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The academic gourmand

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A selection of table delicacies in a somewhat partially eaten form. Painting in the Lund University art collection by Willem Claesz Heda. Photo: Gunnar Menander

Gourmets and gourmands, epicures, gluttons and connoisseurs. In brief: bon vivants with a taste for food and drink in different combinations of quality and quantity. This is something that has probably not been lacking at Lund University over the years. In the early 1800s, for example, we had cathedral dean and theology professor Christian Wåhlin, copiously overweight, who is said to have coined the phrase that “the goose is a troublesome bird – too small for two men, but too big for one”. About one hundred years later, the legendary perpetual student Sam Ask displayed not only a body on a similar scale to Wåhlin’s, but also a discernment and knowledge of the restaurant menu that he brought to bear on many waiters and head waiters. The latter also applied to a great extent to Sten Broman, who also practised the culinary arts in an advanced – and quite often eccentric – school of cuisine. Moreover, Broman formalised his interest in a more organised way as one of the initiators of the Gastronomic Academy. This society aims to “safeguard and champion gastronomic culture” and over the years its membership has included numerous prominent Lund alumni such as Fritiof Nilsson Piraten, Hans Alfredson, Jan-Öjvind Swahn, David Ingvar and Ingvar Andersson. And the former Lund student and sommelier Mischa Billing – known from the TV4 cookery programme “Sweden’s Master Chef” – has gone further in applying science to culinary delicacies as a lecturer and researcher at Örebro University’s School of Hospitality, Culinary Arts and Meal Science in Grythyttan.

The question, however, is has any other Lund alumni gone as far in the scientific description of culinary delicacies as Master of Philosophy and associate professor Bengt Bergius? When, in 1780, he took up the post of president of the Academy of Sciences, he marked this occasion by holding a four-hour-long speech “about delicacies”, in which he used the full register of Enlightenment systematisation fervour to go through all the world’s eatable, drinkable and even smokable stimulants, starting with plants and then moving on to the animal kingdom. 

A parentless student
However, before we take a closer look at this speech, let us examine the biographical background of its author, the verbose adulator of the delights of food, Bengt Bergius. He was born on 2 September 1723 in Hålanda, Västergotland, as the second-oldest among six brothers and two sisters, the child of a district court judge with the same name as Bengt, and his wife, priest’s daughter Sara Maria Dryselia. It would probably be wrong to claim that young Bengt had a happy childhood. The fact that at the age of six he was “on the way to being gored to death by a bull” was perhaps mostly a passing fright. Much worse was to come when he lost his father the year after and, as a 14-year-old, his mother. For a time, the children, who were all minors, lived by themselves in a small home where Bengt and his older brother, Johan Erland, acted as teachers for their younger siblings. In due course, however, relatives took care of the children and Bengt could resume his studies, first through a private tutor and then as a pupil at the upper secondary school in Växjö. In 1741, at the age of 18, he completed his studies and was ready for university.

According to his own autobiographical notes, Bengt had made “many proposals” about “making arrangements for travelling to Uppsala”, but he ended up in Lund. Presumably, this was because he already had a good network of contacts and a safety net there. In addition to his elder brother, Johan Erland, there were a number of cousins and even a couple of his old private tutors in the city. Moreover, after a few years, one of Bengt’s sisters, Christina Regina, also came to live in Lund after she married the academy secretary at the University, Erland Junbeck.

At that time, Junbeck had quite recently succeeded the man who had been academy secretary when Bengt Bergius enrolled: Sven Bring. Bring had shortly afterwards been promoted to professor of history. In this position, he would become famous as one of his time’s greatest Swedish scholars, and was raised to the nobility in 1769 for his achievements with the name Lagerbring. Bring also became one of Bengt Bergius’s most important teachers. During the period 1743–1745, Bergius participated at least four times as external reviewer or author at public defences of theses written by Bring (at that time it was common that professors wrote the theses that students then used for practising how to argue for and against). In 1745, this resulted in Bergius gaining the rank of Master in the Faculty of Philosophy – the equivalent of today’s Doctor of Philosophy.

