Viking Food Guy

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

Janet (who is a much better photographer than I) got some great pictures of the trayne roste we made at Crown over Labor Day weekend…

Crown hijinks Crown hijinks Crown hijinks

Weekend cooking fun

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I didn’t do too much that was specifically “Viking” this weekend, but I did spend a large part of the weekend (our September Crown Tournament) cooking in the arts & sciences demonstration area. We started off slow on Saturday morning with some bacon wrapped around pitted dates, strung on a skewer and roasted over the coals until the bacon is done. Documentable? I have no idea. Delicious? Very much so.

The next project I did have documentation for. I made a Trayne Roste.  It was totally fun to do, and a great conversation piece.  Lots of people came over to ask questions during the process, and it kept me busy for the whole middle of the day.  The result was also delicious.  I ended up making two batches of the batter, the first runny and the second much thicker (mainly because I was running out of wine).  The thicker batter worked much better.  I think if I’d had a brush, the thinner batter would have worked well, but as I only had a spoon, drizzling on the thinner batter resulted in a lot of it ended up in the fire.  Given both the batter and the layout of my fire pit, I found I also needed to keep the fire really hot.  The thicker batter adhered pretty well, and was easier to work with overall, although it went on thicker and took longer to cook.

For dinner I made some arguably Viking barley pilaf, that was just smoked pork, barley, leeks and water.  It didn’t cook long enough before it was time for dinner, so it was a little chewy, but the flavor was quite good.

Sunday morning our friend Katrine made both waffles and wafers over the fire, using the same batter from a recipe she translated from a 16th C German cookbook.  It involved ground almonds, flour made from lebkuchen, and was generally made of fabulous.  Both the waffle and wafer iron performed well over the fire, and the results were very tasty.  The wafers rolled around dates was particularly popular.  My son made a taco out of one of the wafers, some dates, and a piece of smoked pork loin which he declared delicious but the crowd was generally skeptical about. 🙂  Sunday dinner was stew of smoked pork (do you sense a theme here?  I smoked 8 lbs worth of pork loin last Thursday…) with plums and leeks.  I had meant to thicken it with some barley bread, but it went clean out of my head, so the result was soup rather than stewy, but delicious nonetheless.

Still here

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I realized I’ve been a bit quiet here of late.  Not much to report.  The last few events we’ve been to have been hot, so nobody wanted to cook over the fire.  That means eating out of the cooler, which is a bit less Viking and a bit more convenient, as much as I hate to say it. 

In the mean time, I’ve been studying up on modern Scandinavian food.  While modern food certainly doesn’t tell us what Vikings ate, it can tell us something about environmental and cultural constraints.  Some of the features of modern Scandinavian cooking point to environmental constraints that would have applied to Viking Age Scandinavia as well.  For example, modern Scandinavian (and Icelandic) cooking tend to use a lot of sour flavors, probably due to historic constraints on the amount of salt available.  These sour flavors also develop well in cooler climates.  Bread tends to be heavier than in Southern Europe, and include a lot of barley, rye and oat flour because wheat doesn’t grow well in the North.  Fish is still very prevalent in the modern diet because it’s readily available.  And so on…

I’ve also been working on getting the hang of sourdough rye bread.  I’ve been baking a lot more lately, in part because the while idea of sourdough (and other fermentation) just tickles me, and because the kind of dense, flavorful rye bread so popular in Northern Europe (and perfect for smørrebrød) is very hard to get here so I’ve been making it myself.  I just finished a batch of this Danish rye, which came out really well, as well as a few batches of German Volkornbrot, and one of Russian Borodinski bread.  These breads take a bit of work, and somewhere between 2-4 days start to finish, but they keep really well, and are very tasty.  Just the thing for a nice open faced sandwich.  A little bread, a little herring, some pickles… 

The real issue with trying to recreate Viking food comes down, in the end, to aesthetics.  We can know what they ate (from an ingredient standpoint) and what they used to cook those things because all of that stuff is still in the dirt.  What we can’t know, and the part that’s hard to even theorize about, is what their aesthetic was like. 

Every cuisine has some fixed aesthetic that transcends recipes.  If you’ve cooked enough Italian food, for example, you can make new dishes that fit within an Italian food gestalt without having a specific dish.  One of my biggest goals is to try and get a handle on what they Viking food gestalt was like. 

