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Food in the Viking Era

Creator: Bera
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An interesting little on-going, constantly modified page.  This currently consists of a handout about viking foods, some emails, and two blogs (blog1, blog2) all written by Bera and merged into a page.  Then add a little editing.

Food Groups

Meat: Beef, mutton, goat, pork

Meat was preserved by drying, smoking and pickling in brine or whey, and somewhat less often by salting.

Game: might include deer, elk, caribou, seal, hare, boar, harts and bucks, bears, badgers, foxes and wolves, beaver.

One hundred and eighteen kinds of game, including mammals and birds, were found at Haithabu or Hedeby.
Cut marks on the bones of horses from middens indicate that horsemeat was eaten frequently. But, later, after the conversion period around 1000, this custom was strongly fought by the Catholic Church, which considered eating horses a heathen practice.

Fish: Cod and herring, either fresh, dried, or salted, perch, pike, cyprinds, flatfish, whitefish, common garfish, roach, rudd, bream, shrimp, common mussels, oysters, haddock, flatfish, ling and horse mackerels, smelt, eel, and salmon.

Perch and pike are the most commonly found freshwater fish at archaeological sites. Dried fish from Norway was imported into England to be traded for cloth and metal. Stockfish or cod was the most common found in Britain. Eels and salmon were both used for property rent payments.

Fowl and Poultry: Wild fowl, especially wild ducks, hens, geese, and ducks, cormorant, swan, spoonbill, barnacle goose, teal, long-tailed duck, curlew, bar-tailed godwit, godwit, guillemot, common crane, golden plover, grey plover, black plover, wood pigeon, and lapwing.

A large variety of land and seabirds were hunted using nets, snares, birdlime, traps, whistle-lures, arrows, and hawks. Seabirds were favored for their high-fat content and often cooked by covering the bird in clay, then burying it in coals.

Dairy: Both cow's milk and ewe's or goat's milk were drunk or processed. often separated into curds and whey or buttermilk, and made into various other products beside cheese or butter, which could be stored throughout the year. Both butter and cheese were salted, and in some areas, cheese was stored in brine.

Cereals: Barley, wheat, oats and rye, millet, and buckwheat.

Grains were ground into meal and flour in circular stone querns, and could then be used for making breads. Other grass plants, such as flax, black bindweed, pale pesicaria, hemp, and gold-of-pleasure were cultivated or collected for their oily seeds. These were added to pottage to add essential oil to the diet. Seeds from wild cabbage, charlock, white goosefoot, flax, corn spurrey, and knotgrass were also used for this purpose.

Bread: barley was the most common ingredient, often mixed with other grains, pea flour, or linseed. Most breads were thin and many were unleavened.

Potherbs: Kale and cabbage, beets and onions, leeks, turnips, plantains, orache, cresses, peas, beans, parsnip, carrot, skirret, rape, endives, greens like nettle, mallows, and docks.

Peas and beans dry well and can be stored. They could also be ground into meal and flour, and added to pottages. Root vegetables, such as turnip, parsnip, onion, carrot, skirret, and rape. Endives, greens like nettle, plantain, mallows, and docks were collected

An array of different culinary herbs were grown including: lovage, dill, parsley, cress, horseradish, mint, marjoram, wild caraway, and thyme, onion, garlic, leeks, and chives, chervil, fennel, rosemary, rue, sage, and savory. Coriander was imported from the Mediterranean. The Romans had introduced several garden herbs to Britain to suit their palate: alexanders, borage, chervil, coriander, dill, fennel, garden mint, thyme, shallot, hyssop, parsley, rosemary, rue, sage, savory, and sweet marjoram. Vinegar and mustard were popular as flavourings, as well as hops, sweet gale and bog myrtle, which were also used to flavour ale. Imported spices included cumin, pepper, saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cloves, grains of paradise, ginger, cardamom, aniseed, and bay leaves. Spices would have been expensive. and not for the majority of people. By far, the most important 'spice' used by these early peoples was salt. Anyone could extract salt from seawater, and the Scandinavian countries were well situated for that. But the preferred salt was rock salt, and was imported.

