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.

bread – tastes

June 20, 2012

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

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


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



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

Baking liquids

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

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


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




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


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



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


Thoughts on bread

June 7, 2012

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

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

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

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

The ingredients – flour


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.


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