For some time, the class of men’s magazines that focus on the six-pack rather than fast cars or loose women has been promoting the idea that we should return our diets to those of our oldest, stone-age ancestors. I rather fear that this idea is based more on a repeated viewings of a fur-bikini clad Raquel Welch fleeing Ray Harryhausen’s dinosaurs than on any serious academic study of paleolithic life. As a result, it has little scientific credibility – but remains oddly popular. On the plus side, it does encourage lower consumption of refined sugar which is certainly a good thing (unless you are a shareholder in Tate and Lyle) – but to find such a diet in general use we need only roll back the clock a couple of centuries or so.
In fact, we need turn the clock back only 20 years to find the first reference to such a diet (that I know of) in Ben Moor’s seminal radio series Elastic Planet. In the finest episode – The Train – one of the passengers sharing our compartment started an ill-feted restaurant called Le Néolithe which served only food from the stone age. Does Ben have the second sight? Or was this merely a lucky guess on his part?
Anyway, in the spirit of scientific enquiry (and in the hope of some content for GofaDM) whilst in Earl’s Court (unexpectedly devoid of uptalk) I partook of a soi-disant paleo brownie. For the avoidance of doubt, this does not follow the discovery of a flint woggle or a Neanderthal counterpart to Baden-Powell, but would fall under the broad umbrella of cake (delicious, but impractical in any but the lightest of showers). This was very tasty – and so it should be, comprised as it was largely of nuts and dried fruit – and since my return I have investigated recipes for this sweetmeat. Unexpectedly, these all turn out to be vegan – not what One Million Years BC (released in the year of my birth) might have led us to expect.
These recipes suggest that our stone-age ancestors were considerable more advanced than is generally recognised. Requiring cocoa from the Americas, almonds and dates from the Middle East, coffee from Africa and coconuts from Melanesia our forebears must have been prodigious travellers – or had vast trading networks in place – just to obtain the raw ingredients. I know they were supposed to be hunter-gatherers but that is some serious gathering! It certainly suggests that excessive food-miles is not a new issue.
Once the ingredients were assembled, they would have had to grind the almonds to make flour, dry the dates and extract oil from the coconut – plus find a source of baking powder and some well controlled heat (175°C for 25-30 minutes) and knap some stone cookware before their brownie dreams could be brought to fruition. Wild almonds are far from safe, containing as they do worrying levels of prussic acid which the grinding process would liberate, and so many cavemen must have lost their lives while the brownie was being perfected.
I’m all for pushing back the human discovery of cake but wouldn’t all this industry have left some marks in the archeological record? Surely, there must have been easier cakes (or even biscuits) for the Pleistocene baker to attempt – and their audience would be far more forgiving than a modern one (and possessed of a rather less sweet tooth, I would guess). I reckon some sort of rather basic (so no icing) tuber-based “carrot” cake, perhaps using mammoth lard, might be a goer. The flour-substitute would be a challenge, but gluten free “flour” seems to be made from all manner of stuff, so I’m sure a determined ancestor could have found something by trial-and-error – or our proto-Mary Berry could just spend a very long time collecting each odd stalk of emmer or einkorn encountered as they hunted and gathered: hard work, but a lot less globe-trotting than the brownie needed. Academics have posited many reasons for the start of settled agriculture some 8-10,000 years back – but could it be as simple as the desire for better, more easily made cake? I do like the idea that cake – rather than any of the other, less tasty things suggested by mainstream science – is in fact the foundation of modern, human civilisation. Perhaps SETI, rather than seeking a radio signal from aliens should be searching the spectra of distant star systems for the unmistakable markers of lemon drizzle cake? My soon-to-be best-selling book expanding on this idea will be in the shops by Christmas!