Viking Food Guy

Recreating the food and drink of the Viking Age (and others)

This weekend at an event I entered an “Iron Chef” style cooking competition, and had a great time doing it.  The format for this particular contest was that we could only use 15 “period” ingredients (plus oil, salt, water, and the “secret” ingredient).  There were three courses, an appetizer (45 minutes), a main dish (60 minutes) and a dessert course (45 minutes) with each course having a different secret ingredient. 

I (obviously) had no idea what the secret ingredients would be, but for my 15 I brought all Viking possible ingredients.

Oat groats

honey

cabbage

leeks

onions

dill

cherries

prunes

mustard

turnips

salmon

butter

cream

oat flour

eggs

we could only use each ingredient once.

The secret ingredient for the appetizer course was oranges, which I was totally not expecting.  Not a Viking ingredient.  I hemmed and hawed for quite some time, then ended up making a salad of cabbage, onions, and dried cherries dressed with orange juice, salt and oil. 

The main course ingredient was rolled oats.  I made a pottage of leeks fried in oil, the oats, fresh dill, dried mustard, and salmon.  It was pretty tasty, and the judges said it was great on crackers. Smile

The stumper for the dessert course was horseradish.  Like a whole root.  I ended up making a honey and horseradish whipped cream and using it to top the prunes.  Simple, but I think this was my favorite of the bunch.  The honey and horseradish were very complementary. 

This weekend I’m teaching a class on Viking cooking at an event (Iron & Ink) and I’m going to have to figure out what I’m cooking.  It’s been a while since I’ve had time to cook over the fire, so I’m looking forward to it.

If you have any interest in brewing in general, or Viking brewing specifically, check out the awesome work that Magnus is doing at The Draughts Are Deep.  So cool.  I’m hoping to be able to try his method for both small beer (brauð) and a stronger ale (öl) soon.  I might be able to get some time in a brick oven at AWW for cooking the biscuits. 

Now where did I put that bog myrtle…?

This and that

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It’s been a while, I see…  As the summer camping season moves along, I’ve been doing a little cooking, although not as much as in years past. 

Last weekend at Honey War I tried making some ollebrod, a porridge made by boiling bread in beer.  I used some commercial rye bread and Pyramid Hefeweissen.  The bread was good (although not Viking, barley bread would have been better) but the beer was a little too bitter still.  Nonetheless, with a little honey and rapsberries it made a nice breakfast, and it was super easy.  I’d like to try this again with Viking style hard tack (barley/oat/pea) and a small beer (brauð?) which I think would be a little more sour and not bitter.  Lunch was a picnic of bread, pickled herring, cheese (some goat gouda), hard boiled eggs, sauerkraut, fresh greens (baby arugula), and some dried sausage.  It was just my daughter and I for the weekend, so it was pretty casual, but I think we both found it a good lunch.  I didn’t end up cooking the dinner I’d brought since it turned out there was a feast, but I cooked it Monday night for dinner at home. Smile  Bacon, spring onion, mushrooms, fava beans (dried), mustard seed, and baby arugula.  Pretty tasty.  Sunday’s breakfast at the war was skyr with honey and blueberries.  Simple, fast, and filling.

I’ve been doing a little fermentation, although not much specifically Viking.  I’ve been experimenting with some Asian brewing using Chinese yeast balls (interesting), and made a batch of corn beer that went bad before I really got the try it.  Veggie-wise I made some (arguably Viking) sauerkraut of cabbage and carrots a while back, and some Sichaun pickled radishes (super good). 

I’m hoping to try some new stuff in a few weeks at An Tir / West War, and I’ll report back…

So… one of the things influencing my Viking recreation efforts these days is that since last summer I’m doing my best to only eat plants.  Let’s say “plant-powered” rather than the v-word, since that comes with so much political baggage.  It doesn’t always work out, but I think in aggregate I maybe miss by 5-10% a week (and that’s usually cheese or eggs in something).

Anyway, the Vikings obviously didn’t eat that way.  I think that they (or at least many of them) relied heavily on dairy products and that meat and fish were a constant (if not staple foods).  At the same time, I think they ate a lot of plants too, probably more than we do in the modern American diet. 

