Cooking pits/Experiment 2

August 5, 2012

In the second trial I was looking at the differences between interpretations of cooking pits in Norway and southern parts of Scandinavia. In short the former method would include placing the firewood at the bottom and stones on top, while the latter were made the other way around. The questions are, will there be any noticable differences in performace, and are we able to distinguish between the pits afterward.

Execution

The pits

Two pits (0,5 m*0,5 m) were dug next to each other. The pits were made square with slightly sloping sides, similar to the pits used at the museum.

In pit A we clad the bottom and somewhat on the sides with rocks with sizes ranging from one to three fists. On top of the stones we built a square pyre. In pit B we started by building a sturdy square pyre using the same amount of fire wood as in pit A. On top of the fire wood a layer of stones were laid out as evenly as possible. Both fires were then lit up at approximately the same time.

Baking the meat

For the experiment we used to pieces of meat (pork) of identical size. The meat for both pits were prepared in the same way as the meat is prepared on regular occasions on the museum that is wet newspaper and tin foil. Both packages were put into their respective pits at the same time. And then covered.

Observations

The pits

The pits seemed to burn evenly although they had to be fed more firewoods as we had set times for when the meat were to be buried. This meant that there were ending up firewood on top of the stones also in pit B, however I would consider it almost unavoidable, especially in larger pits. Before putting down the meat the temperature was measured in both pits. In both cases the temperature was 350°C.

The meat.

After about three hours the meat was uncovered and lifted up. They were both unwrapped according to the health and environment regulations of the site, and they were measured for inner heat. Also here we could notice that both pits had worked quite the same, both pieces of meat had an inner temperature of 86°C.

Conclusions and Thoughts

In general no real difference could be spotted between the two types of pit. It is however possible that it would prove easier to reuse pit A than pit B. Also these pits should be excavated by some of the staff on the museum to see if they appear differently after use. Pit B ought to display a layer of coals and soot under the stones, but it also possible that enough will be displaced by rain, animals and tourists that no difference can be observed.

Interestingly though, while working with the cooking pits an Icelandic visitor came by and said that his grandparents used to do pits like these upon which they baked legs of lambs. According to his memory the pits were laid out with fire woods in the bottom and then stone upon them. The meat itself were cooked with nothing but the skin to protect it.

This old Icelandic might either indicate that the southern interpretation has been wrong, or that there might be more practical reasons behind the way you build your cooking pit. In Northern Norway and Iceland the weather conditions are quite similar and the ground (except where it is volcanic) can be quite cold. By having your fire under the rocks, you will heat the ground better then if the stones protects the ground from the heat of the fire. On the other hand in the 2 by 2 metre pits found in the south it is not really feasible to place the firewood and stones as in pit B.

Preparation of the sheep

For the preparation of the sheep, singeing of the hairs proved most efficient, and went far quicker than expected. Descriptions of singing the hairs of a sheep’s head is mentioned in the sagas. As the fragrance of the herbs were not that noticeable I would also try to fill not only the cavity but also under the lifted skin with herbs. Perhaps some more liquid that is allowed to steam of in the cavity will carry with it more of the fragrance as well. (In the Romanian example a poor beaker filled with wine and wrapped in cloth is supposed to be placed in the cavity together with the herbs.)

The pit

The time used to prepare the pit and then cook the meat could possibly be shortened somewhat, but on the other hand we did not run the danger of overcooking the meat, giving us plenty of time to do other things while the meat was cooking. The size and the heat of the pit would have allowed us to easily cook at least yet another sheep in the pit together with the first one.

Baking the meat

The use of only the skin in order to protect the meat proved to be both successful and somewhat disappointing. Culinary, it proved to be advantageous and worked just as well as covering the meat in moss, leaves and other materials. The skin seems to have kept most of the juices and fat in, thus more or less baking the meat in them without losing any. However it did not work so well when it came to keeping the dirt out, the skin had also became soft and supple and broke as soon as we touched it. This also caused some troubles when we tried to lift the sheep. A possible solution to this would have been to cut and carve it from within the pit, although that might have caused burnt feet on behalf of the carver.

