There is something somehow inviting in the minimalism that greets you as you walk into Wa Café in Ealing. Behind the glass counter on your left are a series of colourful cakes along with pastries and buns containing more Japanese-style treats such as the Sakura Anpan (a roll filled with red bean paste). The drinks menu features the usual set of coffees with a more extensive tea menu serving different sorts of Japanese tea. We had a long black (which according to London’s Best coffee is from Nude), the Sakura Anpan and a pot of Hoji Cha (roasted green tea). The coffee came in a delightful ceramic cup with a layering in the interior of the cup reminiscent of rock strata of the Earth. The tea arrived in a pot together with a glass that seemed linked to the type of tea that had been ordered. Glancing around the cafe, it was apparent that different teas were served in differently shaped glasses. Was this due to the fact that glass shape can affect the perceived taste of wine and so maybe also tea?
The saucer for the coffee cup featured a carved pattern that, although different, reminded me of the medieval labyrinths that you can find (such as in Chartres Cathedral). But it was the individual style of the pottery that caused me to recollect a story I had discovered while researching a previous Daily Grind article (and then didn’t use at the time). The story concerned a ship wreck just off the coast of Malaysia which was leading to a reassessment of our ideas about ancient trading routes and population migrations. As pottery is often one of the bits of the cargo that does not degrade significantly under the water, it is pottery that provides clues for some of our ideas about the past.
For this article on Wa Cafe though, a little digging revealed a recent archaeological discovery that involved not the pottery itself, but what had been in the pots. It had been known for some time that the first pottery found in Japan dated to about 16,000 years ago, and that around 11,500 years ago there was a significant increase in the volume of pottery produced. As this surge in pottery making was coincident with the end of the last ice age, it was thought that this increase in pottery production was driven by the availability of new sources of food as the climate warmed. So, it came as a surprise when the ‘charred surface deposits’ – meaning the bits of food left after cooking, found in the interior of the pots were actually analysed.
Using a general technique called mass spectrometry, the authors of the study investigated what elements could be found in the food deposits on the pots. They particularly looked at the ratio of carbon and nitrogen in the pots. The proportion and type of element in the food remains have been shown to indicate what had been cooked in the pot, whether it was meat, fish or vegetable matter. As the authors analysed the results they found that the pots were used for cooking fish, fish and more fish. From 16,000 years ago and on for a further 9000 years, the pots were used for fish. Although there was a shift towards the consumption of freshwater fish through the time period studied, there was not the significant change to meat and vegetable matter that had been expected prior to this analysis. The function of the pots had remained constant over millennia.
This suggests that rather than the increase in pottery production being about a change in function of the pot, the pots had a distinct cultural use that was unchanged through the warming climate. The results of the analysis challenge the preconceived ideas that had been previously been held. The full paper can be found here.
To an untrained and naive eye of course, I wonder if the people using these pots just had some odd recipes for fish. Maybe they made plenty of vegetable soup (which they rarely burned) but always chargrilled the fish in the pot leading to a prevalence of fish in the ‘charred surface remains’. Nonetheless, this is probably just a poor understanding of what the authors meant by ‘charred surface remains’, surely not every cook burns their fish!
Wa Cafe can be found at 32 Haven Green, W5 2NX