Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Tweaking the Bakeoven

[Apologies. Two, no, THREE shows at the theatre intervened. One, 22 actors, 23 characters; then 4 actors, and 22 or 23 or 24 characters. I lost track! And the last one, A Christmas Carol with eleven mainstage actors and a choir of 75, all in Victorian costume... This should have been posted ages ago!]

So, long long ago, up north on a friend's farm where we have an annual historical event, we built a bread oven. We'd actually envisioned it being used as a community bread oven for them what likes to bake bread. Of course, visiting the site only once a year does not make for healthy and productive maintenance.
We'd already discovered with our experiments here at our place, that weather can take a huge toll on an unsheltered, infrequently used stone oven.
Add to the general wear and tear of weather and time, the fact that one short weekend, full of a number of other time intensive projects (building a forge, smelting iron, making glass beads, earthworks and levelling...) meant that the oven just wasn't getting regular TLC. And with the passage of more than a decade, it was in sad shape indeed.

So, it was very exciting this year that a couple of ladies decided they'd like to put some effort into restoring the oven to its former glory and usefulness.

With the home oven, we'd already experimented with a number of building methods: stone, stone and sod, stone and clay, overhead cover, and eventually had just decided to mortar it. The snow load in our area is quite heavy, and the freeze/thaw cycles are extreme. Local clay eventually just degraded away. (Something we are now watching experimentally in our iron smelters.)
So our ladies decided to try a more effective attempt with clay, and brought a better grade with them. We'll have to see how it fares.

Their first step was just to find the oven!

It had been a very rainy summer this year, and the bracken was thriving. Normally the oven shows up a little bit better...

They had to clear away the bracken and accumulated dried vegetation, broken bits and pieces, and make sure the original stones were seated firmly. Then they mixed up their clay and began a serious mortaring effort. After getting thoroughly muddy in the process, they were eventually rewarded with an oven-like object, and were able to make a small fire to preheat and dry the clay.
"Useful tools" were found and created. Other friends had slaughtered one of their ducks and brought it to pluck and cook. A wing became useful to sweep out ashes. Another friend cut and carved a peel (a thin wooden paddle that allows you to slide the bread into the oven.)

Wood for the real heating was prepared, and the fire in the oven started. When it was deemed hot enough, the remains of the fire were swept out, and a loaf of bread dough placed inside, and the opening blocked with a stone. Later, after nightfall, the bread was removed, and declared a success.
Hopefully, next year the oven will still be in decent enough shape that so much time won't be spent on preparing it, and more time can be spent on using it. Ideally, if the heating is started earlier (not late in the day at the end of the weekend!) we may be able to use the oven to bake several things, utilizing the temperature curve that is part of the natural process.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

A New Cookbook

Another one of my birthday presents, brought back from Denmark, turned out to be a cookbook I've heard mentioned and have actually been looking for, Prehistoric Cooking by Jacquie Wood.

See here:

I've seen it mentioned a number of times, and read a few comments about it, but beyond that I wasn't finding too much info, or anything in the way of quotes or samples. So it will be very interesting to actually be able to sit down and take a serious look at this, and maybe try, and experiment, with some of what she says.
We'll have to see...


Saturday, 12 July 2008

Little Pots

Aren't they charming?
It's not like I have any lack of pots, or the man to make them, but this series of three (coincidentally nesting) pots came from one of the museums in Denmark, a birthday gift from my husband. (Yet another reason Homeland Security was anxious about his luggage! Not just iron blooms or maple syrup...)

I'll have to seal them up, which means a chance to try several different methods, but I'm quite delighted by them!


Sunday, 6 July 2008

Feeding Re-Enactors

Or how do we reset our modern sensibilities?

(expanded from the posting on the DARC blog.)

** Random thought warning: No guarantees of a beginning, middle, or end, here. It’s an ongoing discovery!**

Over the years of being one of the main food providers at the varying levels of demo that DARC takes part in, my biggest challenge has been mostly, finding the time ahead, in a life that’s pretty full of other activities or work, to get ready. Fortunately, I find that food fascinates me, and drying fruit or meat or vegetables, or making flatbreads ahead, and planning it all, amuses me. The one recent conundrum has been in crossing borders. All of a sudden I’ve lost my easy ability to prepare our own supplies to take, especially meat and fruit, and have to rely on local grocery supplies. (No, the Norse didn’t really eat pepperoni, but it was the only dried sausage available at your store!)

