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.

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.



July 14, 2012

Another defining ingredient in the bread is the kind of yeast, if any, that is chosen to raise the bread. The bread finds that can be dated back to the Viking Age in Scandinavia are generally unleavened, but a few of the breads or breadlike finds have either gas bubbles or in a rare occasion some possible remains of yeast. This seem to indicate that the common bread generally was unleavened. However, as a representation of the more southern traditions, where both ovens and and rye were more common these thoughts are aimed at the leavened breads of the Viking Age.

Looking at the conditions and finds one may recognise three fermentation methods that may have been used in Viking Age Scandinavia; spontaneous fermentation, sourdough and beer yeast.

This coincides quite well with the methods observed by Keyland in “Svensk allmogekost.” According to Keyland three methods of fermentation were traditionally used in Sweden prior to the 20th century, self fermentation, sourdough and beer yeast.

Self fermentation/self souring

The first method is described as the most original but also the most uncommon. Basically it is quite similar to the methods of making sourdough albeit without a starter. Wheatflour is mixed with water to make a thick dugh which is then left to stand for about a week. However at this point it was not considered fit for fermenting bread but to make some kind of weak beer. In order for the “dough” to be able to ferment a bread it had to undergo the process of brewing first.

A similar method is described by Olaus Magnus as being the way beer is brewed in Ethiopia. Wheat and barley are worked into a dough. It is left for ten days, during which some flour are added and the dough is kneaded. After ten days it is shaped into small breads, after which it is baked or perhaps rather dried. When it is time to set a beer the bread is broken into a pot containing malt. This description is quite close to the descriptions we have from ancient Egypt, where the connection between bakeries and breweries were very close.

A variety of this is described as partial self fermentation. This type of fermentation is described to have only taken 24 hours. The dough or flour is scalded with hot water or wort. It is then given a day during which flour is added and kneaded. The would certainly give some characteristics to the bread, and I could imagine that it would work well with a bread baked in a baking bell.


In contrast to the sourdoughs of today with an almost batter like consistency, the traditional sourdoughs in Scandinavia seem to have been more like a dough. Commonly sourdough seem to have referred to fermentation through remains of earlier batches of dough either through a conscious collection of doughremains from the trough or through such remains that may still be present in cracks and pores. Keyland gives a few examples of 19th century sourdoughs:

  1. The dough sticking to the trough is left there from one batch to the other and the yeast that survives will be used to raise the dough. In some traditions the bun or ball were cut with a cross on the top ( More exposed surface may have helped the fermentation). If the bun did not ferment properly it should be fed more flour. That is the sourdough is added to some luke warm water and some flour in the trough.

  2. Another common way to produce a sourdough would be to scrape of the dough from the trough and shape it into a small ball, which is left to dry in trough…when baking bread the ball is soften with luke warm water and flour and then mixed into the dough.

  3. Another rather straightforward way was to just keep a bit of the dough from the previous batch in a jar of flour. Since flour most likely were milled for each batch rather than for the whole season this may have been a less likely method.

It does make sense though that the sourdoughs were more or less made as a dough rather than a batter. In an era with a limited number of storage vessels for liquids which were not prone to lose some of the liquid, a batter may prove difficult to keep. Today, with glass jars and plastic containers battered sourdoughs are more practical.

Both selffermenting/souring and sourdough would acidify the dough, which in turn would alleviate baking a bread of rye.

Beeryeast / the dregs

Finally and perhaps most like the yeast today is the possibility to use the dregs or the forth of the yeast from brewing. The connection between baking and brewing were early apparent, perhaps most strikingly so in the breweries in ancient Egypt, where baking ad brewing went hand in hand. In a more European context this connection can be observed through the words of some puzzled Romans. When visiting the Iberian colonies, Pliny observed that the bread there was much lighter and fluffier than the bread back home even if it was not as white as the Roman breads. It is likely that the bread that he had encountered was fermented with the help of beer yeast as the Iberians at the time were well known for being good brewers.

In Scandinavia the use of brewing yeast was favoured during the from the 18th to the 19th century when it was replaced by the more modern baking yeast. However the connection between brewing and baking was probably well known even when we even if the biochemistry behind it was not known. In traditional descriptions we are told to take the dregs from the bottom of the beer vat when baking and as the beer is finished the remaining yeast was taken out or either stored as a liquid or as small dried buns, which are dissolved in the baking liquid when one should bake.

 What would have been the more likely method in the given context? Though most breads seem to have been unleavened at the time, it does not exclude the possibility that rye breads in the south at times were leavened. Exactly what method was used to leaven the bread is difficult to discern.

 The limitations in the Viking kitchen and the flour used would have influence how and what types of leavening were used. From finds we know that baking troughs of various sizes were used. However, containers for liquids that were protected against seepage were somewhat more limited: leather bags, staved vessels and waxed jars of pottery could all have been used but would not really have been fitting for a small amount of liquid sourdough. The lack of liquid sourdough in texts and descriptions from the 19th century makes it less likely that it were used as a leavening during the studied period. Considering, though, that the imagined bread is based on rye, the acidity of a sourdough is more or less essential.

 It is easy to imagine that the differing methods were used in a cycle of sorts, a cycle that most likely were distorted due to feasts and other occasions that influenced what bread were to be baked.

First, a self-fermenting dough were used in order to start the fermentation process, according to Keyland it was at this stage not powerful enough to be used for bread but needed rather

to be used in a low alcohol beer, “dricka”.

The dregs, or remaining yeast from the brew could then have been used either to start a new batch of stronger beer or to bake some bread. If used for a rye bread it were perhaps still left to self-ferment for sometime in order to increase the acidity.

A successful batch of the above dough would at this point (according to Keyland) be strong enough – have enough of the proper yeast – so that the remains in the trough could be gathered up, stored and used for the next batch of bread. Leaving it like this would also keep acidifying the dough making it even more suitable for making rye bread. When ever the fermentation went awry, due to mould, the wrong kind of yeast or if the yeast died the cycle would start over. Ofcourse this order would have been broken up in various ways. If one were baking for a large feast it would hve been likely that some ale yeast were added. If baking in a baking bell it would perhaps have been enough to just use a self-fermented dough

One should keep in mind though that most of the finds seem to indicate that the common bread was unleavened. This would have made the dough remains of the troughs bad starters and they would then need some kind of ale yeast to get started.

With the last thing in mind I would suggest that the bread in this exercise should be fermented using a dough that is left to self ferment but with an addition of yeast from a brew.

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.



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.


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. 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 ( 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 ( 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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