Because the “Vikings” were geographically spread over such a wide area, there must have been wide variations in what their food was like.  The environment and available materials in the Danelaw or in Denmark (or Byzantium, obviously) are much different from what would have been available in Iceland or Trondheim. 

One of the influences (if that’s the right word) that we can take a pretty good guess about is lactic fermentation.  In a cool Northerly climate, pretty much anything that’s wet will sour eventually.  Vegetables, grain, dairy products, and possibly meat and fish all can be soured.  The farther North you get, the harder or more expensive it is to get salt, so sour flavors enhance the taste of food in lieu of salt. 

Given the above, I think the “Viking” diet (if we can even characterize it as such) would have contained more sour flavors that we are used to in our modern American diet.  Grain-based porridge, if soaked overnight or longer in water will sour, particularly if it is soaked in a wooden or pottery vessel that is impregnated with lactobacilli.  There are modern or early modern equivalents to be found in the oat porridge of Scotland and the millet porridge of Africa, both of which have traditionally been allowed to sour.  There are numerous examples of sour dairy products such as cultured or clabbered milk, “sour cream”, etc.  Syra (soured whey) was commonly mixed with water as a drink in (at least medieval) Iceland. 

Given that, and bearing in mind some of Daniel’s musing on sweets I think the Viking aesthetic probably involved more sour, and less sweet and salty flavors that we are used to in modern America.  Aside from that, I still have plenty of thinking to do.

I’m back from the weekend at West – An Tir War, and have to say that the food really worked out well.  Because I was camped with some of the best cooks from both Kingdoms, I ended up eating lots of stuff besides the Viking food I brought with me, so I’m still not sure if I’d be sick of bread by the end of a weekend.  I tend to think not though.  I had 2-3 meals that were composed of hard tack, black bread, pickles (cabbage, carrots, eggs, onions, sausages) and a little fish.

Friday morning Eulalia and I had our cultural exchange fish breakfast, which ended up meaning two kinds of porridge and two kinds of fish.  I made “beer bread” with some sour rye hard tack and the small sahti I made.  I broke up the bread and boiled it in sahti until it was mostly porridge like.  Two things I might do differently… 1) soak the bread overnight before trying to cook it.  Because the bread was dried fairly hard, I had a difficult time getting it to break up and the final result was quite lumpy. 2) use less sour bread.  The particular batch of bread I used I had soured over night, and it was really sour.  It wasn’t unpleasant, particularly with just a bit of honey added, but it was much more sour than I was expecting, and nobody else went for it.  I had a jar of pickled herring to go with the porridge.  Eulalia made buckwheat porridge and had some hard smoked salmon to go with.  All in all it made a nice breakfast.

Saturday morning I made porridge with stone ground oats, then cut it with skyr and added some dried cherries and blueberries.  It was very filling, and tasty to boot.

Friday night was fish night, so I got some really fresh smoked black cod from the fish market in town, and cooked it with fresh fava beans, fresh dill, a leek, and some heavy cream.

Saturday night was 16th C themed, so I didn’t make any Viking food that night.  Sunday I fried up some chopped bacon until it was crisp, then added some spring onions and 8 or so plums, about half and half red and black ones.  The result was very popular.  It was very tart, and went well with the pork roast that someone else made.

West War 099

I also made several batches of sourdough rye bread which we baked in a ceramic cloche.  They tended to burn, but the texture came out pretty well.

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West War 047

It was a great weekend, with lots of experimentation and fine food, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s War. 🙂

*Thanks to Janet for the pictures!

Almost there

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I think I’m just about ready for the camping event this weekend.  I got a new batch of sahti started over the weekend (actually two, a strong and a “small” sahti from the first and second runnings).  The Aland black bread is baked, I’ve got lots of hard tack, and a new batch of pickled carrots and radishes is almost done.  There are just a few more things to pick up at the grocery and I’ll be ready to go.