A number of years ago now, my husband gave me a food dehydrator, which sat for a while, until I finally discovered how truly marvelous it is. I’ve tried other methods of drying, but a dehydrator sure beats the oven, or the vagaries of sun and weather, or the klutzy feet of cats who just want to be a part of everything. Now I can dry foodstuffs all year round, for me as well as for camp purposes. And truthfully, I find that some of those stocks get used up in my daily kitchen before they even have the chance to be part of a period menu!

When it comes to a demo situation, it’s far easier to adhere to a more plausible menu of foodstuffs. On the one hand, I’m preparing it before the public, so my methods will only be the appropriate ones, especially as dictated by the cookware I’ll be using. And I find the people I’m feeding are far more accepting of whatever I give them, when it’s the oasis in a busy day of talking to the public. (Not to mention that after the demo, there’s a good chance we’ll be eating out somewhere, and they can suit their own tastes!)

However, there are occasions where we camp for ourselves. What then? We had already decided in our formative period, that morning was often a time of relaxed authenticity. Partly because some of us like our coffee in the morning; but also because that gave us a period of time in which we could discuss aspects of the whole process, and review gear, etc.

When it comes to food, though, beyond that pot of coffee, I truly prefer historical foods, and more appropriate methods. And when cooking for myself, that’s not really an effort. Historical food intrigues me, as well as the processes of preparing it. (Mind you, I occasionally stray out of one time zone a bit, if I really have urges for experimentation with some other things… I don’t get enough time cooking over fires to work my way through the entire list of things I want to try! Or favourites I’d like to revisit.) But I don’t think I’ve ever had any problems avoiding modern cooking or recipes. After all, this is my chance to escape all that!

I have found that when cooking for others, it’s much harder to toe that historic line. Or when cooking for a longer period of time. Our modern tastes, and sensibilities, and habits get in the way, no matter how much we try to suppress them. Not only will the varying ‘needs’ and requirements and differing senses of taste, and experience of the members of the group get in the way, I have my own perceptions of what constitutes an adequate meal, a balanced menu, and a need to please my audience. Even that is probably a far cry from a busy huswife concerned with making a timely meal from materials to hand.

It’s very hard to turn off our modern taste buds. Easier, perhaps, to follow a period recipe and accept the results. But in earlier period cooking, we’re working from known ingredients and methods, far more often than from actual recipes. There’s an automatic assumption that comes into play, about what we should be doing with those ingredients.

I often dry meat, for example. And while I’ve adapted the ingredients in varying jerky recipes to be something more in keeping with the spicings available to the Norse, it seems highly unlikely that they spent time adding flavourful marinades to meat they were drying as a means of preservation. A simple brining makes sense, because of the useful properties of salt. But plain brined and dried meat really just doesn’t cut it as a ‘snack food’ to the modern tongue. It works well as something for the soup pot, and I’ve used it as such. But for eating? Not so much.

Yet, in the real context, a bit of dried meat would probably have been quite the decent item to stave off some hunger, and the fact you had it at all would probably have been all that mattered.

I suppose I should be pleased with myself that I have tried the more logical ‘plain dried meat’ even, but the fact that I immediately opted back to a marinated jerky bothers me. That’s my 21st century taste buds chiming in.

And so, when faced with a small crowd of people who find plain water something for washing with, not drinking, or a simple soup of dried vegetables or salt fish, less than inspiring, especially if it’s what you had yesterday and the day before, and the day before that…

It definitely becomes a bit more of a challenge.

Particularly when I want them to not feel cheated out of a real meal.

Consequently, we end up with far more extensive meals than I can imagine being the norm. Which, when paired with an inadequate knowledge of period furniture, means a more awkward serving setting. (And way more dishes to clean up!)

And more meals, period. What I’ve read of the Norse suggest a morning meal, and a nighttime meal. Now admittedly, I’m fairly used to a two meal day, and when I worked at my previous job in the city, often a one meal day! But many people in the modern day really are more familiar with three meals a day.

