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The genealogy of talayotic cuisine

The genealogy of talayotic cuisine

​Thanks to the recent discovery in Trepucó of a handwritten recipe book from the Talayotic Period, we can now understand, What exactly did the Talayotic people eat? This opening statement is obviously not true, and as is logical, for analysis of what Talayotic people ate, we are not in possession of any actual cooking manual. We must hence carry out a study that combines different sources of information that will be included herein so as to better understand the genealogy of their diet. These sources include, on one hand, and in truly incredible fashion, all that archaeological data that has been gathered from sites around Menorca through the analysis of animal and vegetal sediments, utensils found, the layouts of their dwellings and from a dietary point of view, the contents of the skeletal remains of the individuals. On the other hand, classical textual sources that speak of the island give us some references as to what knowledge might be useful in understanding how life was lived in this period and what ingredients were seen as vital. Lastly, historical studies on diet in regions that were climatically and culturally similar, especially around the Mediterranean, help draw a parallel and synthesize information regarding this genealogical vision that requires looking into the origins and ancestors of any product and its dietary usage, as well as any external influences or their progeny that in some cases, may still exist today.

What we have found so far from published studies is that the diet followed a mixed model that combined livestock and cultivation on one hand, and hunting and gathering on the other. Animal protein was primarily obtained from sheep and goats through both meat and dairy consumption, with a more reduced proportion coming from pigs and cows. Interestingly enough, these percentages of animal consumption remained fairly constant through the end of the 18th century, which may suggest that this proportion was the most adequate for humankind's relationship with the island's natural environment. This differs from other coetaneous cultures, whose diets were based more on grains, allowing for higher population density, but a lower quality diet. Considering the fact that the Talayotics lived on an island, it is rather surprising to see so few indications of food sources taken from the sea, and although some mineral traces from bone analysis seem to suggest possible seafood consumption, this appears not to be true. While an extremely large amount of mollusk shells have been found from the subsequent Roman period, in Talayotic remains, the few that have been found were incorporated into ceramic pieces. In fact, the fish hooks on display at the Museu de Menorca also come from more advanced periods and possibly from the influence of visiting cultures, which leads us to believe that this fact was caused by technical issues or the lack of necessity for subsistence.

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There is a relevant piece of data that is often utilized here to deduce the type of social stratification from diet: there are no significant differences in nutritional quality between individuals based on either social status or sex. The botanical remains that predominate the archaeological sites also provide us with an abundance of clues: the fruit of the wild olive tree is difficult to distinguish from a primitive olive from these lands stemming from a scion of an olive tree that was introduced to the Western Mediterranean by the Punics. We also know from classical texts that oils were used, at least from the mastic tree, which along with the wild olive, played important roles in their lives for its many potential uses, as confirmed through discovered remains, and hence olive oil becomes part of chronological understanding. Other products that were consumed and that have withstood the test of time include figs, a variety of berries that demonstrate the gathering nature of the culture (sloes, raspberries, blackberries, myrtle berries), capers and some unidentified legumes, possibly from the family of grass peas or faba or broad beans, as examples of the most ancient products of the Mediterranean of this type.

With regards to the importance of grains, due to the implications on socio-economic organization and any necessary culinary techniques, the collection and consumption of grains becomes clear. Evidence of the most substantial quantities, as seems quite logical due to similarities to other contemporary cultures, are of barley, with a lesser amount of wheat in its more archaic forms: spelt and emmer wheat (farro). The more modern variety of wheat did not arrive to the Mediterranean until the coming of the classical era and its culture. This leads us to imagine the type of breadmaking that was carried out, which becomes apparent thanks to the utensils used, although based also on the utilized product. Children of the period were not allowed to eat “if they were not capable of striking a loaf of bread from a distance with a slingshot” according to ancient Latin texts, and such bread may have been unleavened (unfermented) or with fermented barley, which due to its low gluten content did not retain enough air molecules to make the soft breads we currently enjoy, as would have done the wealthy Romans. However, the properties of barley on a nutritional level should not be underestimated, and are superior to those of wheat in many ways, especially with regards to limiting amino acids (lysine) and vitamin content, while the historical success of wheat is actually due to other factors.

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From those pieces on display at the Museu de Menorca, we can draw rather valuable culinary conclusions. Starting with the cheese mold, a piece that in it itself fosters a somewhat emotional response here on the island, the fact that not only cheese was produced, but also how this was done is confirmed. The proportion of milks used for curdling can be deciphered from the herds of livestock of the era and its surprising persistence over time. The group of discoveries (Trepucó, Torreta de Tramuntana, Torre d'en Galmés, Biniparratxet Petit) confirm that cheesemaking was in fact a commonly used method for conserving milk for later consumption. Special mention is due for the design of the cheese molds of most specific dimensions, 13 cm in diameter and 19.5 cm in height.

