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.

 

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.

A constant question that has haunted me since I started to study past food cultures is cuisine of the common people. In general most cookbooks are aimed at the upper echelons of the medieval/renaissance society with even the dishes that might be considered simpler including exotic spices or some other ingredient that will make it a bit to expensive to be considered something that the majority could afford. Though the renaissance and baroque cookbooks are increasingly aimed at a reader from the middle-class, the simpler dishes are still (with a few exceptions) not easily found in the cookbooks.

 

In order to get closer to the food that might have been eaten at the time I have mainly been looking at four sources;

The implications found in later cookbooks

Vague references in other texts

Indications found through description of handouts to soldiers

Archaeological evidence & historical context

 

Though most cookbooks are aimed at the upperclass or wealthy middle class there are some dishes that can be considered to be upgraded versions of more simpler dishes. In some of the cookbooks we may find pea soups, groat porridges, bean dishes or soups based on turnip greens but with a twist, such as saffron to make it a bit more prominent. In the cookbooks from the end of the period or the baroque we start to find inclusions of what can only be considered to be part of the more everyday meals. In a Danish cookbook from 1616, dishes such as salted herring and kale porridge are included, in the latter case we are told that the best examples of that dish are made in farmers kitchen.

 

Other, non-culinary texts, may give us a hint to dishes eaten by workers, farmers and the like. In an Italian text from the 15th century we learn that farmer preferred turnips or onions baked in the embers. Similar small tidbits of information can be found if one look through non culinary texts.

 

Although reflecting very special circumstances and being a bit later than the studied period some good input into the contents and sizes of a more common meal can be found through old navy documents stating what and how much food the sailors were issued daily. Though the diet and compositions of dishes may have changed somewhat, it is illuminating as it indicates to what extent the food was based on porridges of either barley or peas.

 

Archaeological evidence can if mapped out geographically and socially give us an idea as to what the preferred or most common ingredients were, although this in fact only tells us so much about the finished dishes. However, archaeology is still valuable in order to pinpoint the food of the ordinary people. Through analyses one may find indications of deficiencies of various minerals or if a marine diet was preferred. If related to the social status of the remains one may also gain a further understanding of the diet of the time. Historical contexts are also very important in the understanding of the food of the period. Not only do we know that fish was very important from a religious perspective, but also that the trade of salted herring and dried cod were important for Scandinavia yet wellspread throughout the social stratas.

 

In my hunt for some simpler dishes I am trying to find the dishes that may reflect what the sum of all of the above sources may indicate. In short I am looking for dishes that includes, porrridges, simple soups, kale, turnips or salted herrings. The dishes ought to be boiled rather than fried or roasted.

 

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?

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.

The experiment on Glimmingehus this summer will, although limited in time, try to cover a few teoretical and practical questions and hopefully provide me with some more insights into the physical limitations or possabilities that a renaissance kitchen will provide. A secondary aim of the project is to try to recreate the cuisine of a Scandinavian manor in the early 16th century, from the everyday meal to the festive menu.

The recipes used for the trials will primarily be from cookbooks from mid 15th century to mid 16th century in north west Europe (i.e German and Dutch collections of recipes). In addition I will look into literature from renaissance Scandinavia in order to gain some extra inspiration to the tastes and preferences of the area of the time. I’ll start with a disclaimer though – the reconstructed kitchen is more or less a rural kitchen from the baroque period rather than the renaissance, however the kitchen techniques did not change much wy I can use it without distorting the studies to much.

For the more practical aspects of the project I will look closer on a few selected topics that have interested me for som time. The oven: I find this perhaps one of the more interesting features in the renaissance kitchen.

The dome-shaped wood-fired oven requires a few special considerations. What was the strategy in fireing it? How will I learn to know when it is hot enough…for different kind of dishes? What are the limitations and width of dishes made in the oven? Beside the obvious use of the oven – for bread – pastries and pies were common dishes made in the ovens. However only a few recipes remains for what could have been the dough of the actual pastry. I need to execute a few trials in order to find a correlation between the descriptions of pies and the dough recipes.

Spitroasting; Though I performed a few spitroasting experiments last summer, the actual spits were constructed somewhat differently during this period when compared to the Viking Age. Has the changed shape changed the amount of work one need to put into spitroasting. Are the recipes suggesting a different way of using the spits?

Frying pans: In many of the recipe collections from the early renaissance one can notice an increased use of the frying pan. Both the finds and the descriptions in the recipes suggest that the pans were made with a rathe high rim as most dishes are semi-deep fried. Further the one swedish find we have from the period seem to suggest that the pan were held or just resting by the handle rather than resting ontop of the fire. This suggest that the pans were used rather quickly. Using the pans with these limitations will have some impact on my interpretation of the actual dishes.

