bread – tastes

June 20, 2012

Another elusive part of the bread are the potential spices and herbs that could have been used to influence the taste of the bread. The finds from the period are fairly limited in this aspect and are more or less limited to flaxseeds, seeds of camelina and some additions of pulses to the flour. But as noted by Liselotte Bergström it is more or less impossible to identify minute additions of some herbs or seeds added for flavour. In traditional breads, both herbs and exotic spices has been used to flavour the bread, (e.g aniseed, fennelseeds, coriander, caraway).

Another strategy in 19th century Sweden to impart flavour to the bread were to store the yeast with some hops which would then impart its fragrance to the bread when it was baked. Although hops would have been rare during the Viking Age, the same strategy could perhaps be done with other herbs.

 

In several breads descriptions of bread from both from traditional and ancient sources, honey is mentioned to be part of the ingredients. According to Bergström this would also have been next to impossible to identify unless the honey was high in waxcontent. However, unless the bread was made for some exclusicve occasion, I would hold it unlikely that honey were used for bakeing in Scandinavia, as it was considered expensive and was imported from England and the Baltic area long into the medieval period.

 

 

The lack of finds from the Viking Age makes it difficult to reach any conclusions to good representative additions, and one would have to look both at what the existing breadfinds can tell as well as the local finds in general. For the Lejre breads I may go in two directions. In the first case I would like to aim for something a bit more festive, but without any added flavours beyond the cereals. In using malt this bread will have a sweet and sour touch to it which might work really well. If I on the other hand go for a more sour bread, most of the taste will be imparted from the sour dough and the use of whey as a baking liquid. However, and without any finds to support this interpretation, I would imagine that the addition of some ramsons to the latter would make the bread really nice and foody without stretching the Viking Age context to far.

Baking liquids

Another basic element in breadmaking is the baking liquid used. The most common liquid would at the time have been, and still is, plain water. Traditionally one can recognize alternatives or additions such as soured milk, milk, whey, buttermilk, wort, beer or even blood. It is however next to impossible to discern such details in the surviving breads. The use of any dairy products or blood would give an increase in the protein content, but the study made by Bergström could not provide any such evidence among the breads she studied. An earlier study may indicate that blood had been used for a breadlike fermented pudding.

Though most baking liquids would have been difficult to prove, Bergström found indications that some of the breads may have contained microorganisms that had originated from the brackish water around Birka. Although unconclusive, it may indicate that slightly salty water had been used for baking.

 

It is difficult to conclude anything about what types of liquid were used, and I guess the only thing I would outright rule out would be the use of sweet milk unless it was for something very high end, as fresh milk more or less would have been something very exclusive. Though I am quite fond of the taste and richness that whey can provide, if I were to use some malt in the bread it would fit better with just some water.

 

 

Salt

Today most breads in Scandinavia would use salt, and an unsalted bread would by most of us be considered quite unpalatable. Unsalted bread is however still baked in different parts of the world, most wellknown is perhaps the unsalted bread from Tuscany. Little in the finds indicate that the breads would have been salted, except perhaps the brackish water mentioned above.

 

The use of salt or not in the bread may be somewhat dependent on how it is eaten. Although there are indications that bread were indeed used with coldcuts and even butter, there are two main ways of using the bread in the medieval period. A quite simple way to use the bread, which actually was associated with the more prominent feasts, is to use bread as a plate or bread disc, that this practice was in use already in the Viking Age can be indicated in the poem Rigstula. If used as a plate for food it would make the salt in the bread less of an issue as most of the taste would come from the food on it. In a similar manner bread has been used as a base for many soups in the medieval period. In many cases clear soups were served with a slice of bread in the bottom of the bowl. This would also counter the need for salt in the bread. Though we do not know if this practice was in use during the Viking Age, again Rigstula gives a hint of a similar practice, when the thrall eats his thick and coarse bread with some stock.

 

Conclusion

Being stuck with a modern palate, I will for this bread use the brackish water of Birka as an inspiration, and make the bread just slightly salty. Brakish water would contain between 0,5 to 30 grams water/ litre and I assume that the water outside Birka is on the lower side.

 

Thoughts on bread

June 7, 2012

First off my apologies for neglecting this blog, I blame the upcoming cookbook which I am working on for devouring far to much time. Hopefully I’ll be able to give it more time during the summer. This summer will see less experiments though as I do not work with experiments at any museum this year.

