The missing link in the history of landscape and food

A design for a study on the historical relation between landscape and food

This is a preliminary design for a PhD study on the historical relation between landscape and food. When I started this, I thought that this relation would be so obvious that I could easily find many clues form my research. That turned out to be more troublesome than I thought. I found inspiration in the history of urbanisation in Europe.

The relation between landscape and food is topical and trending. A growing number of people is astonished about the fact that many people barely can explain the relation between the food on the table and the plants and animals in the landscape outside. A broad debate on food security, climate change, animal welfare and environment is circling around the central topic of the disconnection of people and their food and also the disconnection of people and their landscape. In my work as landscape journalist and as Convivium leader of the Slow Food movement I have tried highlighting this issue of landscape and food to all kinds of people. That is why I thought my PhD research could well be about the ‘missing link’ in the relation between landscape and food.

De wijngaarden van de Verdicchio Matelica van Collestefano.

The vineyards of Verdicchio Matelica of  Collestefano.

This proved more difficult than I thought. In the last six months I have explored the literature about the histories of landscape and food, through the scientific disciplines of the historical geography and ecology, the food history, the agricultural history, the history of Europe and the history of cities and urbanisation. My goal was finding a logical and suitable research perspective to follow the historical relation between landscape and food. I concluded that this literature barely touches this relation. This I expected, but even so I had hoped to find someone somewhere working on the same line of thought I try to ply. Surely, no one is unique. But no…

Closed circle

So I am almost forced to begin my research proposition for my PhD with a theoretical fundamental, before delving into the more detailed historical studies. You can design a nice circular simple scheme that shows the relations between landscape and food (Figure 1). In its most simple form it is a closed circle running from landscape through agriculture to food and culture back to landscape. Looking at this closed circle it seemed to me that the three most important scientific disciplines studying landscape and food – the history of landscape, food and agriculture – only look at parts of this circle.

↔ landscape  ↔ geographical environment  ↔ land use ↔ agriculture ↔ processing ↔ market ↔ food ↔ consumption ↔ eating ↔ taste ↔ identity ↔ culture ↔ nationality ↔ polity ↔ landscape ↔
Figure 1: Scheme of relation between landscape and food


In this article I first will describe in brief which literature I want to use for my theoretical analysis of the historical relation between landscape and food. Subsequently I will try to clarify how I can study this theoretical base from the perspective of more detailed historical case studies.


In the literature concerning the definition of the concept of landscape there is hardly any attention to the most important landscape forming forces in that landscape, the food production. Dutch researchers[1] make an interesting analysis of the landscape as a dynamic interplay of society and geography, of nature and culture, with between those forces all kinds of political, juridical, cultural, ethnical and aesthetic issues. Kenneth Olwig[2] is their most important inspiration, with his conception of a ‘polity’ which interplays between nature and culture, projecting national and regional identities on the landscape. No word about food culture or related issues.

The history of the landscape is less broad than these theoretical reflections about the landscape. In probably the only complete conspectus of the history of the European landscape Urban Emanuelsson[3] describes the development of the landscape above all from a historical ecological perspective. It is an impressive book, but as for me Emanuelsson has not enough attention for the question why the landscape is changing all the time, almost like this is an autonomous development. Richard Pryor[4] takes up an archaeological approach for his history of the British landscape, evenly interesting but still no word about food.


A comparable story may be told about the history of food. There are several researchers stating food, and the way people are coping with it in the course of history, is elementary for humans as a species. Felipe Fernández-Armesto[5] already in 2001 wrote an impressive analysis how cooking has been determinative for the way human beings have developed. Michael Polan[6] recently added some actuality into that. This seems a typical approach, to look at food as a driving force behind developing mankind. Higman[7] even posits 27 claims that have to prove food makes history. In this view on food landscape is seen as the physical environment that changes form through food production, which is correct, but in the chapter about hunger on the other hand landscape is not seen as a limiting factor for food production. While before everything landscape is the medium between the dynamics of nature and culture.

The discipline of the history of food, unlike the history of landscape, does have literature that offers a broad and long term perspective. There are several books about the world history of food[8]. More important I find the ground-breaking work by Massimo Montanari[9] who in several thin books manages to unfold a simplifying theory of food cultures in Europe, circling around the distinct contrast of the Mediterranean and Atlantic food cultures until the late medieval period, in which the Mediterranean diet consisting out of the agricultural product grains, olives and grapes is the antithesis of the hunting and foraging culture in northwest Europe that was based on the flora and the game from forests. Together with Jean-Louis Flandrin Montanari also edited the first scientific overview of food history[10]. In the meanwhile Montanari’s theory – which obviously stems from the Italian food culture – has been criticized, for instance in the more recent overview of the history of food, the six volumes counting A Cultural History of Food[11], composed by a collection of the most prominent food historians of this period.