Even the modern perception of what constitutes a meal can get in the way. If the Norse might have been content with a bowl of broth or gruel for a morning meal, with perhaps a crust of bread or an unleavened flatbread to sop it up, why do we feel we cannot start our day without a buffet of tempting items? Sausage, bacon, fresh griddle cakes, fruit… I often make an attempt to offer up a bakepot of some grain porridge, but there are times where I’m the only one willing to give it a go.

Admittedly, the North American diet makes far too much use of meat. We’re spoiled by accessibility and modern methods of preservation. And quite probably, our ideas of a hearty breakfast don’t match with the workload we’re about to undertake in our day! But certainly our choices are not as likely in a culture without large-scale farming, or food-processing, or refrigeration.

And whether or not there were fewer food allergies in history, or not, certainly there are many more scruples about food today, as well as sensitivities, and food choices, and dietary concerns. All those factors can come into play, and then the whole game becomes more complex.

I was lucky recently, at least, in that it was only a very small group of people I was cooking for, which made the variables a bit more finite. Another friend ended up cooking for over two dozen people, and found that in many cases, the entire idea of period food had to be set aside for the sake of efficiency, and group and individual needs. Also, in her case, a goodly quantity of those two dozen people may have had little or no experience with period food, and might not have had the ability to adjust their expectations. For my part, I discovered that although I had a fair array of appropriate storage vessels, and a goodly quantity of period foods along, they got lost in the chaotic shuffle of making sure there was adequate breakfast, lunch, ‘tea’, and dinner that matched up with the varying needs people had brought with them, or the extra bodies that always seem to accumulate.

Certainly, I believe it to be a learned association of ideas: both surrendering what feels natural, and your regular expectations. Particularly when we’re basing the whole thing on extrapolation and conjecture at best. That’s a difficult step to take. I’d like to be able to do it more often, or at least make the attempt.

I find that some easy steps are to simply include only appropriate foodstuffs, even if sometimes the net is cast just a teeny bit wider; ‘to include Britain, as well as the Scandinavian homelands.’ This, to possibly give some scope for wheat as the primary grain, or allow us to include almonds and walnuts. Or to perhaps allow a treat from ‘far away’. (In the case of a few olives for a special snack.) I do end up playing a few mind games with my planning, if only because I live rurally, and don’t have access to preferable options. In cooking for demos, I sometimes build in a supply trip so I actually can buy and use barley flour, or hazelnuts.

[For my experimental cooking, I’m far stricter with myself. It actually ends up being more rewarding.]

Perhaps it might be worth another post just to muse about what might make for good re-enactors’ food?

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Monday, 9 June 2008

Historic Food Out-dated?

Was having a visit with some fellow historic re-enactors last Saturday, well, a work weekend actually. But after the smelter was built, and we were sitting around, post-work, and pre-dinner, the topic of historic food came up.

There has been a discussion recently on a re-enactor list about food allergies, and how to work around them for feasts. Several times I almost made my own contribution to the conversation, and then deleted it. On the one hand, I tend to only be willing to go as far as denoting meat and non-meat dishes in a menu. I’m far too afear’d of the complex issues of food allergies to even feel comfortable giving assurances about something I’ve prepared by myself in my own kitchen, let alone in a rented kitchen with other helpers. Particularly true, as I learn more and more about all the variations of allergies. And unexpected links and molecular similarities… Eek! It just gets way too tricksy.

But that led us both to comment how on the one hand it becomes very difficult to try to reproduce any of the food from varying periods in history with any kind of attempt at veracity. And on the other hand, how it seems that not many people are even trying anymore.

In fact, I’m starting to wonder if historic cooking is becoming a thing of the past! (Now doesn’t that start to sound like something Carrie Bradshaw would be typing?)

When I first started in this whole re-enactoring thing (long, long ago and reasonably far away) we didn’t have a lot of resources. There was Pleyn Delit. And….hmmm… maybe there was Pleyn Delit. Certainly that was one of the most available books.

It wasn’t even till I’d been in Ontario for a time that others even crossed my path, though I was already on the lookout for them. But perhaps we would have been excused for using the same recipes again and again. Or filling in gaps with something conjectural, just to flesh out the menu.

But there are so many new places to turn to now for easily available information. I ended up having to move my historical cookery book collection out of my kitchen bookshelves because they take up so much more room now. And I don’t can’t afford to collect even a fraction of what is out there.

