June 16, 2010
Of the five tastes, sweetness plays an important role today, but should this be the case even in earlier cuisines. One may argue that a food culture that has only scarce access to sweet resources would not feel the need nor want for anything sweet. While this may be true in some areas, I would assume that the sweet taste actually played a role already during the Viking Age. In southern Scandinavia honey was used already in the Bronze Age and even earlier one seem to have roasted nuts, which will bring out the sweetness of them. So although one were not exposed to the amount of sweetness and sugar as we are today, one would have recognised the sweet taste and appreciated it. In the sagas and myths honey and mead is mentioned from time to time – which may indicate a fondness for anything sweet. In later culinary literature, the sweet taste is increasingly important, but even the earliest cookbooks would include sweet dishes.
However, the sources that can provide sweetness are fairly limited, especially here. So far I can only think of five principal sources that can provide some kind of sugary sweet; honey, dried berries, malt, lactose and birch sap.
Honey which should have been the most obvious source, was rather rare up here, and perhaps even in the whole of Scandinavia due to the lack of bee cultivation. There are some indications in the sagas that honey would have been imported. A possible source for the imported honey could perhaps been the Slavonic areas along the Baltic coast.
Dried berries, especially blue berries, could of course provide a good source of sweetness though that would have been a rather limited resource, and would require people that would have tme to go out in the forests or heath to pick them. This would however have to be considered.
Malt was probably the most accessible source of sugar. Although mainly used in order to make beer, it is probable that malt also could have been used to sweeten some of the food. The drawback would of course be that as they retain the chaffs, using them might give the food a rather coarse taste.
Lactose would in a sense have been readily available in any dairying food culture. However, even though milk was quite abundant up here obtaining a sweet liquid would have required to reduce the milk considerably, a somewhat wasteful method, that still may have been used for festive occasions
Finally birch sap may have been used a source of sugar, today it is used for birch sap wine and maple sap could be used for making maple s As this area mainly consisted of birch it is another probable source of sugar. However, in order to not damage the tree, one has to monitor how deep the draining pipes are drilled into the tree and if not plugged the tree will bleed to death.
Of the above sugar sources I would assume that malt is by far the most common, and will commence the sweet experiments by exploring this source.