Viking Food Guy

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

Grand Thing V

No comments

We spent the (very wet) weekend at the Grand Thing, a Norse themed SCA event in nearby St. Helens, OR.  It rained, we had to carry all our stuff across a very muddy field, and we still had a total blast.  My preserved foods class went off well, and the participants were attentive and asked good questions.  The pickled eggs were actually quite popular, and I will definitely be making them again.  I just simmered some cider vinegar with a little fresh garlic, fresh dill weed, and yellow mustard seed.  When it cooled I poured it over a mason jar full of cooled and peeled hard boiled eggs, and put them in the fridge for about a week.  Next time I’d like to add some horseradish root, which should be good, but I didn’t add it this time for the class because some people are allergic.  The hard tack worked out well too.  They kept just fine the two weeks until the class, and tasted pretty good.  They were certainly hard, and required some careful chewing.  I’d like to try rehydrating some in sahti or milk (or both) to see how they do as porridge.

The day after the class we spent roasting a whole pig.

The 70 lb. pig took about 7-8 hours to cook, and it was fantastic.  None of us had ever dealt with a whole animal before, so it was definitely a learning experience, and given that it really came out well.  We used an electric rotisserie, since this was our first time, and it definitely made things easy.  In the future, I’d like to try it on a real Viking period setup with a manually turned spit (but probably not any time soon since it was a lot of work).

My class is tomorrow, and I think I’m as prepared as I’m going to be.  The skyr, sauerkraut, bread, and beer are done.  I’ve got stuff to make more kraut for the class, as well as to cook up some salt fish with leeks.  The class handout is done, and posted here as a new page, which you can find a link to at the top of this web page, or here.

I’ll be teaching a class next weekend on Preserved Foods in the Viking Age, so today I did some prep cooking for the class.  I started a batch of skyr which I’ll finish up this evening, made some sauerkraut with fresh dill weed, and made up a jar of pickled eggs that should be ready in time.  I also racked the latest batch of sahti.  I think I didn’t steep the mash long enough this time, since this batch is much “smaller” a beer than the last couple.  It’s a paler color, and tastes a bit sour (probably the yeast) and a little thin.  Still pretty drinkable though, and I expect it will be thirst-quenching. 

I will be posting the handout for the class here when it is done.

I spent some time this weekend rereading some articles on Scandinavian dairy products in the 16th-early 20th centuries.  While obviously outside of the Viking period, there is a lot to be gleaned that could easily be applied to recreating Viking dairy products.

The first is about what the author jokingly refers to as a Swedish beer milkshake.*  It was quite common practice in Southern Sweden into the late 19th – early 20th century to mix milk with small beer to form either a refreshing (?) beverage or something in which to sop bread or grains, sometimes served cold and at other times hot like soup or porridge.  In the contemporary account the author got, it was almost always non-skim, fresh (un-soured) milk that was used, but people talked about sour milk being used “in the old days”.  At first read, this sounds pretty unappealing until you consider what the small beer of the time was probably like.  Small beer in the Viking period was probably pretty cloudy, yeasty, lightly hopped if at all, and either slightly sour of a bit sweeter than we are used to in most modern beers.  When mixed with fresh milk, it might be more like malted milk than what we would get from mixing milk and Coors, say.  What is possibly more informative is that one of the reasons cited for mixing thus was to cut expensive fresh milk with comparatively cheap small beer.  Drinker also claimed on a hot day the mixture was more refreshing than either of the two by itself. 

Intrepid experimenter that I am, I couldn’t just let this pass by without trying it, so I tried both fresh and sour (piima) milk mixed about 1/2 & 1/2 with some braggot that I made a few weeks back that was completely unhopped.  It was not at all unpleasant, and I think I liked the sour version even better.  This particular beer is less small that probably would have been called for, and a bit more sweet, so I’ll have to try it again with the sahti when it’s done to see how it comes out.

The second article was on the use of whey in Iceland**, and it’s one that I’ve read several times now.  Because skyr formed a significant part of the Icelandic diet, they had a lot of whey lying around, and rather than let it go to waste put it to use in a number of different ways.  They softened bones in it, made a refreshing drink from it (once properly soured), and used it as a preserving medium for meat and vegetables in lieu of salt.  I really want to do some experimenting with this, but so far I haven’t been able to get the leftover whey from skyr to get very sour before it molds.  I think if I can get it to sour it would be a good way to pickle some veggies or maybe eggs.  Another intersting tidbit I re-read was that the Icelanders used skry to cut their porridge, since grain was so expensive.  I haven’t tried that, so I’ll have to give it a go the next time I make up a batch, or maybe with some of the commercial skyr we can get here now.