Yarrow,chamomile, hops, henbane, sweet gale, bog myrtle, sorrel, nightshade, mint, horehound, heather, sedge, mustard, and clover. The traditional sweetener was honey, sugar was not really known till the 14th century.

Fruit & Nuts: Apples, pears, plums, crabapple, cherries, quinces, and medlars, woodland strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, bilberries, elderberries, dewberries, and serviceberries, crowberries, rowanberries, bearberries, and lingonberries, cloudberries, cranberries, hazelnut, walnuts, almonds, chestnuts, beechnuts, mushrooms.

Fruit and berries also gave sweetness to the dishes, and provided an important nutritional supplement. Dried, they could be stored throughout the year. The only native wild nut for the Norse was the hazelnut, collected in all areas of Scandinavia, while walnuts were imported. There is mention of the use of almonds and chestnuts, which like walnuts, had to be imported. Hazel, beechnuts, mushrooms

Drink consisted primarily of fermented beverages; usually ale, but also mead, and more occasionally, the strong and sweet bjorr, although milk products and plain water were also consumed. The wealthy, on the other hand, could also afford to drink wine, which was of course, imported in limited quantities.

Period Food Blog 1

I’m sitting down to think up another page for my baby website, and thought maybe I’d use it for an internal conversation I keep having with myself. Maybe if I put it down in words somewhere it would make more sense.

And as I write it down over there, I’m wondering if it’s almost too changeable for a web page. Or maybe it’s that it’s changing so fast in my head, the conversation, that I’m not getting a chance to actually write it down before my mind’s gone elsewhere.

So, I thought, maybe if I try out a quick moment of the conversation here, and see if I can figure out how to say it on the web page….

What it all has to do with is me, and period food. I have a huge interest in period food. All sorts of periods and cultures. With later periods, there is more information out there to find. With early cultures it ends up being shaped by WHAT they had to eat and HOW they could cook it. And then there’s a certain factor of who WE are that binds it all together, and colours it. Either in how we evaluate what we can figure out, or in what we do with the information. And especially, in how we interpret the information.

So, the conversation I’d love to have with someone, is to take a look at thing I keep finding, peoples’ menu choices or recipes, and wonder why they’ve made those decisions, and whether I’d do the same, or what I might do instead, and why.

This is an idea which gets triggered on a fairly regular basis, but this time in particular, it was because I started to look up something else entirely, and then ended up on the Viking Answer Lady page, and visited again, the information she has up there on Norse food. The basic info is just that, basic info. It looks pretty decent based on my quick scan. (I know she’s been updating a lot of her articles, and I should probably have a better look….)

But she does have a little article on recipes. And that’s what set off my current need for a conversation.

Green Soup

This recipe comes from Vikingars Gästabud (The Viking Feast), and is for four servings.
Clean and rinse the fresh spinach or thaw the frozen. Rinse the leek and slice thinly. Bring the bouillon to a boil and add the spinach and leek. Let boil for 5 minutes. Add the parsley and boil together a few more minutes. Season with salt, pepper, and ginger.

Whisk the yolks with the cream in the bottom of a soup tureen. Pour in the soup while whisking briskly. Grate some nutmeg over the soup and serve it with a good bread.

Now this is a recipe that makes me want to have a conversation! Admittedly, I don’t know anything about the book she’s quoting the recipe from. But still, the fact that she’s even quoting the recipe gives it a sense of credibility. And then my inquiring mind starts to inquire….

Green soup. As a concept, I don’t have a problem with this. It makes perfect sense that in a somewhat marginal agricultural world, when there are things growing, that’s the time to use them. Just as I’m currently planning on my first foray for wild leeks, and planning how many ways I can use them! 

I’d have to go away and look up my notes on greens….I can’t recall if spinach is the most appropriate green, but then again, it may be one of the more available greens to US, in the here and now. Tell you what, let’s just open that endlessly revising article and check….

Hmmmm…, I don’t see that I ever saw mention of spinach.