But it seems we were doing more historic cooking when we had fewer recipes to choose from. Instead, it’s appeared over the last few years, that ‘ethnic’ cookery has replaced any use of historic cookbooks. (Where once we could have pointed that finger at ‘traditional’ recipes as standing in for real history.) And recently, even ethnic food seems to be giving way to what more resembles fairly ordinary restaurant food. ???

So…is period food old-fashioned?


Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Taking the Cauldon for a Test-Drive

We spent the weekend at a 'black powder rendez-vous' (roughly 1750 - 1830) at a small county museum.
I had a chance to use the new footed kettle. And discovered quite by chance, that the lid of one of my other cast irion pots fits just perfectly! We still have to do some clean up on the pot before it gets heavy-duty cooking use, but it certainly worked beautifully to keep a welcome pot of hot water to hand. (Weather was not quite what I look for in spring camping!)

And yes, I cooked with some of the wild leeks. Yum.

Monday, 5 May 2008


The first wild leeks of the season! I may have to stop talking about pots and talk about food instead...

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Pottery Pipkins

Ah... the Jamestowne pipkin. No, I don't know if they assume a wooden extension was inserted into that pottery handle. Certainly it would be possible, and that's the way our potter friend has designed his versions. That *is* a handle though, not a pouring spout. I didn't think to set up a shot to make that clear, but the last picture is taken looking directly at the inside where the handle is. In fact, if you really peer, you can see a slight circular mark, which is either discolouration that's occurred during use, or possibly a slight depression and shadow from actually working the clay in that spot.
Turns out I don't have any of the similarly handled cookware that David made. I'd thought I had, perhaps because there'd been such a lot of cookware all being tested at once, and then different shapes went home with different testers.

I have taken some pictures of the two pottery pipkins that I have. Obviously the smaller one has seen more use, as you can see by the smoke marks! I wondered why, until I remembered that my favourite cookpot in this series is an unfooted one. And that may be my favourite because the one firepit I use a lot actually has some flat rocks set around the bottom, and it's probably easier nestling a round bottomed cookpot in there, than getting good seating for a taller footed pot. I do find that the shape curving in towards the mouth of the pot is preferable. It contains the heat and the food better, as well as keeping ash out. I'm hoping to make up some simple wood lids this season, and that will help as well.

But with the hope of spring, there's also the chance of starting to cook outdoors again. So maybe some of these can get a bit more use and experimentation.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Road Trips & Pipkins

Sorry for the absence. I was off to Virginia for ten days in March, and as soon as I got back, was busy working on the last show of our theatre season, Mesa, about a road trip from Calgary to Phoenix. Kind of got in the way of organizing a new post.

However, one of the things I did while down south was visit the Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeology Project,, with some of the people we'd been visiting, and some of the Colonial Williamsburg staff.
The trip down to Virginia had been all about iron smelting, so the visit to APVA was actually about iron production in Jamestown and early Virginia.

But Jamestown was about a lot more than just that, and the lab at the archaeology centre was full of something for everyone!
I was particularly taken with a lovely find of a footed pottery cook pot. It was nice in itself, but additionally interesting because I have some period-style cookware made by a potter friend of mine, including a footed pipkin.


Wednesday, 12 March 2008

The Bronze Cauldron

I was asked for a few more details about the interesting bronze cauldron I'd posted the scan of. Unfortunately, the book I found the picture in says nothing more than:
"Bronze cauldron, Etruscan, early 7th century B.C. Purchase, 1954, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest (54.11.1)" It's from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unfortunately, no amount of Googling thus far has pulled up any other pictures, or any more information.

It does seem quite possible that it's not for cooking in, though. I could well imagine it being a serving vessel for wine. But I suppose it could just as easily be a funerary urn to a fruit bowl. It's also not overly helpful that I have no idea of size.

But it *is* a pretty cauldron, and I love the legs!


Friday, 7 March 2008

Another Footed Cauldron

Way early, 7th century B.C., made of bronze, and the legs look a bit fragile, but what a pretty thing.

(I found the picture in Christmas Feasts from History, by Lorna J. Sass. It lives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)


Friday, 29 February 2008

The Footed Pot

Well, I went off and scrabbled around through some of my books. Of course, they're not sorted with an eye to identifying cookware, so this is what I could find quickly.