Culinary aspects

It was clear that the skin was enough to seal in most of the moist and fats while cooking, and in fact no parts of the meat were burnt, although the meat closest to the bottom was somewhat darker and dryer than the rest – but it is all a question of comparisons. The meat had cooked well and though there was no distinct taste of sheep, the fact that the meat was baked in its own fat and juices most likely improved both texture and taste.

Overall thoughts

In a cooking pit of the above dimensions one could easily cook two or even three sheep of 50 kg each, creating a meal that could only be consumed in the course of a large feast or a ritual gathering. While it requires quite some time in preparation preparing one or more sheep would have taken quite long regardless of method and any other way of cooking it would have required a constant supervision.

It is also possible that the actual process of digging up the animal could have been part of a happening or ritual as steam or smoke would rise from the pit when ever we start to open it.

The use of the skin to cover the meat must be seen as possible if somewhat inadequate as it is hard to avoid getting dirt on the meat, this could perhaps either be avoided by covering the meat with birch bark or wet straws or something similar. A better build of turfs might also make it easier to remove the dirt without getting to much on the meat. However I would suggest to keep the skin on for cooking purposes To make the neat little bundles with leaves and moss, appears far more difficult to me. Regardless of method it is of importance that the meat is kept from direct contact with the stones and that the fat is kept from dripping away.

 

Further thoughts

Although it seems quite plausible that the suggested cooking pits were indeed used for baking meat, several questions remain. Were they used and reused, or were they abandoned after each cooking occasion? While it would probably have been practical to reuse the same pit several times, the possible ritual aspect may have dictated otherwise.

Some further investigations into the archaeology of the cooking pits are needed in order to determine this. In the original cooking pits the stones should be checked to see if they had been reused, the soil ought to be analysed for lipids and the content and composition of the cooking pits re-analysed.

If given time and opportunity the permanent staff of the museum, Ekehagen, will be excavating the pit in about half a year to get a better picture of how the pit will look after use.

 

Preparation of the sheep

During the preparation of the sheep we noticed that the skin could be separated from the body without any excessive use of force, and would have been even easier if we had chosen to scald the sheep. This observation was in line with a piece of information I had received about Romanian cooking pits according to which one were to blow air under the skin of the sheep.

The pit

The fire in the pit was quite intense, and despite the rain which came and went during the day a radius of about half a metre around the pit stayed completely dry and was a good. The temperature in the pit could at this point be measured in excess of 350° C. When excavating the pit we soon could observe that the pit had kept the heat well as smoke started to bellow out as we dug down into the pit. As we continued to dig down we could also feel that the earth was warm.

Excavating the sheep

Although we were able to turn the turfs rather easily, still some of the earth did pour down and onto the sheep. At times we did unfortunately dig to close to the sheep and thus broke the skin. At the time the sheep was rather soft and trying to lift it out of the pit caused the limbs to break loose and some of the skin to break. To get the sheep out whole was problematic using this method. As we lifted out the sheep we could notice an outline of the sheep in the ground where the skin had stuck to the stone.

The culinary aspects

At this point the meat was very moist and supple, almost falling apart at touch, this was true also for the skin, which was thus not optimal to protect the meat against dirt, earth and soot. However most of the meat was more or less clean. While the meat was moist and supple, it had cooked almost completely clean from the bone, with some of the bones being more or less able to just be drawn from the meat. When we had lifted out the meat the inner temperature was measured to 82° C, which was well within the limits of the temperature that is required by health regulation and within the span that is suggested for a lamb roast. The taste of the meat was great and quite filling, but with only a limited fragrance from the added herbs and actually quite mild when I came to the lanolin taste of the fat. The fact that no salt had been used to prepare the meat was hardly noticed.

