It is my firm belief that those spits that had been found and can be argued to be roasting spits were mainly used for smaller pieces of meat, such as fowl and innards. For larger pieces one would have to use something larger and more robust. From medieval manuscripts there are some imagery depicting spit-roasted suckling pigs and similar slightly larger meats. In these instances the chef rather seem to be using larger spits, of which some look to simply be a long thick pointed wooden pole.

For this dish/attempt I was going to spit-roast a full leg of lamb. I made some incisions along the leg, which I larded with bacon, alpine leek, thyme and occasionally some angelica. The leg was then propped unto the spit. As it was rather difficult to fix it to the spit I had to use several wooden skewers in order to make it move with the spit – at least to some extent. For basting/glazing I planned to use a mixture of honey and ground mustard seeds.

The spit was propped up on some stones, in order to raise it high enough for it to turn properly. Underneath the smaller soapstone vessel was put in order to collect the drippings.

This particular day was extremely windy and the flames almost licked the leg of the lamb lying beside the actual fire. The heat probably influenced the result and times, why they cannot really be trusted. After a rather sort while the surface started to brown and a nice caramelised smell emanated from the leg. Though it was difficult to turn and to lift of the fire I still managed to both turn and baste the leg, I noticed that it was getting rather unevenly roasted. After one hour one side was a bit to charred the other had a nice red colour on the surface. As suspected though, it proved to be far from finished once I made a probatory cut into the meat. Though the outer layer was nicely roasted the inner most parts was till raw. I therefore returned the meat to the fire, though I decided to place it a bit further away from the heat, in order to give it a bit more even heat.

At about this time the wind started picking up speed and soon things were moving about quite a bit. As the meat had spent another half an hour on the spit I noticed how more and more embers started to escape the fire pit looking for freedom on the lawn in front of the longhouse. In order to not having to add “burnt down the longhouse in Borg” to my CV I decided to abort the experiment at that point and let the fire burn down.

The meat was a bit more ready, but still almost raw by the bone, and though I quite like my meat red this was still a bit to uncooked for me. The outer part was quite nicely cooked, and almost half way through the meatier parts the meat had a nice red colour. The meat tasted quite good and no real addition of salt apart from the pieces of bacon by which it was larded was needed. In order to salvage the rest of the meat I cooked the remains as a roast in the oven upon returning home.

The conclusion of this experiment would be that while a spit could possibly produce a rather nice product, it was rather unwieldly and the spit did not really seem suited for such an endeavour, if meat of this size were indeed spit-roasted I would still assume that they would have used spits of a somewhat different design.


Smoking – the return

July 31, 2010

Though I am mostly waiting for a good occasion to cut open most of the meats in order to see how the rest of the smoking had gone, I decided to try out a small additional smoking project. When visiting the nearby cheese-farm Aalan, I realised that one of their cheeses, which is a neutral goats cheese, would taste even better with a nice smoked exterior. When mentioning this to the couple who runs the farm, I was promptly given a cheese to try out.

When I returned to the longhouse, I cut a way the wax and placed the cheese in a small linen bag. This bag I hung near the fire, with the hopes once more that it would be enough to impart some flavour and preservation to the cheese.

As the weather turned out to be somewhat better up here, that is no rain and above 12 degrees Celsius, I was prompted to once again move my cooking experiments outside. Though the weather was nice, it was still quite windy and the smoke was almost rolling along the ground, so I tried to hang the bag low in the direction of the wind, although it was admittedly difficult to control.

After a few days cooking the cheese has a dry yellowish outer surface. I’ll probably bring it down to the festival and keep it in the smoke there before tasting it.

As I plan to serve this heart-dish in a near future, I ‘ll give it a third and last try. The butcher had provided me with an extra heart in the meat delivery, so this day I would try how the spit worked to roast more than one heart at a time.

Having to hearts to play with I was given the chance to alter the reparation somewhat. The hearts were quite different in appearance and would have belonged to one lamb and one sheep – or a rather obese lamb. The outer fat layers of the larger heart made me rethink the use of bacon in the filling. The smaller heart was barded with a few slices of thick bacon and the larger heart had to suffice with its own fat. For the filling I let the both heart differ some. In the larger heart I used almost the same mixture as in the previous attempt, that is lingon/cowberries, juniperberries, alpine leek, thyme and honey, though perhaps with a bit more leek in this mixture. In the smaller heart I made a slight alteration and used mead instead of honey, to give the filling a more liquid feel to it.

I encountered some problems when I tried to get both of the hearts fixed to the spit. Without any securing the smaller heart – which I had placed further out than the bigger heart – would not spin at the same time as the full spit was spun, but instead remain with the same side up. The larger heart could be secured with a skewer placed with a 90 degree angle from the main spit, and thus securing it against the two side prongs. In order to remedy the loose small heart I had to place two skewers that run through both the bigger and the smaller heart, thus making sure that when the larger heart moved the smaller would as well. For basting I decided to mix some of the remaining lingon-/cowberries mixtures with the honey I had planned to baste them with.

