Viking Food Guy

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

I just recently got ahold of a copy (thanks to the wonders of ILL) of an article called The Porridge Debate: Grain, Nutrition, and Forgotten Food Preparation Techniques1.  I had seen references to it in Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation, but hadn’t actually read the article.  In it, the author discusses how changes in grain processing techniques have made our modern porridge both less tasty and less nutritious.  In traditional societies, in order to remove the husk from grains, the grain was moistened and then dried before being pounded in a grain stamp to loosen the hulls.  This technique has several advantages over our modern grain milling.  First, the wetting/drying process causes the grain to begin the saccharification process, which converts some of the starch to sugar and makes the grain taste sweeter.  Once the moistened grain is dried, the husks are pounded off, which leaves the protein layer under the husk intact.  Modern milling skips the saccharification, and the husks are milled off, which also removes the protein layer.  This means that traditionally processed grain was both tastier and more nutritious. 

Also, the repeated wetting, drying, and pounding meant that very little additional cooking was required to make the grain edible, which required less time and fuel for cooking. 

So, grain porridge as a staple food is a lot more attractive when it tastes better, reduces the need for additional (meat based) protein sources, and takes less time and fuel to cook. 

She also asserts that grain was most often eaten as porridge that was fermented (soured) overnight, or as a “sour soup” with root vegetables and legumes. 

This was all pretty welcome news to me, since I’m a big fan of porridge, both soured and otherwise.  Stone ground oats soured overnight with whey are delicious, and take very little time to cook, which makes them a great breakfast. 

I have yet to try this with whole oats, so I’d be interested to see what that does to their cooking time.  Hulless barley might be good to try also.  Barley flour (coarsely ground) also makes a fine porridge, although I haven’t tried fermenting any yet. 

So many grains, so little time…

1 Meyer-Renschhausen, Elisabeth. “The Porridge Debate: Grain, Nutrition, and Forgotten Food Preparation Techniques.” Food and Foodways 5.1 (1991) : 95-120.

One down

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Last night I tried my rendition of Ålandskt svartbröd without the modern ingredients.  The result came out looking like this

I used Peter Reinhart’s method for whole grain breads, so I made a separate starter and soaker on Tuesday evening.  The soaker was whole grain wheat flour, salt, and filmjolk.  The starter was rye flour, rye sourdough culture, and water.  They both sat on the counter for around 24 hours, and last night I added some barley malt syrup and a little commercial yeast, plus more wheat and rye flour to bring it to the right consistency.  I proofed the dough for a few hours, shaped it into two loaves the size of small dinner plates, and let them proof for another hour or two.  Just before baking, I pricked the surface of each with a toothpick.  They baked at 355° for 40 minutes, then another 10 at 340°.  Three times during the 40 minutes I “basted” them with a mixture of barley malt syrup, butter, and a little water.  That’s what gives them such a dark color (which doesn’t really come out in the photo).  The cooking times and temps were based on this description (in Finnish).

Things I would do differently next time:

  • skip the commercial yeast, and just rely on the sourdough.  In this case I would probably proof and form the loaves after the first 24 hours, then let the loafs proof another 12-24 before baking.  I think they would come out more sour that way.  Plus, of course, Vikings didn’t have commercial yeast. Smile
  • the third “basting” was too close to the end of cooking, and didn’t dry completely.  The tops of the loaves are distinctly wet and sticky.  If I did all three closer to the beginning of baking I think they would have dried out. 

The result is very tasty, and not dry at all.  The malt gives it a nice subtle sweetness without being overly noticeable like the first batch I made with molasses and treacle.  The sourness is noticeable, but not strong.  Again, I think a longer proof, possibly in the refrigerator, would make it come to the forefront a bit more. 

This bread would go really well with some nice strong cheese and/or some pickled fish.  Reports of the modern version say they keep well, so I’ll see how well these do.



Right now I’m planning on trying some new bread and dairy projects.  Last year I tried making some Ålandskt svartbröd, and just recently I found a reference to it having been described as sour “in the old days” as opposed to the sweet bread that is made today.  The modern version uses molasses and treacle, as well as malt.  I want to try it with a rye sourdough culture and malt syrup and see how it comes out. 

The same article also described a style of cheese made in Aland, pressed in a wooden frame, dried, and then aged in bins of smoked rye berries.  It also described juniper branches or juniper water being used to scrub mold off of the cheeses as they aged.  I want to try pressing the cheese, then brining it in a Juniper brine, then using the rye after it dries out.  I’m not sure I’ll be able to find smoked rye, so I may have to smoke some myself. 

I also read up on several different ways of making gomme, which involves curdling milk then cooking the curds in their whey until it caramelizes, sometimes adding fresh milk and eggs afterwards.  It takes a really long time, but might be fun to do over the fire at an event when we have plenty of time to spare. Smile 

Less immediate plans include sausages (maybe some cured) and more cheeses.  I’d also like to try mashing (for brewing) using hot rocks, but I’ll have to find the right vessel and a friendly site that will let me try it. 

Malt syrup?

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Barley malt syrup as a sweetener.


