Norse food has a poor reputation in the SCA for being largely inedible. It’s not anyone’s fault, the Norse were often living in inhospitable climates where food was food and it kept you from starving. This has led to such modern cultural delicacies as smoked sheepshead and the bane of my childhood, Lutefisk. This post will go through my process for developing a lunch menu that was interesting and appetizing while staying as true as possible to what we know of the Norse diet.
In 2020, we are hosting a Perfectly Period Feast in Eskalya focusing on 10th century Denmark. As a fundraiser, I signed up to sell lunches at Summer Coronet (for a start).
- An Early Meal by Daniel Serra and Hanna Tunberg
- The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson
- The Viking Food Guy
- Reenactors Alamannen Kochbuch by Andrea Gräupel and Stefan Müller
- The Ribe Viking Center
- The Viking Ship Museum
- Viking Answer Lady
- Meistara Kaðlin in Stórráða’s Viking Food Page
- Authentic Viking Food (Facebook Group) and related recipe group
- Barrett, J.H., Hall, Allan Richard, Johnstone, C. et al. (3 more authors) (2007) Interpreting the Plant and Animal Remains from Viking-age Kaupang. In: Kaupang in Skiringssal. Kaupang Excavation Project Publication Series . Aarhus University Press , Aarhus , pp. 283-319.
- Viking Dublin: Botanical Evidence from Fishamble Street by Siobhán Geraghty
- Archaeological Finds of Ninth- and Tenth-Century Viking Foodstuffs by Carolyn Priest-Dorman
I developed my menu with a couple thoughts in mind. First, that the meal be appetizing and interesting for people to eat (so that they want to come buy a meal!). Second, that the menu be as authentic as possible, without being so alarming that people don’t spend their money. Third, that the menu be easy enough to prepare on site that I’m not spending all day behind the grill (this includes the ability to prepare things ahead for the same purpose).
Considering a balance of fruit, veg, grains, and protein, I came up with this initial proposal:
- Skyr and fruit (plums, perhaps, or bilberries)
- Grain “salad” (if it’s looking warm) or soup (if it’s looking cold)
- Boiled meatballs with mustard sauce
- Boiled eggs
Proposed Menu Items/Ingredients
Skyr, as it is currently known, is a strained, cultured milk product. In Egil’s Saga, Egil and his men are described as “drukku ákaft skyrið” (drinking the curds eagerly). (See, Chapter 74.) In Grettir’s Saga, skyr is carried in “skyrkylla” (skyr bags) to bring them from one farm to another. One of these skyr bags is thrown at Grettir, whereupon it explodes, covering him in skyr (Grettir varð allur skyrugur*) and kicking off a wrestling match with Audun. (See, Chapter 28.)
The description of skyr as drinkable in Egil’s Saga and the fact that it was able to completely cover Grettir after he got hit with a bag of it, implies that the food product described in these sagas, is more inviscid than modern skyr, perhaps with the consistency of kefir or cultured buttermilk.
In Modernization of Skyr Processing: Icelandic Acid-Curd Soft Cheese by Gudmundur Gudmundsson and Kristberg Kristbergsson, the authors describe two methods of traditional skyr making, “auto-coagulated skyr” made without rennet and “coagulated skyr” made with rennet. Using the auto-coagulated method, a small amount of fresh skyr was placed in the bottom of a large vessel (probably like the huge skyr buckets at the reconstructed farmhouse at Stöng, Iceland), which was then filled with skim milk (the milkfat having been skimmed off to produce butter) and allowed to ferment overnight (or longer). The milk may or may not have been heated during this process.
In the coagulated method, the milk is heated to 90-100 degrees centigrade and then cooled to 40 degrees centigrade, skyr (possibly diluted with water) is added along with rennet, this is allowed to sit in a warm place for around 5 hours, and then cooled to around 18-20 degrees centigrade before sitting for around 18 hours. The whey is then separated from the curd by filtering it through linen cheesecloth. An interesting note, according to figure 5.2 in Gudmundsson and Kristbergsson’s article, skyr filtered through cloth is significantly firmer than commercially produced skyr. Gudmundsson and Kristbergsson also note that modern skyr is likely much less sour than the historical product, which had to have a much longer shelf life.