*Leaf vegetables, such as cabbage, leeks, and kale were cultivated, while others, nettles, orache, and cress, were collected from the wild Endives have been found at Svenborg on the isle of Funen. In Jorvik and Britain, greens like nettle, plantain, mallows, and docks were collected. In Denmark, at Ribe and Viborg, seed remains of turnips, plantains, orache, nettles, cresses, docks, and cabbage were cultivated and collected. At Gene, seed remains for nettles and peas were the only specific vegetables identified

An array of different culinary herbs were grown, including lovage, dill, parsley, cress, horseradish, mint, marjoram, wild caraway, and thyme. Onion, garlic, leeks, and chives were added to dishes for their aromatic qualities. Other herbs known to be available to the Vikings were chervil, fennel, rosemary, rue, sage, and savory. Archaeological evidence from Dublin includes wild celery, watercresses, wild carrot, cabbages, mustards and turnips, fennel, radishes, and hedge mustard. From the Mediterranean was imported coriander. Many other herbs or weeds were available but the extent of which they were used by the Vikings is not known. 

A vast number of herbs and weeds were identified at Ribe and Viborg, some of the more commonly known herbs were yarrow, chamomile, hops, henbane, sweet gale, bog myrtle, sorrel, nightshade, mint, horehound, heather, sedge, mustard, and clover.*

Nope, no spinach. Kale, now. That would be a lovely choice for an ingredient, but so far it’s not something I can buy locally. Drat.

So rather than a recipe that used only spinach, even if spinach were my most easily available green, and I was wanting to make this soup, I still think I’d try to ‘up’ the more likely authenticity quotient by incorporating some other greens.

“The white part of a leek”. Now why the white part? If you have a perfectly good leek, why would you only use the white part, especially if you’re making a green soup? I’m often perplexed in recipe redactions by things like this. Yes, the green part might be a bit tougher, but this is a soup, so it’s going to cook to tenderness. Of course, according to the recipe, we’re only cooking for five minutes. Which starts to seem a pointless endeavour. For five minutes of cooking we’re going to chop some firewood, build a fire, dirty our one pot?

Now a quick soup I can understand. One that doesn’t have to simmer for hours. But you want it to have some time to actually flavour the broth anyway. So I imagine chopping up some onions and leeks and putting them in the water while I the turn to gathering and/or cleaning my greens and getting them ready for the pot.

“Good bouillon”? As in it’s a soup which uses stock? Okay, then really it’s a longer soup. Because I tossed in some bones from which we’d cut the meat we’re either cooking up later, or salting or smoking or something. Anyway, I’ve had to make the stock. And I just toss the leeks in as a first stage. And I’ll only add the greens towards the end, so they don’t cook to mush.

I understand pepper for seasoning. (So does Ragnarr as a matter of fact!) Ginger I’d be less sure of. Ginger could be an imported spice, in which case, expensive, and probably not thrown into soups. Wild ginger might be a possibility. I have to explore its use and properties more. I’ve planted an experimental wild ginger in my woodland garden. I have yet to see if it comes back. But when I go “leeking”, I can look for more, and explore it as a spice. My gut instinct is that it might be used as a root vegetable then, or the way we use chopped ginger root today, though I have no idea how sharp its flavour is. Be interesting to find out!

Of course, now we come to the egg yolks and cream and nutmeg. That sounds far more “late medieval” to me. I’m fairly certain that the Norse didn’t know about nutmeg. Nope. Didn’t really make an appearance till the later middle ages. And the egg and cream part (what did they do with egg whites? Why would you separate an egg?) seem more like some kind of posset for an invalid. I could see adding eggs as a thickener, perhaps, but the eggs and cream just seem like this is probably a better recipe for a later medieval feast table.

Though it does pose some questions. I can either assume that its choice for the article on Norse food was a bit of an ‘oops’, and I can even ask Gunnvor about that, or maybe there’s support for the recipe if I dig around a bit longer. Or maybe it’s a translation of a redaction of a translation…. And somewhere along the way it just morphed. Or it’s Norse, but from a later period. The Norse did exist after the Viking Age!

