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.


6 Responses to “Thoughts on bread”

  1. Daniel Schneider said

    Hej Daniel! I’ve read Gräddät (though not as thoroughly as I’d like) and a number of Anne-Marie Hansson’s articles and books, but can you recommend any for the Lejre info? I’ve been thinking that probably after beer brewing, the mash grain would also have been mixed into bread dough- the mashing methods of the day would have left a fair bit of malt sugar, and other nutrients in the grain, which would make the bread tastier and more nutritious.


    • eldrimner said

      I quite agree the used mash would probably have been excellent to use in the bread. I guess that you could dry it and grind it fi you want the mash to be more flour like, even though the porridge texture of the mash would work.

      • eldrimner said

        As for Lejre, that was more or less based on what I could find in the excavation reports, I’ll see if I can dig up the reference tomorrow. And of course it would be a question if one should interpret the contents of the oven as a base for baking bread, but I would find it likely.

  2. Refr said

    One of the reenactors in our region built himself a rotary quern, and he’s discovered that roasting the grain (mostly barley) first makes a huge difference in how easy it is to grind, particularly if the weather is humid. I’ve tried raw and roasted barley in his quern and would say it’s about half the effort to grind the roasted grains.

  3. Merryn said

    You can get very fine flour indeed from sieved crushed malt.

    And I agree with Dan about using the spent grain in bread dough – I don’t do this myself but I know people who do and they say it is delicious.

  4. Hi Daniel! I’m pleased that you want to give some attention to the early rye-breads of sothern Scandinavia! As I see it they evolved from the fact that the people of these regions started growing rye and using the novelty “the oven”. The possibility to grind more flour at once is also something to consider. If you bake flat breads that you are supposed to eat directly you can use a flat stone or a “frying pan” but as soon as you want to use yeast or sourdough and make a bread slightly softer and higher, you need heat from all sides around the bread, in short you need an oven. As far as I know remains of ovens from this period have been found in Denmark and Skåne (where they grew rye at that time) but not in Birka (where the rye of that time couldn’t grow). Most places wheat has been considered the finest grain and if you were in the position of being able to chose, that would probably be your choice. The wheats of that time wasn’t that easy to grow here because of our climate so they would definitly have been exclusive and probably reserved for those who were in power or could afford it, perhaps for special occasions. Wheat contains gluten which (when treated right and kneaded properly) is what holds the gasbubbles inside the bread if you use yeast or sourdough. The wheats of that time contained only a small fraction of gluten compared to what modern wheat contains, so the bread wouldn’t have been very “fluffy”!
    Rye is completely different. Rye contains “pentosans” that gets bigger when you add water to them.
    It’s easy to make a sourdough from ryeflour and water alone, letting it sit in a lukewarm area for a couple of days. If you don’t succeed, add a mashed apple and a couple of spoonfulls of honey. (What if you were making porridge, something made you forget about it and you left the pot by the fire before you got to boiling it?) To keep it alive you need to feed it with new flour and water when it starts to sink back down.
    Ryebread is difficult to bake. You need to give it time and “push it” several times before it’s ready to bake. First you scould some ryeflour with plenty of boiling water and let it cool down over night or for 24 hours. (Perhaps some leftover porridge to put in the dough?) Then you add some more flour and cold or lukewarm water and sourdough and/or yeast and leave it to heave in 4-6 hours. Then you add even more flour, water, yeast or sourdough and something sweet (perhaps some malted barley or honey) to make it heave even more. Then you divide the dough and make the breads, originally they are supposed to have been round, don’t remember where I learned that though. Let them heave on floured cloth or wood until they start to crack, then you bake them for 1,5 to 3 hours depending on their size and the heat in the oven. A woodfired stoneoven drops in temperature and the time it takes depends on each oven. The time you bake it also depends on your intentions – are you eating it at once or are you saving it for later and for how long do you want to save it? A hard crust and a dryer bread will be possible to save and store longer. A wet bread will probably get ruined earlier, but also change taste earlier. In Skåne in the 1700 and 1800 you baked about every three weeks or once in two months. The changes in the taste was considered good and tasty, even “healthier” to eat than newly baked bread! That kind of bread definetely needs a “rye bread carver”!
    Barley is excellent for beermaking, animalfood and porridge but it makes a lousy bread! I think that they may have used it to save some of the good rye for later, I actually don’t think they added it for the taste or the nutrients. Malt is added in flour today to make it easier to bake with, but it has the biggest effect on wheat. Don’t add to much! I don’t think they added linseeds for the taste either, but probably for their nutrients. They have to be crushed though or they will just pass trough the body. Salt is bad for yeast and sourduogh but good for the taste. When you use sourduogh it gets less important to use salt because the bread has lots of taste anyway.
    Oats has been considered horse-feed for a very long time in Sweden! It doesn’t heave either. Only rye and wheat heave properly. I’ve got some emmerwheat at home that I haven’t tried yet. It’s closer to the kind of wheat they actually had than modern wheat or even dinkel/spelt (modern dinkel/spelt has been VERY modified)! You can buy emmerwheat from Warbro kvarn. Sorry for th “Swenglish”, hope you can understand me!
    / Sophie

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