This weekend was An Tir‘s Culinary Symposium, which was a smashing success.  We had a great time geeking out with the other food nerds on subjects ranging far and wide.  I’m all fired up to work on more sausages and cheese for this year.  I’ve been a little concerned about curing/fermenting meat, and I think this is the time to get over it and give it a go.  I also got a chance to go to Mistress Katrine‘s class on the cookbook of Anna Wecker, the first woman to publish a cookbook.  There was a separate paper track, the proceedings of which will hopefully be published soon, check back for details…

I gave two classes, one on Baking Bread without Commercial Yeast, and the other on Fermentation in Theory and Practice.  Follow the links for the class handouts.  I’d love to get feedback if people have comments or questions.

Saturday food

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So we went to a Viking party (like ya’ do) on Saturday, and to get ready I made some food.  I started out with some bread.  I got a grain mill for Christmas this year (thanks honey!) so I ground some hulless barley to start with.  The first batch of bread was barley and oat flour (about 6:1), salt, and enough buttermilk to make it all come together.  I rolled them into patties about the size and shape of veggie burgers and baked them until they were browned.  The other batch was barley flour, salt, some rye sourdough starter, and goat milk to make a stiff dough.  I rolled it out quite thin and cut it into strips, then baked until crisp. 

Next up was some “Viking hummus” that was composed of green pea flour, goat milk, dried dill weed, dry mustard powder, grated horseradish, salt, and some hazelnut oil.  It comes out about the same consistency as hummus, and is good on the crackers.

I also pickled some turnips.  Had I planned this ahead, they would have been lactic acid fermented.  Since I didn’t, I used water, salt and vinegar, mustard seeds, juniper berries, and added a quartered beet for color.  They came out pretty well, and now I’d like to try them the “real” way. 

Along the way I made some skyr too.  I started with a gallon of non-fat milk, heated it to 185°, then let it cool back down to 105°.  Then I stirred in a cup of Siggi’s commercial skyr for culture, and two Junket rennet tablets.  I was pressed for time, so I only let it sit for 3-4 hours before straining it, so it didn’t come out as sour as I usually like.  I drained it in muslin hanging from my microwave for another couple of hours until it was well set. 

I took a little bit of the skyr and mixed in some roasted beets, and left the rest plain to go with the bread. 

There was a lot of awesome food at the party, including smoked salmon, pickled beets, pickled herring, more flat bread, etc.  It was most excellent. 

Happy New Year!

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Happy 2011!

May the new year be filed with joy, light, and Viking food!



Another new project for the coming year is a plan for “Viking trekking”.  Eulalia and I are talking earnestly about trying a trek (aka hiking/camping) using only Viking (or in her case Celtic) appropriate gear and methods.  We’re shooting for some time in August, since the fishing may be OK, the huckleberries should be ripe, and the mosquitoes should be not too bad. 

There’s going to be some preparation required, both for gear in general and for cooking prep.  I need to bone up on my flint & steel firestarting, since it’s been years since I’ve done it.  Also, I need a small cookpot that will be easily portable and can be used to boil meal/oats/etc. 

I’ll post updates as we make more plans…

This year I spent a lot of time experimenting with fermentation in the hopes of learning more about what the Vikings had to eat.  The new project for the upcoming year is going to be wild foods and foraging.  There are several species that appear commonly in the Viking age archeological record (including stinging nettles and lamb’s quarters [Chenopodium album]) that also grow wild here in the Pacific Northwest, and I aim to track them down and eat them. Smile 

We are also going to do some foraging for local species that aren’t Viking appropriate, just ‘cause it sounds like fun and they are tasty.  We’re planning a clamming and crabbing trip this winter, and maybe some fishing and mushroom hunting for later in the year.  Interestingly, there are very few shell middens in Viking age Scandinavia, although they do appear in earlier and later eras.  I think there are some in Viking age Ireland and England, but I’d have to double check that.  Did the Scandinavia Vikings have some religious injunction against shellfish?  Were they just not fashionable?  Interesting.  We do know that the Vikings, particularly those in Iceland, gathered seaweed, so I’ll give that a go too.

Next Fall I’m hoping to gather and process some acorns.  At some point I came across an article on acorn eating in a Viking context, I’m pretty sure, although I haven’t been able to re-find the reference. 

In any case, I think this will provide new opportunities for understanding what Viking’s really  had to eat.  Wild foods have traditionally been part of everyone’s diet, from spring greens to mushrooms to fish and animal species.  Whether those were actively sought out or just eaten opportunistically probably depends on where/when, and how much cultivated food was available. 

More reports to follow as events warrant…

At least twice recently, the question has come up “did the Vikings have cauliflower?”.

The short answer is “probably not”.

The longer answer involves that fact that it turns out to be quite difficult to distinguish between the various members of the cabbage/mustard family (brassicas) in the archeological record.  Most of the archeo-botanical reports from Viking digs include something like “brassicas” rather than a particular species, because we can’t really tell.

The ones they probably had were likely to be an open leafed (not headed) cabbage like modern kale or collards, something like a turnip (the white and purple kind, not rutabagas), and mustard greens of some kind.  Cauliflower, broccoli, and brussel sprouts are later inventions.  Cauliflower in particular didn’t appear in Northern Europe until the 16th C.