But back to business. This and the following posts will explore bread in Viking Age Scandinavia. Bread is one of the remaining considerations in my upcoming cookbook, and I’ll try to sort my thoughts in the following posts. It should be said that there is an excellent thesis published on the subject of breads found in the region of Mälaren, Sweden, and it gives some important inspiration – “Gräddat” by Liselotte Bergström.

Bread is a rather difficult business as it is rarely described in detail in the early sources. From the Viking Age only a few give us any clue as to the shape and content of the bread. In Rigstula the bread that is served among the thralls is described as thick and full of bran, and the breads served in the family of Jarls is white and thin. Some other description talks about a thick and densely baked bread. In the saga about Sneglu Harald, a person at court is given the title “ryebread carver” by the main character, a light hearted skald with a fondness for porridge.

Though we know comparatively much about the breads from Birka and its environment the bread recipe I seek to recreate is based on finds in Lejre. There one could observe that the remains of ovens had a completely different combination of cereals than what one could find in the archaeological record in general or in the breads of Birka.

The ingredients – flour

Cerealtypes:

In general the cereal found at most sites is dominated by barley, but most of it would have been used for beer and porridges, why the breads do not necessarily reflect the composition found in the cereals in general.

In the breads found in the thesis by Bergström one would find a compostion where barley indeed do dominate, but together with oats and different hulled wheats. The latter which had more or less gone out of style here if one are to believe the archaeological record. Many of breads would use two, and in the case of the ritual burial breads three, different cereals. This could be a way of aiming at different baking qualities or to give the bread a certain taste. Some also contained linseeds or pulses which may further influence the taste in the bread. The flour seem to at times have been rather coarsely ground and would in some breads contain both hulls and sprouts. Sprouted hulled seeds may also reflect that a small amount of malted seeds were use to make the bread somewhat sweeter and alleviate any eventual fermentation.

The finds in Lejre indicate a somewhat different composition of the breads made there. In the oven the plantseeds are completely dominated by rye. The seedfinds in the rest of the site are somewhat dominated by barley, with fair amounts of rye and an usual high amount of oats.

For the Lejre bread I would therefore choose to use primarily rye with perhaps some addition of barley.

Flour qualities

Previous experiments with the handquern showed that making enough flour ground finely enough would prove rather difficult and required quite some time. A fine flour could probably have been achieved by winnowing and sieving the flour constantly, still it would be difficult to achieve something as fine as the flour today. It does not, however, all have to be made up of coarse bran. Another hint to the properties of the flour could possibly be gained from the fact that a large amount of rye was found in the oven. In a few medieval recipes, which are note for bread, cereals or pulses are first soaked then dried or roasted before grinding, making it easier to grind them, and would certainly affect the taste of the seeds as well. (Note to self: this should be an upcoming experiment).

Another possibility that is hinted at in the Swedish material is the inclusion of malted seeds into the mix. It would produce a sweeter bread or at least a sweetness that could balance other tastes of the bread.

Another influence on taste could come from the lack of large central mills which would have made it more likely that the cereals were ground for each occasion rather than all at once. In order to store the cereals they could have been kept on the smoky lofts next to the hearth, giving the flour a somewhat smoky taste.

Conclusion:

While in now way representative of the breads of the period, the bread that will represent Lejre in the cookbook will most likely be based on rye with a small addition of barley. The latter perhaps as smoked malted barley which will give a distinct taste to the bread.

Some reference material:

Bergström, Liselott          Gräddat

Christensen, Tom  (His report on Lejre – can’t find the title of his article in my piles at the moment, I’ll update that later)

Robinson David                Plant Remains from the Late Iron Age/early Viking Age Settlement at Gammel Lejre

Skaarup, Bi                        Bag brødet

Hansson Ann-Marie        On Plant Food in the Scandinavian Peninsual in Early Medieval Times

Keyland Nils                      Svensk allmogekost

edit: In a text describing the small household mills in the 19th century the author (Jonas Stolt) describes how the rural population before milling their cereals used to dry it in the oven over the night. This was most likely done to make sure that the seeds were dry enough before milling them rather than to give them a roasted taste. None the less it would influence both the taste and texture of the seeds.

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