European in this context means North European, to distinguish it from Mediterranean. Although both food cultures exist on the same continent, they must be distinguished as they are essentially different. More adverse weather conditions, shorter growing seasons, a lot more rain, less sun and different soils in the north, have all contributed to differentiate the two dietary cultures.
Thus the natural cereal grains of northern Europe during the Neolithic were einkorn and emmer wheat, barley, rye and oats. Prepared into a variety of porridges, pottages and soups, these cereals together with the breads made from them have been for many centuries the staples of the European diet. Lentils and peas were the predominant pulses, and linseed was the major oil plant.
Meat eating country
Northern Europe is also traditionally meat-eating country. Hunting often furnished meat for the pot, but meat with low fat, and in any case free ranging meat raised on the hoof, did not have nearly the fat of meat raised in feed lots. Fishing took place in the great rivers and the sea, and the fish was often preserved by drying, salting and smoking. Later pigs kept medieval towns relatively clean, by converting refuse to edible protein and fat. Cows, sheep, goats, and in Lapland and in other tundra areas reindeer, have also provided supplies of milk, even when now and then the crops failed.
Since settlements rarely grew more than two different crops, famine must have been a constant threat. This enhanced the value of the herds, since they could provide the proteins and fat required despite adversity. Some of the milk was drunk, but raw with all its enzymes, which helped both its digestion and utilization. And some of it was "cultured," that is broken down to its constituents of curds, whey and cream.
Proud mare-milkers, hardup eaters of curd
Curds are the clotted protein, usually called casein, which is a group of 12-15 proteins making up about 75 percent of milk protein. Curds are formed when fresh milk is treated with rennet, an extract of the cow's stomach containing the enzyme chymosin or rennin, that helps clot the milk.
Earlier this was done through plant rennet, using lady's bedstraw, nettle, or wild thistle. The clotting of the protein is the first step to making cheese, and the well-known Scottish dessert-junket. Whey is the residue left after the removal of both protein and fat. It contains all the lactose sugar and the water soluble vitamins and minerals. An alternative name for whey is lactoserum, for like our blood serum it is made up mostly of water.
Cream of course, is made up of fat, ranging from 12 percent for half cream to 55 percent for Cornish cream. Drinking milk with all its enzymes, and breaking up the rest into fractions, has greatly helped the digestion of milk products. The additional fat was taken care of by the extra calories required for thermoregulation in a cold climate.
The smallest rates of lactose intolerance
Traditionally prone to continue using milk after being weaned, North Europeans have predictably the smallest rates of lactose intolerance known, 3 percent for Danes, 6-8 percent for the other Scandinavians, as compared with over 50 percent for most Mediterraneans, and over 90 percent for Southeast Asians and African Negroes.
The exception are Finns with their mixed ethnic background, which so rattles nutritional and other studies and baffles the experts conducting them. The Finns are made up of two major and distinct types. The original northerners, and people of Central Asian origin speaking Turco-Altaic languages, akin to modern Turkish and Hungarian, who first arrived in Finland in the 8th century. These nomad warriors had very different food patterns and dietary customs from the northerners, and this still shows in the high rates of chronic degenerative diseases and associated mortality of the country.
The foods of earlier times
In earlier times, the north European tribes ate a diet with lots of cereals in the form of porridges and breads. A small variety of green leaf plant foods such as carrots, kales, nettles, parsnips, etc, furnished carotenes and other important nutrients for the diet. Among fruits, apples were widely available, so that an apple a day could keep a brew-dispensing quack at bay. Herbs such as caraway and dill could grow easily in the cold climate of N Europe, and with a little effort also fennel, garlic, mint, poppy and bitter tansy.
Berries could be picked up in and around the fringes of the forest, and these contributed to the vitamins and minerals needed. Milk and milk products retained all their enzymes intact, easing digestion and utilization. Finally meat, whether the result of hunting or breeding on the hoof, carried a lot less fat than currently.
This diet changed radically during the 20th century. The amount of bread now eaten is almost a quarter of what was consumed earlier, the deficit made up of more meat and roots such as potatoes. The meat is a lot fatter now, and contains antibiotics, growth hormones, and other goodies designed to keep the cow healthy, but with little regard for the health of the meat consumer. The potatoes are a foreign crop. They do not belong to the European diet. They have very high glycemic indeces which cause rapid rises in blood glucose and its accompanying insulin.
Milk, though consumed in abundance, no longer has any enzymes. In fact, that is how producing companies know that the milk is properly pasteurized: all enzymes are destroyed. The rationale is that since all pathogenic micro-organisms require enzymes for their very existence, depriving them of their enzymes means a clean bill of health-for the milk.
This is true as far as it goes, only it doesn't go far enough. The missing enzymes must be provided for proper digestion, and this strains human resources to the utmost. Our genetic code was not evolved and developed for enzymeless diets. This is a new wrench in the digestive mechanism. Together with all the other wrenches previously described, today's European diet, though superficially similar to that of somewhat earlier times, is not really similar, and not very healthy either. It has strained too far from northern Europe's ancestral diets, with the known unhealthy consequences.
The French paradox
The exception of course is the French, that is, the non-Mediterranean French, since southern France is part of the Mediterranean world. Although great meat and butter eaters, they have relatively low rates of heart disease, and average rates of the other degenerative diseases. This became known in nutrition circles as "the French paradox."
The favorite explanation is in the red wine the French appear to drink at all times. It is downed by workers in a tall glass early in the morning before going to work. It is served in no small carafes to businessmen seating for lunch. It is delicately ministered by expert sommeliers to small groups at dinner in multi-star restaurants. And it is drunk at home on every opportunity.
Red wine with its moderate alcohol, and a great variety of phenolic compounds, fungicidal phytoalexines, proanthocyanidins and other powerful antioxidants and radical scavengers, etc, seems capable of mitigating the dietary excesses of the French and protecting them from degenerative disease. In vino veritas perhaps, but also decidedly some other distinctly beneficial ingredients.
Although the variation in foods and eating habits for various parts of Europe is considerable, a traditional European diet pyramid might look something like the shown.