Boiling and sauces; It is my assumption that the use of different pots and cauldrons for different uses are quite pronounced during the more complex cuisine of the late medieval and renaissance periods. The copper kettles were probably mainly used to boil meat, while the smaller pots of pottery where rather used for boiling sauces and the final products.

Taste and dishes: A majort part of the project will be to find those dishes that could represent the tastes of this region. As I want to include also the everday life, some non culinary sources wil have to be used. The actual choice of dishes will be compiled as the project progresses,in order to adapt to insights and limitations that may appear.

Mead – tasting it

August 1, 2010

Though the plan was to end the fermentation quite early and try to achieve a nice sweet and somewhat alcoholic drink it proved more difficult than I first thought.

The mead that I had started brewing in two separate jars was only protected by a linen cloth, which I thought would be enough to keep most of the particles and dust away. After about a week and a half I decided to take care of both the mead jars, and proceeded to pour them into two different plastic bottles in order to keep the spicing apart. Before pouring the mead into a bottle I sieved it and tried to scope out most of the yeast that was floating. At this point the yeast seemed to be active in both jars. The two different batches had distinctly different smells, and also tastes. While the first bottle was still quite sweet one could notice an alcoholic undertone to it, the other however did not seem to be developing as quickly.

When I sieved the second batch of the mead, I received a small surprise as I found an unusually fat fly floating in the jar. After the first surprise and chock I decided to still keep this mead -minus the fly- to see how it develops. In a few early beer recipes it is describes how a crushed fresh rooster should be added to the batch. Are those just myths or would the proteins provide something?

As I finished the transfer to plastic bottles I brought them home to place them as cool as possible in order to stop the fermentation, however, the fridge was overfull and we experienced few comparatively warm days. Still as my room kept quite cool I hoped to be able to at least separate the mead from the yeast that had sunk to the bottom. However, after just two days the fermentation processes seemed to have continued at least in the first batch. As I opened the bottle a foam quickly raised and I had to close it again in order to not loose anything. This procedure quickly mixed the yeast, making any attempt to separate yeast and mead futile. I resealed the bottles as I had to rush of to my hearth for some other cooking attempts. After yet another few days, when I believed it to have been cooler I made a new attempt with almost the same result, except that now also the second batch (fly and caraway) had started to ferment in a similar manner.

Apparently the conditions for making any advanced trials when it comes to fermentation seems to be somewhat restricted at the moment, why I may continue this line of experiments once I have returned to Sweden. The samples of mead I made here was far to small to give opportunity to do any fargoing experiments. As I discussed in an earlier post I could either use cold -like a cold storing place, which makes summer a bad time of brewing- or heat to stop the fermentation. For heat I would imagine that one could make use of a hot stone to quickly heat the top of the brew and thus killing of the yeast. Another could perhaps be to add an infusion of the herbs one wants to spice the mead with. The boiling infusion would then kill the yeast in the top and after it has cooled down enough one may separate the dead yeast from the mead.

As one of my meads may be somewhat lessened by the addition of a fly I am still thinking that I should perhaps try the last method on this one. I could also try to stop the fermentation of that mead using a small amount of crushed lingonberries. These things will have to be done if time allows as I am now trying to get all parts of my participation of the local festival in order.

Finally the actual tasting, a few days ago circumstances allowed for a beer tasting, why I also brought out the first batch of the mead. It was still foaming quite a bit when I opened the battle and thus was rather fizzy. The colour was a somewhat cloudy and darker yellow, with a rather fresh smell of honey. The taste was still sweet, and did not feel to strong, but one could sense the alcohol beneath it all. While not very strong it had a nice balanced taste, with enough sweetness to make it a drink to sample rather than gorge.

Mead

July 14, 2010

As I already discussed under the post about sweetness honey would have been a fairly uncommon commodity not readily available to most, but rather something that would display exclusivity, luxurity and long range contacts. Honey as a product would most likely have been imported to Lofoten, and it seems fairly likely that on had to import honey or mead in order to satisfy the need also in the rest of Scandinavia. This would also mean that mead was drunk only at the most important of parties rather than as an everyday drink, and as such I believe that one would have been careful to not brew away all the sugars from the honey.

This notion is supported in the ever untrustworthy Olaus Magnus who among his mead recipes mentions two things that may indicate such a practice. Instead of the contemporary moth to ferment the mead, Olaus Magnus states that one week is enough, which would yield a beverage that is less strong than the meads generally produced today. Secondly and perhaps more important is the advice from Olaus Magnus that one should balance the sweetness with either gale or hops.

Despite it being rather unpedagogic, in the context of this museum to brew a mead, I still decided to do so, mainly because I wanted to try out some more thoughts about fermentation. The process of making mead is quite simple in theory; dissolve the honey in hot water, add either some herbs or a infusion of the herbs wanted, let it cool down, add some yeast and then wait for it to transform the sugar into alcohol.

