Speculative Viking Feasting (Part One)

This weekend, I visited some fellow members of the SCA in South Germany for a round of historical cooking. The theme was ‘Vikings’, and since we have no surviving recipes, I decided to go with a number of dishes based speculatively on ingredients and kitchen tools available in tenth- and eleventh-century Denmark, with particular focus on the excavations at Haithabu. This is not a ‘Viking feast’. As far as we know, there was no unitary culinary culture in Early Medieval Scandinavia. What was eaten in Haithabu or Gotland was probably very different from the foods of the Lofoten Islands or the Faeroes. Neither would I consider it likely that these foods – though individually not implausible – would have appeared in this combination. We had a modern party buffet, not a feasting table. That said, it was a really interesting experiment and much of it worked pretty well.

Mutton with barley, beans with leeks, lamb skewers, roasted root vegetables, and rye flabread with butter all on one plate.

Beef roasted with dried fruit

Both apples and plums are so frequently represented in the find material from Haithabu that they must have been common food items. It is unclear whether the plums were domesticated or foraged, but the stones are close enough to modern landraces to suggest the fruit were similar enough. Whether they were preserved by drying is not known, but seems likely.

Beef buried in dried fruit, ready for the oven

Beef was available, as attested by suirviving cattle bones with signs of slaughter. Very likely, the meat would have been preserved as well as cooked fresh. Salting and smoking or air-drying are plausible methods, as is pickling in whey or brine as attested in Iceland at later dates. I had a lovely piece of roasting-grade beef that was probably far too good for the purpose I put it to marinated in whey and then slowly cooked in in an earthenware pot in the oven surrounded by dried apples and plums. At a time when beef was available relatively fresh and in quantity, fruit would likely have been dried, though apples can be stored in cool, dry conditions for months.

It looked burned, but it was not

We added no further condiments other than salt, and the result was quite encouraging. I had to add water on two occasions because the dried apples so thoroughly absorbed the meat juices. They caramelised to the pioint i thought they had burned, but the flavour was quite attractive and the meat came ozt meltingly tender. A much tougher grade of beef – say, a piece of flank or shin – would very likely have come out tender and juicy from this treatment.

Mutton stewed with cabbage and barley

The second main meat dish was a slow-stewed mix of mutton with cabbage and barley. Mutton was very likely the most common meat around Haithabu, and it made an excellent choice for this dish. Though again, the stocking policies of modern shops thwarted my hope of getting a nice piece of tough, stringy, bone-in mutton shoulder and I had to settle for a juicy leg. The same problem beset the grain portion since only hulled barley could be had.

Just before the barley went in

I used an electric crockpot in the hope of adequately simulating the slow stewing in thick pottery or soapstone vessels. First, the meat went in with the cabbage, a generous gloop of water, and some salt. After several hours, I added more water, a handful of garden herbs (parsley, onion greens and coriander are all attested archeologically, though it is of course speculation that they were used in the kitchen). The whole turned out excellent and would likely have been even better with the stronger flavour of old mutton and the unctuousness of lots of collagen boiled out of sinews and cartilage.

Rich, tender meat nestled in soft grains

Rye flatbread

We do not know that bread ever played as important a role in Scandinavian cooking as it did further south, but we have found storage racks for flatbreads at Elisenhof, a farmstead on the Eider river opposite Haithabu on the Jylland peninsula. Rye is found in both Haithabu and Elisenhof, most likely used in bread baking because that is what it works best for.

I made a sticky and stiff dough from Type 1150 rye flour with sourdough starter and some salt, let it rise for several hours, and finally cooked it in a pan. This may have been the function of a number of flat, long-handled iron pans found in several graves around Scandinavia, though again this is speculative. Thermal mass bread ovens and the requisite tools were found at both Haithabu and Elisenhof, but this time, I opted for the pan method. It worked, and the resulting flatbreads were soft and aromatic. They might have made satifactory biscuits sliced through the middle and dried if any had survived the evening, but served with fresh butter, they were easily the most popular item on the table.

That is it for today. More tomorrow.

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