Bergius clearly distinguished himself as a good student, as in 1744 he was awarded a royal scholarship. He also made his name as a speaker, and in 1747 he was assigned on behalf of the Småland student nation (the natural regional choice for a former Växjö pupil) to hold a speech at a ceremony to mark the student nation’s members swearing of an oath of allegiance to the successor to the throne Adolf Fredrik. However, that same autumn he managed to say something that was clearly not so appreciated – at least as far as the members of the Skånska student nation were concerned. We do not know exactly what Bergius had said or what a “dissolute pack” of Skånska student nation members wanted to do to him (the manuscript of his autobiographical notes is damaged here), but it clearly led to a situation in which his fellow nation members “guarded me every night with a shotgun for 6 weeks”. Bergius got away without the Skånska nation members “touching a hair on his head”. It should be added that “gang fights” between students of different nations – and in particular between students from Skåne and Småland, which were generally the two largest groups  – were not exactly unusual in the student life of bygone times.

Academically, things continued to progress well for Bergius, who in 1747 became professor Bring’s associate professor. As such, he taught Swedish history as well as Latin, and in 1748 presented a thesis in his own hand on the bidding stick phenomenon: De baculis nuntiis. That the external reviewer] was perhaps not very hard on this first work leads one to guess that this was possibly due to the fact that he was one of Bergius’s cousins…
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A portrait of Bengt Bergius by J J Streng 1761. Source: Personhistorisk tidskrift XLIII (1944–1945.
From history to science
Being an associate professor then, as now, was an unpaid position and as Bergius’s royal scholarship ended in 1749, he left Lund and ended up, after short visits to Uppsala and Åbo, in Stockholm. It is not known exactly how he made a living in the first few years there, but it was an important development – as at that time there was as yet no principle of public access to official records in Sweden – that he succeeded in gaining access to two of the city’s most important archives: the Swedish National Archives and the Archive of Antiquities. Under Bring’s tutelage in Lund, Bergius developed a taste for researching historical original sources, and he now eagerly began to copy and publish various important and interesting documents, supplemented by his own comments, which were described as “perspicacious” but also “at times […] more prolix” than the documents on which they commented. He also tried to found a “history academy”, but without success.

With time, Bergius took on low-level positions in various branches of the civil service, but in keeping with the practice of the time they provided little or no renumeration. His financial salvation came instead in the form of a younger brother, Peter Jonas Bergius (1730–1790). He was also enrolled at Lund University in his youth. However, he had a stutter, and, as he wrote later, “due to this defect, I was found to be incompetent to study theology and law”. The family therefore decided that young Peter Jonas should instead study medicine. Uppsala was considered to have better lecturers in this subject at that time than Lund, which is why Bengt’s younger brother headed north and studied under some of the great figures of the time such as Linnaeus and Rosén von Rosenstein. He proved to be an excellent doctor, whose private practice in time made him a wealthy man. He and his elder brother Bengt were close and the two bachelors moved in together in 1755. Four years later they acquired a manor – “Bergielund” – in what is now Vasastan, but which then was a part of Stockholm’s surrounding countryside. The brothers’ fine garden and not least extensive library, which contained everything from unique handwritten documents to the flood of travel books of that period. In time, the latter collection grew to around 600 volumes!

The period with his brother also brought about a change in Bengt’s research specialisation. He started to becoming interested in science and not least the “useful” fashionable science of economics or “husbandry”, a subject which at that time was very much concerned with improving agriculture. He focused on this subject after he was elected to the Academy of Sciences in 1766 (his brother was elected in 1758) and produced various papers on everything from specific crops  (“The Corinthian radish”, 1767) to more general subjects (“Speech about Swedish cultivation of meadows, and its furtherance through profitable grass types”, 1769). It is also in this context, that you should consider the main theme of this article: the above-mentioned “Speech about delicacies”, which we will now examine in closer detail.

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The flyleaf of the first section of the printed edition of Bergius’s “Speech about delicacies”. Photo source: National Library of Sweden.

Among bananas, trunks and avocados
God, asserted Bergius, has not only arranged it so that nature offers humankind something that provides “subsistence and refreshment”. He also gave these foods “the qualities, to be able to, in addition to fulfilling the stomach’s needs, provide a pleasing feeling on the tongue and palate, or to put it briefly, please the sense of taste”. As a result, humankind is privileged not only eat and drink of necessity, but also “with a feeling of delight and pleasure”. However, Bergius points out that opinions differ on taste: “I don’t know of any substance in the whole of nature, that can please everyone and at all times, because tastes can vary so much and often adapt themselves to the different states of humankind”. Children and adults, healthy and ill, starving and sated, as well as people from different countries and periods think different things are delicious. Nevertheless, Bergius attempted a definition of the term “delicacy”:

"By delicacy, I understand it to be such a substance that, when a healthy person enjoys it, in a delightful, pleasing way it stimulates its nerve-papillae on the tongue and palate, and the potential delicacy is often heightened, as this also brings about a pleasant harmonising aroma”

Having said this, Bergius after a time gets to the main subject: individual delicacies. Among other things, he understandably describes a number that were already at that time well known to most Swedish palates. This included the wild strawberry, “the first of our tasty fruits of the year”, which Bergius prized for its “delightful aroma” and “pleasing taste” and he liked to use it as a comparison in describing the flavour of other plants – but not least, the speaker takes his audience on a trip around the world to bear witness to plants and animals that few Swedes had heard of then, let alone eaten.

