Fish wrapped in green grass and grilled on open fire

Grilled Fish and Nettles in Medieval Caravate

Fish filled with nettles and grilled over a blazing fire was on the menu in medieval Caravate near Lago Maggiore, shows a study of medieval dental plaque. We are lucky the good people forgot to floss!

Caravate is a small village near Lago Maggiore in Northern Italy. Some time after AD 800 a small chapel was built, Sant Agostino di caravate exteriorSant’Agostino. In 2002 the small Romanesque chapel underwent restoration and in connection with this, the surroundings were excavated. Right next to the chapel fourteen graves were found in a necropolis. The skeletons of men, women and children were analysed and found to be rather short; the average height did not exceed 1.65 metres, while life expectancy was on average no more than 45.

In connection with these anthropological studies, the teeth of three individuals were placed under the microscope and carefully scraped. The reason was that the archaeologists had the opportunity to study the teeth before a cleaning of the skulls had taken place. One result was that it was possible to do a detailed chemical analysis of the plaque or calculus.

chiesa Sant agostino di caravateThe point is that teeth are living organisms, which will try to encapsulate any residue stemming form intake of foodstuff – bacteria, microscopic fragments of food or cooking vessels etc. by forming calculus, tartar or hardened dental plaque. The hypothesis is that by analysing such calculus from ancient skeletons it should be possible to say something about their diet. So-far this type of archaeological scientific research is on the experimental level.

Map over Caravate near VareseHowever, the scientists did in fact succeed in gathering some rather important information about the diet and lifestyle of the people in Caravate. According to a recently published article the good people of Caravate lived on a diet of fish and locally harvested nettles (and probably other wild herbs) combined with bread or porridge made from wheat or other types of grain. Mixed into this was probably nuts or seeds from pine trees. Another find in the dental calculus was residue of charcoal or burnt wood plus small stone or granite particles.

Imagine, just by studying the dirt between the teeth of medieval Italians we get a glimpse of a culinary treat:  fish filled with freshly harvested nettles, wrapped in a protective cover of fresh green grasses and grilled on a stone slab, placed in an open fire. Afterwards the fish might have been sprinkled with roasted pine nuts and served with a rough pancake or bread, which had been baked in the open fire or in a clay oven. All prepared near the local stream, where the fish had probably been caught. Or perhaps on the beach of nearby Lago Maggiore.

It shall of course be duly noted that the scientists have used the proper Latin names for the different substances traced in the calculus. The “recipe” is cooked up from this!


The Diet of Three Medieval Individuals from Caravate (Varese, Italy). Combined Results of ICP-MS Analysis of Trace Elements and Phytolith Analysis Conducted on their Dental Calculus
By Agnese Maria Barbara Lazzati, Luca Levrini, Laura Rampazzi , Carlo Dossi , Lanfredo Castelletti , Marta Licata andCristina Corti
In: International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 2015. Accepted manuscript online: 22 APR 2015 – DOI:10.1002/oa.2458