When researching I find it helpful to have some touchstones to come back to in order to avoid too much speculation. When doing this sort of research, some speculation is required. These are my touchstones for a regional cuisine:
- Waste not, want not. Waste is bad.
- Tradition is slow to change.
- Knowing something is incorrect is more important than being right.
- People are fundamentally lazy and will complete a task in the most efficient manner unless this is impacted by social constraints.
I started my research with a year of just reading archaeological papers from the sites. Gathering known ingredients, tools discovered, housing, read the Icelandic Sagas, and actively avoiding any analysis as to what this means so as to avoid the ‘it is known’ trap. Just gathered as much raw information as I could to have a picture of the time and place. I chose the period from roughly 650-850 and specifically Scandinavia to try to reign in the variables.
After this I put my experience as a professional chef and years of farm work to use and started processing food. Rolling a kitchen using these tools and ingredients. Started with making butter, skyr, and whey and then the logical progression of what these ingredient turned into. Use of by product from one day for ingredients the next. Adding in known ingredients and keeping in mind seasonal variances. Experimenting to with implements that seem poorly designed for a task to find what tasks they are perfect for. Then started reading and communicating with other’s about their analysis on the subject.
I hope this will further the conversation on this fascinating subject. There is constantly new information, we can be constantly less wrong, and it is never boring.
When working out a cuisine the physical tools used in the society play a large role in what is possible and give excellent insight into what is important. I break these down into categories for ease of use.
These are things like the pots, cauldrons, and pans made of iron. The hearth and the flat baking stones around it. Soapstone pots make for a very different cooking experience. There are spits and long two pronged forks, spoons, ladles, and strainers. Chains and hooks to hold the pots.
As important as what has been found is what has NOT. Ovens are rare, later in the period, and only in larger settlement. Pans and grills are small. There are no known spit racks that I know of. These are all clues to how things are prepared.
The dishware and eating utensils provide many clues into the cuisine. What people eat greatly influences what they eat with and on.
Wooden plates and bowls are fairly common. A more squared food trough appears to be the most common. Clay, wooden, and horn drinking vessels were most common with imported glass being used by the most conspicuously wealthy.
Food was mostly eaten with spoon, knife, and fingers. Physical evidence is common for the first two and the scant written records refer to washing which strongly alludes to the latter.
How ingredients are stored provides much insight into what ingredients were used, how they were modified, and at what time of year they would be available. Vats, barrels, bags have all been found in whole or in parts. Clay does not seem to have been used as much and the majority of finds appear to be from imported goods, especially wine.
Housing and Structures
The place that one lives affects ones relationship and options for food. There are many structural remains that can be looked at. Barns with evidence on animal husbandry, homes with hearth and high rafters. The largest longhouse in Iceland dates to before permanent occupation hinting at its purpose being primarily for processing of raw materials gathered and storage of rather than as living quarters.
Looking at the tools available provides the most likely techniques to be used for preparing food. When using the tools if they seem awkward or ill suited to a task, then that task is probably not for them or we are doing it wrong. Some tools may be combined and from use, some techniques that are less in use today become obvious.
Boiling or simmering
This appears to be the most common technique used. The dominance of pots and cauldrons strongly support this. It is also one of the most common cooking techniques throughout the world.
This is different than what is modernly considered baking or roasting. This was done on flat stones near the hearth and was probably reserved for flat breads.
Lacto-fermentation of vegetables appears to be common. There is also evidence of pickling of meats and other foods in acidic whey. Sites where fish were fermented in pits have also been found.
This is where I am more on my own. The combination of pot chains, cauldrons, and the types of spits and pans that have been found are perfect for this. The main cooking is simmering to preserve the fats and broth, with the finish being done quickly on the spit or small pan.
There are many types of social pressures that will impact the cuisine of a culture. This is true world wide and needs to be taken into account when recreating a cuisine.