The Pit

A rectangular pit with the measures 1,5*2 m were dug to a depth of about half a meter. The bottom was then covered with a layer of stones. The stones where in sizes ranging from 1 to 3 fists, and quite uniform in shape. I tried to lay them out so that I covered most of the base of the pit. Since the sheep was a fair bit smaller than the pit and the walls straight rather than curved I did not bother to cover the walls of the pit. Upon this a great pyre was lit and kept alive for almost five hours. This time may be shortened, but was partly due to this being a public project.

Preparation of the sheep

In the meantime we prepared the sheep. In order to avoid the smell of burnt wool permeating the meat when cooked in the pit we tried to remove as much hair as possible. As we did not have any shears we first tried to shave it with a knife which was a slow and tedious process. Regardless if we were using a traditional shear or a knife, there would still have been quite a bit of stubble left. This was solved by holding the sheep above a fire burning of the rest of the hairs. This proved to be quite an efficient if smelly method.

When the sheep was more or less freed from hair we started to fill the cavity with fragrant herbs. In this case we used what was available at the site meaning that it was primarily filled with gale and meadowsweet. More as a token than an actual taste a bottle of beer was poured into the cavity as well. The cavity was sewn shut, but before we could tie the legs to the the body a torrential rain came pouring down.

Baking the sheep

So the sheep was placed in the pit as it was. We tried to move a few of the hot stones to the top side of the sheep, which was then covered with turfs with the grassy side down. On top of the turfs we covered the pit with earth making sure that no air would reach the sheep. On top of the mound we leaned a makeshift plank construction so that some of the rain was poured off.

The sheep was then left in the pit for approximately 18 hours before being excavated. This period could possibly have been shortened but again due to being done in public it had to be adapted to opening hours and such.

Excavating the sheep

Digging down into the pit, we tried our best to avoid digging into the sheep. As we came further down the turfs was turned over carefully and the earth brushed of the sheep. As it was freed from stones, turfs and earth, main part of the body was rolled over onto a flat grid iron and then lifted out.

Among the simpler dishes porridges of different kinds would stand out. It seems to have been an important dish already in the Viking age – and probably earlier – and was probably most important during the parts of the year or circumstances when one had to rely on only dried stored goods.

As an inspiration for this dish I have used a recipe from Liber Cure Cocorum (1400).

For gruel of fors.

Fyrst take porke, wele þou hit sethe
With otene grotes, þat ben so smethe;
Whenne hit begynnes wele to alye,
þou save of þe þynnest brothe þer by
To streyne þy gruel, alle and summe;
But furst take oute þy porke þou mun
And hak hit smal and grynde hit clene;
Cast hit to þo gruel þat streyned bene,
Colour hit with safroune and sethe hit wele;
For gruel of force serve hom at mele.

This recipe, or similar, can be found in several cookbooks from the 14th – 16th century. Though the inclusion of saffron makes it a rather exclusive dish, the idea of a porridge cooked with bacon or with pork could in some part reflects the ingredients what we find stated as the daily distributed foodwares in navy records of the 17th century.

Though the recipe states pork, it does not say in what form. In the cookbooks I both find reference to smoked meat and to fresh meat, but in this recipe nothing is stated. A hint towards fresh meat may be that the meat is supposed to be boiled before used in the dish, but I have found several references in which bacon is supposed to be boiled before used in dishes. As I simultaneously wanted to investigate both the exclusive dish and a more common porridge I opted for a smoked fatty side of pork. The meat I used was bought at Malmö kötthandel a very good deli that smokes the meat themselves.

Looking closer at the recipe one notices that it can be divided into a few steps; Boil the meat and remove it, cook the groats in the resulting stock, separate the liquid, mince the boiled meat, and to the liquid, add saffron & serve.

