Cherries Galore in a Cesspit

By Merit Hondelink

As an archaeobotanist, an archaeologist specialised in studying plant remains found in archaeological excavations, I aim to reconstruct and interpret the relationships between humans and plants in the past. Archaeological plant remains, also known as subfossil plant remains, help us to reconstruct the former landscape and inform us how humans exploited it and even transformed the vegetation. Archaeobotanists do not necessarily study one time period, nor a specific region or topic. They can study plant remains from the Palaeolithic or the 20th century, and everything in between. They can focus on one specific site, work across the country or continent, and even work worldwide. They can delve into topics such as natural vegetation, forestation, domestication, trade, food consumption and much more. The one thing that all of this has in common is the link between humans and plants. But most archaeobotanists do specialize, most notably in the plant parts they study, such as fruits, seeds, pollen, wood or phytoliths. And most archaeobotanists have a beloved time period, favourite region or topic that they find most intriguing. In my case my research focuses on early modern Dutch urban food consumption.

I study what people ate in early modern Dutch cities, and how this changed through time. The best way to study what people ate in the past, is to look at their excrement and kitchen refuse, both of which can be found in the archaeologists treasure trove: the cesspit. These latrines were used to empty one’s bowels, but also served as a place to discard kitchen refuse and household waste. The content of a cesspit consists of organic remains from plants and animals, inorganic (culinary) material culture such as earthenware, glassware and ceramics, but also wooden cups and plates, as well as (decorative) objects, personal belongings and much, much more.

Figure 1: A selection of faunal and floral items found in a late medieval cesspit sample from Groningen. Photo: Dirk Fennema.

The content of an archaeobotanical cesspit sample consists of, among others, floral remains in different shapes and sizes (Figure 1). The items are sorted with the use of a microscope (Figure 2) and identified on a species level (and sometimes even on the level of species variety) by using a reference collection (Figure 3). The Groningen Institute of Archaeology offers a wonderful digital, open access, reference collection, see https://www.plantatlas.eu/.

Figure 2: A peek through the microscope. Visible is a fragment of text and different seeds and fruits, taken from an early modern Delft cesspit sample. Photo: Merit Hondelink.

When the content of a cesspit sample is analysed, sorted and identified, the interpretation begins. What can these plant remains tell us about past human-plant relationships? Most plant species are interpreted in a standardized way: wild plants inform us about the vegetation composition, make-up of soils and hydrology, whilst agricultural weeds in particular inform us about the crops grown and their local, regional, international or even global provenance. Wild but poisonous or toxic plants inform us about potential medicinal applications. A majority of plant species found in cesspits are classified as economic plants, grown as a food crop or cultivated for other useful purposes, such as fibres for textiles or seeds for oil. Identifying edible plants helps us better understand what plants people used for food and which parts people consumed. It also helps us better understand how food was prepared in the past, as preparation marks can be left behind on seeds and fruits.

Some preparation marks are easier to identify than others: nuts need to be cracked to get to the seed; apple seeds may be sliced when cutting up an apple, cereals can be ground, resulting into fragmented bran. But sometimes the archaeobotanist finds fragmented plant parts that, at a first glance, do not make sense.

Figure 3: A small selection of the tubes from the archaeobotany reference collection housed at the Groningen Institute of Archaeology (GIA) at the University of Groningen. Photo via GIA.

I have come across dozens and sometimes hundreds (or even more) cherry stones and plum stones in a single cesspit sample. No surprise there, cherries and plums were grown in local orchards, sold in the market and consumed with gusto. Most of these stones will have been discarded in the cesspit as a result from eating the fruits and spitting out the stones, or after de-pitting the fruits for dinner preparation. Only a small percentage is assumed to have been accidentally swallowed and secreted as excrement. Still, archaeobotanists find many fragments of cherry and plum stones (Figure 4). This is something that raises questions when you think about it. Why would these sturdy fruit stones be fragmented? A more pressing question when you are aware that the Rosaceae family, among others also including almond, peach, and even apple, contains – to varying degrees – hydrocyanic acid, also known as hydrogen cyanide and sometimes called prussic acid. The seed coat and fruit wall protects the consumer from digesting this acid, which can be poisonous when consumed. So why would someone break the stones of these fruits?

Figure 4: Two fragments of cherry stones found in an early modern cesspit in Vlissingen. Photo: Merit Hondelink.

To test the assumption that cherry stones were fragmented intentionally, and not through, for instance, pressure, an experiment was devised. Cherries were bought at the farmer’s market and taken to a physics lab to measure the pressure required to fragment the stones. After a number of tests, the calculated force to fragment a cherry stone averaged 23,9 kg or 239 Newton (Graph 1). This makes it more plausible that the stones were intentionally fragmented, as opposed to – for instance – fragmentation due to soil pressure.