Scandinavian society had a strong feast culture. Food and hospitality was used to garner favor, celebrate achievement, and garner the favor of gods. Foods for feasts would be considerably different than day to day fare.
Food traditions exist everywhere in the world. What people eat when growing up tends to be what they want to eat in adulthood and what they will feed their children. Traditions can change, but this is a very slow process unless there is a cataclysmic event. No such event is evident during the Viking Age in Scandinavia. The food probably stayed fairly consistent for centuries.
This is the opposite of tradition. There are things that a society just does not do. Not because they can’t or should not, but because it is not done. The best example of this in Scandinavia during the Viking Age is shellfish. Shellfish leave a lot of residue. There is only one find of shells in Denmark during the period. A Taboo is the most likely explanation for this. There is also little evidence of mushroom use although they leave less evidence.
The primary factor for what people eat is the climate and land where they live. Nothing has a greater impact. This very true for Scandinavia. Surrounded by ocean with long winters, forests, and high mountains. This causes regional changes within Scandinavia.
Southern Sweden and Denmark have a more mild climate. Summers are consistently warm enough to grow rye and, often wheat. Large forest covered the inland areas and the ocean was rich with fish.
Norway and northern Sweden had a harsher climate. Summers were short and barley was the only reliable cereal crop. Fisheries were robust. Northern Norway also shows a strong hunting culture based off of whaling, seals, walruses and other sea mammals.
Climate effects the storage methods available and storage methods effect your ingredients and flavor profile. In a large swath the climate is perfect for air drying fish and meats. Winters were cold, but this aids in long term storage of root vegetables and grain. Winter would be a time of plenty with more time to concentrate on more complex dishes.
The raw materials for what can be made is the most important aspect when working on a regional cuisine. These are the building blocks that everything is created from. This is a shortened summary in order of probable importance by category.
Cow, sheep, and goat milk played a pivotal role in the life and diet of the early Scandinavian people. Milk appears to be more of a raw ingredient than a finished one and was made into a number of products for use and trade. Milk would be stored in large vats or barrels until the cream rose and was skimmed to make butter. The remaining milk would continue to ferment into skyr which would either be drunk or strained. There is evidence the whey was used as an acid for preserving meats. Butter hoards have been found alluding to the value of the butter.
The people grew mainly rye and barley. To a lesser degree oats and, in the southern areas, wheat. Rye has a short growth cycle, barley even shorter. There is also a lot of pollen from knot grass that has been found. It is unknown whether this was grown on purpose or was a wild harvest item. Knot grass is very similar to buckwheat and the volume of pollen does suggest it was grown on purpose.
Grains would have predominantly been made into porridge. Some would have also been ground into flour, but they used hand querns which suggests this was not a cultural priority. Barley was especially important for the making of beer. The rise of rye production correlating with the decline in naked barley while hulled barley remained consistent suggest that much of the hulled barley was used for beer while the rye and naked barley was eaten.
There is evidence that most homes and farmsteads had a vegetable garden next to the home. This would have been where they grew cabbage, or at least the predecessor to cabbages, turnips, beets, broad beans, and some form of alliums. We are not sure what alliums as they do not survive well. Two bulb onions have been found, ramsons/wild garlic is native, and leeks showed up at some unknown point.
The early Scandinavian farmers raised a number of livestock and they almost all server multiple purposes. Sheep provided wool and meat, goats and cattle milk and meat. Pigs were useful in the conversion of waste to meat. They also raised ducks, geese, and chickens for meat, eggs, and pest control.
Fishing was probably even more important to the early Scandinavian diet than agriculture. Analysis has shown people living near the ocean getting around 40% of their caloric intake from seafood. Enough to throw off radiocarbon dating.
Herring, cod, flatfish, and salmon were common. Often simply dried on stocks for storage. Marine mammals were also hunted for their meat, hides, and ivory.