Though the recipe in itself is rather easy it did produce a rather large amount of making it possible for me to make both an exclusive soup and a more common porridge and thus making two dishes from one. As saffron was and is an exclusive spice it turns a rather simple dish into something very high society in its composition. Still to throw away all the porridge seems like an awful waste, when it easily could have been served to soldiers and servants at the keep.

I started by boiling some water with the smoked pork, rendering it soft and releasing oth some taste and salt into the water. I then removed the pork, added the crushed oats and started chopping the meat small. As the meat had been smoked with the rind it had to be cut of as well. Though smoked meat may dry out and getting hard if I keep it for a few weeks, boiling it makes it very soft again and easy to chop up. The recipe suggested that the meat should than be ground in a mortar. Though I only have a pounding mortar – as opposed to a grinding one – it was still turning the meat into something of a mush. When the oats had softened and the liquid started to get milky, I was supposed to strain of the liquids.

However, lacking a good strainer or a cloth through which to strain the liquid I proceeded by decanting the liquid from the pot. The problem using this method in the semi-dark cavern of my kitchen was that I only managed to get it separated that much, and some of the oats did remain in the liquid.

The liquid was mixed with some saffron and the main part of the porc. This was put back on the embers in a second earthenware pot. Into the first pot where the boiled oats remained I put in a small amount of smoked pork and the rind from the chunk of meat I originally used.

I let both simmer for a while after which I served both up in a bowl. The oat/saffron soup had really nice if a bit salty taste, and could certainly serve as a starter or side dish in a larger meal. The porridge on the other hand was far more timid in taste. Though the recipe for a porridge is a bit of a construction from my side it is a) still using an original recipe as a base, b) a plausible way of preparing a porridge in the early renaissance and c) as close as we get to an authentic recipe from the period. Personally I quite like the notion that with just the addition of some saffron and an extra step of preparation one may produce two dishes – one for the high seat and one for the workers.

Eggs in moonshine

July 8, 2011

While most dishes in medival or renaissance cookbooks have rather matter-of-fact names there is one that stands out and has always tickled my imagination. In the cookbook A Proper newe Booke of Cokerye from the 16th century one can find a dish called ”Eggs in moonshine”:

 

”To make egges in moneshyne.

Take a dyche of rosewater and a dyshe
full of suger, and set them upon a
chaffyngdysh, and let them boyle, than take the
yolkes of viii or ix egges newe layde and putte
them therto everyone from other, and so lette
them harden a lyttle, and so after this maner
serve them forthe and cast a lyttle synamon
and sugar upon them.”

This is also one of the recipes that I find rather straightforward without many pitfalls. In a three fotted pan I heated equal amounts of rosewater and sugar. The sugar I used was brown cane sugar, though I suspect that a bit more refined cane sugar would have fitted the dish better. I must admit that am not entirely sure about the sugar qualities of the time – but the name of the dish suggest a rather light coloured sauce. The rosewater used was a commercially available rosewater, which may differ some from the rosewater made at the time. (A recipe for making rosewater can be found in ”The goodman of Paris”.)

While the sauce was working its way to a boil I started separating egg yolks from the white. Though the egges were storebought and refridgerator kept, I became quite aware that the eggs where not newly laid – most of the yolks burst at the mere sight of them. When I considered the sugared rosewater hot enough I placed the yoks, one by one in the pan. With the quality of the yolks I had this was a tricky operation.

I let the egg yolk cook just long enough to still be semi-soft. The decision to do so was partly based on personal preferences, my estimation on how the dish would tie together better but also repeated references from medieval sources that runny or softboiled eggs were preferred.

Here I might have let the rosewater syrup cook for a bit long as it started to caramelise, and got somewhat brown and sticky. Still I could pour some of the sauce over the eggs. Before serving I sprinkled the eggs with some cinnamon and finely ground sugar.