But you see how these questions just get into my head and swirl around, and I really need someone to have the conversation with….

Anyway, maybe this is a sample of something I need to do on the baby web page.

Period Food Blog 2

Actually, since a question just came up on the SCA-Authentic Cooks list about a book I have, it’s sparked another flurry of thought about period cooking.

The book in question was Mary Savelli’s Tastes of Anglo-Saxon England.

Part of my disappointment with it is my own fault. I foolishly, and without any possible reason, allowed myself to hope that it would be, could be a resource for early period cookery the way Le Menagier de Paris or Le Viandier de Taillevant are for later periods.

I was even willing to accept a conjectural approach if I could see the roots for the result, the way you can in books like Pleyn Delit, where the period recipe is given alongside the redacted one suggested by the authors.

However, I feel that instead we’ve ended up with a publication that appears to owe much to conjecture, little to archaeological evidence, or even logic, and is clothed with the perception of being the word on Anglo Saxon food.

I did a workshop with Mary Savelli a few years ago and got far more of the subtext from that session, than I did from the book. Apparently it was her publishers who suggested she write a cookbook, because cookbooks sell, and while it wasn’t something she was particularly familiar with, she thought she’d see how she could translate her research into Anglo-Saxon period leechbooks into a cookbook.

But it is the process, from leechbook to her ideas of a recipe that are more interesting and more useful, and unfortunately, are not much included in this publication.

Ever since getting this book though, I’ve had urges to have some real conversations about some of her ideas. Because I know that since she’s based them on period information, even if it was medicinal rather than culinary, I feel there’s value in here. I just can’t think that it’s ‘face value’. And it may be that more could come from some discussion and debate than from even just reading or discarding the recipes.

But, living rurally, and not being tied in anymore to a network of like-minded people for pursuing these discussions, or because the people who might want to participate in the chat, aren’t as accessible by email these days, I thought I’d just have that little discussion out loud, in here by myself. (Yes, signs of insanity, I'm sure…)

Though if anyone of my audience of two or three or accidental wanderers-by want to rebut, or offer additional thoughts, feel free.

Let’s pick one to start with. In fact, let’s start with the one she talked about in her workshop:

“Wyrtig Briw (Vegetable Soup)”

[If nothing else, knowing if these would really be the names of such things, and whether that’s just straight translation into Old English of whatever dialect, would be nice to know. Having names, even the simplest of words to describe foods, in the tongue of the day, is great.]

 Anthimus tells us “barley soup is, as anyone knows who can make it, good for healthy people and those suffering from fever.” This soup is based on a brew for lung disease, calling for sweet-flag, radish, carrot and barley meal. Cress is added to take the place of one of the other leafy herbs in the original, lesser celedine, as it has a similar texture and was also used by the Anglo-Saxons.
  1. Soak the barley in 2 cups of water for four hours. Drain out the water and put the barley in a large saucepan. Add the broth and bring the water to a boil. Cover the pan with a lid; simmer for 45 minutes.
  2. Sauté the radishes in oil in a frying pan. Add the radishes, cress, carrots and seasoning to the barley.
  3. Return the soup to a boil then reduce the heat. Cover the pan with a lid; let the soup simmer for 10 minutes or until the barley is tender.

So…. That’s her recipe. At the very least it fills me with questions. In another kind of culinary book, where there was an inclusion of an extant receipt, this would be the author’s redaction. I would be able to look back and forth and compare the two, see where the author had made changes, and either be told, or try to intuit, why, and make a decision about the differences, and the suggestions of process.

Because there isn’t an actual Anglo Saxon recipe to compare against, the mind has to go in a lot more circles. (Well, my mind does!)

Anthimus tells us about barley soup. Well, there. That’s a good start.

[Anthimus. De obseruatione ciborum (On the Observance of Food) Translated and edited by Mark Grant. Totnes, Devonshire: Prospect Books, 1996.]

Now her bibliography doesn’t give me a clue about exactly when this is from. Oh, drat. Turns out he’s a sixth century Byzantine Greek, and his treatise on food reflects Byzantine and Frankish tastes. Durn. I was hoping it was one of the Anglo-Saxon writers. This changes it a bit. I was thinking we at least had proof that Anglo-Saxons ate barley soup, right from a local period source. Oh well… Let’s steam along.

