Viking Food Guy

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

We were doing a cooking demo at an SCA event this weekend in Port Gamble, WA, and I got to spend pretty much the whole day Saturday playing over the fire.  At home we often give out samples to the public at demos, but the food handling laws in WA don’t really allow that, so instead I pretty much just spent the day cooking lunch and dinner for our household. 

For lunch, I made some barley and oat flatbread.  I tried something a little different than I’ve done before.  I soaked some stone ground oatmeal in cultured buttermilk until it was quite soft, then added a little salt and some yeast, and left it until it was starting to bubble a bit.  Then I stirred in enough barley flour to make a stiff dough, and but it in the fridge until the day of the event.  It had about two days in the fridge or cooler before I cooked it. 

To cook it, I pressed it out quite flat, about the size and shape of a tortilla or chapati, then cooked them over the coals on a dish iron like this one.  They were well floured after pressing them out, and they didn’t stick at all.  I cooked them until firm but still bendable, again like a tortilla.  We filled them with some hard smoked ham, onion, salty cheese (I used feta) and drizzled with honey.  Some friends of mine that visited a Viking market in Europe a few years ago mentioned something similar, and I’ve been dying to try it out.  They were delicious, and the whole household enjoyed them. 

After lunch, I started on dinner.  I made some barley pilaf with carrots, and a beef stew.  For the stew, I cooked some shallots in oil (in one of our ceramic pots) until they softened, then added some cubed stew beef and a handful of dried blueberries.  I covered the solids with some commercial hazelnut milk, and simmered for several hours.  The stew came out really well, and was a bit hit.  It went very well with the barley.  I think the blueberries are reasonable, although they would have had bilberries instead, but they are quite similar.  The hazelnut milk was a bit of a lark.  There are tons of hazelnut shells from Viking archeological digs, so I’ know they ate them, and most of Medieval Europe made almond milk, but I don’t have any evidence for a similar product in Scandinavia.  The big driver for almond milk in Western Europe was really Christian dietary laws or fasting, and I’m without those drivers in the Viking context I’m not sure it’s an obvious thing to do with nuts.  In future I might just add ground hazelnuts and water, which I think would cook up thicker. 



I’ve had some ups and downs making skyr, and no two batches have come out quite the same way.  The most reliable I’ve tried so far is based on the recipe in Complete Anachronist #143 “Skyr and Mysa: Viking curds and whey”.  The recipe is pretty easy, but very time consuming, particularly heating the milk without burning it.  I have yet to try this over the fire using Viking period equipment, but I’m hoping to do that sometime this summer. 

To make it at home, I use a gallon of skim (fat free) milk, and heat it up over a low flame in a very heavy pot until it hits around 185°, keeping it at that temperature for 10 minutes of so.  Then I turn off the stove, and let the milk cool down to just above body temperature, around 104°.  Then it’s cooled to that temperature, I add some starter culture.  I’ve used both Greek yogurt, and Siggi’s brand commercial skyr successfully.  Once that it well stirred, I add 8-10 drops of rennet mixed with a little water, and stir some more.  The trick from then on it to keep it as warm as possible for 6-8 hours.  The most successful batch I’ve made I left on the back of the stove while I cooked most of the day, so it stayed quite warm.  I’ve also tried insulating it with a blanket.  After 6-8 hours, it should be quite firmly set, and pulling away from the side of the pot.  It’s ready when it pulls away and when you can see clear whey floating on the surface.

Once it has set, spoon it into a sieve filled with cheese close or muslin and let most of the whey drain.  Then I hang it up in the cloth (tied into a bag) over a bowl overnight to drain.  In the morning you can take it out of the cloth.  It will be quite thick, and more or less sour depending on how warm it was kept while setting. 

It will keep for a while in the fridge, although it become progressively sour and eventually can turn quite bitter.  I’ve used it mixed into cooked vegetables, or with fruit or honey.

To make it over the fire, I would need to heat it up slowly enough without scorching it, which will take a lot of stirring.  I think the best way to keep it warm would be to pour it into a wooden bucket to set up.  The wood would keep it warmer, particularly if wrapped in wool.  I really need to find a wooden bucket I’m willing to sacrifice to dairy products.  Since the lactobacilli will stay in the wood, I don’t think I could use it for much else afterwards. 

Viking chowder?

1 comment

I had some stuff to use up last night, so I decided to try a new Viking possible soup.  I got some green garlic (garlic shoots), and boiled then in water until they started to soften, and added a box of salt cod that I’d thawed and soaked since the day before. 

To that I added about 2 cups worth of fresh fava beans, blanched and skins removed, plus about a cup of half & half and a 1/4 cup or so of heavy cream, and a bunch of fresh spinach.  Once everything looked well cooked, I added a bunch of the hard tack I made for my class, broken into pieces about the size of the fava beans. 

Compromises: the Vikings would have had stockfish, not salt cod.  Unfortunately, stockfish is nearly impossible to come by, at least in Portland, OR.  Salt cod has become increasingly east to get lately, and it’s comparatively easy to work with.  I don’t have any direct evidence for spinach in a Viking context, but they certainly had lots of other similar greens such as nettles, fat hen, etc. 

Next time: I’d soak the hard tack in water first.  I was worried about the vegetables getting mushy, so I didn’t cook the hard tack in the soup very long, and it was still a bit chewy in the soup, which tasted fine but made for a strange texture.  It did add a nice heft to the soup though, and you won’t go hungry on this stuff.  I’d like to try this with the addition of soured milk, like piima or buttermilk, but I was afraid it would curdle and put off the family. :) 

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.