Though it did not look exactly as I was imagine it, it turned out to be a very nice little dish. Though rose water often may give desserts a somewhat perfumed and soapy taste, it ws actually quite balanced here. The fairly rich amount of sugar makes it a good and rather simple example of renaissance cooking. And though it may seem a bit strange it was really appreciated by the few co-workers that got a chance to try it. In keeping the yolks somewhat soft, they mixed quite well with the sauce giving it almost an impression of a custard in texture and taste.

In order to be served at a high table it should be improved somewhat visually, with a clearer sauce and perhaps even served on a silver plate. This may however be my modern association of moonshine and a silvery shine.

According to C.S. Lewis “eggs in moonshine” seem to be a term meaning something else than just this dish, anyone who has a clue?

Boiling/seething

July 7, 2011

When making the elderflower dish, I realised that boiling using a three – footed pot was a bit different from using a stove. Most imagery, and the layout of most hearths seem to indicate that the pots were used to cook over the embers rather than the actual fire. This produces a more even and controlled heat if not as intense and covering as having a pot directly in the flames.

Usually when boiling milk one have to watch ones back at all times as milk usually tend to boil vigorously and burn the moment you turn your back to it.

 

Not so when using the pot and embers, the milk simmered away just below the boiling point, drawing out the flavour of the elderflowers without being burned. While it may be a problem in other dishes, it was quite suitable in this context having this slow and controlled heat.

 

That said, my hearth is still smallish and I am only able to get so much embers out of it, with a larger fire, and more skill at keeping the fire, I should be able to get enough embers to surround the pot better thus making it get to a boil more quickly. However, regardless of this lack in regards to the amount of embers I still think that there is a valid point in the way one can controll the heat using embers.

 

Elder pudding

July 6, 2011

Pudding and noodles - perhaps not the photograph of a cookbook

Just outside the moat on the way from the parking lot to the manor, stands some impressive hedges with elder. As the fragrance became more and more present, I realised that I had to do a dish with elderflowers. Though I was primarily connecting elderflowers with rather sweet dishes, I wanted to try out a dish from Sabrina Welserin;

“38 To make elderflower pudding Take elder flowers, boil them in milk and strain them, make a firm dough from eggs and flour and roll it into a thin flat cake, cut it into the shape of little worms and put them into the milk, salt it and put fat into it and let it cook. “

In boiling the elderflowers with the milk I became quite aware of their fragrance, however it was not to perfumed. While the milk was seething I prepared the dough. I was a bit unsure if it was meant to be thickened or made firm with the mixture of eggs and flour. For the dough I used wheat flour, which would have been the probable choice in a dish like this. As I was preparing the dough It became clear to me however that “cutting dough into the shape of little worms” was actually a description for the chef to make noodles ( or some kind of pasta).

As I felt that the milk had seethed enough I drained of the flowers, returned the milk to the pot, added a small knob of butter, some salt and a part portion of the noodles I had done. As they cooked picked them up with a regular wooden spoon – the slotted spoon, that is made according to a medieval find, was to big to fit in the pot. The noodles reminded me of German spätzle, but were salty with a hint of elder. Still, some milk remained so I put in the rest of the uncooked “worms”as they cooked, the flour from both batches of noodles startened to thicken the milk, becoming more sauce like. Though this was not entirely what I had expected it did strike me as fitting the description of a pudding. In fact, the mixture of butter, salt, milk and flower almost made me end up with an elder bechamel with noodles.

In this mixture the taste of elder was much more prominent, and it was also the more preferred dish by my testsubjects (the employees of the museum). When testing the dish it struck me that both the noodles by themselves or the actual pudding  would have fitted excellently together with a spitroasted chicken. Though it is a bit odd with a savoury dish with elderflowers to the Swedish palate, it was really enjoyable.

Pear pie

July 2, 2011

In my continued explorations of the oven I wanted to make one of the many fruit pies present in the cookbook of Sabina Welserin. The recipe I used for the dish:

131 To make a pear tart

Take the pears and peel them, then fry them in fat, put them into a mortar and pound them well, put rose sugar and rose water in it, put ginger, cloves, cinnamon and sugar therein. Taste it, make a pastry shell as for other tarts, make no cover for the top and bake until crisp.”