Even in this impressive pile of literature there is hardly any evidence of a historical relation between landscape and food. In every volume of the six volumes counting cultural history of food there is a chapter on the food production and the food systems of a historical period, in which the perspective on landscape varies in every volume. For the mediaeval period Alfio Cortonesi describes the prevailing agricultural history, while in the volume about the Renaissance Allen Grieco underpins a nicely written nuance of the theory of Montanari, and Govind Sreenivasan writes about how the early modern Europe still was dependant for its food production of the 23 different European soils and their fertility and management of temperature and precipitation. I see the article of Sreenivasan in particular as a nice start for an analysis of the historical relation between landscape and food.


If we take a look at the history of Europe, we see that for instance Fernand Braudel[12] does succeed to analyse the European landscape as a construct of a complex of dynamical systems in which food plays an important role. In his history of the Mediterranean Sea Braudel hardly explicitly mentions landscape while he in the meantime shows in a sweeping way how the Mediterranean Sea is a complex system with countless interactions between mountains, valleys, rivers, seas, et cetera. Braudel also does not draw conclusions about the landscape. Another interesting thing about Braudel is his emphasis on the longue durée, the long term that visualises how for instance the historical relations between landscape and food develop. In a similar manner William McNeill[13] shows how Europe shapes itself in the course of history, as a coherent system.

Een bijna verlaten cultuurlandschap in de Portugese Serra da Estrela, met hoogproductieve bosbouw.

The almost forgotten cultural landscape of the  Portugese Serra da Estrela, with hig productiv forstry.

This systemic perspective seems characteristic for the history of the longue durée. This type of history is an important source of inspiration, because the long term perspective calls for a complete different approximation of the historical relation between landscape and food. The most exceptional for of long term history is the big history or world history. Fred Spier[14] for instance writes about history from the period before the Big Bang until after the demise of mankind, showing that the classical physical laws of conservation of energy and mass are also applicable to the development of the European landscape and the production of food. From this perspective it is logical to focus on the dynamics of the landscape system that are fed by the contraction and expansion of the food production.

Agricultural history

This contraction and expansion is a central theme of the classical account of the agricultural history of Europe by Slicher van Bath[15], which is still topical today. Agriculture for Slicher van Bath seems like the medium between landscape and food, which develops itself economically into a more and more complex system. Slicher van Bath also points out the regional differences in Europe, for instance in parcelling or systems of grazing livestock, but also the fluctuations and regional differences in meat production and consumption, which connects to the theory of Montanari. For the Netherlands Jan Bieleman[16] is the undisputed successor of Slicher van Bath, with his impressive overview of the contraction and expansion of the different sectors of agriculture in the Dutch regions.

Thanks to their economic perspective agricultural historians have more attention for the dynamics in the historical relation between landscape and food. I would like to use this in my own research to give an overview of these dynamics. Again it is the grain production in the medieval period that is most interesting. This production grew in the heydays of the middle ages, from the 9th tot the 13th century, which was also the period of a very strong urbanisation, so strong that the more peripheral agriculture – the grazing livestock and vegetable gardening not producing mass and energy supplying staple foods – were pushed far from the cities up to the Scottish Highlands and high up into the Alps, higher than farmers ever should come.


Through my writing a book about the relation between urban development and landscape in Europe[17] I came across a perspective that enabled me to make a connection between the histories of landscape, food and agriculture. In urbanist literature it is quite common to make a comparison and connection between the urban development and the global ecological system. Already in 1915 Patrick Geddes published Cities in Evolution[18]. And in the slipstream of the ‘urban revolution’ archaeologist Gordon Childe[19] coined in 1950 a lot of urbanist literature has been published about urbanisation as a phenomenon which relates to the system of the world – or Europe – through the ecological and geographical base of the landscape. In a recent volume of essays[20] this relation is analysed as ‘explosions’ and ‘implosions’, comparable with the contraction and expansion of the agricultural history.