My initial experiment in skyr-making was using the auto-coagulated method described in An Early Meal, which starts with sour milk and relies on crème fraîche to provide the bacteria, rather than a commercial skyr. The resulting product shows a distinct separation between curds and whey and has a very firm texture (somewhat like slightly too dry cream cheese) and a distinctly sour flavor. It tasted great on bagels but it didn’t match what was described in Egil and Grettir’s sagas.
For experiment #2, I used the “add culture and rennet” method described by the Viking Food Guy. This version came out MUCH RUNNIER and, especially before the whey had been fully drained, was definitely drinkable.
Things didn’t always go great, as seen below.
*Here’s an interesting aside, I was having a devil of a time tracking down the meaning of the suffix ‘-ugr’ that appears at the end of skyr-ugr (rendered skyr-ugur in the Icelandic referenced above). So I did a bit of digging in the Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic and identified the following adjectives that seemed to fit the same pattern:
- Blóðugr, a. bloody. From blóð, meaning blood.
- Duptugr, a. dusty. From dupt, meaning dust.
- Móðugr, a. moody. From móðr, meaning passion, angst.
- Smjörugr, a. greasy. From smjör, meaning butter.
- Svefnugr, a. sleepy. From svefn, meaning sleep.
- Syndugr, a. sinful. From synd, meaning sin.
From this (admittedly small) sample size, I am making the assumption that the -ugr (upon further research, this may actually be -igr, with vowel mutation) suffix has the role of taking a noun and creating an adjective that has the meaning of “covered in the noun” or “permeated with the noun”. Therefore, I would translate skyrug(u)r as covered/permeated with skyr.
This is going on my list as a subject for future research.
Grain Salad or Soup
There is limited archaeological evidence from Iceland for the consumption of unground barley by humans.
For my first experiment, I started with Meistara Kaðlin’s grain “salad” recipe, which consists of grain, skyr, and feta. For grains, I used pearled barley and farrow wheat, not the most historical choices, but they were what I could find in the store the Thursday before the event. I cooked up about a cup of both grains (cooking them in one pot) and then added about a cup of skyr and a half cup of goat cheese. The final dish was surprisingly tasty. I think it could also be really good with no goat cheese but maybe blueberries? I really liked the texture of the grains.
For the final dish I decided to sub goat cheese for blueberries and it was DELICIOUS!!!! However, blueberries are a new world food and that was my naughty for shopping without checking. Nextime, I’m going to try bilberries.
I was relatively surprised at the diversity of fruit finds. According to Priest-Dorman, the following were identified at Hedeby: plum (Prunus domestica L. ssp institia C.K. Schneider), sloe (Prunus spinosa L.), cherries, elderberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries. These might not be appropriate for a winter meal, but for the first experiment with the food for a summer lunch, I went with raspberries and strawberries as I thought they’d complement the skyr. For the final menu, I dropped the fruit because I’d added blueberries to the grain salad.
Meatballs and mustard
In The Swine in Old Nordic Religion and Worldview, Lenka Kovarova suggests that pork was a food consumed largely by the elite of society. However, at Kaupang, pig bones made up 338 of the 655 diagnostic animal remains as compared to 181 cattle remains and 123 caprine (goat and sheep) remains (caveat: the dominance of pigs at Kaupang may be a result of taphonomic bias). These ratios are relatively similar to finds from Birka, Hedeby, Ribe, and Menzlin.
The choice of meatballs rather than pork chunks or similar was down to the cooking method. Boiling was the preferred cooking method for meat in the sagas and I’m not a fan of boiled meat chunk.
My first experiment for this item used commercially ground pork instead of the more medievally-correct chopped pork, leeks, mustard, and eggs as a binder. I used the recipe provided on Meistara Kaðlin’s page.
I was not particularly enamored of test #1, but other people were. Mistress Clare Elena ended up making the meatballs and, because I’m a bad communicator, I didn’t tell her about the eggs. She used pork, leek, mustard, and some salt. These meatballs were delicious!