Graph 1: Force needed to fragment a cherry stone. On the vertical axis the force (N), on the horizontal axis the elongation (μm). The point where the line falls is the moment the cherry stone breaks (max. force – max. elongation).

Consulting early modern cookbooks provided me with a list of recipes requiring the cook to de-stone cherries for the preparation of jams, sauces, syrups and tarts. Delicious experiments ensued, but I did not manage to fragment cherry stones whilst cutting and de-stoning, pressing through a cloth or colander, or by just baking the fruit with stones in a tart in the oven. Working a batch of cherries with a mortar and pestle did the job, though. But than you would have to pick the fragmented stones from the mushy cherries: not ideal at all. Picking up the eighteenth century encyclopaedia compiled by Noël Chomel gave me the hint I needed. In the Dutch version of his Dictionnaire œconomique (Algemeen huishoudelijk-, natuur-, zedekundig- en konst- woordenboek), he mentions different recipes for preparing cherries. Two recipes for cherry liquor instruct the reader to fragment the cherry stones by using a mortar and pestle (Figure 5). The fragmented fruits, including the stones and (I assume) the seeds are added to the brandy (Dutch: brandewijn) and, after closing the bottle, the mixture is put in the sun to infuse. Adding spices such as cinnamon, cloves and sugar is optional, according to the author.

Figure 5: How to make a pleasant cherry liquor (Noël Chomel, 1778).

So, it is plausible that the fragmented cherry stones found in early modern cesspits are the result of the domestic production of cherry liquor. Other fruits, such as plums and peaches, are also used to make a fruity liquor according to Chomel’s encyclopedia. However, what happens to the acid contained in the seeds? That requires further research. It might be that the prescribed infusing in the sunlight helps denature the acid into harmless molecules, leaving only the (bitter) taste behind. This line of research will be undertaken come summer with the aid of a brewer and some chemical analysis. In the meantime, a cherry and cinnamon flavoured lemonade is my poison of choice. Bottoms up!

The Fruits of Summer in the Dead of Winter

Molly Taylor-Poleskey

In the seventeenth century, life ebbed and flowed with the seasons. In my research into the court household of Berlin, I noted seasonal shifts in livery, lighting, bedtimes, and, of course, recipes. Even with these seasonal adaptations, however, early modern Europeans sought to overcome seasonal growing constraints. One occupation primarily concerned with defying the seasonality of food was that of the court confectioner. It was his (and his wife’s) job to preserve the delicate summer fruits for wealthy Europeans to enjoy even in the depths of winter.

Nicolas de Bonnefons described the rewards of this play with the seasons in his 1654 Les Delices de la campagne, which was translated into English and German and even republished by a Berlin court physician, Johann Sigismund Elsholtz. Bonnefons raptured:

There is nothing which doth more agreeably concern the senses, than in the depth of Winter to behold the fruits so fair, and so good, yea, better than when you first did gather them; and that then, when the trees seem to be dead, and have lost all their Verdure, and the rigour of the cold to have so dispoil’d your garden of all that imbellished it, that it appears rather a desart [sic] than a paradise of delicacies; then it is, I say, that you will taste your fruit with infinite more Gust and contentment, than in the summer it self, when their great abundance and variety rather cloy you than become agreeable. For this reason therefore it is, that we will essay to teach you the most expedite, and certain means how to conserve them all the winter, even so long, as till the new shall incite you to quite the old.[1]

A view into the confectioner’s kitchen in The French gardiner, 1691,

Considering Bonnefons emphatic endorsement of summer fruits in winter, it is perhaps not surprising that confectioners were highly valued in Europe. The moist and cold properties of fresh fruit generally made it a nutritional no-no, according to Galenic principles of diet. However, candied fruits were considered medicinal and the position of court confectioner often fell under the office of the apothecary, not the kitchen.[2] In the Renaissance, it was common to seal the stomach at the end of a rich meal with either fresh or preserved fruits and fruit at a meal was emblematic of the wealth and refinement of the host.[3] By the eighteenth century, the task of the confectioner to create elaborate sugar sculptures for the table was so ingrained that one encyclopedist claimed they belonged to the artist class and prospects had to apprentice themselves to a city confectioner for six years until they had mastered their art.[4] 

Georg Flegel (1566–1638), Still life with cookies and confections (including dried cherries).

