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.


Milling again

June 14, 2010

Barley after the first milling

As I still could not use the fire today, I decided to return to the milling experiment. Though I managed to more or less calculate the time it took for me to mill a certain amount of grain, and I could conclude that I needed to put the grains through the quern at least six times. However, in order to reach a more scientific conclusion and to be able to use the quern not only to mill flour, but also grist and other sizes that could be used for other things than baking, I decided to document the varying sizes that the barley displayed after each turn.

Although I settled on six millings last time, it was not so clear cut, though each additional milling would produce a finer and finer flour, there was always some coarser grains in the mix. In order to gain a fine flour with no coarser pieces one would have had to sieve the flour. On the other hand, if one were to sieve the flour, already the fifth milling would have produced a product that would have been usable, though there would have been a larger amount of pieces that should be returned to the mill.

The only problem is that I do not know of any surviving find of sieves from this early period.

Pictures are forthcoming…

Milling II

May 29, 2010

Today I attempted to clock my proficiency at milling. I had done some minor milling exercises using the hand quern here, but despite claiming that milling with a hand quern was hard work that would only produce a limited amount of flour, I had no real experience of that myself. In order to get some more experience of this activity I decided to make a simple time observation exercise. I intended to mill 500 grams of barley seeds without hull.

Since the flour was nowhere near being fine enough to be baked after a single visit to the hand quern the grains had to be milled several times. This gave me the opportunity to make a sort of statistical observation of the time used to to mill this amount of barley. All in all I managed to mill all the grains in about 4 minutes, the first round taking about five minutes and the last one three.

(1st :5 min, 2nd : 4 min, 3rd : 4 min, 4th:3 min, 5th:6 min and 6th:3 min)

In order to get the grains fine enough to be possible to be baked into a bread I had to mill it six times and I was still thinking that it should could need another go in the quern. Still if I were to maintain this speed I should have been able to mill about 12 kg of barley on a 10-hour day, quite possibly enough to feed a rather large household. A person skilled at this craft and with the efficiency of a large-scale production could probably even double that amount. However, even for someone trained at this task and with a less frail body than mine such a long work session would prove rather cumbersome and difficult to maintain. And while 10 -20 kg of flour can seem as rather much, I would still maintain that this method cannot provide enough flour to support a food economy in which flour is milled rarely and the bread is stored for a rather long time. Such a strategy would not appear until the emergence of watermills and similar constructions.