Though not really following any particular recipe, I chose to still follow the relation between honey and water as given in one of the descriptions given by Olaus Magnus, resulting in me using about 2 jars of honey to two jugs of water or to be a bit more metric, 800 grams of honey to 3,5 liters of water. The water was brought to a boil and I tried to get most of the honey out of the jars. After adding the honey to the soapstone vessel, I let it boil briefly while skimming it, I guess that this step is rather unnecessary in present day mead making as it probably aims at removing any surplus proteins. After I skimmed it I let it simmer for a while in order to dissolve all of the honey. After it then had cooled down enough to be handled I proceeded to pour it quite evenly into two of the tyttinger jugs I had been using before. To one of the cans I added a hand full of crushed juniper berries and in the other some caraway seeds. Part of the experiment was to see if the pores of the jug would have contained enough yeast to provide a good start for fermenting the mead. Halfway through the process of preparing the mead, I realised that the jugs were glazed on the inside and therefore without any suitable pores. I would therefore have to add some yeast to the brew. Instead of using the bought yeast as last time, I planned to use the yeasty remains from the last brew. However, at the time I had to finish for the day the liquid was still to hot to add any yeast. The brew should then be fermenting for about one week, at least according to the earliest known recipes.

The use of yeast raises some interesting questions, would one have been aware of yeast as we know it and save it from batch to batch or was it considered something completely magical? In Scandinavian and Anglo- Saxon languages the terms of Bearma and Dreg signifies two different stages of yeast, and as these terms seem to date back to the Iron Age it is quite possible that yeast was not an unknown entity, even if the micro-biology behind it was. A few days ago I talked to a microbiologists who commented on the possibility to get yeast from different plants. Apparently different plants would have differing affinities with yeast. The most well known examples would be grapes and apples upon which a very benevolent yeast is gathered. Less useful for yeast would probably lingonberries or cranberries be as they are quite sterile in themselves. If there is a difference in how yeasts grows and gathers on the plants mainly used when brewing – meadowsweet, juniper, yarrow or gale – there might also be a possibility that some of these plants were used not only for taste but also for a good addition of yeast.

On a final note about mead and the use of honey in mead, as I am not at the moment completely clear on how to stop the brew after about a week, if the brew proves to still be sweet at the time. The to main methods I can think of would be through either heat or cold. To warm and the yeast will die, but it would also cause the alcohol to steam off, to cold and the yeast will grow tired. Either way it should be possible to separate the brew from the dead or sleepy yeast in the bottom. Another way would be to add some herbs or fruits that would stop the fermentation, here lingon berries comes to mind.

Still, all in all, honey and mead would have been quite expensive and required more of the chieftain than just faraway contacts. Another and not really considered solution to keep up an expected duty to serve mead at a feast without being brought to the brink of poverty, would be by brewing a mölska instead. Mölska is a Swedish name for a beer that was refermented with the use of honey. Such a beer could provide not only strength and sweetness required but would also have the revealing honey aroma. This would have been a far more economical solution here at the fringe of the world.

Update: Looked into the jars today, a day after adding yeast to them, and could see the mead being topped by a healthy froth

Update II: The froth has calmed down a bit but it seem to still be working, one could even hear a fizzing sound from inside the jars. Today almost six  days after starting the batch I tasted a small sample. Quite clear in colour, still very sweet and honey tasting, but with a slight alcoholic taste hiding in the background.

Even though it has been mentioned earlier in one of the blog comments that washing up may not have been a prime concern at all times at the time, I still have to keep a certain amount of cleanliness around and in my pots, at least not to scare off any of the tourists that are visiting the museum.

Anyway, as I was washing up after I had made another batch of “insta-cheese” – or rather fresh cheese mad from soured milk, I did not think much about the temperature of the pot as it was well over half an hour after I had taken it of the fire and cleaned it from both cheese curds and whey. As I poured in a bucket of water and started to scrape of the pieces of curds that were stuck to the side and the bottom of the pot I noticed how the water heated up almost immediately. Not terribly warm, but still noticeable. I quickly poured out the water and filled it up with another half bucket of cold water. This time the heating took a bit longer, but could still be noticed.

This reminds me of the story which one can read in Olaus Magnus history of the Scandinavian people from the mid 16th century. Olaus Magnus who was no big friend of the Danish describes how they by cheap tricks cheat on those they trade with, one of the examples of such a cheat was a magic stone cauldron, in which you could get water to boil even without having it in the fire.

If there is a grain of truth in that story I would guess that the Danish were trying to sell soapstone vessels.

Just rediscovered a link to an experiment I did a few years back that involved building and cooking in an Iron Age oven.

The link can be found here.

I am afraid though that the report is written in swedish  only.

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