As the wind kept blowing and I was still tending my cooking outside, I could expect a rather quickly burning fire, if I ever I was able to get the fire started. The cooking procedure was more or less the same as previously with a rather aggressive fire roasting the heart. I could notice, however, that I got far more of the drippings from this batch. After about 40 minutes the hearts started to look more or less finished with with a nicely glazed surface, but I decided to give it about 20 more minutes. When I took the hearts of the fire and made a cut into the meat I noticed the same colour on the as I did previously.

The taste was the most favorable so far, and the lingonberry/honey glazing was a really good addition to it all. However, if I would like the filling to give the whole dish a bit more taste I probably ought to let it marinate with the lingonberry mixture inside the heart for a bit longer. I found the meat quite supple and it was easy to cut nice thin slices even with the excuse for a knife that I used. Though the meat it self had a really nice taste, a special treat was to dip the meat in the remaining glazing that had dripped of into the pot underneath.

As I got a handful of hearts from the butcher, I decided to hone the spit-roasted heart somewhat, the aim now not only being to check if it is possible to cook, but also to create a recipe that also tastes nice, unless one has a phobia against innards -or lambs.

This dish was a slight alteration to the one cooked previously, using a filling of lingon-/cow-berries, juniper berries, bacon, alpine leek and thyme. In this approach of the dish I will not only baste the heart with some honey, but also mix some honey into the filling of the heart.

As the heart was somewhat bigger than the first one, I had planned to cook it for an hour and a half. It was also a bit fattier than the first, which I assumed would influence the taste of it Due to the weather and guide conditions this was a day for cooking outside, though the wind was rather on the windier side. That made the fire burn quickly and warm, once I got it started, something that might have influenced the cooking time. As the heart was cooked I basted it generously first with honey and later with the drippings that formed under the heart

Due to the heavy wind and hot embers, the outside soon looked quite cooked with a nice brown surface forming, so I decided to check the heart with a small cut after about an hour, instead of the predicted extra time. At this time the heart had diminished somewhat in size and was a bit bouncy when I touched it with the tip of my knife. As I cut into it it seemed nice and sort of light brown/grey in the area of the cut. Being outside in daylight allowed me to study the cut areas a bit closer, and I could notice how the meat had a meaty colour to start with and then as it laid about for a short while the blood seeped out to the surface turning the meat more pink, which gave it a slightly undercooked look The taste was still nice, and perhaps with a bit more presence of the filling. The honey taste was however mainly present in the glazing rather than in the filling

I noticed, as I brought home the remains and fried them up, to eat for supper that when fried to much the colour turned a darker grey and the taste was more livery than before. This convinced me to keep the hearts in the range of colour and cooking as I had done the last two days.

Continuing the rather exclusive theme started by spit-roasting chicken, I was now trying to spit-roast a heart. As stated before, it is my belief that the spits we found from the Viking Ae were mainly used to roast fowl, innards and the like. This particular idea was inspired by the tragic epic about Sigurd the dragonslayer ( In this tragedy spit-roasted hearts are mentioned twice. In the beginning of the story Sigurd kills the great dragon and removes the heart for roasting – (This scene is depicted on a Swedish runic stone While the heart imparted wisdom to Sigurd, he also took the treasure from the slayed dragon, a treasure that came with a curse. After passing a few hands it came into the possession of king Atli (Attila) through his wife. In the process her brothers were killed by Atli and his wife plotted revenge. So one day she killed their children, mixed their blood into the mead and served their hearts as calves heart with honey. This is not only a delightfully morbid story, but it is actually one of the few instances in which the sagas and stories in which a taste or condiment is mentioned. Though this dish probably would be considered to be somewhat sweet, I would say that it is not a reflection of the everyday food, but rather be an indication of what can be considered a rather exclusive dish. In order to produce a dish that would fit such a description I decided to attempt to make a filling with alpine leek, cowberries/lingonberries, bacon in small pieces and some juniper berries. This mixture were put into the natural cavities of the heart which I then sealed with some wooden skewers. The whole heart, was then fasten upon the large spit and it was roasted next to the fire. While roasting the outside was basted with honey. After about thirty minutes I made a few probing cuts into the heart, which appeared still a bit raw, and the consistency of the meat when pressed by a knife was rather soft..The heart was placed back beside the fire and my basting continued. It would take another thirty minutes before I found it ready enough to be served. The taste was good if somewhat bloody. When I looked upon the heart after a moments distraction I noticed that the meat was red. Still the taste was good, with a slight honey taste to it. The dish would work quite well though sliced thinly as a starter.

