The History and Culture of Food and Drink: Northern Europe

Hansjörg Küster. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

The majority of foods found in modern northern Europe — which includes the lands around the North Sea and the Baltic Sea and those of northern Alpine region — are not indigenous to the area. It is here, however, that one of the most stable of humankind’s agricultural systems was established, and one that has proved capable of providing densely populated areas with a high standard of living. Such an agricultural bounty has helped northern Europe to become one of the most prosperous areas of the world.

The Paleolithic Period

The northern European environment underwent drastic change several times during the Pleistocene. Glaciers coming from Scandinavia and the Alps covered a large part of the landscape with glacigenic sediment several times during the Ice Age. Forests retreated from northern Europe and were replaced by a type of vegetation that can be regarded as a mixture of those of tundra and steppe. In this environment, forest-adapted herbivores were replaced by large grazing species such as caribou (Rangifer tarandus), wild horse (Equus sp.), and mammoth (Mammonteus primigenius). These species, associated in small or bigger herds, migrated from the north to the south and vice versa in a yearly cycle. In summer they fled north from the multitude of biting insects (to Jutland, for example), and in winter they were attracted by the somewhat higher temperatures in areas of the south, such as that just north of the Alps.

Reindeer herds proved to be a very good source of food for Paleolithic reindeer hunters, whose widespread presence in northern Europe is well established by excavations. The hunters migrated with the herds from the south to the north and back again. Prehistoric humans located their temporary dwelling places so as to achieve a maximum vantage point — usually so they could hunt downhill using their lances and bows or a kind of harpoon made of stone and bone material (Bandi 1968: 107-12; Kuhn-Schnyder 1968: 43-68; Rust 1972: 19-20, 65-9).

Although the archaeological evidence for hunting is very clear, hunters doubtless also gathered wild plants. The latter, however, is very difficult to demonstrate, as it is rarely possible to find plant material, such as fruits and seeds, preserved in the layers of Paleolithic camp excavations.

During the late glacial period, trees from the south colonized northern Europe so thoroughly that the landscape was nearly totally forested. Unfortunately, we know little about human nutrition following the return of forested conditions to northern Europe. Reindeer and other steppe-tundra fauna became locally extinct in the newly forested regions.

The Mesolithic Period

There is clearer evidence for human nutrition at the beginning of the postglacial period (the interglacial hiatus in which we live), approximately 11,000 years ago. Following the retreat of the Würmian glaciers, forests again established themselves in most parts of northern Europe to the extent that these landscapes became unsuitable for reindeer and other large herd herbivores. The reindeer herds retreated to those parts where tundra was established: northern Scandinavia, northern Finland, and northern Russia. It is only in these regions that a “Paleolithic way of life” has remained possible up to the present day, because the relationship between reindeer herds and hunters has remained as in millennia before. In the unforested region of the extreme north it is also still possible to practice Paleolithic hunting methods, as exemplified by the Laplanders and Inuit.

In most landscapes of northern Europe, however, hunting methods and nutrition changed, reflecting the changing environment. The forests were invaded by smaller and less frequent solitary woodland fauna, such as red deer (Cervus elaphus), boar (Sus scrofa), and badger (Meles). These species are difficult to hunt in dense forests, and they do not provide a large meat yield. Changes in the vegetational environment were reflected in the hunter’s tool kit. Long-range projectile weapons, for example, cannot be used in a wooded landscape. Smaller hunting tools constructed from “microliths” (typical archaeological remnants of the Mesolithic period) were better suited to the vegetation and woodland prey (Wyss 1968-71, 3: 123-44).

Life during the Mesolithic was perhaps harder than during the Paleolithic. It was more difficult to hunt an animal in a wooded landscape, and thus meat was certainly not available all the time. Possibly the plant component of the diet became more important during the Mesolithic. For example, at the very few Mesolithic dwelling places that have been examined by environmental archaeologists, there is evidence of the use of hazelnuts (Corylus avellana) (Vaughan 1987: 233-8).

During the Mesolithic, hazelnut bushes spread rapidly to many parts of Europe, as evidenced by pollen diagrams. This is in contrast to the vegetation development of the earlier interglacials. Hazelnuts are heavy, with low dispersal rates, so that it is very unlikely that the plant diffused unaided to all parts of northern Europe at the same time. Instead, it has often been assumed that hazelnuts were culturally dispersed by Mesolithic peoples (Firbas 1949: 149; Smith 1970: 81-96). Indeed, the distribution of these nuts is recorded by pollen analysis in the Mesolithic layer of Hohen Viecheln at the border of Lake Schwerin in northern Germany (Schmitz 1961: 29).

