Monday, September 8, 2014

A Thoughtful Meal


Flatbread
Turnips
Recently, I obtained a copy of Daniel Serra and Hanna Tunberg's new book on Viking food.  The citation is: Serra, Daniel and Tunberg, Hanna. An Early Meal: A Viking Age Cookbook & Culinary Odyssey (ChronoCopia Publishing AB 2013).

Serra and Tunberg's book is beautified by a great many tasteful, full-color photographs of the stews, cheeses, breads, and other products of their recipes.  I have chosen to illustrate this review of their work with Wikimedia Commons images of foods that were commonly eaten in Scandinavia during the Viking period.  

Like other such books on Viking cuisine, the conclusions propounded by An Early Meal are grounded in deductions based on archaeological finds as to the foods, cooking techniques, and cooking vessels available in Scandinavia during the Viking period.  But Serra and Tunberg have taken a much deeper look at the available evidence than other books on the subject that I have read.  Unlike the other books, they have gathered much more information, and analyzed it more comprehensively, taking into consideration not only the food stuffs and cooking technology available to the Vikings, but also the seasons of the year during which particular foods would have been obtainable.  Then they considered these questions in terms of the different conditions extant in different major settlements of the Viking world--Lofoten, Kaupang, Lejre, Hedeby, Jorvik, Uppakra, and Birka.  The result is a more detailed proposed recreation of Viking cuisine that takes into account regional differences and is consequently more convincing than any other recreation of which I have read.

Cod
Haddock
Although I have a general familiarity with the archaeological discoveries relating to the foods that were eaten in Viking age Scandinavia, Serra and Tunberg discuss some critical considerations that had not occurred to me, and that lead to conclusions that I, at least, found surprising.  The conclusions that surprised me include the following:

The hungriest time was summer.  We are accustomed to thinking of summer as a time of plenty. But that is because we can always import foods from areas where "harvest" comes earlier or later than it does for us, ensuring a fairly constant food supply (and a great variety of different types of foods) year-round.  Serra and Tunberg point out that most of the Vikings' food supply was local, and peaked in the autumn--which was when the cereal crops were harvested and food animals that could not economically be fed during the winter were slaughtered.   Although some food items, such as green herbs and berries, became available in spring or summer, they would not be sufficient to feed a hard-working populace, and milk had to be taken carefully, to avoid starving the animals' young and thus diminishing future meat sources.  Perhaps the answer to the question in my last post, "What did the Vikings eat during the hottest days of summer?" was simply "very little."  Or maybe the answer was "fish"--since ocean fishing and river fishing likely would have been an option, and might not have left many traces in the archaeological record.
    Kale
Thyme
Sweets were rare. Serra and Tunberg note that apiculture did not seem to exist in Scandinavia during the Viking age, either because of ignorance of the relevant techniques, or because bees did not survive the winter months in such a cold climate.  Thus honey was an imported good (the authors speculate that it may have been imported from the Baltic countries) and when imported was probably used primarily to make mead rather than for sweetening everyday food. The authors point out that other than fruits (many of which were more tart than sweet), the malt remaining from the beer brewing process, and imported honey, there were no sweeteners available in Viking age Scandinavia.
Meats were eaten preserved more often than raw.  If most slaughtering was done in the autumn to conserve food resources to last through the winter, spring and summer months, it follows that most meat was preserved in some fashion. The authors propose that meat may have been pickled in whey, or in salt, or even smoked to preserve it.  Whatever means were most commonly used to preserve meat, the point remains that cooking and eating freshly killed meat (other than perhaps fish) was not a common occurrence.
Butter (Borough Market, London)
Angelica 
Game was eaten much less often than one might think.  My husband's first thought was that hunting could have obtained game animals, providing fresh meat for Viking age tables. But that game meat would have to be butchered and prepared for table somewhere, and Serra and Tunberg report that surprisingly few bones from game animals have been discovered by archaeologists in the vicinity of period settlements. Perhaps there simply was not enough small game in Scandinavia to make snares and small game hunting a profitable enterprise, and large game animals (such as reindeer) would be challenging, if not impossible, to butcher and preserve if killed during the hungry winter and early spring months.
Frying was limited as a cooking technique.   The authors note that most cooking was done in iron cauldrons or heavy soapstone (or in some parts of the area, ceramic) placed in proximity to a fire. Such equipment would allow for slow sauteing of onions, ramsons or leeks (and many of the recipes in An Early Meal make use of this technique), but would not cook meats effectively.  
Consideration of these techniques leads inevitably to the conclusion that the dominant flavors in Viking cuisine, as in Scandinavian cuisine today, are sour ones.  Yogurts and cheeses were popular with the Vikings as they are with their descendants, though they were much more important for the Vikings because they provided a means to use milk long after the liquid product would have spoiled. Serra and Tunberg observe that whey likely was used served to preserve meats, which would give them a sour taste also.   Vegetables such as kale could also have been preserved by pickling. Even the berries and crabapples most commonly eaten by the Vikings were tart rather than sweet.

I have long been fascinated by the material culture of Viking age Scandinavia, but it had not occurred to me before how very different their foodways were from the ones familiar to me. I don't mean the scarcity of fried foods, the shortage of sweets, and the large number of sour-tasting dishes--though those are important differences.  But an American living in the 21st century CE does not have to follow the seasons very closely in choosing food.  The Vikings had to do so as a matter of survival, and the variety of foodstuffs available to them was small by comparison to what I can buy inexpensively at my local supermarket just a few miles away.

I was even more forcibly reminded of the vast cultural difference between us and the Vikings when I attempted to select a recipe from An Early Meal to feed myself and my husband--but that's a matter for another post.

3 comments:

  1. We do not have any American distributor of the book as yet but you should be able to get hold of the book through either
    Potboiler Press (http://potboilerpress.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=40&products_id=1203) or
    Poison Pen Press (http://www.poisonpenpress.com/cookery.html)

    Daniel

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  2. And for your readers in Europe, here the book is available through amzon.co.uk

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  3. Thanks for visiting, Dan. Yes, Poison Pen Press and Potboiler sell the book for U.S. readers (I bought my copy from Poison Pen Press).

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