Though the heart was considerably smaller than the chicken, it fit quite well onto the spit, there was, however, a need for some extra skewers to keep it turning with the spit. It should probably be possible to fit a few more hearts onto the same spit.

In my second approach at spitroasting chicken, I decided to make the stuffing a bit more interesting. Based very vaguely on a medieval recipe I decided upon a mixture of a boiled egg, bacon, Alpine leek, juniper berries and lingonberries (Myrtillium ). As lingonberries were found on the site of Borg I would deem it possible that they could have been used not only as a food resource in its own, but also as a way to add or modify the taste of a dish. In this case I was looking for something acidic to balance the fat from the bacon and to soften up the meat of the chicken. As an additional addition of taste I tried to loosen the skin and stuff it with a mixture of bacon and alpine leek.

After that I followed more or less the same procedure as in the previous spit roasted chicken, the cavities were closed with small birch skewers, and the bird was secured to the large spit with some vertically placed skewers. The legs were tied up to each other and the spit. Some additional fat and leek were placed in the folds of the thighs. The additional fat under the skin and in othe rplaces allowed me to be a bit more relaxed about the basting, as it would more or less self baste from those pieces.

The roasting was done far more even this time, avoiding to burn any parts of the chicken. However, just as in the previous case, when I studied it closer still some read meatjuices would appear in a cut after about an hour and a half. Though this one were thoroughly defrosted it would appear to have the same cooking time as the previous bird. After two hours it was ready even though one of the legs seem to have seeped some marrow as it was a bit red still.

Despite the slight ruddyness next to the bone this dish had a really nice taste to it, with the flavour of juniper berries carrying through the dish and mixing very well with the acidity of the lingon berries. Both the filling and the chicken itself were quickly devoured by some visiting tourists and myself, and would certainly be a treat to serve at the high table of a feast. The only salt added came from the bacon and was quite enough to give the meat a nice taste. Perhaps the combination of tastes would have worked even better with some small game fowl.

Usually I make a point of claiming that boiling was most likely the foremost cooking technique in ancient times. Not only would it be the most efficient and economical way of cooking, it is also a method that is mentioned more often than roasting, grilling or frying in the sagas and the relative scarcity of spits, frying pans or other cooking equipment also points towards the rather boiling oriented cuisine. The rather dominating use of frying pans and oven roasting is a rather new orientation of the cuisine. Still, despite my want to look at the more common cooking methods, one can not shy away from the spit roasting either, as it obviously has been a cooking technique that was used within the Viking cuisine.

I will approach the spit through three different dishes, which will both look at how well the spit lends it self to differently sized food stuff and into different dishes using the spit. My assumption is that the spits were mainly used for lighter and smaller pieces of meat such as innards or fowl. However, my cooking attempts will not only involve chicken and hearts, but I will also test a leg of lamb. The spits used should be loosely based on actual finds from Norway, although the actual length could possibly vary some. For a closer study, although criticized study of the spits I would recommend Susanne Bøgh-Andersen thesis “Vendel- och vikingatida stekspett”. However one should bear in mind that some of the spits in that study, were possibly not used for spitroasting.  The size and shape of the spits make me doubt that they were used for any larger pieces of meat.

In the first two trials I’ll look closer upon spit-roasted chicken. The use of spit for cooking fowl, is indicated by a mentioning in Rigstula and further by an image depicting roasted fowl on the Bayeaux tapestry. In the depiction in Rigstula, one may see observe not only that the bird is spit-roasted, but also how it is secured to the spit with  vertically placed skewers. ( This method of securing the chicken is also depicted in several renaissance paintings.  These vertically placed skewers possibly serve two purposes, that is to keep the bird spinning with the spit, and to secure the thighs to the rest of the body. In many of the later images one could see how the birds are roasted with both feet and neck remaining. These parts seem to have been secured to the spit with some thread.

My plan for the first chicken was to make a simple filling with some herbs mixed with butter to give the chicken some additional fat and aroma. The herbs used was Alpine Leek (Allium Victorialis), juniper berries, thyme and some dried fir buds. For the outside I planned to baste it with a mixture of whey and mustard seeds. This should hopefully give it both some acidity and sting.

The chickens I got for this experiment were frozen, and with no wings. As I started to stuff the chicken I realised that it was not completely defrosted, which would probably influence the cooking process. In order to keep the stuffing inside the chicken I had to make my self some mini skewers with which I could secure the content.

The fire place was set up with the fire in the middle and a soapstone vessel on the side in which I were to collect fat and basting from the chicken. Although turning the chicken proved to be a rather slow process that took a fair amount of time, it was actually quite a relaxing task. I noticed after a while though that one of the thighs were getting burnt as it was hanging dangerously away from the body. This I solved by tying the legs closer to the body with a piece of string. As the chicken roasted I basted it continuously with the whey mixture and as the roasting proceeded also with the fat that poured out.

