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.


Preparation of the sheep

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

The pit

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

Excavating the sheep

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

The culinary aspects

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

The Pit

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

Preparation of the sheep

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

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

Baking the sheep

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

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

Excavating the sheep

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

Several plants with fatty seeds has been grown in Scandinavia prior to the medieval period and it is possible that seeds from flax, hemp, rapeseed and gold-of-pleasure (Camellina sativa) as well as hazelnuts could have been used for oil which in turn could have been used both for cooking and for various crafts. From historical sources we know that rapeseed oil was in use in Holland at least in the early 16th century and that recipes for making walnut oil and almond oil can be found in danish cookbook from the 13th century. In Eketorp a site that was in use both during the late Iron Age and through the medieval period a small “cake” consisting of seeds from both flax and gold-of-pleasure was found and later analysed.


However, less is known of how the oil was actually manufactured during the Viking Age. In this experiment I aim to try to make flaxseed oil using the methods and material that may have been available at the time.


Method I: This one is inspired from a 13th century recipe for walnut oil. In the original recipe the nuts are placed in a heated mortar and then the oil is wrought through a cloth. As stone or metal mortars are lacking, and I can not get hold of a soapstone vessel, I intend to crush the seeds into a paste with a heated stone on a saddle quern and then wring out the oil through a wollen cloth if available (Woollen cloth rather than linen was used in the flax oil industries as they will absorb less oil, I guess). In order to get a better force in the wringing I would like to fasten one end to the wall/ a tree or something else firm and in the other end use a branch to help me wring it.

Problems: The cloth will still absorb quite a lot of oil, and will I be able to get the oil out of the cloth. Another potential problem lies in the durability of the cloth – will it hold? Finally is ofcourse the question if we will be able to extract any oil at all?


Method II: This one is inspired from later industrial production of flax seed oil. First I’ll bruise and crack the seeds on the saddle quern and then pack them into a bundle, again in a woollen cloth. The bundle will be put in a mansized wooden mortar.[ Though no finds of them survives, there are some large wooden artefacts that may have been used as pestles.] Repeated beating with the pestle may give the same result as pressing the seeds.

Problem: The main problem with this method is of course if the mortar will absorb most of the oil. In actual use the mortar would probably be saturated from everything that has been pounded in it – to properly simulate a well used mortar I could perhaps try to soak it in some other oil before we start the process.


Method III: Crush & boil. In this trial I’ll first crush the seeds and then pour the paste into boiling water and let them boil with it so that the oil collects on the surface. The the oil is skimmed of or decanted. This method however seem to have no connection with traditional ways of making oil as far as I could find.

Problem: I am not sure that I can achieve that with the available material.


Now oil extraction lies a bit outside my expertise, so any input on making traditional oils or methods of pressing seeds in pre-historic Scandinavia is welcome.

At an event at Ekehagen next week I am going to conduct two experiments in an Iron Age/Viking Age context. So in preparation for those I’d guess I try to write down some of my thoughts for the blog.


Experiment I Cooking pits.

Cookingpits have most likely been used in Scandinavia, from the Stone Age up until the Viking Age. What has been interpreted as possible cooking pits has be found at several Viking Age sites, these pits are about 1-2 metres across and are usually filled with fire cracked stones. Cooking pits are mentioned the Edda by Snorri so it is likely that the idea of them where present during the Viking Age. However, the interpretations do differ on how the pits where used and how the meat in them was prepared.


Trial I: Packaging the meat.


In the open air museums in Scandinavia most displays of cooking pits are made with inspiration from the cooking pits used in the Pacific ocean and pieces of meat are clad in leaves and birch bark, or one adopt to the regulations of the health department and use tin foil instead.


As the pits have a diameter from one to two metres across, I would suggest that the pits were not mainly used for chunks of meat but for whole animals. In order to keep them from burning and drying out, the animals were cooked with their skin still on. This practice was, according to some sources, used in the Balkans in the 19th century.


The experiment: To see if we can get a good result of the meat using just the skin to protect the meat from the heated stones. Is it a doable method and will this method still provide a good and juicy meat?


Trial II: Norwegian vs south Scandinavian cookingpits.


The basic principle of the cooking pit is that stones are heated and then the food that should be cooked is buried with the stones which will retain the heat for a long time. Though the prinicple is rather simple differing methods has been suggested based on the observations of cooking pits in Northern Norway and in the South of Scandinavia.


In the north the pits are suggested to first be packed with wood and on top of that a layer of stones are packed. As the wood burns under the stones they will be heated and when the wood is all burnt away the pit should be ready to cook the food. The advantage of this method is that there will be no carbonised wood on top of the stones that might cause cold spots when cooking.


In the south, instead, it has been suggested that the stones are packed in the bottom of the it and the wood burnt on top of the stones. The great advantage of this method is that t is easier to reuse, and that the readier access to oxygen will make this fire buring more fiercly.


The experiment: I will make two pits, one with each method, and as the wood has burnt out compare the temperature and the time it would take for the pit to reach an acceptable temperature.

In each pit a piece of meat that is packed the same way will be added and the pit closed. When the mat is believed to be finished it will be taken out and temperatures compared between the meat that has been cooked in each pit. If possible both pits ought to be excavated at a later point in order to compare them to the looks pits assumed to be cooking pits from a Viking Age context.


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.