According to the Ribe Viking Center, mustard was introduced to Denmark in the 8th century. To make my mustard sauce, I followed the Ribe Viking Center’s recommendation and mixed mustard seeds, whey from skyr-making, honey, and salt. I prepared my mustard ahead of time and served it on the day in a dish for people to take scoops out of.
For my first experiment, I used the mustard recipe described by the Ribe Viking Center that combines mustard seeds, whey (from the skyr), honey, and salt. For the second test, I dropped the honey and salt, it was approved.
There is solid linguistic evidence for familiarity with eggs in Viking Age Scandinavia. The Old Norse word, egg, is descended from the Proto-Germanic *ajją, which in turn comes from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *h₂ōwyóm, likely derived from *h₂éwis meaning bird. (The use of an asterisk indicates that the word is re-constructed and not attested to in any sources. Also, the symbol ‘h₂’ indicates the presence of the “a coloring” laryngeal, a sound that was dropped as PIE developed into its daughter languages.) Though it’s worth noting that chickens aren’t the only animals to produce eggs.
Eggs are mentioned in a number of early Frankish Law codes. For example, a “servant of the Church” was expected to provide twenty eggs according to the early 8th century (or earlier) Lex Alamannorum. In the 8th century Lex Baiuvariorum, individuals were explicitly forbidden from taking eggs (or pigs) as a pledge. Additionally, the Lex Baiuvariorum required fifteen eggs from a farmer working on the Church’s land. In the 9th century capitularies of Louis the Pious and Charles the Bald, eggs were included among the supplies to be given to people traveling on the Emperor’s business.
But what about chicken eggs?
Whether or not the Norse had chickens is an interestingly (amusingly?) heated subject of debate.
In the Völuspá, dating to possibly the 10th century but recorded in the 13th century, gullinkambi (golden comb), Fjalar (hider), and the unnamed Hel Rooster are the three roosters whose crowing signifies the beginning of Ragnarök. Additionally, the story of Hœnsa-Þórir (poultry-Thorir), undated but possibly as late as the 13th century, indicates that at some point, chickens were introduced to Iceland.
Limited archeological finds of chicken bones have been made in the settlement of Kaupang, Norway, from roughly 805 to 850 CE. Of the roughly 27 total bird bones, the most common (nine specimens) were identifiable as chicken. Other identifiable specimens included barnacle goose (two specimens) brent goose (one specimen), shelduck (one specimen), eider duck (one specimen), great black-beaked gull (one specimen), and little auk (one specimen).
In Interpreting the Plant and Animal Remains from Viking-age Kaupang by James Barrett, Allan Hall, Cluny Johnstone, Harry Kenward, Terry O’Connor and Steve Ashby, part of Kaupang in Skiringssal, the authors note that the status of chickens in Viking-age Norway is ambiguous due to the limited number of remains. However they note that hen bones were recovered from a possible Iron Age settlement at Viklem in Trondelag and records of chickens from the Viking age are found in Sweden. They posit that chickens were introduced via trade from Denmark or Sweden.
In her survey of Viking Age foods, Carolyn Priest-Dorman identifies chicken among the finds from Hedeby, Denmark. Likewise, the Ribe Viking Center identifies chickens among the animals raised on the manor farm. Finally, the Viking Answer Lady identifies chickens among the foods consumed by the Norse.
Finally, the southern neighbors of the Danes definitely had chickens, as they are mentioned repeatedly in the Frankish legal codes.
Therefore, I think it’s reasonable to assume that a 10th century Dane would have had access to chicken eggs.
I have no evidence that eggs were boiled as food in 10th century Denmark. I know from Apicius that the Romans ate boiled eggs. Considering the Frankish examples above, it’s hard for me to believe that the Franks weren’t boiling their eggs as a traveling staple (possibly a Roman introduction). Therefore, I postulate that it is reasonable to assume that, if they had access to excess eggs, the Scandinavians of 10th century Denmark may have emulated their southern neighbors and boiled eggs for food.