If nothing else, soups are likely. They had pots. We have archaeological evidence. They had barley. Barley needs cooking to soften it. So barley soup isn’t a real stretch.

Her “brew for lung disease” is from Bald’s Leechbook, and unfortunately, try as I might, I can’t pin down a real date on this. However, there are mentions of it in the context of Anglo-Saxon leechbooks and health handbooks, so that’s hopeful.

And mind you, while what is considered medicine may not necessarily be considered food, it at least tells us some items they had access to. And certainly radish, carrot and barley also do duty as foodstuffs.

I haven’t been able to track down too much info about either ‘sweet-flag’ or ‘lesser celedine’. At least, under those names. Sweet-flag might be Acorus calamus, or Calamus Root, and while I can find a tiny bit of medicinal info about that, it wasn’t much, and only one reference that suggested it as a febrifuge. But since that might be a strictly medicinal plant, I wasn’t too worried. I did find mention of its use as a substitute for cinnamon or ginger. And I also have a vague memory that Mary Savelli said that was why she had included cinnamon in the recipe.

Mind you, if it was more a medicinal herb than a culinary one, that might be an interesting choice to make, but maybe not the most logical.

Lesser Celedine might be Chelidonium minus, which is the same as Lesser Celandine. I did find some mention that in Sweden it was used as a salad herb, but the reviews of its taste weren’t too glowing. Again, perhaps the lesser celedine is a medicinal herb rather than a potherb, but I see no reason to not assume that any potherbs in common use might not be possible for this recipe. Cress is as likely as any other.

I wonder about the suggestion to soak the barley. Yes, this would soften it and shorten the cooking time, but my experience in cooking over a fire in a cauldron, is that it’s a ‘leisurely’ process anyway. It would be just as simple to add the barley dry, early on in the making. However, in a redaction for use in a modern kitchen, perhaps it makes sense.

Likewise, maybe, the substitution of vegetable broth, for a flavour base that would develop naturally in the cooking process. Now, I have to wonder what would make a likely combination of ingredients for that base. Since, even in my modern kitchen, I’d be more likely to make this soup that way.

Onions? I’d imagine some form of onions. Maybe wild leeks, wild garlic. Perhaps charnock or wild mustard, dill, wild celery, or sorrel. And nettles, perhaps.

She suggests sautéing the radishes in oil in a pan. My instincts, based on cooking with period implements, suggest that if something like this were really done, it would only be in the kitchens of the rich, best outfitted with all the “mod cons”!

If cooking over a small firepit in the floor of a simple house, then a cauldron hanging from the rafters is a likely object. Using a smaller pan or griddle, just to sauté some radishes to then include in soup, seems a waste of activity. And a metal pan would have been a luxury item if the common household already contained a metal cauldron (hweras or an cetel). Such a pan is more likely to have been used for bread or fried dishes.

I imagine it would be more likely that the carrots and radishes would simply be added as the vegetable broth was developing, to further enhance the flavour. And any tender greens added closer to the end.

But even that may be a modern perception. It’s very hard to turn off all one’s personal sensibilities, or to know if or when you’ve succeeded!

I find that one of the most helpful things in giving me a better sense of how an early culture might have cooked, is to work with their technology. That gives me more of an understanding of what is easy, what makes sense, what is practical, and what, farfetched. And then, if I’m drawing from a more appropriate list of ingredients, there is more chance that my final product may have a better chance of being something that wouldn’t be entirely unrecognizable in period.

So, this recipe from Savelli’s book may not be as improbable as others; representing more, perhaps, the approach that might be taken in a modern kitchen to produce a period-like dish. For myself, it led me to sit down and thumb through a handful of reference books to answer (or try to answer) some questions that it raised.

Though I still keep hoping that someday someone unearths and translates some lovely volume of early period cookery!

      Updated: 4 Dec, 2007
Text © Vandy Simpson, 2006
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