Archive for the ‘Food Geography’ Tag

Comment: The Geography of Salt   Leave a comment

This post would likely be better titled “The Geography of Unsalted Bread,” but that sounds about as un-intriguing as a trivet catalog, so forgive me. I’m currently working on a food history problem, one that revolves around the bread in the city I live in, Perugia. The traditional (and indeed still best-selling) bread here is called pane sciapo, literally “bland bread,” and contains hardly any salt at all. While I concede that as a vehicle for highly salted cold cuts or that drizzle of new olive oil, it functions well, this insipid bread is an anathema to all of us who grew up with bread that was made with salt.

The Perugians, when pressed, site several seemingly plausible historical reasons for the bread’s lack of salt. Salt was not, like it is now, an industrial product, but rather an expensive product that was transported from the seaside at great cost centuries ago. The poor, then, couldn’t afford salt because it cost so much. Umbria, the region Perugia is in, is the only region not touched by the sea on the peninsula. A slightly more articulated version of this explanation is that the poor preferred to use the little salt that they could afford for making cured meat and cheese, two products fundamental to Umbrian cuisine. Still other Perugians cite the Salt War of 1540, fought between Pope Paul III (Farnese) and the Free Comune of Perugia. The pope had levied an illegal tax on salt in Perugia, and the Perugians, in a Boston Tea Party-esque act of rebellion, stopped putting salt in their bread.

The problem with all three of these explanations is that they do not correspond to what I would call the “geography of salt[ed bread].” Unsalted bread is not just found in and around Perugia but throughout Umbria, down to Rome, east to the Adriatic, and north up to the Apennines that divide Tuscany from Emilia-Romagna. In fact all of Tuscany eats unsalted bread, referred to as pane toscano in the rest of Italy. All of central Italy, not just the mountainous interior, eats unsalted bread. The Salt War explanation makes even less sense given this fact, as Tuscany was outside the Papal States in 1540, so any tax on salt would not have affected the Tuscans and their bread.

It is, however, dangerous to project current-day food preferences into the history. Allen Grieco from Harvard’s Villa “I Tatti” has shown that olive oil production in Italy has been anything but stable geographically from the fifth to the eighteenth century. My paper seeks to use some indirect historical sleuthing to establish whether or not Perugia ate unsalted bread before 1540. Results are forthcoming, but merit a separate post.  ZN


Posted November 22, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Grieco — “Olive Tree Cultivation”   Leave a comment

This hard-to-find article’s full title is “Olive Tree Cultivation and the Alimentary Use of Olive Oil in Late Medieval Italy (ca. 1300-1500). It’s most important finding is that the projection of present-day alimentary geography (i.e. where a food product is used presently) is problematic for a number of reasons. The first that Grieco discusses is the dramatic change in ease of transport. During Roman times there was little cultivation of olive trees in the Po River valley due to the low cost with which olives and olive oil could be transported from other areas where the trees grew better. With the “barbarian” invasions there was a general decay of land and sea transport.

This meant that in order to have olive oil (for religious necessity, as Grieco points out), there was an imperative to plant trees in what was then a marginally productive climate. The change in the twelfth and thirteenth from customs duties on value rather than on weight made shipping olives and their olive more lucrative, and put pressure on the marginal plantations in the north of Italy. The drop in temperature known popularly as the “Little Ice Age” spelled the end of olive cultivation north of the Apennines until recent times.

Grieco also discusses, in a second, smaller section, the use of olive oil as a food product, and he finds that while there does not seem to be much truth to the much-popularized “butter line,” there is a general correlation with the amount of olive oil used and income.

We hope to make this paper available as a downloadable pdf from this site in the near future. The full bibliographic citation appears below:

Grieco, A.J. “Olive Cultivation and the Alimentary Use of Olive Oil in Late Medieval Italy (ca. 1300-1500).” In “Oil and Wine Production in the Mediterranean Area,” ed. M.C. Amouretti and J.P. Brun, Bulletin de Correspondence Hellenique (Supplement 26).