Most likely the expansion of hazelnut distribution was due to the nuts’ chance spread during the preparation of “hazelnut meals” by migratory Mesolithic people. Most of the other wild fruits available in the present-day northern European woodlands are not archaeologically recorded for the Mesolithic, nor for the Neolithic period, which has been much more intensively examined by environmental archaeologists. Thus, it is unlikely that strawberries, wild apples, and pears, for example, contributed to human nutrition during the Mesolithic (Küster 1986: 437).

The Neolithic Period

The transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic has often been regarded as a revolution by northern European archaeologists (Childe 1956: 66-104). But the Mesolithic—Neolithic transition, with its change from a hunter—gatherer community to a sedentary food-producing farming community, was not a revolution in other parts of the world such as the Near East. In these areas a gradual evolution can be traced from the one stage to the other. In contrast, the transition from hunting and gathering to farming in northern Europe seems to have indeed been a revolutionary process, in which none of the nutritional mainstays of the Mesolithic was incorporated into the Neolithic food-production system.

Rather, all wild elements of the new farming system had been previously cultivated or domesticated elsewhere, mainly in the Near East. Both domesticated animals and cultivated crops were introduced into northern Europe, primarily from the Near East, and were, therefore, exotic elements at the beginning of the Neolithic. Near East domesticates, such as cattle (Bos primigenius f. taurus), goats (Capra aegagrus f. hircus), sheep (Ovis ammon f. aries), and pigs (Sus scrofa f. domestica) were introduced into many parts of northern Europe during the Neolithic.

Although most had been introduced in the Balkans, only some of the ancient Near Eastern crops became important in Neolithic northern Europe. It is very likely, however, that each component of a well-balanced vegetarian regime (starch from cereal crops, proteins from pulses, and fat from oil plants) was available to all Neolithic settlements in the region.

In most parts of northern Europe, einkorn (Triticum monococcum) and emmer (Triticum dicoccon) were the predominant cereals during the Neolithic. Both traveled upstream on the Danube River and downstream on the Rhine River from the Balkans to northern Europe. The same expansion route can be traced for peas (Pisum sativum) and lentils (Lens culinaris), the major pulses of the Neolithic, although at that time lentils had a more extensive distribution. Today, lentil production is restricted by climatic conditions in many parts of northern Europe. Linseed (Linum usitatissimum) was the major oil (and also fiber) crop (Knörzer 1991: 190-3; Küster 1991: 180-2). Only in the extreme west — in southwestern Germany, along the Rhine, in the Netherlands, and in some parts of Scandinavia — were different crops apparently grown. Wheat (Triticum aestivum and/or Triticum durum) and naked barley (Hordeum vulgare) cultivation is evidenced in southwestern Germany and Switzerland (Jacomet and Schlichtherle 1984: 153-76; Küster 1991: 180-2), in the Netherlands, and in southwestern Scandinavia. These plants had their origins in the Near East but likely expanded via the Mediterranean and western Europe (Bakels 1982: 11-3).The only crop not of Near Eastern origin found in the Neolithic of northern Europe, the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), most likely arrived from the western Mediterranean. Inside northern Europe, regional differences in agriculture and nutrition are traceable from the early Neolithic onward, making clear the borders between “economic provinces.” For example, barley was important from the very beginning in southwestern Germany and the Netherlands but not in Bavaria and the Rhineland. Yet barley did become important later on in areas where it had not been grown during the early Neolithic.

Through agriculture, the northern European landscape was totally changed by humans. The clearing of the earlier wooded landscape caused environmental changes that are not completely understood today. Hunting, fishing, and the gathering of plants were activities still practiced by the early farmers, but the bulk of human nutrition was certainly derived from agricultural products.

Yet the variety of nutriments available in the Neolithic was severely limited. Because there were very few crops, no herbs and spices, and no cultivated fruits, all meals must have tasted very nearly the same, day in and day out, save on those rare occasions when a meat dish was available.

