A Viking-Age Experiment – Sailor’s Beans

Again, there are no surviving recipes from 9th-11th century Scandinavia. This is a speculative idea that I wanted to try, and today did. The result was mixed.

The combination is supposed to represent foods that a ship’s crew might have carried as supplies on a longer journey. It’s not “Viking warrior rations”, but the kind of thing that a trading vessel might have had on board to cook when stopping ashore (as was commonplace). I expect the food on a packed longship would have been a good deal worse.

During excavations in Dorestad (Netherlands), bones of Atlantic cod were found in the vicinity of the port, but not in the settlement itself. Cod is not native to the area and must have been brought there by sea, most likely from Norway. Since the bones are concentrated in the port area, it is likely the fish were dried and carried as crew supplies, not trade goods.

Beans – of course fava beans, not New World phaseolus – were a primary crop in the settlement of Elisenhof (Schleswig-Holstein) on the Eider estuary. It has been suggested they were not just grown for the household’s own use, but also to sell to ships’ crews bringing trade goods to be transported across the isthmus to Haithabu on the Baltic side. Elisenhof also provides circumstantial evidence for knäckebröd in the shape of storage racks for the traditional circular loaves with a hole in the centre. It is unlikely bread would have been carried in large quantities, though, since it is vulnerable to water.

Both onions and garlic are known from archeological finds in Scandinavia and later written sources. These foods, too, store well and could easily have been carried on shorter journeys. Finally, there is the question of fat bacon; Later recipe writers repeatedly point out that dried cod needed to be served with plenty of fat, and the pre-Christianisation Norse would not have been bothered by combining meat and fish. I therefore decided to use fat bacon to provide the fat.

And thus a dish was born: I cut the bacon into thin slivers and heated it in the bottom of a heavy pot (to stand in for a metal cauldron that especially when travelling would no doubt have been preferable to pottery). Then, I added choped onions and garlic cloves because I wanted to see if it would make a difference whether I crushed it or not. I have no idea how people at the time ate their garlic, but cooking the cloves whole made no appreciable difference to the flavopur. I am wondering the same about onions and may try cooking them whole to see how they do as a vegetable.

After quickly sautéing the onions and garlic, I added stockfish. This was unsalted dried cod from an African grocery, soaked in cold water for 72 hours. I assume that the fish Norse traders carried to Dorestad would not have been salted like much of the bacalao sold today is because air-drying it works and salt was a precious resource that would not likely have been wasted like that. Finally, I added the dried fava beans, also soaked in advance for 24 hours. Pre-soaking food on shipboard is a well-attested practice later, and I can easily see it as part of the daily routine.

The whole was seasoned sparingly, with salt and dried savory due to its traditional association with beans. I slowly cooked it for about an hour and found it edible, but the beans still unpeasantly firm. After a further 30 minutes, they had cooked through and began falling apart. I ate a portion with knäckebröd.

It was all right. After a day of hard work in a cold and wet environment, this would no doubt have been welcome. The fish was very good, firm, but not hard or leathery, and the fat from the bacon distributed the flavour throughout the liquid. The onions and garlic gave it character, but were not excessive. However, the whole retained a bitter aftertaste – I suspect from the beans – that was a bit unpleasant, and striking the balance between serving it too cool and burning your tongue on the inside of beans was hard.

For a second attempt, I will consider cracking the beans to cook them faster and make them cool more evenly. I may also add grains instead of serving it with bread, giving it more body and firmness. Finally, I think I should try cooking it as a porridge, with liquid in the pot from the start and the bacon fat added at the end. We have some evidence for cooking beans like that from Lombard Italy, and for grain porridge from the Frankish Empire.

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