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.


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.


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.

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.

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


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.


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.

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.

Ovens III

June 27, 2011

Two days later I was back on the museum and while I was displaying the 17th century kitchen I opened the oven realising that it was still hot inside.

Though I have been planning to cook dishes using the residual heat, I may be able to make more use of the oven than I originally planned. This long slow heat might be optimal for drying fruits. The methods for doing do are mainly found in 18th century cookbooks, but there is a brief mention of this in a Dutch cookbook from the 16th century.

Ovens II

June 26, 2011

During the weekend of 18-19th June a small renaissance festival was held at Glimmingehus, among the invited groups and crafters was couple that among other things churn butter and brew beer. Grethe which had used similar breadovens could give suggested from previous experiences that a good way of deciding the right temperature for baking was to observe when the walls were white instead of black. And most certainly after a few hours firing the walls were indeed white instead of black. This suggestion will be good and can be combined with other was to observe the proper temperature in the oven.


As this took place during the festival, where I gave out samples of renaissance food I realised to late that I had no time to for any other experiments. Grethe, however, managed to bake some bread in the oven.


Ovens I

June 26, 2011

As I worked with the piecrusts I tried to heat up the oven, however the lack of time and perhaps proper firewood did not allow me to get it hot enough during the time of my workhours. In order to properly work the oven I need to consider three things. What fuel to use, how long time is needed and when I should be able to recognise the proper temperature.


As for the question of the proper fuel, I would imagine that it is somewhat difficult to get hold of today. Peter Brear mentions in “medieval kitchen” how bundles of small faggots, or small branches, where used to fire up the oven. However as in most other open air museums all I could get hold of was the fire wood that people today use in their ovens.


The time needed would ofcourse be dependent on the size of the oven, and to some extent the fire woods, this I need to monitor better for the future.


The ability to monitor the time needed to heat up the oven, is ofcourse dependent on my ability to determine when the oven is hot enough. At the start of this experimental session I had only a few hints on proper ways to measure the temperature through ocular means.


I would appreciate any suggestion of traditional ways of heating a dome shaped breadoven made of bricks. It would be interesting to compare these methods. I remember reading about the use of flour or dry straws.

Pies & piecrusts

June 26, 2011

In order to get myself a bit more familiarised with the kitchen I started of lightly with a few investigations that were not completely dependent on getting the heatng, embers and fire wood completely right.

Both in the medieval and the renaissance cuisine pies and pastries seem to have played an important role, and the role of the pastry chef was quite important. Pastries seem to range from mere vessels containing meat or fruits to elaborate subtleties depicting castles and the like. In “Book of caruynge” the reader is given instruction on how to cut a pie according to how it was shaped and what it contained. The main question is however, were the actual pie crust intended to be eaten or was it just used as a vessel? Did they use some kind of pie shell or were they standing by them selves? Though I have mainly favoured the latter interpretation, some more work with early pie-recipes may give some insights.

Though the earlier pie recipes rarely give any further clues to the actual pie dough, some recipes from the mid 16th century gives us some further clues. For this experiment I have used two recipes from the cookbook by Sabina Welserin and an English recipe from about the same time.

Sabina Welserin, 1555

61 To make a pastry dough for all shaped pies

Take flour, the best that you can get, about two handfuls, depending on how large or small you would have the pie. Put it on the table and with a knife stir in two eggs and a little salt. Put water in a small pan and a piece of fat the size of two good eggs, let it all dissolve together and boil. Afterwards pour it on the flour on the table and make a strong dough and work it well, however you feel is right. If it is summer, one must take meat broth instead of water and in the place of the fat the skimmings from the broth. When the dough is kneaded, then make of it a round ball and draw it out well on the sides with the fingers or with a rolling pin, so that in the middle a raised area remains, then let it chill in the cold. Afterwards shape the dough as I have pointed out to you. Also reserve dough for the cover and roll it out into a cover and take water and spread it over the top of the cover and the top of the formed pastry shell and join it together well with the fingers. Leave a small hole. And see that it is pressed together well, so that it does not come open. Blow in the small hole which you have left, then the cover will lift itself up. Then quickly press the hole closed. Afterwards put it in the oven. Sprinkle flour in the dish beforehand. Take care that the oven is properly heated, then it will be a pretty pastry. The dough for all shaped pastries is made in this manner.

65 The dough for the pastry

Take rye flour, according to how large the fish is, take it, and put water, about three pints, in a pan and a good quarter pound of fat into it, and let it cook together, put the flour on the table and put the solids from the melted fat-water on top, until it makes a good firm dough. You must knead it well so that it becomes good and sticky. Afterwards make two parts out of it. First the bottom, roll it out as large as the fish is. After that lay the fish on the bottom crust and roll out the top crust just as wide and put it over the fish and shape it like the fish. Make fins on it and take a small knife and make dough scales, also eyes and everything which a fish has. And put it in the oven and spread it with an egg. Then you have a fish pastry.

A Propre new booke of Cokery , 1545

To make shorte paest for tart.

Take fine floure and a curtesy of faire water and a disshe of swete butter and a litle saffron and the yolkes of two egges and make it thin and tender as ye maie.

As it was only a trial to see how I could make the dough stand without any aid of a pie shell, they were made without any filling and just to see how I managed to shape them. One of the recipes – the rye dough was meant to be shaped like a fish and not as a regular pie, so that one I just made into an empty fish shaped pastry.

The recipes were followed rather closely, though the amounts were headed only superficially. To a pair handful of flour I mixed an egg, after which I added a mixture of lard dissolved in water. The resulting dough was rather rubbery dough that at first seemed to have had some problems in getting the sides to stand. After I twisted the sides into the classical s-shape of pies the sides kept standing.

The butter based dough in the third recipe was perhaps slightly softer, but should not have proven any problem. With my modern preferences I would have used the third dough for a sweeter dish and the first one for a more savoury pie, as the use of lard gave the pie a distinct association to bacon.

However, the main observation was that all the doughs that were meant to hold a mixture or even a liquid content seemed to be able to keep their walls up and hence not losing any of their contents. It should therefore be possible to bake pies without the use of any pieshells or the like.

While it is likely that these ashen bottomed piecrusts were merely used as vessels for cooking and serving, I would find it likely that these remains of the pies wandered down the hierarchy and were used as a handouts.
Although I would conclude that most pies were baked and served in their dough, there are some mentions of a pie-shell in the mid 16th century recipes, so it is possible that both existed. The rather common occurance of pies in 16th and 17th century recipes will certainly have me revisit them.


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