Toward the end of the Neolithic, some Mediterranean flavorings were introduced in northern Europe, but only in those parts that had cultural and economic contacts with Mediterranean areas. Among the imports were parsley (Petroselinum crispum), celery (Apium graveolens var. juice), and dill (Anethum graveolens), which reached some areas of southwestern Germany and northern Switzerland to enliven drab fare (Küster 1985; Jacomet 1988). Other spices were employed in the preservation and storage of meats. This importation of Mediterranean spices is the earliest indication we have of some sophistication in food preparation, as well as a gardening culture, in the southern parts of northern Europe. Following the end of the Neolithic, herbs and spices disappear from the record, and there are no remains of such plants in northern Europe in Bronze Age and even Iron Age settlements.

The Bronze Age and Iron Age

After the Neolithic Revolution, the development of northern European agriculture was influenced more by evolutionary than revolutionary processes. Although the people still did not personally participate in the process of domesticating animals and plants, they did continue to import new cultigens and domesticates. The basic diet, however, does not seem to have undergone any dramatic shifts.

Through trial and error, Bronze Age and Iron Age farmers discovered those crops that were best adapted to the environmental conditions of northern Europe. As they did so, einkorn, which provides only a small yield, became less common, whereas emmer, barley, and (from the early Bronze Age onward) spelt (Triticum spelta) were increasingly cultivated. Spelt, however, was common only in some regions: at the northern border of the Alps, in Jutland, and in southern Sweden, where it possibly was grown as a winter crop.

As a rule, only two different crops were grown in a settlement, which left such agricultural communities susceptible to crises when one or the other cereal had poor yields. Indeed, it seems likely that at times famine may have been the result of the ecological instability that a farming community relying on the cultivation of just two different crop species can create. And, of course, the crops were not just for human consumption; they also helped to feed the livestock.

During the Bronze Age, the horse (Equus przewalskii f. caballus) was domesticated. This probably took place in eastern Europe, but horses were subsequently introduced into northern Europe, where they not only were used for riding, transport, and agriculture but also became an important component of the human diet (Wyss 1971). Unlike other livestock, horses cannot subsist solely on leaf hay; they require special supplemental feed. Thus, it is striking that the introduction of domesticated horses coincided with the expansion of the millets (Panicum miliaceum and Setaria italica) and the horsebean (Vicia faba) into northern Europe. But whereas the impetus for the adoption of these plants may have been the feeding of horses, during the late Bronze and Iron Ages millets and beans doubtless also contributed to human nutrition.

Over time, agricultural methods became more sophisticated, with better ploughs (as metals were increasingly available), bigger fields, the use of better-adapted plants, and concomitant greater yields. But the basic elements of human nutrition remained more or less the same. Cereal crops, pulses, and oil plants still provided the bulk of the daily fare, and milk was plentiful. But meat was eaten only on special occasions, as reflected in hoary rules concerning the consumption of meat that have persisted until today.

Since animals were not hunted every day and only seasonally slaughtered, meat, as a scarce item, became regarded as an important component of banquets. In fact, from ancient times onward a good reason for inviting numerous guests to a banquet was so that the bulk of any meat served was consumed before it became rancid. Because slaughtering was commonly done in autumn, banquets were (and often still are) given in late autumn and around the time of Christmas. By contrast, meat was normally not consumed during the winter and spring months, when people maintained only as many cattle as were necessary for breeding. This period corresponds to the fasting season (Lent) of the Catholic church between Shrove Tuesday and Easter. Lamb was and remains a traditional dish at an Easter banquet, for this was the time of year when an abundance of newborn sheep could be culled from the flock.

The Roman Age

Around the time of the birth of Christ, parts of northern Europe situated southwest of the Rhine and south of the Danube became colonies of the Roman Empire. Within this area, foodstuffs took on an increasingly important role in Roman commerce, with the Rhine serving as an important trading route. Wheat, rice (Oryza sativa), and exotic spices were transported downstream to Roman garrisons and to towns in northwestern Germany and the Netherlands. However, colonies not situated near the Rhine, although involved in the trade of spices and wine, did not trade in bulky items such as grain. Thus, in these regions, the Romans had to force the subdued peoples to deliver crops to the towns and settlements where their soldiers and civilians lived.

There were great efforts during Roman times to increase crop yields, which can be seen in the construction of the villa system. Sophisticated agricultural methods were practiced. But ultimately, difficulties in transporting enough food to the Roman soldiers in those parts of the Imperium not accessible by river routes may be one of the reasons for the decline of the Roman Empire in the Danube provinces. By contrast, the area between Cologne and the Netherlands was one of the economically most powerful parts of the Imperium even in the late Roman age.