The literature I quote in this small essay will form the base for my theoretical analysis of the dynamics – explosion/implosion, expansion/contraction – of the historical relation between landscape and food. In this analysis I want to emphasise the relation between the ecology of the landscape and the culture of the food, to close the circle. I want to make clear that a proper study of this relation starts with the development of a dynamic perspective on both phenomena. This I would like to work out in more detail in two case studies, on the one hand studying the cultural landscapes of the European heathlands through the cultural perspective of food and on the other hand looking through the ecological and natural perspective of landscape into the culture of cheese.

Slow Food

The whole story I would like to tell with this study has a close affinity with the philosophy of Slow Food, the movement which commits itself to the propagation of ‘good’ (taste, quality, craft), ‘clean’ (environment, nature, landscape) and ‘fair’ (even earnings for all) food[21]. This philosophy forms the core of much present-day cultural criticism about the way people relate to food. I myself am an active member of this movement, but am also critical about the often romanticised image Slow Food often offers about the past when everything was better. In the case studies I especially would like to relate to this.

Heathlands and food

Heathlands in Europe nowadays are seen as non-productive landscapes, as valued nature areas in need of protection. Ironically, heathlands for a long time were part of a productive agricultural system that managed heathlands by grazing, burning and ‘plaggen’ (removing fertile top soil), so that as a result the landscape was ecologically pegged into one succession phase in the development towards a fully grown forest, namely an infertile sandy area with only hardened heather and other plants capable of growing there. This heathland agriculture was productive with meat and wool from grazing animals and crops grown with the manure from the same grazing animals. In the current heathland management the technical management measures of grazing, burning and ‘plaggen’ are used to avoid the succession of the heathland, while the productive characteristics of the traditional agriculture – a kind of cradle to cradle avant la lettre – vanished. Heathlands therewith have become a symbol for the various other traditional cultural landscapes in peripheral areas that nowadays are considered to be nature and thus non-productive. There appears to develop a distinction in European landscapes between the productive and intensively cultivated agricultural landscapes and the ‘rewilded’ nature areas, the traditional cultural landscape rendered into non-productive wilderness, a landscape category which is very recent in its origin.

The heathlands in Europa lie in coastal areas from the west coast of Norway via the Hebrides and Scotland to South England and West France and from there to Spain and Portugal. I would like to study which types of food cultures or food culture one may find in and around these landscapes, and how these have developed in the course of history. For this I would like to make an analysis of the recent and historical food production and how this relates to the developing food cultures in Europa. From this perspective I want to continue looking into the culture of the heathlands, what this implies for landscape and food production, and which relation there is with food. This study is also a reconnaissance into the disconnection between landscape and food; sheep herders struggle to sell the sheep they use to graze the heathlands, making those sheep ultimately waste of the nature management.[22]. The question is also whether we can use the non-productive landscapes called nature for the issues of food supply and food security.

Cheese and landscape

Cheese is one of the oldest processed foods, and as such an important precursor of the current  food industry. About three thousand years after people managed to domesticate sheep and goats, primarily for their meat and skins, people worked out how to milk these animals[23]. Note that this was in a period in which the agriculture in the Levant had trouble providing for the growing population. An excessive productive agriculture depleted the landscape and led to soil degradation, deforestation and drought. People took on a pastoral form of agriculture with grazing herds of sheep and goats to produce milk, meat and skins

This foremost production of cheese shows how insightful the history of chees is for analyses of the relations between landscape and food. The domesticated animal breeds people would use to produce milk were mostly chosen for their suitability for a specific kind of landscape. Ryder does not call sheep ‘universal provider’[24] for nothing, because the robust animals were productive in both fertile and poor landscapes and in both warm and cold climates. Nowadays people make cheese everywhere, from the very fertile meadows in the Netherlands of Northern Italy up to peripheral mountainous areas.

Peat meadows near Gouderak.

Peat meadows near Gouderak.

Cheese I want to use in my study as an expression of a food culture, to grasp this as a perspective to look into the landscape. For me the two perfect case studies are Gouda cheese from the Dutch region of the Groene Hart and Parmigiano Reggiano from the Italian Parma region. Gouda cheese originally is made with the milk of black and white cattle in the peat meadows around Gouda, but nowadays is better known as a globally famous industrial process for the production of full fat cheese. The Parmigiano Reggiano stayed a regional organised product, with the Red Reggiano cattle from the Parma region. Comparing both can shed light on the relation between landscape and food. The question is also whether the highly dissimilar food cultures of the Netherlands an Italy play a role in this.

