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The history of the Mediterranean diet, from the Neolithic to Ferran Adrià | Culture

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When the volcano Vesuvius, in the year 79, turned the inhabitants of Herculaneum into scorched skeletons, the eruption charred everything in its path, including the fruits that, although so charred, were presented in a small beech wood box from the 18th century, represent one of the attractions of the exhibition Convivium: Arqueología de la dieta mediterránea, presented this Monday at the National Archaeological Museum (MAN), in collaboration with the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC). There are almost 300 pieces from different institutions and private collections that tell the story of why and how in the countries of the Our sea A healthy diet emerged and survives based mainly on cereals, legumes, vegetables, olive oil and wine.

The exhibition, which can be visited until September 1 and with free admission, goes beyond what we eat or drink. Party It means feast in Latin and, as Cicero recalls in a panel, “gathering of friends to eat,” in which the delight of the meal is more “in the talk than in the pleasures of the body.”

In the exhibition “there are pieces from the Neolithic to the 18th century, some were in the museum’s warehouses and have been restored and cataloged for this occasion,” said the director of the MAN, Isabel Izquierdo Peraile. The exhibition, which is accompanied by parallel activities, such as a meeting with chef Ferran Adrià, conferences and tastings, begins with the section titled The appetizer. To open appetite, it all began when human beings “began to domesticate animal and plant species,” said Almudena Orejas, one of the five curators of the exhibition, all from the CSIC Institute of History. “The Mediterranean diet did not begin at a specific time, it is an evolution.”

Box of charred fruits from Herculaneum, from the year 79, in the National Archaeological Museum.Alberto Rivas Rodríguez

The introduction of foods to the Iberian Peninsula is summarized below, from wheat, peas and lentils starting in 7500 BC. C., along with animals such as sheep, goats, cows and pigs; the vine and the olive tree and the chickens, in the first millennium BC. C., thanks to the Phoenicians and Greeks, above all. The latter already used the word “diet” to include lifestyle habits. However, it was not until the 20th century, as curator Susana González Reyero pointed out, when American doctors began to vindicate not only the diet, but also the Mediterranean way of life.

Roman engraving with grape harvesters, from the 2nd century, in the National Archaeological Museum.
Roman engraving with grape harvesters, from the 2nd century, in the National Archaeological Museum.Ariadna Gonzalez Uribe

Wine arrived as an exotic product in the first millennium BC and since then it has only spread and integrated into all strata of society. Rye and cherry trees were novelties with the Roman Empire; citrus fruits and rice in the Middle Ages, and corn, potatoes, tomatoes and cocoa in the Modern Age, thanks to the influence of America. It is also remembered that since 2013 the Mediterranean diet has been considered healthy by the World Health Organization (WHO) and that it is Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

After the presentation, we arrived at the display cases with primitive iron hoes from the 4th century BC. C. and with ears of different types of cereals. Art has always reproduced food and the animals that provide it. A beautiful example is the relief with grain ears from the 10th century from the archaeological site of Medina Azahara (Córdoba); the Romanesque capital with vines, from the 12th century, of the cathedral of Santa María la Vieja (Cartagena) or the beautiful mosaic of a pheasant from the 4th century, found in Quintana del Marco (León).

Mosaic representing a pheasant, from the 4th century, found in Quintana del Marco (León), belonging to the National Archaeological Museum.
Mosaic representing a pheasant, from the 4th century, found in Quintana del Marco (León), belonging to the National Archaeological Museum.Ariadna Gonzalez Uribe

The section The shelf deals with where food was stored, from Bronze Age and Roman amphorae from the 1st century BC. C. to an oil chamber from 1740, passing through clay cheese makers from the 2nd millennium BC. C., from Castillo de Cardeñosa (Ávila). Likewise, conservation practices are explained, such as salting and smoking, and Hispanic amphorae are shown in which the Romans kept the long, the brine made from fish entrails to preserve food.

There is also space for the instruments and utensils used to treat food, such as implements, an Etruscan bronze colander from the 6th century BC. C. or some grinders from 3100 BC. C. Our teeth also perform the function in the mouth of crushing what we eat, with the logical wear and tear. Thus, in a display case, human remains with oral pathologies are shown, such as a jaw with cavities found in Níjar (Almería) and which must have caused its owner some pain about five millennia ago.

Honey has been collected since Prehistory, which is why glasses and ceramics used for “that very sweet, very light and very healthy juice, which brings the great pleasure of its heavenly nature” are exhibited, as Pliny wrote in his Natural History. Fish proteins are essential in the Mediterranean diet, as can be seen, among other pieces, in some cuttlefish-shaped ceramic vessels from Cyprus (1800-1600 BC).

A display case with amphorae in one of the rooms of the 'Convivium' exhibition, in the National Archaeological Museum.
A display case with amphorae in one of the rooms of the ‘Convivium’ exhibition, in the National Archaeological Museum.Daniel Gonzalez (EFE)

The Romans, of course, have a great role in party for what they ate and how they ate it. There are table ceramics and glass containers, which were placed on low tables. In rich houses the act of eating was celebrated in the dining room the meeting room, between music and games. A gold coin from the time of Emperor Hadrian, in the 2nd century, recalls the value that food had in a society where one had to try to survive every day: a woman representing the allegory of the Roman province of Hispania appears reclining holding a hand an olive branch and with a rabbit at his feet.

Finally, it is explained that not everything was fine in Ancient Rome, because it was also a precursor to fast food with thermopolia, the shops in which prepared food, cold or hot, such as bread, cheese or meat, and wine were sold. More popular, and with a worse reputation, were the restaurantssome fiones, like the establishments of fast food tacky today, where you could sip wine and kill your hunger with simple stews, bread and olives.

One of the bars, or thermopolia, found in Pompeii.
One of the bars, or thermopolia, found in Pompeii.Luigi Spina

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