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.

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.