Outside of the Roman Empire, some improvement of agricultural methods also took place. Rye (Secale cereale) and oats (Avena sativa) were grown as additional crops, certainly enlarging and stabilizing of the food supply and possibly enabling the local farmers to export crops to Roman towns. Yet despite the influence of Roman commerce and the presence of trade routes in the area, the peasant diet, at least, seems to have been similar to that of prehistoric times.

The inhabitants of towns and garrisons, by contrast, enjoyed considerably more variety in viands. Those who had the ability bought many different spices at market, and cultivated fruits became available. In fact, the oldest fruit-tree groves and vineyards in northern Europe date from the Roman Age. The basic requirement for these was the stability that Roman rule brought to settlements. Prehistoric settlements had lasted for only a few decades at the most — not long enough for the fruits of groves and vines to appear in any abundance.

The Middle Ages

Many of the Roman trade routes were still used after the Romans departed. For example, the trade route along the Rhine remained important, and its commerce was extended by Viking merchants to the coasts, to northwestern Germany, and to the islands and peninsulas around the North Sea: England, Ireland, Iceland, Norway, and Jutland. Artifacts that represent importations into Viking settlements, such as wine and wine vessels in Haithabu (Behre 1983), serve to document the existence and extensiveness of these routes.

The Hanse merchants added the areas around the Baltic Sea to their economic empire, bringing exotic food to the towns along the Baltic coast. Indeed, at times there was more imported food inside the towns than local products. As an example, during a period of grain shortage in Lubeck, marzipan, a bread that is baked not of ordinary flour but of almond “flour” and sugar, is said to have been invented (Küster 1987).

The food trade in northern Europe experienced yet another shift when the exchange began of meat (or livestock) and crops between the agricultural and grassland areas. In the Netherlands, oxen were taken from Frisia westward to the big towns, whereas crops were transported from the dry, sandy areas to the fen landscapes where cattle farms came into existence (Bieleman 1989).The trade of oxen, in turn, led to the development of “oxen routes” inside northern Europe. In the late Middle Ages, as food transport and trade became more important, these activities were no longer confined to waterways but were also carried out over such overland routes.

All parts of northern Europe that were distant from the trade routes had remained rural, and the diets of their residents continued to be restricted to the few elements of food (cereals, pulses, oil plants) that had been exploited since prehistoric times. Only the species of plants had changed. Rye, oats, and, in some areas, wheat had become more important, whereas emmer was only rarely cultivated.

Urban growth meant a continuing demand for as much food as possible, which led to intensive agricultural production. Nearly all woods were cleared, and a sophisticated rotation system — winter crop, summer crop, and fallow — came into existence. The settlements became stable and were usually arranged around a church. As during Roman times, such stability (in towns, monasteries, and castles) promoted the cultivation of fruit trees and vines, the produce of which was available in the markets. Yet the demands of rapidly growing urban populations frequently led to shortages in basic foodstuffs like flour, which in turn led to conflict and even civil war between city peoples and peasants. The Bauernkrieg (“Peasants’ War”) of 1525 was perhaps the most famous of these conflicts, signaling the end of the Middle Ages and its accompanying social system in northern Europe.

Modern Times

During the following centuries, it became even more difficult for rural farmers to supply enough food for urban populations that continued to swell (Abel 1978). There was one crisis after another, which brought periods of famine in northern Europe and periods of migration to North America. But at the same time, American food plants were taking root in Europe.

In the period of mercantilism, just prior to the Age of Industrialization, factories were founded in many parts of northern Europe. People began working for wages, and thus many more became dependent on the food market, which had difficulty meeting demand, especially in years with low crop yields. In response, northern European landowners forced peasants to cultivate the American potato (Solanum tuberosum), which delivered a high yield of food per unit of land cultivated.

In principle, such cultivation made it possible for ordinary workers to buy sufficient food in the form of potatoes to sustain themselves. But the expanded food supply caused rapid population growth and a concomitant growth of towns. Indeed, the industrialization of northern Europe would not have been possible without the introduction of the potato (Küster 1992a).

It was not, however, until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that the peasants’ diet began to include imported food items, such as spices, long enjoyed by town dwellers. This change was precipitated by an extensive construction of railways that linked the countryside with the cities. With the new foodstuffs came grocers to the villages. They were called “Kolonialwarenhändler” in the German language, which means “colonial produce merchants.” Yet only exotic food imports were sold in the grocery shops, whereas the most important constituents of the diet were provided by the farmers themselves.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the construction of railways has also led to further spatial concentration of cattle raising and crop production. With the invention of mineral fertilizers that were transported by rail, crop production was abandoned in mountainous areas but intensified in the plains. In addition, the great increase in yield on fertilized fields led to the abandonment of remote acres where spruce forests could be planted.

