Speculative Viking Feasting (Part Two)

Part two of our speculative Viking party food. As I stated in part one: 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.

Grilled Lamb Skewers

Cooking food on skewers is at least plausible in the broad time period. We have occasional finds of what may be metal skewers, but need not place very much weight on their interpretation alone. We know that Charlemagne – obviously not a Viking, but not too far distant in time and place – preferred roast meats to boiled against the advice of his physicians, and that hunters were charged with preparing them at his court. That suggests the scale was manageable and the requisite skill relatively common. The Bayeux Tapestry includes a cooking scene that also seems to show meat served on skewers. Of course it is possible that this is a Frankish habit and distinctly not a Scandinavian one. The meat of the sagas is mainly boiled. However, I still included it because I think Carolingian influences would have been felt in Scandinavia and because it looks like a convincing thing to do.

This treatment calls for fresh, roasting-grade meat that would make it an occasional treat even for people who regularly ate meat. I used leg of lamb, cubed and alternated with slices of onion for flavouring (onions are archeologically attested since the sixth century and referenced as food in icelandic sagas, though only in specific military contexts). The skewers were basted with lard, salted lightly, and flavoured with thyme and rosemary (both are attested archeologically and go well with lamb, but of course we have no evidence they were used that way). Cooked at a relatively gentle 180°C in the oven (we did not wheel out the grill because the forecast predicted rain that did not materialise), the meat turned out tender and juicy. I would think interspersing meat with bacon or fatback and chunks of garlic would make a tasty and plausible augmentation here. The bacon technique is used for venison in a medieval German recipe, for what that is worth.

Barley Pudding in a Sheep’s Stomach

This was the most audacious experiment of the day, made possible by a friendly neighbourhood halal butcher actually having stomach for sale. Transporting it in a suitcase wrapped in several layers of freezer bags, cleaning off the internal lining, scraping with wooden spatulas and finally figuring out how to close it up with an upholstery needle were memorable learning experiences.

The filling was cracked barley (again, hulled and polished grains since that was all we could get) mixed with chopped onions and the offcuts of fat from the lamb that had gone on the skewers. It proved a winning combination in principle, though a stronger flavouring than onions and salt would have made it better. I am thinking thyme, or garlic, or maybe mustardseed. The pudding was slowly cooked in salt water for six hours and the result was acceptable. If I have the chance to do this again, I will try to either fill the stomach less full or add something that sweats out liquids (fresh mushrooms might work admirably for this). The grains were edible, but still very discrete and firm with none of the gelatinous softness barley can produce. I think that can be improved.

Fair warning: No matter how well you clean a sheep’s stomach, it will smell unpleasant for the first hour or so of cooking.

Sauces: Horseradish and Herb-Hazelnut

These are purely speculative. We have no idea whether people ate sauces in Viking-age Scandinavia at all, let alone what kind. But of course the Romans used dipping sauces, very likely the Franks did, and later on, buth serving and dipping sauces are part of Western European cuisine, so it is not implausible, either. I planned three kinds of sauce.

First, a big piece of horseradish was grated and pureed. Horseradish is attested through pollen and seeds, and its use in cooking reasonably plausible in a culture that appreciated onions and garlic. The resulting mash – with a little water added for consistency – made a working sauce all on its own, though it was eye-wateringly sharp. I made two batches of sauce from it, one with just a pinch of salt and some honey for a sweet-sharp balance, the other cut with lard and hazelnuts to make it milder. Both worked, neither was a spectacular success. I preferred the honey version.

The second sauce was made from a puree of green onions and herbs (thyme, parsley, marjoram, coriander and dill, all attested, though in retrostect very much a modern combination). This is reminiscent of later ‘green sauces’ from the West European tradition and thus a semi-plausible back projection of the practice. I processed the herbs with vinegar and thickened the sauce with hazelnuts, then added a bit of salt. It was good, but not extraordinarily so. I am not convinced this was ever actually done though – it seems a lot of trouble for relatively little gain in a culture that always privileged drink over food in its culinary hierarchies.

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