Where I’m going with all this is that I’ll be continuing to experiment, but there may be a few substitutions here and there.  I want to try to stick to “Viking-possible” if not “Viking-probable” ingredients.  As an example, I’ll use hazelnut milk as a substitute for dairy milk.  I know the Vikings ate lots of hazelnuts.  We know that Medieval Europeans made “milk” from almonds.  Does that mean vegan Vikings drank hazelnut milk?  Nope.  Hence possible, not probable.  What I won’t be doing is making Viking porridge with tempeh bacon.  Not even possible.

Alright, that said, over the weekend I tried out the first plant-based experiment at Eulalia’s open fire cooking day.  In a round bottomed clay pot, I stewed a leek and a turnip (diced) in hazelnut milk (I used Pacific Foods brand, but I’ll probably try making my own) until the turnips started to soften up.  To that I added some brown mustard seed, a bunch of fresh dill (chopped), a bunch of watercress (chopped), and a bag of frozen green peas, plus a little salt at the end.  I was pretty pleased, and would certainly consider making this again.  Some people found the “dill as a vegetable” a bit much, but I’m a fan, and it has a great texture.  Kale or cabbage would do well in this too, and it might not be bad with dried peas, although the overall “green-ness” of the peas + dill + watercress was nice.  I also considered trying dried fava beans, so maybe that will be next time.  I had meant to pick up some dried dulse (seaweed) to add, which I think would have been good, but I forgot. Smile

As those of you who have read my past postings surely know, I think that fermentation is not only a) really neat but b) key to understanding what Viking food was like.  One of the best resources for those wanting to learn about fermentation at home is Sandor Katz’s book Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods   Well, Mr. Katz has gone one better and just published a new book, The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World.  I just got my copy yesterday, so I’ve only skimmed it, but I think I’m going to have to start reading it cover to cover.  It covers the basics of fermentation, some history, talks about how we coevolved with bacteria, etc.  Then the book goes through various chapters on different materials (vegetables, grains, dairy, alcoholic fermentation from honey or fruit, etc.) and for each chapter provides some examples of fermented products from around the world and how they can be made at home, along with numerous sidebars, anecdotes, quotes from practitioners, and more.  At the end of each chapter is a troubleshooting section that describes common problems and their solutions.  The descriptions of each product are mostly narrative, rather than formatted as ‘recipes’ with strict quantities, so the reader will have to rely on some experience to make sense of some of them, but there are plenty of descriptions that are more than accessible to those just getting started.  There’s quite a bit on fermented porridges, which I’m excited to try, and some great descriptions of making beer from dry barley on up (including malting) which I’m dying to try as well. 

I’m looking forward to reading more, and I would heartily recommend the book to anyone looking to understand and practice more fermentation for fun, for health, for understanding historic foods, whatever. Smile

For the demo at June Faire this weekend I tried a couple of new pottages that worked out pretty well, with some reservations…

For the first I put some pearl barley, whole oat groats, and whole dried green peas into a pottery vessel with some water and mustard seeds.  I then spent quite a few hours trying in vain to get it to boil.  I did finally achieve a nice rolling bubble after many hours of fussing with the fire, and it pretty much cooked the whole rest of the day.  Sometime 2-3 hours before dinner I through in some pieces of roast pork and stirred them in.  The whole peas never got quite done.  They weren’t crunchy, but definitely firmer than I would have liked.  Perhaps split peas are more sensible over the fire.  Nonetheless, it was tasty, and very filling. 

For the second I started much later in the day with a diced red onion, a chopped bunch of chard, and a couple of chopped up smoked pork sausages.  Once that all cooked down (which didn’t take too long because I’d finally gotten the fire management under control) I added about a cup or a cup and a half of dried fava beans.  The fava beans cooked much better than the peas did, and were pleasantly done by dinner time.  Due to a slight miscommunication the smoked pork sausages turned out to be andouille, which obviously include non-Viking appropriate spices, so next time I’d try it with something more along the lines of a smoked brat.  The andouille sure were tasty though, and the finished dish was quite spicy.  I’ll definitely be using the dried favas again. 

To round out the demo I also made some flat bread using barley flour, salt, and buttermilk, and cooked them on a dish iron.  Plus, mostly just for kicks, I spitted some eggs on a new spit that the neighboring black smith whipped up for me.  Probably not the way the Vikings did it, but we do know that it was at least done in 16th C Italy, and it sure makes an impression at demos. Smile  I only had one explode, too.  For Sunday’s flatbread I added a bit of the talkkuna I made, which gave it a bit more flavor. 

