Monday, September 9, 2013

Chicken Stew With Beer

As a person interested in Viking age Scandinavian material culture, I keep a lookout for recipes that could have been made by the Vikings. This generally means stews and soups, and pan-fried flatbreads to eat with stews and soups.

One of the recipes that has been kicking around on the Internet for a while comes from this recipe collection compiled by members of the New Varangian Guard, a reenactment group in Australia. Since I like making stews and soups in my crockpot, my cooking skills are a reasonable match for reconstructing the type of dishes believed to be characteristic of Viking cuisine, and some of the recipes I've experimented with out of intellectual curiosity have ended up on the list of recipes that I make for regular nightly dinners.
Recreation of a Viking cooking hearth**

Last night, I made up the Chicken Stew With Beer recipe from the NVG compendium.  I made a number of changes to the recipe as printed, as follows:
  • The recipe calls for a whole chicken, about 2-3 pounds in weight; I substituted a bit more than 2 pounds of chopped, deboned chicken thighs so my husband, Eric, and I wouldn't have to pick out bones while eating the stew (there are limits to how far I'll go in the name of authenticity to the details of Viking cuisine). 
  • The recipe calls for allspice, but there's a gloss in the compendium which observes, correctly, that allspice is a New World plant that comes from regions the Vikings never visited, so I substituted dried juniper berries instead, since I knew juniper was and is used in Scandinavia to flavor foods.
  • The recipe calls for fresh thyme, which I included, but I added some fresh sage as well.
  • The recipe also calls for dark beer. I didn't have any dark beer, but I had some non-alcoholic light beer, so I used that. 
  • Finally, I added a parsnip to the turnips and carrots called for by the recipe, because I like having a bit of parsnip in a root vegetable mix. Parsnips are native to Eurasia and have been eaten since ancient times, and evidence of their use in food has been found in the Viking era levels at the excavation in York, England, but I don't know for certain whether parsnips grew in Scandinavia during the Viking Age.
We just ate some of the stew, and it was quite good. Eric said he could taste the slight sweetish flavor the juniper berries imparted; since I have no independent experience of foods flavored with juniper I couldn't tell whether its taste was present. I could taste the richness imparted by frying the chicken in butter before stewing it, as well as the sage and thyme. Eric pronounced it "husband approved", which means he's happy to eat it whenever I want to make it. I suspect I will make it again, though probably not in the winter, because it's a relatively light meal by comparison to the barley stews and beef stews I've made. Maybe I'll try to make some flatbread to eat with it for tomorrow night's dinner.

*   The compendium says that the recipe originally came from "Vikingars Gästabud (The Viking Feast)", which I assume is a Swedish-language book dedicated to providing speculative but plausible recipes that might have been eaten by the Vikings.  I would like to get my hands on a copy.

** Photograph by Wolfgang Sauber, taken of an exhibit at the Fotevikens Museum in Skanör, Sweden. Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Cathy -

    First, although I know that you and Eric don't drink, it *would* be better (richer) with dark rather than light beer. (Think of the difference between clover honey and molasses.) Also, 15 min. of simmering will drive off essentially all the alcohol, so it doesn't have to be NA beer.

    Second, you could thicken and enrichen this with some grain (barley came to my mind) for a cold-weather dish.

    Glad you both enjoyed it!

    - John D. Bell

  2. Hi, John! Thanks for stopping by.

    I'm sure there is a taste difference, but ESR is touchy about eating stuff cooked with alcohol. He says he is able to taste it even after it should have cooked off, and he doesn't like the taste.

    As for adding another grain, I didn't want to add barley to this pot because I thought it would obscure some of the more delicate flavors and make the dish too bland. I have made plenty of barley stews, including the lamb with barley and leeks that ESR liked so much, but I wanted to try something different. I did consider thickening the liquid by stirring in some flour (wheat or perhaps rye) but did not do that. Maybe next time.

  3. Hi, the source they have used for that recipe is "The Viking Cookbook" a swedish production made some 15 years ago and still used by some reenactors. However the book lacks in research and is more or less a compilation of traditional Swedish recipes with some effort to take away things that are not based on Viking age finds (Allspice being a very obvious example of them when the ingredients are not checked). Overall the methods are not really fitting with the available cooking methods, to much fried or oven baked,and the use of exotic spices is quite generous in a way I do not think would have been available in Scandinavia at the time.
    In ths dish I would say that frying chicken in butter would have been quite unlikelyin a Viking Age context and the the beer would have to had been somewhat different flavours.

    Now I have to confess being somewhat biased, as I am involved in the cookbook "An Early Meal". (

    Daniel Serra

    1. Hi, Daniel, thanks for your comments! I would love to purchase your book (and try out the recipes suggested in it) but I am hampered by having very limited funds right now. :-(

      I am curious as to why you believe frying in butter likely would not have been practiced by the Vikings. (I understand the reasoning behind the rest of your comments, and agree). I could experiment with unhopped beer and see how that changes the recipe. Since my husband and I are not beer drinkers anyway, we might even prefer that result.

  4. Looking at medieval sources, most dishes like this one would have used a boiled or even a preboiled chicken that is shredded to pieces and added to a stew. In a Viking Age context the cooking utensils suggests that it was even rarer to fry meat. Spitroasting, possibly, but then again it would have been considered somewhat luxurious and not for soemthing that you should put into a stew.


  5. I agree that the Vikings didn't have skillets. However, it's not necessary to have a skillet to pre-brown or fry something before putting it in a stew or soup. It can be done in the soup pot itself, as is done with vegetables in this modern recipe:

    But there's no proof the Vikings used such a technique, and it may well have been impracticable to do so in a cauldron over a fire.

    Thanks for your comments.