There is a plethora of native berries in Scandinavia. Lingonberries, strawberries, raspberries, cloudberries and others. These were probably not cultivated but the areas that they grew were probably maintained to encourage production. Little is known about preservation but drying and, in the case of lingonberries, freezing in water was probably used.
Tree Fruits and Nuts
It appears that orchards were not planted. There are no finds at least. It would appear that they were more naturally created by logging the non-fruit or nut bearing trees. Cherries, plums, and apples were gathered. Hazel nuts, walnuts, and acorns were gathered as well. Fruit was probably dried for storage.
There is a lot of pollen and some seed finds that suggest wild greens were gathered during the spring and summer. Goosefoot, catsear,sea beets, and sea beans are all common in the area.
Putting It All Together: Cod Gröt
This dish has all of the characteristics of cuisine defining staple. It is hearty, easy enough to make every day, pulls in many of the elements that define the cuisine, and has thousands of possible variants to make the debate over which is best sustainable over generations. This is a spring variant that would be probable on the west coast of southern Sweden. I will go over the recipe and then the reasoning.
½c Rye berries
½c Naked or pearled barley
¼c oats, whole or steel cut
4c skyr whey, fresh
1/2c sea water (½c water with 1t salt)
1c sour cream
2lb fresh cod, diced
4c mustard greens, chopped (can use kale or cabbage or wild greens)
1c garlic green chopped (can sub chives or green onions)
Add whey, salt water, and rye berries (also barley unless it is pearled) to your pot.
Bring to a boil covered. Stir occasionally.
Once boiling add the pearled barley, oats, garlic and greens.
Bring back to a boil, stir, and then put on a lid. Move it up the pot chain or turn heat to low.
Let simmer for 45 minutes. Use this time to go about your morning.
After 45 minutes stir. It should be fairly thick. Stir in the cod and replace the lid for 5 minutes.
Finally stir in the sour cream and serve with a dollop of butter if you like or a dollop of lard for those you like less.
A hefty dollop of skyr on top will add to the protein and makes a really satisfying meal.
720cal – 67g Carbs – 25g Fat – 58g Protein
Flat breads with herbed skyr and herring
This is a spring dish. We are using the diminishing store of grains and I am using a mix that corresponds with pollen records of the time and place for what was grown. The oats are a stretch, but really do amazing things for the mouth feel. Dairy is in full swing and we will have an abundance of skyr whey and skyr. Souring cream that has not yet been churned would also be readily available. Ocean fishing for cod, haddock, and herring would have started. I chose cod for availability. Spring greens will be growing. The mustard adds some flavor but any greens will do. The ramsons will also be up and the greens ready t harvest even if the bulbs are under developed. You can add status to the dish by serving with butter instead of lard or other fats that appear to be less desirable. The sea water is used as I am unaware of dry salt works in the area at his time and sea water was plentiful.
We are cooking this in the simplest way. In a pot or cauldron hanging over a fire. It has the added benefit of being able to be held at the ready for a long period of time before adding the cod just before serving. This makes it convenient for larger gatherings or households. The tools for eating are a bowl and spoon. All of the equipment for making this would be very common both in a household and a traveling kit.
Most importantly, this is delicious, nutritious, and simple to make. It has the flavor profile of sour/salty. Also the gröt is thick enough that it is unlikely to spill and is an easy clean up.
Any fish can be used. When using herring, I recommend filleting, peeling, and then soaking in whey overnight to soften the small bones. In the late spring/summer salmon would be abundant. In the winter you would use pickled herring or pounded and soaked stock fish.
Grains will vary by region and what is available. The ratio of just over 4 to 1 liquid to grain is the important part for a good gröt.
In the summer you will end up with a lot more vegetables and less grain. Just enough to hold it together with broad beans, cabbage, beets, celery, and other available vegetables filling the bulk. In the winter this will turn to pickled or dried and reconstituted vegetables and the whole will add that umami and funk from fermentation.
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