Talkkuna

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I preparation for my class at Grand Thing last weekend I made up a batch of talkkuna.  Talkkuna is a Finnish word (it’s called kama in Estonian) for flour made from pre-cooked (usually roasted) grain.  Since it is precooked, it doesn’t require any further application of heat to be readily digestible.  It’s very similar in concept to the modern Tibetan “tsampa”, which (AFAIK) is made exclusively from barley in Tibet.  The Tibetans mix tsampa into meat stews, or stir it into their yak butter tea as a ready to go meal or snack.  Modern Finns add talkkuna to villi (a gelatinous yogurt like milk product) for breakfast.  I’ve come across several (unsubstantiated Internet) references to the “old days” when talkkuna was mixed with villi, butter, or lard into a dough like consistency, rolled into balls, and taken into the fields as a work day snack. 

To make mine, I put 1 part pearl barley (I’d have rather used whole, hulless barley, but I’m out), 3/4-1/2 part whole oat groats, and 1/2-1/4 part whole, dried green peas in a roasting pan in the oven at 350°.  I started with the grains, and added the peas toward the end because I was worried about them burning.  In future, I think I might start with the barley by itself, then add the oats, then the peas.  The oats are quite a bit smaller, and the browned much faster than the barley. 

When it all looked “roasted” and smelled toasty but not burnt, I took it out of the oven and let it cool until morning.  In the morning I dumped the whole thing in my grain mill (a Nutrimill) on a medium/fine setting and ground it all into flour. 

The result is a nicely textured, very toasty smelling flour.  It’s great with yogurt (I don’t have any villi just now) with a little honey and fresh fruit.  I also tried mixing it into dough with some filmjolk and rolling it into balls, and those were quite pleasing too, if a little bland. 

We know the Vikings had malt kilns, and means of grinding grain, so they certainly had the technology.  Obviously we can’t know if they ever ate talkkuna in this way, but it’s one more option to add to the “Viking-possible” toolkit. 

At some future date I’d like to try sprouting/malting the grain first to see what the taste is like.  For that I’ll have to unearth my dehydrator, because there can’t be any moisture in the grain or it will gum up my mill.  I’ll report back if I give it a go.

**Beware, rampant speculation**

I don’t have any direct evidence, but the more I read about early modern Finnish food and foodways, the more I suspect that the Finns remained more culturally isolated (due to language, geography, politics) than did the rest of Scandinavia, and thus that early modern Finnish food can give us more insights into what Viking food was like.

Again, this is just speculating, but early modern Finnish cooking relies heavily on forest products, fish, unleavened or sourdough breads, cultured dairy products, wild game, and fermented food and drink.

Also, there are a lot of examples in early modern Finnish cooking of utilizing all parts of animals at harvest time (blood soups, blood dumplings, offal soups, blood porridge, many different sausages, etc.).  There are also cooking techniques such as cooking on stone hearths, cooking fish wrapped in newspaper (read leaves or wet straw) in an open fire, and brewing traditional beers using hollow logs and juniper branches that may well be holdovers from a much earlier time.

Your mileage may very, of course, but I think it’s worth considering…

This weekend at Grand Thing I’m teaching a class on this subject, so I thought I’d jot down my notes here first…

There are lots of Viking-possible foods that will survive a weekend without refrigeration.  They possibilities really break down into two groups depending on whether or not you are willing to do any cooking, or just want to live off the cold food.

Cold food:

  • Pickled vegetables.  Some suggestions are sauerkraut, sauerruben (much the same only with turnips), pickled carrots, fermented kale, pickled radishes, pickled/fermented apples, cherries, plums.  All of these things can be lacto-fermented (which is what the Vikings would have done) or modern vinegar pickled versions can be substituted.  Any of these will survive a weekend without cooling, particularly if you can keep them from getting too hot.
  • Bread.  Any heavy wheat or rye bread will keep well.  Alternatively, barley based hard tack or crisp bread.  Easy to make, easy to keep, and filling.  The hard tack can be eaten dry, or broken up into soup.  You can also break up the hard tack into water or small beer and eat like grape nuts.
  • Sour milk/buttermilk/yogurt/skyr.  If you can keep it reasonably cool, these will all keep just fine for a few days.  These go will with bread (above), by themselves, with fruit, or with roasted flour.
  • Roasted flour.  I’ve long suspected that the Vikings probably used pre-roasted barley flour as a travelling food, mush as the modern Tibetans do.  Just recently, I found references to a Finnish food called talkkuna (or kama in Estonian) that is flour made from roasted barley, oats, rye, and/or peas.  Since the roasting pre-cooks the grains, they don’t require additional cooking to be digestible.  The modern Finns mix talkkuna with villi (a cultured milk product) or other yogurt/buttermilk to make While that doesn’t mean for sure that the Vikings did the same, it certainly is plausible.
  • Cheese.  A nice hard cheese will keep easily without refrigeration.  Think a nice hard, sharp Cheddar, or Emmantaler for something more Norse.  Parmesan or other hard grating style cheeses (mizythra, asiago) also work well.  While probably not Viking, modern Scandinavian whey-cheeses like gjetost also keep well.
  • Pickled meat or fish.  You can make your own, or use modern equivalents.  Pickled sausages are good.  If you are willing to deal with non-period spices, bar-style pickled hot links are (aside from the chili pepper) very similar to Icelandic whey-pickled sausages.  Some import stores also carry German sausages in glass jars (think giant Vienna sausages).  These are really “pickled”, but they are salty enough to last the weekend, particularly until opened.  Pickled pigs feet, salt pork, or salted and potted pork (think rillettes) also should keep, although I haven’t tried them.  If you bring any kind of non-canned meat, make sure they stay cool and check them carefully for spoilage before you eat them.  Canned kippered or other styles of herring are perfectly appropriate, and will keep indefinitely.  They go really well with bread, cheese, and pickled vegetables.  Dried meat such as jerky is passible, but I personally don’t think that the Vikings would have had the salt to dry rather than pickling beef.  Maybe, though…
  • Raw root vegetables or cabbage.  Carrots, turnips, and green cabbage all store well if they are not too hot, and can be eaten raw or with skyr or other dairy products.  Cabbages can be shredded for salads, and lightly salted cabbage with piima or other “buttermilks” is a simple coleslaw.  Onions also keep well.
  • Fruit.  Apples, cherries, plums.  Dried fruit keeps even better, but the fresh ones will last the weekend if kept out of the sun.

If you are willing to do some cooking, there are lots of possibilities.

  • Grain + sour milk + salt + heat = flat bread
  • Grain or peas plus water + preserved meat and vegetables makes soup or stew
  • Sour milk, preserved fish + broken up hard tack makes “chowder”
  • Grain + water + heat = porridge.  Excellent with sour milk, fresh or preserved fruit,  nuts.
  • Old bread, cheese, preserved vegetables + hot broth makes “sops”.
  • etc.

These are just a few of the possibilities.  It does take some planning, and as mentioned above it’s best to keep many of these things out of high heat or direct sunshine.  I sometimes use an insulated wooden box in the shade to keep things as cool as possible without resorting to ice.

If you come up with other ideas I’d love to hear about them.

Last year I tried a new chicken dish that worked pretty well, and a few weeks back at Faire in the Grove I decided to make it as part of my Viking cooking demo (plus feed the extended household lunch) with excellent results.  The two biggest additions were a little bacon, and some cumin, and both really made it from something good into something super good. 

I used cast iron again, because I don’t have a potter vessel that will hold that much chicken.  I chopped up some bacon and fried it in the pot, then used the bacon fat to brown the chicken.  I used a mix of drumsticks and thighs this time.  Once they were browned I added some salt and cumin seed, plus a bunch of watercress, and a container of baby arugula.  When the chicken was well cooked and falling off the bone, I threw in a pint of full-fat sour cream.  Once it was all warm we dished it up on flatbread.  The cumin, in particular, really made it this time.  Also, the sour cream rather than the piima I used last year gave it a less runny texture. 

I sent some over to my wife, and within minutes half the fighters we know were coming by saying “I heard you had some really great chicken I should try”. Smile 

I’ll definitely be doing this one again, and have a few more changes I’d like to try.  I think dandelion greens, nettles, or lambs quarters (if I can get some) would be great instead of or in addition to the arugula.  More greens more better.  I’d also use boneless chicken, since the whole pieces made it both a little greasy (I didn’t remove the skins until they were browned) and hard to navigate on flatbread.  The advantage to the whole pieces, OTOH, is that they are cheap.  I think the addition of some mustard or horseradish would be good too.  Wild mushrooms of some sort could also be good.  We don’t have any archeological evidence of mushrooms, since they don’t really leave much in the say of stuff in the ground, but I think it’s reasonable to suppose they were eaten.  YMMV.