The contrasts in diet derive partly from climate and partly from the great economic upheaval which has been taking place in Europe over the past two centuries. The physical environment largely determines what farmers grow and hence what the people eat, since in spite of modern transportation and foreign trade European diets are still composed mainly of locally produced foodstuffs. The Mediterranean zone being for instance the home of the olive tree and the vine, olive oil and wine figure prominently in the southern diet. Because the pastures are poor, sheep and goats are more easily reared than cows and hence goat and sheep's milk cheese are common. Because the climate in certain districts favours the production of 'hard' wheats suitable for making into pasta, wheat provides not only the people's bread but also their staple hot dish which further north is provided by the potato. In a double sense wheat is the staff of life.
The middle zone houses a greater number of domesticated animals than any region of comparable size in the world. (Used in an agricultural sense the middle zone also includes all the southern part of what nutritionally is the northern zone, i.e. England, Denmark and southern Sweden.) Thus livestock products -- beef, pigmeat, cow's milk, cheese and butter, poultry and eggs, rabbits and game birds -- form the central and distinguishing feature of the peoples' diet. As to crops, the zone provides a wide range of cereals, wheat and rye for bread-making, barley and oats for animals. It produces tremendous quantities of potatoes, sugar-beet and other root crops which complete the starchy component of the diet.
The northern agricultural zone, which is sparsely populated, is too infertile to furnish more than a bare subsistence, and for generations the inhabitants have traded fish, furs and forest products to obtain additional foodstuffs. Oats is the staple cereal, still used in rural areas for hot dishes and some types of bread. Potatoes and turnips are daily food whereas green vegetables and fruit, apart from wild berries, are rarities. Livestock numbers are limited by the short growing season of grass, and hence meat and milk are costly to produce, notably in northern Scandinavia.
These differences in physical environment only partially account for the regional differences in diet. Superimposed on the physical features of Europe is the human society which the people have fashioned and, more particularly for our purpose, the changes in that society which have taken place during the past two hundred years, changes which have had profound influences on eating habits.
Prior to the middle of the eighteenth century such differences as existed between the diets of the European nations were dictated almost wholly by climate, hardly at all by income. Of course, within each nation the rich ate more elaborately than the poor but, in the absence of a modernised agriculture producing quality and speciality products and of foreign trade bringing exotics from all over the world, even the rich had only a limited range of food possibilities. For the rest the national average diets differed little from one another in economic cost. The artisan in Ravenna earned much the same as the artisan in Rostock and spent about the same proportion of his earnings on food, the one dining on pasta, wheaten bread, fruit and wine, the other on groats, rye bread, sausage and beer. The differences were caused mainly by physical environment.
All that has been changed. The upheaval started first in England and later spread throughout the central and northern zones; much less has it affected the Mediterranean. It consisted, as is well known, in two interacting revolutions, one in the arts of agriculture and the other in the arts of manufacture. The introduction of clover and turnips, by enabling livestock to be kept productive through the winter and by increasing soil fertility and the per acre yield of crops, immensely augmented the output of food which in turn made it possible for part of the population to work in industry and still be fed by the remaining farmers. Meantime the ingenuity of engineers and others brought into existence an ever-lengthening list of processes and of manufactured articles for the new society to consume. And in due course, as population threatened to expand beyond the numbers that even a relatively modernised European agriculture could feed, ways were devised (by emigration, overseas investment and foreign trade) for having part of the food produced in other continents.
The relevance of all this to diet is in the rapid growth of the purchasing power of the peoples affected by these upheavals, first the organisers of industry and gradually thereafter the entire population. A gap has been opening between incomes in the industrialised and those in the less industrialised countries. On a graph it would look like an open pair of scissors. In the industrialised countries of north-western Europeper capita real income has been rising rapidly; in the less industrialised south and east it has risen very slowly. In the more prosperous countries the people spend more on food and buy a more varied range of foodstuffs than formerly; in the less prosperous any changes are slow and small.
The diversification of diet has taken the form of continuous diminution in the importance of bread and potatoes and an expanding demand for everything else. In some countries sugar and fats (notably tropical oils) have been increasingly in demand, in others meat and poultry, in others milk and cheese, in others coffee or tea, in yet others fruit and vegetables, in many countries a combination of all or some of these.
During the second half of the nineteenth century this diversification proceeded apace. For instance, in the United Kingdom between 1840 and 1890per capita meat consumption is said to have risen from 75 to 108 pounds. In France and Germany sugar consumption trebled between 1860 and 1900. In Sweden the consumption of meat and dairy products increased 80 per cent between the eighteenseventies and 1906/13. During this period the urbanisation of north-western and central Europe, entailing for many millions a substitution of indoor factory or office work for outdoor manual work, changed people's tastes in food and to some extent also their physiological requirements. People whose fathers and grandfathers had eaten a tremendous bulk of bread and potatoes to obtain sufficient nutrients now preferred items which provided the necessary nourishment in smaller compass. By 1914 the contrasts in diet, as we know them today, between and within the European nations were already well established.
Since 1914 progress has been less continuously sustained than in the preceding half-century. There have been severe interruptions and setbacks: four years of World War I, five years of continuing depression and then six years of World War II. In many European countries real income per capita was not appreciably higher in 1944 than in 1914 -- thirty lost years.
The post-war years of recovery and growth have brought European incomes to a new high level. During this last period the rich countries have become notably richer while the poor countries have advanced only slowly by comparison with the tempo in the rich countries though unwontedly fast by their own past standards. Thus over the past half-century net gains in prosperity have been recorded in all European countries, though more in some than in others.