Another agrarian and nutritional revolution was caused by the beginning of extensive maize (Zea mays) cultivation during the past few decades. Maize silage provides enough food for large cattle and chicken producers, causing meat and eggs to become relatively cheap to northern European consumers. Since World War II there has been a marked shift toward increased meat consumption. The protein-rich diet causes health problems, and dietitians recommend eating more grains and vegetables and less meat and eggs. In northern Europe today, food shortages are not a problem, and the price of food plays less of a role in determining an individual’s nutrition than it did in the past. It is interesting that despite the great variety of foods available on the shelves in the supermarket, dietitians are recommending a return to the dietary staples of prehistoric times (Haenel 1986).

Nonetheless, a huge variety of foods is now produced in northern Europe, and other foods produced outside of that region can be purchased by almost everyone. Some of the crops produced, such as wheat, barley, oats, and rye, have been grown and consumed for millennia. Others, such as potatoes and maize from the Americas, are relatively new but very important. Also important are certain foods brought in from abroad. Rice, which is imported in large quantities from South Asia, is one of these. Coffee and tea are others. The northern Europeans have long been fond of hot beverages, and today Dutch and Saxonian coffees are famous the world over.

In a remarkable turnaround compared with the past, today more crops and meat are produced in northern Europe than can be consumed by the people of the region, and such abundance has created great political and economic problems. Oversupply of such items as pork, butter, wine, and apples has prompted the common market of the European Union to insist on less production, and farmers have been forced to destroy a portion of their harvests and cut back on the amount of meat produced. Because areas where long-established crops can be cultivated have become increasingly restricted, farmers are turning to alternative crops such as spelt, flax, and sunflowers. Many products from these new crops are available in health-food stores as well as supermarkets, as northern Europeans, like people in other developed countries, are giving more thought to improving their nutrition.

Another important nutritional development in the region began in the 1950s, when labor shortages there opened the way for southern European workers to move north. With them came their national cuisines and specialty restaurants; Italian and Greek foods are very popular in northern Europe today. Pizza restaurants can be found even in small villages, and frozen pizza is one of the most common fast-food dishes in the home.

In addition to the influence of southern Europeans, there has been a substantial culinary contribution made by the people of now-independent overseas colonies to their former mother countries. Just as Indian food and restaurants are common in England, and North African cookery is widespread in France, there are many Indonesian restaurants in the Netherlands.

As the northern European countries have become more prosperous, they have also attracted the peoples (and thus the foods) of most of the rest of the world. Chinese restaurants, for example, are ubiquitous, and spring rolls and other Chinese dishes are available in all the supermarkets.

Indeed, because of prosperity on the one hand and all of these culinary choices on the other, cooking at home has come to an end in many households. It is easy and inexpensive to purchase already prepared dishes from the supermarket in cans, or frozen, or dried. Moreover, it has become very common to eat in what might be termed “neighborhood” restaurants where one encounters friends and can relax. Fast-food restaurants from America have been introduced but are still not all that popular because they are too hurried.

Clearly, then, the history of food and drink in northern Europe has entered into a unique chapter. There is an abundant variety of both native and exotic foods available, and famine is unknown. More and more customers are demanding higher-quality foodstuffs, and it has become fashionable, for example, to use the very best olive oils and spiced vinegars in the preparation of salads. Factories that turn out convenience foods, such as mashed potato powder and instant soups and sauces, are supplemented by a market network that supplies frozen and fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and fish, all of which combine to supply a high — perhaps too high — level of nutrition for the northern European.

This situation stands in stark contrast to nutritional levels in the poorer regions of the world. For economic and political as well as logistical reasons, it is a complicated matter to ship foods from northern European countries to the underdeveloped nations. But some, especially the Scandinavians, have done much to help improve the standard of living, including the level of nutrition, of developing-world peoples. Moreover, there are regular airlifts from northern Europe to famine-ravaged regions of the world, although, of course, balanced diets are hardly provided in such bulk shipments.

In conclusion, it is worth stressing that the sheer amount of nutrients available to northern Europeans today also stands in stark contrast to their own long past of undernutrition and even famine. One hopes that one day soon, like the northern Europeans, the people in today’s developing countries will be confronting the problem of overnutrition.