Besides two cheeses from highly productive, fertile and accessible regions I also want to study two cheeses from more peripheral areas, preferably from two countries that also differ in food culture – for instance England and France, because Stephen Mennel[25] already made a very interesting comparison of those countries. The choice of cheeses is not finished. I would also like to look into the Ark of Taste[26] of Slow Food or the list of geographical protected food products of the European Union[27].


What I will be concluding from this study I do not know, of course. I would like to try, however, to use historical lines and relations to analyse the disconnection of people, food and landscape. And I hope this study may provide me with some intellectual clarity and precision to write at least some wise words in the broad and often unclear discussion about landscape and food.


[1] Bloemers, J.H.F. & Wijnen, M.H. (2001) Bodemarchief in behoud en ontwikkeling. De conceptuele grondslagen. Den Haag: NWO. ISBN: 9070608758.

[2] Olwig, Kenneth (1984) Nature’s Ideological Landscape. A Literary And Geographic Perspective On Its Development And Preservation On Denmark’s Jutland Heath. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin. ISBN: 9780047100024. Olwig, Kenneth (2002) Landscape, Nature and the Body Politic. From Britain’s Renaissance to America’s New World. Minneapolis: University of Wisconsin Press.

[3] Emanuelsson, Urban (2009) The Rural Landscapes of Europe. How Man has Shaped European Nature. Stockholm: Formas. ISBN: 9789154060351.

[4] Pryor, Francis (2010) Making of the British Landscape. London: Penguin.

[5] Fernández-Armesto, Felipe (2001) Food. A History. London: Macmillan.

[6] Polan, Michael (2014) Cooked. A Natural History of Transformation. London: Penguin.

[7] Higman, B.W. (2012) How Food Made History. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

[8] Civitello, Linda (2003) Cuisine and Culture. A History of Food & People. New York: Wiley. Tannahill, Reay (1988) Food in History. New York: Three River Press.

[9] See for instance: Montanari, Massimo (1994) The Culture of Food. Cambridge, Massachussets: Blackwell. ISBN: 0631202838. Vertaling van: (1993) Fame e l’abbondanza. Storia dell’alimentazione in Europa. Roma: Laterza. Montanari, Massimo (2006) Food is Culture. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN: 9780231137904.

[10] Flandrin, Jean-Louis & Montanari, Massimo (eds.) (2000) Food. A Culinary History. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN: 9780231111553. Vertaling van: (1996) Histoire d’alimentation. Rome: Laterza.

[11] Parasecoli, Fabio & Scholliers, Peter (eds.) (2012) A Cultural History of Food. London: Berg.

[12] Braudel, Fernand (1992) De Middellandse Zee en de mediterrane wereld ten tijde van Filips II.  Amsterdam: Contact. Vertaling van: (1966) La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II. La part du milieu. Paris: Arman Colin.

[13] McNeill, William (1974) The Shape of European History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[14] Spier, Fred (2011) Big History and the Future of Humanity. Oxford: John Wiley.

[15] Slicher van Bath, Bernard (1960) De agrarische geschiedenis van West-Europa (500-1850). Utrecht: Spectrum.

[16] Bieleman, Jan (2008) Boeren in Nederland. Geschiedenis van de landbouw 1500-2000. Assen: Boom.

[17] Woestenburg, Martin & Timmermans, Wim (2015, in preparatie) Gewortelde steden. Wageningen: Blauwdruk.

[18] Geddes, Patrick (1915) Cities in Evolution. London: Williams & Norgate.

[19] Childe, Gordon (1950) The Urban Revolution. In: The Town Planning Review, vol. 21, nr. 1, p. 3-17.

[20] Brenner, Neil (ed.) (2013) Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization. Berlin: Jovis.

[21] Slow Food Manifesto for Quality,

[22] I have worked on this theme in the project Daarom eten we schaap ( See: Woestenburg, Martin & Boers, Bart (2013) That is Why We Eat Sheep. In: Diemont, Herbert, Heijman, Wim, Siepel, Henk Webb, Nigel (2013) Economy and Ecology of Heathlands. Zeist: KNNV Uitgeverij.

[23] Kindstedt, Paul S. (2012) Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Civilization. Vermont: Chelsea Green. P.9.

[24] Ryder, M.L., (1983) Sheep & Man. London: Duckworth.

[25] Mennel, Stephen (1985, 1996) All Manners of Food. Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.



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