After about an hour and a half the chicken started to both look and smell ready, however as I took it from the spit and examined it closer with a small cut by the thighs I could notice that the meatjuices were still red. It was not until half an hour later that I could consider the chicken as being ready. Perhaps this could have been reduced somewhat if the chicken had been properly defrosted to start with.

I took the chicken from the spit and cut it up in small bite size pieces. Although more or less ready the thigh bones were now slightly overcooked and had turned red again. The taste was nice and with a distinct flavour of the open fire. However, the filling could have been a bit more permeating and the coating a bit more poignant. For a greater culinary experience I’d probably ought to add something acidic to the filling as well. But although this is really to be considered slow food, a fire roasted chicken could be highly recommended to any high seat during a prominent feast. Still the limitations of the spits and the time taken would make it a rather exclusive dish and nothing one could expect to be found on all tables even at the more prestigious feasts.


July 17, 2010

As brown mustard seeds can be dated back to at least the Viking Age, one would expect that it had been used in one way or another, if nothing else as a spice. In some of the above dishes I have used a few ground mustard seeds to give it some sting. However, today and already during the medieval period we mainly know mustard as a condiment. When mixing ground mustard seeds with something acidic (vinegar) the taste and smell becomes more pronounced.

Though probably a rather sour cuisine, it would be difficult to say whether malt vinegar was part of the available resources at the time. The existence of malt vinegar is a completely different discussion that I’ll save for another post. But a few days ago I was given two bottles of whey from a small cheese-farm near here, Lofotens Gårdsysteri. This allowed me to think a bit broader about what ways whey can be used. One of the possible uses that struck me was that it could readily be used in exchange for vinegar in both cooking and pickling. Since the whey I got was the remains from cheesemaking, the whey was both sweet and sour. In most recipes, even those dating back to the 13th century the mixture of something sweet and something sour seems central in most recipes, by using this whey it would be possible that it would balance it self.

The method was rather easy; I used more or less a large spoonful of the previously ground mustard seeds, to that I added some of the whey while stirring until it got a good consistency. Stirring and adding a bit more whey as the seeds absorbed the liquid. After a while I was satisfied and I put the mustard to the ultimate test – taste and smell. My direct impression was that the mixture had all the qualities of a mustard although it could perhaps have been a bit sweeter and also less dry. Though the latter could perhaps be remedied by a bit more whey and by grinding the seeds some more before doing the mix. Although tasting properly, it should be allowed to rest for a day before it is finally tested.

edit: After two days it had dried out a bit and lost much of the taste and smell of the previous day, perhas I added to little whey as mustard usually needs some liquid than what appears enough to start with


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.

Pickled turnips

July 13, 2010

One of the great questions about most historical food cultures is how did they keep things. As I have written before, the amount of salt that one could expect to find up here was possible rather limited and in the case one got hold of it quite costly.

Though drying is a rather obvious method up here with the stockfish and all, I am a bit doubtful if that would be the most preferred method when it comes to certain vegetables that would keep quite well by just storing them cool. However, while certain fruits, berries and legumes would not lose much of their main characteristics by being dried, properties like vitamin C would not be as easily recovered from the dried vegetables. Though far more bulky I would still claim that pickling vegetables in lactic acid would have been an important way of keeping them from going bad.

However, the surviving evidence of such a pickling method is scarce at best. I seem to recall some instances in which remains of lactic acid had been found in clay vessels, but really have to recheck that source. It is not often mentioned in medieval sources though I do have a few 17th century recipes of sourkraut and similar dishes. Still I find this kind of pickling worth considering and if it can be done without salt even more so.

In this first attempt I tried to pickle a handful of turnips, or some modern breed thereof. They were cut into slices and spread out in a wooden pail. Among the slices I spread some juniperberries and carawayseeds, which is still common to add to the sourkraut. I added just a bit of seasalt and almost 100 ml of whey.

I tried to press it all down using my wooden club, though it is difficult to say how much it was pressed together. In order to keep it all anaerobic I added some water and put a lid on top that was pressed down with a rock. To make sure that the lid did not stick it was a fair bit to small in comparison to the pail, so I noticed that some pieces of turnip tried for a hasty escape. Knowing that it might spoil the whole batch I made a makeshift lattice that was put in under the lid with hopes that it might do the trick. I am fully aware though that I might have to return in a few days and check for mould and throw away those pieces that managed to escape. To start with the bucket was placed not to far from the fire, but I should possibly move it away in a day or two. Best would perhaps be to put it on top of the loft, if I can reach that.