The importance of the confectioner is apparent at the court at Berlin in the seventeenth century. The household archives contain a frantic exchange from 1647 between the Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm (1620-1688) and his counselors about finding a replacement for the deceased confectioner, Johann Schenke, whose wife did not want to carry on the job. It being early summer (Jun 27), the councilors expressed the pressing need to fill the vacancy because “now is the best time for juices and other garden fruits to be preserved.”[5] Friedrich Wilhelm ordered them to install the Prussian confectioner, Johann Tiegel, in the position. He wrote that although they would eventually draw up a contract for him, Tiegel should get started immediately collecting the fruit from the gardens and bringing them to the elector’s tables with the appropriate confections.[6]

When it was finally written, the court confectioner’s employment contract specified the supplies he would receive to carry out his charge: 700 Reichsthaler (in addition to his 80 Reichstaler salary), 960 eggs, as much flour and fruit as needed (from the gardens and from in-kind taxes), 1000 citrons, 1000 bitter oranges, as well as a supply of wood, coal and candles.[7] Occasionally, the confectioner did not get the necessary supplies, which hindered his ability to preserve fruits and was costly for the court. In 1657, Friedrich Wilhelm ordered that Tiegel surely be supplied with apples, cherries, and Black Corinths (Johannisbeere in German) in order to avoid the great expense of having to buy confections from outside of the palace, which had been necessary the previous year.[8]

Cherries were the first ripe fruits of the summer. The sandy soil of Brandenburg was well-suited to growing cherries and in 1656, there were eight varieties of cherries cataloged in the palace garden of Berlin.[9] Dr. Elsholtz wrote that cherries were ripe in June and July and described their consumption: “one eats cherries either fresh or cooked into a soup, or dried, or preserved with sugar. Some make cherry water or a syrup.”[10] Here is a translation of one such cherry recipe reprinted by Elsholtz from Bonnefons:

One makes the cherry syrup from the good, ripe cherry juice, which you press through a hair or linen cloth. For every quart of this juice, add a pound of sugar, boil that to a thick syrup. To clarify this syrup, let it run through a distillation sack.”[11]

Elsholtz’s descriptions also correspond with the menus and food receipts from the Brandenburg-Prussian household archive, which frequently list the ordering or consumption of dried cherries and cherry sauce (Kirschmus), in particular.

In some popular food literature today, there’s nostalgia for a time when humans adhered more closely to the foods nature provided each season. Even prior to industrialization, however, people clearly prized the rarity of a taste of an off-season food. What the archival record reveals, though, is that early modern Europeans of all orders were still hyper aware of what foods were available when and were careful about timing the work of preservation accordingly.

[1] Nicolas de Bonnefons, John Evelyn, and John Rose, The French Gardiner (London: Printed by F.B. for B. Took, and are to be sold by J. Taylor, 1691), p. 191-2. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.31822031020266?urlappend=%3Bseq=218.

[2] This was the case in Berlin. See Peter Bahl, Der Hof des Grossen Kurfürsten: Studien zur hoheren Amtsträgerschaft Brandenburg-Preussens (Koln: Bohlau, 2001), p. 365.

[3] Ken Albala, The Banquet: Dining in the Great Courts of Late Renaissance Europe (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), p. 82-89.

[4] Johann Georg Krünitz, “Conditor,” Oekonomischen Encyklopädie oder allgemeines System der Staats- Stadt- Haus- und Landwirthschaft (Berlin: Pauli, 1773), http://www.kruenitz1.uni-trier.de/.

[5] Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz I. Rep. 36 948, p. 57

[6] Ibid, p. 63.

[7] Ibid, p. 55. There is no mention of the quantity of sugar the confectioner would receive, but an earlier missive from the previous elector ordered the Office of the Domains (Amtskammer) to supply the confectioner with enough sugar for the dried fruits coming in as taxes-in-kind from the administrative districts (Ämter). Ibid, p. 16.

[8] Ibid. p. 73.

[9] Marina Heilmeyer, Kirschen für den König, Potsdamer pomologische Geschichten (Potsdam: Vacat, 2001), p. 10. Johann Sigismund Elsholtz’s 1656 plant catalog Horta Berolinensis can be found at the Staatsbibliothek Berlin Ms.boruss.qu. 12.

[10] Elßholtz, Vom Garten-Baw (Berlin, 1684), p. 258.  Ibid, Diaeteticon (Cölln an der Spree: Georg Schulz, 1682), p. 61.

[11] Ibid, p. 436-7. I translated Viertal as quart and “Luttersack” as distillation sack. There’s a picture of a 19th-century Luttersack here (item 30). According to Adelung, the Lutter is what came out of the first pass through the fire when making brandy (which required two firings).