*Bringéus, Nils-Arvid. “A Swedish beer milk shake.”Milk and Milk Products from Medieval to Modern Times. ed. Patricia Lysaght, pp. 140-150. Precedings of the Ninth International Conference on Ethno-logical Food Research. Edinburgh: Conongate Academic, 1994.

**Gísladóttir, Hallgerður. “The use of whey in Icelandic households.” Milk and Milk Products from Me-dieval to Modern Times. ed. Patricia Lysaght, pp. 123-129. Precedings of the Ninth International Con-ference on Ethnological Food Research. Edinburgh: Conongate Academic, 1994.

I’m teaching a class at an upcoming event on preserved foods of the Viking age, and I’ve started doing some prep work ahead of time for the class.  I’ve made many batches of barley based flatbread in the past based on the archeological evidence from Birka*, but always before with an eye toward eating them pretty much right away.  Yesterday I set about baking some to keep to see how they hold up.  I made two batches, each with about 80% barley flour and 20% rye flour, and both with a little bread yeast added.  One batch I made with water, and the other with some leftover whey from skyr making.  I balled them up and let the (pretty wet) dough sit most of the day, then formed them into flat patties about 1/2” thick and 5-7” across, and pricked the surfaces all over with a sharp-pointed chopstick.  Then they baked in the oven at 200° for 2-3 hours until they were pretty dry.  They’ve been sitting in the oven since then, so hopefully they have dried out pretty thoroughly.  With any luck they will be dry enough to keep the two weeks until my class.  While the dough didn’t really rise, per se, it was quite a bit lighter in texture than it would have been without the yeast, and I’ll be interested to see what the final texture it like when they are dry.  They look very much like 19th C. hardtack.

*Hansson, Ann-Marie. On Plant Food in the Scandinavian Peninsula in Early Medieval Times. Theses and Papers in Archaeology B:5. Stockholm: University of Stockholm. 1997.

Over the weekend I started my third batch of sahti, which is essentially the folk small-beer of Finland, and what at least one author refers to as one of the oldest living beer styles.  I haven’t had a chance to try and construct the traditional mash tun made from a hollow log, so I had to resort to more conventional (at least for the modern brewer) equipment.  Like the first batch, I used whole grain rather than extract.  I started with 10 lbs. of American 2-row malted barley plus 1 lb. of rye malt, both of which were crushed for me at the local homebrewing store.  Once all the grain was in the pot, I started adding boiling water, 1.5 liters at a time with a 1/2 hour wait between additions until I’d added about 7.5 liters.  As more water is added the mash becomes more and more porridge-like in consistency as it absorbs the water, and it wasn’t until the last addition that there was “standing” water that wasn’t being absorbed. 

 

IMGP1769 IMGP1772 IMGP1777

The whole house smelled like malted wheat cereal. :)  The recipe I was working from suggested boiling the mash at that point to really bring out the redness from the rye, but the last time I tried that I burned it with disastrous results, so I settled for just heating it up briefly.  I really need a bigger pot and better spoon before I try boiling it again, and possibly a flame diffuser for my stove. 

Once the grain was steeped I started draining of the water (now wort) into another big pot, then added back another probably 3-4 liters of boiling water to the grain and drained it again, saving all the wort.  To the wort I added some hop pellets, additional rye malt, and juniper berries, and brought it up to a boil for about 10 minutes.  That all got strained into a big plastic bucket that already contained 2 gallons of cold water, and I added another gallon on top, which brought the final volume up to around 5 gallons altogether, maybe 5 1/2.  When it had cooled to about room temp, I added half a pack of German wheat beer yeast and half of a pretty aggressive English ale yeast.  In about a week I’ll rack it into a clean container, then let it go about another week before it’s ready enough to drink. 

Compared to modern homebrewing practices this is a shockingly casual way to go about things, and if I was planning on bottling this stuff and keeping it for any length of time it would probably spoil.  I’m really trying to come up with the kind of thing that Vikings would have had access to on a daily basis.  Someday I’ll work up the nerve to try this in an open wooden tub, which is probably mush closer to the equipment they really used.  The biggest hassle is keeping junk out of it, and it’s likely to sour, but I don’t have any reason to think that would be a deterrent for the average Viking given their penchant for sour foods.

I used some of the leftover “spent” grain in a loaf of bread last night, adding some bread yeast and enough whole wheat flour to bring it together.  It came out a little damp, but very pleasant in flavor.  I tried a little bit more boiled in milk as porridge for breakfast this morning, but since it’s not really meant for human consumption like this I found it a little too chaff intensive for pleasurable breakfast eating.  I was thinking what I really need is a nice little pig to feed it too.  Barring that, today two friends let me know that both horses and chickens like spent grain, so I know how I’ll be recycling it in future. :)

One of the first things anyone says at every public demo we do about Viking food is “oh, lutefisk!  Gross!”.  The Vikings did not, in fact, have any lutefisk.  What they had instead was stockfish, which is unsalted cod dried hard as a board.  Much later, the Scandinavians figured out that stockfish was more easily edible if it was soaked in lye water until it softened, producing lutefisk at last.

