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
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.
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.
One of the real challenges of trying to reproduce Viking food is that we can’t actually know exactly what they ate because they didn’t write it down. What we do have to go on is the archeological record, and some very sketchy literary evidence from the sagas. What that leaves us with is “Viking possible”. Something that they could have eaten based on the ingredients available and they equipment they had to cook with.
In the pot is one of my favorite Viking possible recipes: grain (barley, oats) with apples, bacon and onions. I think this example actually has prunes instead of the apples which is also very good. Fry the bacon and onions, add the grain and fruit, plus water to cover, and simmer until the grain is done. If you use stone ground or steel cut oats, it cooks quite quickly, and makes a hearty meal any time of day.
I’ll be posting more “Viking possible” recipes as time goes by.
In the last few months, I’ve started trying to do some brewing, in ways that fit with the Viking aesthetic. I started thinking about what modern craft brewing (which I’ve done, and I love) does or doesn’t have in common with brewing as the Vikings must have done it. The reality is, I don’t think the Vikings were sterilizing all their equipment, putting their beer in bottles, or using three barrel mash setups. I think it’s more likely that they boiled some malt with some water, then dumped it in a bucket with some yeast. The result was probably comparatively sweet, yeasty, and flat, since you aren’t going to get much carbonation in a bucket or wooden tub. As a model, I’ve been looking at some of the modern recipes for a Finnish home-beer called sahti. It’s made very simply, and in a much more “casual” way than our modern home brew. There are a few recipes on that site that you can look at, but basically you boil some barley and rye malts in water, strain it through juniper twigs, add some yeast, and let it sit in an open container for a week or two. I’m a week into my second batch right now. The first batch I managed to burn the mash, so it tasted decidedly burnt, which was unpleasant. The new batch was made with malt extract for the sake of time and to see how it would come out. I added some rye malt and some juniper berries, and used commercial brewing yeast (the first batch used bread yeast). I just racked it over the weekend, and I’ll probably let it go a few more days.
I also made a batch of braggot, which is basically made the same way only with some honey added, and a little coriander instead of the juniper. It’s been fermenting about a week, and it’s pretty tasty as is.
The most recent addition was some sima, a modern Finnish home made “mead” made with sugar, water, lemon, and yeast. It’s very lightly fermented, and basically like mildly alcoholic soda. It’s traditionally served with funnel cakes for Finnish May Day, and it was a big hit with the funnel cakes we made this weekend.
I’ll report back as events warrant…
OK, it’s totally not Viking food, but this weekend at Faire in the Grove we decided to focus on two things: waffles and funnel cakes from 16th C. German recipes. Katrine has been working on translating a number of such recipes from a selection of period manuscripts, and it was time to put theory into practice. Katrine and I both got cast iron waffle irons for use over the fire (that look very much like the ones in the period woodcuts) and tried out this recipe for waffles. They were very easy to make, and the over-the-fire waffle iron worked out really really well. They didn’t stick at all, cooked up very nicely, and were a bit hit with the peeps and the public.
We’ll definitely be making these again. Simple, filling breakfast from a period recipe.
We also tried a selection of funnel cake recipes, also from the 16th C German sources. There’s definitely some work to be done on the funnel technique. I made two batches, one from egg yolks, cream, flour and white wine (with some saffron), and another from parsley, bread crumbs, eggs and flour. They didn’t stay together very well, although much better in a shallow pan than they did in the new potjie pot. BTW, we started the whole process by hacking up 15 or so pounds of leaf lard and rendering it for it’s delicious fat, then used the same for the frying. Katrine also made a batch of her gefulte oblaten (spice cookies stuffed with marzipan and apricot jam, then battered and fried) which were even more awesome than the last time she made them. Luckily, she cut them into small pieces so nobody got hurt. 🙂
This is a brand new blog, and this is the obligatory first post. My hope is to use the blog to talk about my research and experimentations in recreating Viking food, drink, and cooking tools.