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Over the course of preparation of the recent Talayotic taste test organized by the Museu de Menorca, in hopes of replicating the format of the ancient fogassa (loaf-shaped cheese), after several initial trials using molds we were surprised to find that on the day of cheese production, the cheese maker we chose used the very same proportions of milk and arrived at the same conclusion for achieving optimal aging of the cheese using molds that he had produced some time before: 13 cm in diameter, although thousands of years later.

Other utensils on display at the Museu that are important to culinary history, and hence, to humankind, include the mortar and the ceramic jar with a hermetic lid. Historical studies on diet highlight the importance of slow cooking, where the lid represents a key technical advancement, in making better use of foods that predominated after the Neolithic Revolution, like grains, legumes and some vegetables, as well as providing a method for stewing tougher meat that were not apt for cooking over open flame. The resulting stew conserved the broth and was used for “dipping” bread, a practice that was continued and perfected by the Romans and is present in many versions still today.

If the transition from raw to cooked food, which occurred thanks to humankind's mastering of fire, has been the subject of many studies, some of which state that it may be the primary cause of humanity's evolutionary advancement, whether due to improved digestion of ingredients that improve brain development or the increase in cerebral volume thanks to reduced jaw size required for these softer foods, a similar result can be observed with this new transition from fire to pot, associated with the sedentary nature, agriculture and stockbreeding of the Neolithic Revolution that began in the Fertile Crescent and moved towards the Eastern Mediterranean. From the many studies carried out, we can highlight those that focus on the division of tasks associated with hierarchy and sex. Some anthropologists speak of a slow, feminine cuisine using acquired knowledge and exploitation, as with the use of pots and fermentation associated with both cheese and bread production, toward a more masculine cuisine with open flame, faster, with hunting and animal sacrifice. The modern day passion for barbecues, in which males distribute animal protein to members of their “clan”, has even been associated to this ancestral component.

Just as each cultural advancement is directly related to diet and cuisine (or is it the other way round?), the mortar on display at the Museu, present in each and every human culture with a design that has lasted for thousands of years, is inseparable from the medical aspect of diet as an essential tool for crushing and extracting the essence of a great many foods and plants for their healing properties. The presence at the Museu of the figure of Imhotep, as a deity of medicine, serves as a reminder of this use for food, and a kitchen mortar was a symbol of pharmacists and a vital tool for healing until the time when eating and health were distinguished.

As for beverages, there is data regarding the preference of being compensated with wine by warriors with slings. In observing the amphorae in which it was stored, it would appear that its origins were Ebusitan. The wine was hence of Punic origins, both red and white, most often resinated wine to facilitate its transport. The resin of Pinus halepensis typically used to seal the lids of the amphorae, also giving it a characteristic flavor, is still used in Greece and was more than likely used in Menorca as it has been found around archaeological sites. Similarly, the importance of mastic in Talayotic culture, known both from botanical remains as well as classical texts, as well as the traditional uses of its resin, known as mastic, that continue to present day, as a wine preservative with medicinal properties, leads us to believe that its use in Menorca was also highly probable.

We must also contemplate the symbolic value of food, present in all cultures through representations of spiritually important objects and primordial elements in edible form. There are two examples well worth mentioning here: studies of the Nuragic civilization of Sardinia, considered for obvious reasons as an influence with direct similarities of the Talayotic Culture, show that a dish still served today called sa panada, is from this era and was a symbol of the Nuraghi structure. Considering that the sa panada and the Menorcan formatjada savory pastry are identical both in shape and preparation, one may conclude that this pastry represents a talayot, if the accuracy of these Sardinian studies is confirmed, and the presence of lamb, the preparation of the dough and the ovens used do technically allow for such confirmation. The other example, set forth more as a hypothesis, refers to the trunyelles de be, a dish made of cooked and braided lamb entrails. Although ovine entrails are in fact eaten in many cultures, only in Menorca is there a dish in which these are braided, which brings us to yet another symbol associated to one of this culture's key instruments, the sling.

In conclusion, it appears clear that the Talayotic diet was quite rich and varied, making the most of the products available, with some doubts regarding seafood, and was an example of the emerging Mediterranean diet, with some Menorcan features, continually incorporating ideas from other cultures that may have arrived via commerce routes: a cuisine fully capable of feeding this Mediterranean culture.

To fully understand the Talayotic culture, like any other, and taking into account that diet and success in progeny, which are highly related, are in fact the primary goals, one must have a deep understanding of what exactly Talayotic people ate.

 

Pep Pelfort.


Centre d'Estudis Gastronòmics Menorca

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