The real fallacy here, though, is that whatever our Norwegian/Swedish grandmothers cooked must have been what the Vikings ate.  Much of what we think of as “traditional” Scandinavian cooking probably didn’t mature in it’s present form until the early modern period, 300-400 years ago.  There are New World ingredients such as potatoes (lefse, mashed potatoes, Jansson’s Temptation, klubb…) or beans that figure prominently in modern folk cooking in Scandinavia. 

That isn’t to say that there is nothing to learn from modern Scandinavian cooking.  The constraints such as short growing season, limited arable land, high consumption of dairy products, etc. applied just as much to Scandinavia 400 years ago as they did during the Viking age.  However, that only helps us when taken in aggregate as it applies to the whole cuisine.  Any comparison between modern dishes individually and potential Viking age equivalents can only lead to error.

On glop

4 comments

Given the intersection of what the Vikings had to eat and what they had to cook it with (both of which we can know from the archeological record) I surmise that a great deal of what the average Viking ate on any given day boiled down to what my friend Eulalia calls “war glop”, and later English writers referred to as “pottage”. 

Basically, some combination of grains, legumes, vegetables, and a comparatively little meat is cooked together in a pot with plenty of liquids until it’s mushy.  The result can range from the texture of our breakfast oatmeal to something closer to what we might call pilaf. 

Some examples I’ve tried:

  • oats with bacon, onions and dried apples or prunes
  • peas and barley with onions and parsnips
  • barley grits (stone ground barley, like polenta) with cabbage, turnips and smoked herring
  • hulless barley with carrots, onions, garlic and fresh dill
  • pork, strawberries, hazelnuts and watercress
  • chicken with barley and dried fruit

Any of these can be easily cooked in pottery or iron vessels over the fire.  They work particularly well in pottery, I find, because they tend to stick less.  For idea on additional ingredients, see Þóra Sharptooth’s excellent list here

The kind of plowing rig pictured here

From Horse Plowing
From Horse Plowing

represents the pinnacle of Viking agricultural technology.  Such a setup, with horses (and horse collars) pulling a metal mould board plow, was just be introduced into parts of Denmark at the very end of what we traditionally think of as the Viking age.  Before that (and until much later in Norway and Sweden), the primary motive power for plowing was oxen, and the use of the ard (rather than the mould board plow) was much more common.  In many poorer regions, farmers were cultivating plots of 5 acres or so with only hoes, and no ards or plows at all. 

We watched the gentlemen above plow a relatively small (3-4 acre) field last weekend as part of a demonstration, and one of the big takeaways is how much work that really is.  And the Vikings would have been working with plows made mostly of wood, except for the mould boards, and more primitive horse tack. 

Ards don’t plow nearly as deeply as plows, and don’t turn over the soil, which means that early Viking age farms would have had fields plowed both less deeply and less well, meaning lower yields. 

At the other end of the season, harvesting technology was similarly primitive.  The scythe was essentially unknown in Viking age Scandinavia.  The big innovation at the end of the period was the introduction of the “bow sickle”, where the blade initially curves away from the handle, like the one on the old Soviet flag.  It was much more efficient to wield than the earlier sickle, where the blade curved directly forward from the handle (think of the kind that ninjas fight with). 

Taken all together, this leaves us with a picture of Viking agriculture that meant a lot of work / yield ration, particularly when compared with later medieval farming, which was much more technologically advanced.  Fields were probably mostly small (again in comparison with later medieval farms) and produced considerably less grain.

For more details, see “Agricultural Technology in Medieval Demark” by Bjørn Poulsen, in Medieval Farming and Technology: The Impact of Agricultural Change in Northwest Europe (Technology and Change in History , No 1)

One of my recent favorites, that I learned from Jorunn when she entered it in our Kingdom Arts & Sciences competition a few years back…

Simmer leeks and dried fish in cream with a little salt (very little if the fish is salty).  She used smoked black cod, which I’ve done as well.  It’s expensive, but it’s very tasty.  I’ve also tried smoked trout with great success.  Along with the trout I also added some fresh watercress, which adds a nice peppery edge. 

Serve it over some kind of starch.  Jorunn made a barley pilaf with carrots and onions, I think, and I’ve done the same.  It would be good with oats, or just with some flatbread too.

I’ve done this both times over the fire, in pottery vessels, one for the fish and the other for the barley.  The fish cooks very easily.  The barley is easy, but be prepared for it to take a long time, and you have to stir it frequently as it cooks so it doesn’t stick if you fire is hot.

pots on the fire

That’s the fish in the upper left and the barley pilaf at the bottom.  I don’t remember what was in the later period vessel on the upper right.