The recipe was rather straight forward, with only a few steps . For the pie crust I used the recipe for a short paeste that I tried earlier though I made two batches which both were a bit to soft – possibly because I used a bit to much water in them. (I will never be an accomplished pastry chef).

For the filling I fried the pear pieces in butter using the three legged pan. The resulting soft pears wear beaten to a pulp using my brass mortar, though a widerimmed stone mortar would probably have been used for this purpose. To this I added the ground cloves, cinnamon, ginger and a dash of rosewater. The resulting mush was poured into the pieshells and put into the oven. Though I started the ovens early I was uncertain if I had reached the right temperatur, the lack of proper fire wood and perhaps my conservative use of wood made the fire in the oven burn rather slowly, though in effect it could just have been a case of not having enough time to heat the rather massive oven. The pies were baked for about an hour which was not enough as they were still a bit soft and moist when taken out of the oven. The taste was nice and a bit spicier than what one would expect in a modern pear pie – even if I did miss some raisins in it ( which are used in several other pear pies from the same book) The main lack in my interpretation – apart from the oven temperature- was that I was to conservative on the rose water, as it was almost undistinguishable.

Apart from a nice combination of tastes in the pie the main feature was the rather aromatic scent from the cloves. It is likely that the rosewater was added for the same reason – to create an olfactory sensation from the pie. Just as colours and appearance has been of importance in historical (and modern food) we ought perhaps also think about how some food may have been made with an olfactory experience in mind, using scents that does not entirely reflect the most immediate tastes.

Pan frying

July 2, 2011

When going through recipes from the 15th – 16th century I was surprised by the amount of recipes that required a frying pan of some sorts. This will of course be reflected in the dishes I make, but requires a bit of reflection.

One of the main questions is exactly how they are used, that is when oe should considered a dish to be fried, deep-fried, cooked, heated or reduced. While the recipes sometimes are rather clear other occasions we end up with a recipe that simply states that we should cook this or that in a pan.

One clue is the shape and construction of the pans. From Scandinavia some pans remains, what survives until today is mainly the ones made of pottery and designed to stand on three legs (eg. http://mis.historiska.se/mis/sok/fid.asp?fid=122008) these have a rater high side which allows them to hold a fair amount of content or fat. The construction using three legs indicates that it should be heated over embers rather than a fire. The other type that remains but is far less common as a surviving find, but often depicted in images of kitchen is the metalpan without legs (http://mis.historiska.se/mis/sok/fid.asp?fid=530013). This was most likly designed do be hold above the fire – which is somewhat tiresome but can provide a more intense heat.

Luckily I have been provided with both types of pan. As both pans has a pronounced rim, they can both be used to cook food that is runny or requires a decent amount of fat. The main differences between the pans is the material and the way they are heated. The pottery pan is being heated over the embers and with a thicker less conductive material it s possible to keep it at a low even temperature for a longer time. The metal pan is rather designed to be held over the fire, getting a more intense heat. As this replica lacked any legs it seems to have been designed to be held over the fire by hand, this is quite in accordance to many images (http://godecookery.com/afeast/kitchens/kit007.html). It was quite obvious that using it in this manner was somewhat demanding of the chef. Another observation I made during my use of the pans was that the clay pan did heat up much quicker than the three-footed clay pots. The flat bottom and smaller amount of liquid certainly played an important role for this.

It is likely, though I need to reflect on this some more, that the different pans were used for different types of dishes. This will hopefully become clearer with some more experimentation. Another important question to consider is why there is this increase in the use of pans during the 15th – 16th century. Does it reflect that one in the north had access to more types of fat all year round (with the reformation butter and lard could be used all year round)? Or was it a refection of a changing preference or some technical advances? Or is it just that I have not reflected as thoroughly on the methods used in medieval recipes?

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