One example is the banana, which nowadays is everyday fare, but then – and for a long time after – was still an exotic delicacy. Bergius talked about several different types of banana, some of which only became palatable “when improved by human intervention […] by means of boiling, roasting and sun-drying” whereas “the best specimens” are also “pleasing to eat raw”. The banana can also be served “even to the youngest of children” (something that today’s parents of young children can probably confirm), and all this makes “this fruit one of the most useful that providence has provided”.

It is not stated whether Bergius himself ever ate a banana, but in many other cases it is fairly certain that he had never been anywhere near what he is describing. He didn’t need to either, because this man, who had probably never been further abroad than Denmark, had his enormous collection of travel books from which he could make comparative compilations. And the result is often as detailed as it is correct. One example is the avocado, which Bergius – perhaps the first Swede to do so – described as follows:

“Avocado (Laurus Persea L.), a fruit larger that a clenched fist, of a dark colour veering towards purple, has a large stone that is not to be eaten, but surrounding it is a greenish meat, almost odourless, soft as butter, and has its own distinctive and quite pleasing flavour, which is unlike any European fruit.”

Bergius then goes on to quote different people’s assessment of the taste, and if you add up the names in the text and the accompanying notes you will find that, for the sake of one single food, he has consulted no fewer than eleven, mainly French, but also British, authors!

By this time, chocolate had already entered the Swedish diet – but only in the form of a drink – and not in the same way as in Spanish Cartagena: “Chocolate, which in Cartagena is only known under the name of cacao, is so plentiful locally, that everybody […] enjoys it thoroughly every day after breakfast”. However, its use showed class differences: “The chocolate that the nobles drink is just cacao, cooked”, whereas the other people’s “is not made only of cacao, but of maize flour mixed with a small quantity of cacao”. It has associations with how today’s taste hipsters prefer chocolate bars with the highest possible cocoa content, while people in general prefer milk chocolate…

Although a lot of what in Bergius’s time was unknown and unusual in Sweden has now become everyday food there are still some things that probably only a few Swedes have tried. For example, in the section on animals, Bergius writes extensively about the eating of elephant meat. He considers that the meat is “both very rough and hard”, but even so is appreciated as “excellent food” by Africa’s black population, whereas the upper echelons in Vietnam refuse to eat large parts of the animal and “only retain the trunk, which is the most delicious food you could desire”.
The Bergian legacy
As mentioned, Bergius’s speech is supposed to have taken four hours. Even then, he considered that he had far more left to say. When he subsequently sat down to edit his speech in order to publish it in printed form, he supplemented his manuscript with such a large number of extensive footnotes that the book swelled to at least three times the size. The editorial work was on such a scale that he did not manage to complete it in his own lifetime, even though four years elapsed between the speech and when Bergius, a sedentary person who was never particularly strong physically, died from a twisted bowel and the associated complication of gangrene in the lower abdomen on 28 October 1784. His younger brother Peter Jonas and academy colleague Samuel Ödmann (also a former Växjö upper secondary school pupil) saw to it that the speech was published as two thick volumes.

When Peter Jonas died sex years later, the brothers’ estate – including the manor with botanical garden and library – was bequeathed to the Academy of Sciences. Today, there is no trace left of the manor, and the garden, known as the Bergius Botanic Garden, was moved out to Frescati due to the later expansion of Stockholm. However, the library is still intact under the ownership of the academy. As a result of the brothers’ bad experiences of forgetful book borrowers, it was stated in the will that the books were not to be borrowed, but only to be read on site.

In an article of this size, it has only been possible to make a quick perusal of Bergius’s global culinary overview. For those who would like to take a closer look at the work, there are now excellent opportunities to do so. Not only has the National Library of Sweden digitalised both original volumes of Speech about delicacies (the scans can be accessed via the Libris library database ), but the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry also published the work in 2015 as a beautiful new edition with introductory text from contributors such as Gunnar Broberg, the Lund scholar of the History of Ideas and Sciences. This version is also available digitally via the academy’s website.

Fredrik Tersmeden
Archivist at the University Archives
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