Cooking pit/earth oven

September 6, 2010

Almost a moth has gone by since my last post -after some well needed mental rest, I was sort of stuck in my everyday life with other things to fix and write. Anyway I’ll be adding one or two posts of my cooking at the festival and then I’d hopefull will be able to add posts of a more discussing nature during the rest of the fall.

Among the differing cooking techniques a special role can be assigned to the cooking pits. It is a cooking technique that has been used as far apart as New Zeeland, Hawaii or Europe, and in Scandinavia it is possible to date this technique back to the early Bronze age. However looking closer at the archaeological remains from Scandinavia, shows that it has been used somewhat differently depending on the region.

The principle is rather simple and uses the energy storing properties of stones. By heating large stones that one put into a hole and then covers with earth or turf one is able to take advantage of the heat and cook larger pieces of meat. Though there is a general archaeological profile for this kind of feature – a largish pit, containing a mixture of stones, charcoal, soot and burnt wood. However, when comparing differing areas of Scandinavia, there seem to be distinct differences between different regions. While the southern Scandiavian cookingpit seem to display an order of stones, charcoal and turf, the norwegian cooking pits would have the burnt woods in the bottom.

At the site of the museum in Lofoten, the longhouse seem to have been preceeded by a large number of cooking pits spread out in a rather large areal. This technique of cooking in a pit seems to have been fairly important at the site and was therefore important to try. The local research archaelogist, Lars-Erik Narmo, had both ecavated several cooking pits and cooked using the cooking pits at some occasions. Though basing it on the Norwegian finds he had mainly been using modern means of covering the meat. In order to keep it from charring and not be covred in sand, the most common method today would be to cover it in aluminum foil.

For the festval and a small event just prior to it we cooked some meat using a cooking pit. At the first occasion I were given some more range to experiment with the actual methods, though the pits themselves were done in accordance to the Norrwegian traditions. A large oblong hole – 1,5 meter long and about 0,5 meters in width – were dug and filled with a large but airy layer of birch wood. On top of that we placed a layer of rocks, that were going to act as the heat element of the cooking pit. The wood layer were allowed to burn until all the woods had been burnt away leaving a very hot layer of rocks. On this the meat was placed and then covered with earth in order to keep the heat and bake the meat.

As baking in foil hardly can be percieved as an ancient method I wanted to explore some kind of covering that would more reflect any historical method of cooking. The size and shape of the pits would suggest that one were rather cooking whole animals rather than as now just a small cut of the animal. A possible way of covering the meat, in order to keep it from charring, getting covered in dirt and to keep the fat and juices in side would have been to use the actual skin of the animal. However, lacking whole animals and proper bags of hide, I looked into another solution. In medieval cookbooks one can sometimes find recipes for dishes that are baked in the oven covered in dough. Though this more often refeers to smaller pieces of meat, I considered this to be a good solution in order to handle the meat in a more proper way. Half the meat – legs of lamb – were covered in foil and the ther in dough some in a simple wheat dough and a leg of a young goat was covered in a barley dough. Together with the meat, and inside cuts in the meat I placed, lingonberries, juniper berries, thyme, angelica and alpine leek. To no surprise I noticed that the wheat dough was far easier to work with, so I came to mainly use wheat dough to cover the meat. However, after the meat had been laying about for a while, I realised that the good properties of the wheat dough when working with it turned against me in the end. The texture of the dough made it expand and stick to the other pieces of the meat. The barley dough on the other hand, which had to be applied in thicker chunks kept it self rather well withouth any external interference and n suddenly exposed parts of the meat.