Something with ACTUAL ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE, say it ain’t so! According to Ann-Marie Hansson’s Bread in Birka and on Bjorko (see link above), approximately 64 loaves or pieces of bread were found in 48 of the cremation graves in Birka and on Bjorko. Of the loaves found that were classifiable, 25 were small circular loaves** less than 5 cm in diameter, four were circular loaves between 5 and 10 cm in diameter, and two were circular loaves more than 10 cm in diameter. Additionally, there were five ovoid loaves, three possibly rectangular loaves, five loaves that could be circular or ovoid, and one piece that was interpreted as a figure eight. Hansson notes that at least one loaf, found in Bj 1148A could have been baked in a turnable iron pan, such as the pans found in archaeological contexts in Iron Age Sweden and, more commonly, Norway. Hanson also notes that the bread could have been leavened, as the structure is slightly porous.
Out of 33 loaves, Hansson identifies barley as the most common ingredient, followed by oats, wheat, spelt wheat, flax, peas, vetches, and rye. However, Hansson notes that the majority of flour used contained two ingredients (followed by flour of one ingredient then flour of three ingredients). Having done a chemical analysis to identify protein content and trace elements in the bread from Ormknos A and B (both cemeteries located on Bjorko), Hansson states that there is no apparent inmixing of ingredients of animal origin and that it is not fermented.
A final note of interest on the Birka Bread. At least fifteen of the loaves are threaded on metal wire (which Hansson persists in calling “metal string”). Hansson postulates that this could indicate that the bread holds a ceremonial purpose or alternatively, that the bread was baked part of the way and then dried and that the metal wire allows the bread to be hung up for the drying process.
AN IMPORTANT CAVEAT ON THE BIRKA BREAD (AND ALL GRAVE GOODS): WHAT PEOPLE BURY WITH THEIR DEAD, DOES NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT WHAT THEY KEPT FOR THEMSELVES.
For my first experiment with flatbread, I used the recipe in An Early Meal (barley flour and pea mush) flavored with a bit of honey. It was surprisingly tasty (and the dough survived refrigeration, so I left this recipe alone
** A note, as far as I can tell, all the “circular loaves” were flattened by smushing.
Final Menu and Recipes
- Skyr, I used the recipe and directions on the viking food guy’s page.
- 1 gallon of milk
- 8-10 drops of vegetable rennet
- 3-5 Tbsp prepared skyr
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, slowly heat the milk to approximately 185 degrees Fahrenheit. Hold it at that temp for about 10 minutes and then let it cool to approximately 105 degrees F. Add the starter culture (prepared skyr mixed with some milk from the pot) and then the rennet. Bundle everything up so it stays warm and then let it sit for 6-8 hours. It should set firmly so that the edges pull away from the sides of your pot. spoon the curds into butter linen and then hang to drain overnight (or for a day while you’re at work).
- Grain “salad” (if it’s looking warm) or soup (if it’s looking cold)
- 2 cups of mixed whole grains (pearl barley, farrow wheat, rye, oats, etc.)
- 1 cup of fruit
- 1 cup skyr
Boil grain until al dente. Add fruit and skyr and mix.
- Boiled meatballs with mustard sauce
- 1 lb pork (ground or minced)
- 2-4″ leek
- Ground mustard
- Chicken stock
Combine pork, leek, mustard, and salt. Form into meatballs. Pan fry. Reheat by boiling in chicken stock and ale.
- Barley flour
Soak the peas over night. They will not taste good at this point, but don’t throw them away. Boil the peas until they’re soft enough to mush with your fingers. Strain the peas (but save the water if you remember). In a separate bowl, add a little barley flour at a time to the peas. You’re aiming for a dough that’s a little sticky, but not too sticky, but also not too dry. Add pea water if things dry out too much. Add enough honey that it “looks right”. Pan fry in some kind of fat (bacon fat works well). Serve as quickly as possible.
- Boiled eggs
Prick the ends of the eggs. Put them in a pan. Cover with cold water so that the eggs are at least 1″ underwater. Put over medium heat. When the boiling starts, cover and boil 8-10 minutes. Remove immediately from the heat and put in ice water to cool. Repeat until you have boiled many eggs.