This is a picture from Food by Audrey Noel Hume, from the Colonial Williamsburg Archaeological Series. #9. The two large pots are from before 1797, when the house they were excavated from, burned down in Williamsburg.

The second picture is from Cooking at Jamestown Settlement, which oddly lists no author at all. The pot in the picture is being used in the living history interpretive section of the museum, the reconstructed settlement, so I imagine it is a reproduction, but much closer to the source, and likely to be reasonably accurate. (Somewhere we have more info on Jamestown. I'll have to figure out which library it's in.) Jamestown Settlement dates from 1607 to the mid-1620's.

The third picture is from A Taste of History, The Origins of Quebec's Gastronomy by Marc Lafrance and Yvon Desloges. Unfortunately they give no more specific credit for any of the photos than what's included with the picture. I'm assuming there's a good chance that this pot is part of the Louisbourg artefact collection. (Again, somewhere we have lots more photos from Louisbourg, but I'll have to hunt them down.)
The caption with this photo merely describes it as a pot style used in the 18th century. It is definitely a much more elegant casting than my reproduction. Thinner, not as rough.

I also have bookmarked, an interesting article on the history of cauldrons and cast iron:
And the author includes a picture of a similar kettle from his own collection as the last image:

Interestingly to me, this shape of metal pot seems to follow the shape of earlier earthenware pots. Maybe I'll try ferreting out some pictures of those next....


Sunday, 24 February 2008

A Valentine's Gift

I realize this blog is looking awfully text-heavy, so...
This is a picture of a nice little reproduction footed pot that my husband gave me for Valentine's Day.
It's a modern repro, and a bit of a rough casting, so might end up only being good for boiling water or soups, not something too sticky for cleaning. And historically it will only work for so far back, but still, a sweet little pot. I'll root out more info on the style for a follow-up post.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Adventures in Skyr, part 2

Carrying on with the skyr saga…

Two of the recipes I had on hand were pretty much word for word the same:
Take 4 quarts of milk. Bring to the boiling point. Cool until lukewarm.
Stir 2 tbsp. Skyr into ½ cup milk. (or use recipe for starter) Stir into lukewarm milk.
Add 12 drops of liquid rennet, stir well. Set aside in warm place for about 24 hours.
Drain off liquid through cheesecloth. Remove cloth, put in bowl, beat well. Chill. Serve with cream and sugar if desired.

So, definitely I was going to try this recipe, since it had cropped up twice. But…. 4 quarts of milk? That’s a lot of milk for a highly speculative venture. (Note my lack of confidence in the whole procedure! Perhaps it harks back to my adventures in brewing. You never know till it’s done if it will be what you want, so you never want to make five gallons. Of course, then it turns out perfectly, and you only made a small bottle!)

I decided I was up for playing with one litre of milk. (And of course, now we not only get to have fun with scaling recipes, I run into that wonderful dark zone of differing rules of measurement. Sigh.) And these two recipes did not make any comment about ‘type’ of milk. No mention of milk fat at all. It had only been from poking around on the web that I’d found mention of low fat at all. Hmmm…. Since both my husband and I have a strong aversion to skim milk, even on principle… (Maybe if it actually cost significantly less than 2% or whole milk?) I opted for 1%. (There’s something about the ‘blue’ quality of skim milk that just gives me shudders.)
And I had no rennet. (This was a sudden experimentation, brought about when Neil had sent me home after a visit, with a small container of leftover skyr from Manitoba.)

Now, you’re supposed to be able to make rennetless cheese by using an acid to curdle the milk. And this is a soft and creamy final product, not a firm cheese. So, would it be possible?

I divided my one litre of milk into two portions, one to try with vinegar, and one to try with lemon juice. I followed the instructions, and waited. And waited. Neither batch was giving me any sort of coagulation at all. I waited. Maybe the kitchen was too cold? Or the entire house? (This was winter in Ontario, in the Snow Belt, with wretched electric baseboard heaters and a programmable thermostat and a thrifty husband, after all!)