Anyway all of the meat were placed into the pit and covered with dirt. That the stones were rather hot were easily noticed as the dough soon started to smell like a freshly baked pizza. From the earth one could see steam rising, even though I tried to cover such holes up. When the pit was uncovered about one and a half hour – two hours later the earth was hot, but not as hot as it usually was at this point according to Lars-Erik. While we could uncover the foil wrapped meat, the dough was not properly cooked on the top of most of the other pieces and the meat underneat were still red. The foil packages were cut open, and reveled some meat with a nice pink core. It was cut up and eaten with delight by most of the participants. After another hour or two we dug up the smaller of the doughcovered packages -the one with a barley covering and goats meat. This package was at that time nice and the meat very succulent. One could notice that the dough was thoroughly baked in the bottom but still a bit soft on the top. The longer cooking time, had us considering that the earth by which I covered the meat was a bit to cold and damp so that much of the energy had gone into heating the earth. Both the goat and the foilcovered lamb tasted really nice and were quickly devoured.

The remaining wheatdough covered meatpackages were still not ready as we left the area for the night. During the next day, the opening of the festival, I decided to uncover some of the remaining meat. It had at that time been buried in the ground for about 18 hours. When I started to dig into the pit I could still see some steam rish up from the pit. As I recovered the packages I could notice that while the top dough were still soft it had still contained most of the juices and fat from the meat, which was steaming hot as I opened the packages. The meat had at this point absorbed most of the taste of the added herbs and berries, and were truly succulent. While it were falling of the bone it had not gone dry in the least.  One could in factsee a small puddle of meatjuice and fat in the bottom of the dough container.In regards to the texture, some of the visitors commented that it reminded them of chicken.

From a culinary point of view I would highly recommend this more timeconsuming method using dough. However, since the dough was still soft on the top it fell of as I took up the meat, thus exposing it to the sand and earth, which is not optimal from a hygienic point of view. One could notice though, that the meat that were exposed directly on the stones were instantly charred giving it an almost glasslike texture and appearance on the surface. This part of the doughcover were solid though still not charred on the inside. The last package was uncovered after about 24 hours in the ground, and it was at this point still steaming hot, and hot to the touch.

A comparison between the two methods, foil and dough, would give some advantages to both. While the foil would provide us with a more secure method, both in regards to earth and time consumption it was by far more bland in taste and would run the risk of being cooked a bit dry. Since the foil would conduct the heat it would be more like cooking some meat in an oven with the advantages and disadvantages that would bring. The dough covering would offer some other problems and advantages. From a culinary point of view it is by far a preferred method, both in taste and texture it was beyond comparison. The disadvantages was ofcourse the long and rather uncertain time it took to cook, and the risk having the meat contaminated with earth. The latter could perhaps be countered by further looking into the actual method of cooking. A simle solution could perhaps be to turn the breadpackages quickly once it has been placed onto the hot stone, thus creating a hard baked crust on both sides. Another possible solution, which woud probaby not be conclusive with the Norwegian finds, would be to use two layers of hot stones – one under and one over the hot rocks. One may also place some bark or a reed mat on top of the packages in order to separate the dirt from the food. One should ofcourse also look into other possible medium in which to bake the meat. To use the untreated hide of the anmal that is to be cooked would be a very interesting approach.

All in all one can conclude that while this is a rather time and energy consuming method it would be optimal when cooking food for a large group of people as it neither requires utensils nor a hearth, and it is possibly in that context that we should understand the cooking pits.

2 Responses to “Cooking pit/earth oven”

  1. Daniel Schneider said

    I was wondering, do you know if there’s any evidence for pits like fulachta fiadh, the Irish pits, which were used for boiling/stewing meat? they generally show up archaeologically as a plank-lined pit, with a pile of heat-affected rocks besides, The pit would be filled with water,and whatever was to be cooked would be put in, then rocks would be heated in a fire, then dropped into the water, heating it and cooking the food. They were often found along travel routes, which suggests they were used as a way to avoid needing to carry cooking equipment while travelling.
    In terms of the soil contamination, what about wrapping the meat in sheets of birch bark? not only would that keep the dirt off, it might add flavour to the meat…

  2. Anguin said

    This is really interesting, Serra! Thanks for writing!

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