surrounding food and health are much more relevant.

Three-quarters of cancers are related to diet and lifestyle, half of heart diseases to diet, and while exercise burns energy sloth encourages obesity. The Neolithic diet was raw and wild – fowl and game, fish, fruit, honey, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables and whole grains – and as the centuries passed and civilisation took hold, our food was dried, fermented, pickled and smoked. Many of these techniques remain, and the foods produced are among the most popular – air-dried meat, dried fruit, dried mushrooms, dried vegetables (bouillon, tarhana), fermented cabbage, fermented milk (yoghurt), fermented whey (kefir), pickled cucumbers, smoked haddock, mackerel and salmon, sun-dried tomatoes and so on.

It is plausible that the hunter-gatherers of Anatolia settled down because they needed a place that would allow them to take the products of the wild and turn them into what we would call today value-added produce, the likes of yoghurt, dried fungi, legumes, meat and vegetables, and perhaps to make wine (another product that apparently emerged in the post-Neolithic period) in the Caucasus and Anatolian regions.