June 20, 2012
Another basic element in breadmaking is the baking liquid used. The most common liquid would at the time have been, and still is, plain water. Traditionally one can recognize alternatives or additions such as soured milk, milk, whey, buttermilk, wort, beer or even blood. It is however next to impossible to discern such details in the surviving breads. The use of any dairy products or blood would give an increase in the protein content, but the study made by Bergström could not provide any such evidence among the breads she studied. An earlier study may indicate that blood had been used for a breadlike fermented pudding.
Though most baking liquids would have been difficult to prove, Bergström found indications that some of the breads may have contained microorganisms that had originated from the brackish water around Birka. Although unconclusive, it may indicate that slightly salty water had been used for baking.
It is difficult to conclude anything about what types of liquid were used, and I guess the only thing I would outright rule out would be the use of sweet milk unless it was for something very high end, as fresh milk more or less would have been something very exclusive. Though I am quite fond of the taste and richness that whey can provide, if I were to use some malt in the bread it would fit better with just some water.
Today most breads in Scandinavia would use salt, and an unsalted bread would by most of us be considered quite unpalatable. Unsalted bread is however still baked in different parts of the world, most wellknown is perhaps the unsalted bread from Tuscany. Little in the finds indicate that the breads would have been salted, except perhaps the brackish water mentioned above.
The use of salt or not in the bread may be somewhat dependent on how it is eaten. Although there are indications that bread were indeed used with coldcuts and even butter, there are two main ways of using the bread in the medieval period. A quite simple way to use the bread, which actually was associated with the more prominent feasts, is to use bread as a plate or bread disc, that this practice was in use already in the Viking Age can be indicated in the poem Rigstula. If used as a plate for food it would make the salt in the bread less of an issue as most of the taste would come from the food on it. In a similar manner bread has been used as a base for many soups in the medieval period. In many cases clear soups were served with a slice of bread in the bottom of the bowl. This would also counter the need for salt in the bread. Though we do not know if this practice was in use during the Viking Age, again Rigstula gives a hint of a similar practice, when the thrall eats his thick and coarse bread with some stock.
Being stuck with a modern palate, I will for this bread use the brackish water of Birka as an inspiration, and make the bread just slightly salty. Brakish water would contain between 0,5 to 30 grams water/ litre and I assume that the water outside Birka is on the lower side.
June 21, 2010
Due to the rather unlucky choice of using an iron cauldron for salt extraction, and then having the cauldron left outside, made the resulting extracted salt turn out somewhat impure to say the least. The resulting salt was somewhat greyish, looking and feeling almost like wet sand. As I today hanged the remaining tongues to be smoked, I had a new opportunity to extract salt from old brine.
This time I chose a smaller stone vessel that had a rather wide brim in order to get the best exchange, adding just some brine at the time in order to get a nicer and clearer resulting brine. As I was trying to cook it using this method I soon realised that while it worked well in order to get most of the salt gathered at the bottom of the pot it was not the best method for separating the proteins from the salt, Though I managed to skim of some of the proteins, it was soon containing quite abit of the salt I tried to save. Due to the mixture of salt and proteins, the liquid was also prone to form bubbles that would almost cause it to boil over the rim.
June 5, 2010
While drying of course can be a viable option in order to preserve food such as meat, some salt may have been used in the Viking age cuisine around Lofoten. Salt is generally used for preserving meat, to preserve dairy products and in order to give your food taste. In this area I would assume that the order of importance would be go from dairy products as the most important to the use of salt as a taste enhancer as the least important.
Though salt generally plays an important role in order to preserve meat, it could be possible that the strong winds and smoke could be used to dry the meat. In order to preserve any dairyproducts that are not supposed to be soured, however, there are no real option but to use salt.
Though the sagas generally are uncertain as a source material the story on how Torarin puts is opponents head in salt, at the very least shows that salt for dry curing was available in the 12th century and possibly – since the salted head have a central role in that story – even earlier.
For both cheese and butter I would think that salt has played an important role, even though one may store butter in bogs and cheese in smoke or piles of manure (Olaus Magnus). A soft cheese may be given a slightly longer longer life by subjecting it to smoke. However, in order to prolong the life of both cheese and butter salt would have been a quite important resource.
Although many medieval stories, sayings and recipes point towards the importance of salt as a taste enhancer, this may indeed be the least of the uses of salt as a resource. A salty taste may be obtained indirectly by the salt that may have been present in meat, fish or dairy products.
While it would be next to impossible to find any hard evidence for any salt being used in Lofoten, the importance of salt for curing and storing would make it an attractive commodity, and I would certainly have been an appreciated addition to the economy of a greater farm even at this latitude.
Though three main sources of salt can be considered, only two of them seem to be viable at the tme and place of my experiments. The production of salt from saltwater requires either weather conditions in which rain is scarce, or an unseemly amount of fuel which would soon have deforested the islands around here even if they were covered by forests at the time. Another possible source of salt would have been the extraction of salt from dried seaweed, though that may have been a possible source, that salt was generally considered to be of inferior quality and may even not be good enough for use as a curing agent – need to check my sources on that. The third possible source of salt would of course have to be from trade. Though there are no written accounts from the time or archaeological sources that indicate any salt trade here, it may still be possible that salt could have come from trade exchange that the dried cod, walrus ivory and reindeer skins would provide. Though the sources for an early trade of dried codfish are rather scarce, some archaeological material seem to indicate that Norwegian codfish somehow ended up in present day England (Barett, ) If one were to assume that codfish were traded with the British isle salt may have been one of the more attractive commodities for which the cod could have been traded. According to Hagen England seem to have been rather rich, or at least self sufficient in salt (Hagen, 2002, p. 45 – 47). A certain amount of salt-trade could perhaps provide the salt needed
Barett, James 2008, Detecting the medieval cod trade: a new method and first results Journal of Archaeological Science 35:4
Hagen, Ann 2002, A handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food – Processing and Consumption