I will be interested to see how this comes out.  In looking at all the stuff I’ve prepared, it’s looking pretty close to a common medieval diet, where 70-80% of calories come from grain (bread or beer) and the rest from vegetables and meat or fish.  We’ll see how sick I am of bread and fish next week. 🙂

I started prepping food for the event next weekend on Tuesday or so, and it’s coming along nicely.  I’ve made some extra piima, have several bags of hard tack, the eggs are pickling, etc.  I made about two quarts worth of sauerkraut, with some fresh dill, spring onions, cabbage and kale, and a little dulse (red seaweed) ‘cause I had some.  It’s starting to smell pretty good, and will probably transition to the fridge tomorrow. 

I’ve been experimenting with different recipes for the hard tack, so this week I tried making some with skyr.  I started with a container of Siggi’s commercial skyr, and stirred in salt, barley and rye flour until I liked the consistency, then pressed out the rounds.  I’ve been making them pretty thin because I want them to dry out hard.  For the sake of heavy production I’ve started using my food dehydrator.  I had been cooking them in a slow oven, but the dehydrator is less work and higher volume.  I think if you were cooking these thin breads on a soapstone hearth the effect would be much the same, it would just take a lot longer. 

I also started a batch of Ålandskt svartbröd, or “dark bread from Åland” according to this description.  Obviously the molasses and brown sugar aren’t Viking, but the malt certainly could be, and the technique certainly lines up well, including the shape of the breads.  I’ll end up doing them in the oven as per the recipe, but I bet they’d work well on a hearth or griddle if managed properly. 

Still on the docket for this weekend: brewing, baking the svartbrod, maybe boiling some more eggs, pickling some more veggies. 

I’m starting to think about what food/equipment I’m going to bring to the War in a couple of weeks.  I’m going to bring all (as far as possible) Viking-possible food, and see how it works out for a long weekend.

One thing I’m definitely planning for is fish for breakfast.  I’m a great believer in eating sea creatures first thing in the morning.  Kippers, pickled herring, gravlax, lox, smoked salmon or trout… All such a treat in the AM.  However, one of the people we camp with pretty regularly is a fish-o-phobe, so we try to keep it down for her sake.  She’s not coming to the War, though, so my friend Eulalia suggested we stage a cultural exchange fish breakfast one morning.  She does 13th C English recreation, which should be a little different from Viking-style fish breakfast.

I’m thinking of making some “beer bread” porridge for breakfast, which should go well with fish.  I’ve started making some barley/rye hard tack and drying it out for the trip, and I’ll simmer that in beer until it’s porridge-like.  I’m thinking it’ll go nicely with some smoked herring if I can find some that’s decent.  It’s hard to find hard smoked herring around here (sadly), but kippers will do in a pinch if I can get a good brand.  The nice hard smoked German ones are my favorite, but my local source for those dried up recently, and the grocery store ones are a little squishy for my taste.  We’ll see what I can turn up.  Pickled herring will do in a pinch. 🙂

Other foods I’m considering bringing:

  • cheese (something simple, plus maybe some gjetost.  It’s not Viking, but I do love it so)
  • boiled eggs
  • sauerkraut
  • hard tack
  • fresh bread (more on this later)
  • more fish, probably smoked salmon and/or trout, and certainly plenty of herring.  Salt cod for cooking (stockfish would be better, but I can’t get any here)
  • small beer
  • piima
  • grain (barley, stone ground oats)
  • root vegetables (carrots, maybe some turnips, parsnips?)
  • lactic-fermented carrots/turnips/whatever if I get a chance to make some
  • dried fruit (cherries/berries)

ETA

  • pickled eggs
  • pickled sausages
  • split peas
  • skyr
  • smoked pork/bacon

In this article on traditional sahti brewing, the author mentions that some very traditional “sahti masters” do all their mashing in wooden tubs, and use heated stones added directly to the mash to raise it’s temperature rather than heating the water.  Hmmmm.  Given the typical sizes of the vessels found in a Viking context, this makes a lot more sense than trying to heat even a fairly large “cauldron” (which still isn’t very big) over the fire and adding it to the mash. 

Experimentation is required. 🙂

Eldrimner

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Daniel is blogging about his experiments in Viking cooking this summer in Lofoten, Norway at http://eldrimner.wordpress.com.  If you are interested in living history, Viking food, or both, you should check it out.  His experiments with marrow bones and smoking meat are of particular interest (to me at least).