The recipe had said to leave it sit for 24 hours. I left it for 36. And a bit longer. Never the slightest hint that my milk had ever heard of the concept of curds. And then it started to smell a bit squiffy, so I cried ‘uncle’. (And when all four of the cats said ‘thanks, but no’, cats who will normally knock you down in a rush to get at anything that even looks like it might be a milk carton, I knew I did NOT have a winner!
Not only were there no curds, in either batch, there wasn’t even the suggestion of thickening. Instead I just had to lots of thin smelly milk to offer up to the septic system gods.

Disappointed, but not vanquished, I turned again to the collected recipes. The Culinary Saga of New Iceland had three different recipes. The second one didn’t even require rennet. So I thought I’d give it a try.
This one, Lyla Thorarinson’s Skyr (An Alternative Method) only wanted 1 quart of buttermilk. It didn’t even ask for a dollop of skyr.

Pour buttermilk into baking dish. Cover and place in a preheated 325-degree oven. Bake for 30 minutes. Shut oven off.
Leave dish in oven overnight, for at least 12 hours, after which the whey should be visibly separated from the curd. Separate the curd from the whey as much as possible and drain curd for about 4 hours or until fairly firm. Put curd into bowl and beat until smooth. Add sugar to taste and serve with cream and/or fruit.

I DID add a bit of the skyr to this, since I wanted to encourage the correct flavour development.

Now this experiment did actually go somewhere. I don’t think it was towards skyr, though. I did develop curds. I was able to separate the whey and the surds and put the curds to drain. However, my suspicion is that I was too successful. My cheesemaking book includes a recipe for buttermilk cheese. For a dry buttermilk cheese, you go through exactly the motions I’d gone through, heating the buttermilk and then draining the curds. And what I’d ended up with was a fairly dry curd. No way did it resemble skyr. And it wasn’t just a case of whisking it up to creamy…
(Mind you, as a dry crumbly cheese product, it wasn’t totally awful. I added some herbs, and used it on some foccaccia, and with some pasta, and eventually my husband blended it with some sour cream and finished it off in a sandwich. But it wasn’t skyr.)

The cheese book suggests that you can achieve a wet curd buttermilk cheese without heat, and I may look into that.

I did eventually have some rennet, thanks to another friend, though it’s a vegetarian version, and I’m not sure how that changes the process. And there was another, even weirder recipe to try from the New Icelandic cookbook.
So stay tuned.


Thursday, 21 February 2008

Adventures in Skyr

Ah, so what is “skyr” you are asking? Well, now, that’s a very good question, and so far I haven’t found an answer of only a few words. It’s kind of like cheese, or yoghurt, or cottage cheese, or sour cream, or maybe Quark (having never yet met Quark face to face, I’m not sure.)
It’s supposedly a traditional and well-loved foodstuff of the Norse. Dating back, at least, to the Viking Age. Still favoured (and modernized) today in Scandinavian countries, and now being imported into select areas of North America.

It’s one of those things I’ve known about for ages, but never really thought about. It wasn’t till recently that I’ve actually tried to find out some more concrete info, and realized just how hard it is to define.

So, let’s turn to some references. I’ll start with the old-fashioned kind: books.

From The Cooking of Scandinavia, one of the Time-Life Foods of the World series:

“If fermentation sounds like an exotic way to preserve food, bear in mind that the same process also yields wine, cheese, anchovies, olives, sour cream, yoghurt and buttermilk. Without the blessing of fermentation, the Scandinavians would never have been able to turn the greater part of their spring and summer milk supplies into storable dairy products. Nor would they have become the important cheese and butter makers they are today.
“Some milk had to be kept on hand to drink, and inevitably it soured. A virtue was made of this, and in Viking times, as later, it was considered fit food to offer company. One of the sagas tells of a man called Bard who served his guests bread and butter and ‘large bowls filled with curds.’ As they were very thirsty, they swallowed the curds in large draughts; ‘then Bard had buttermilk brought in, and they drank it.’
“What those curds may have been is not certain. Perhaps they were nothing more than skyr, or curdled milk, which used to be a common food of Scandinavia. Today skyr is found under that name only in Iceland, and there it is eaten fresh, as a kind of yoghurt.”

[Actually, this article goes on to talk about a whole bunch of weird dairy products that may also bear some investigating and experimentation…]

Another book, The Culinary Saga of New Iceland [thanks, Karen] by Kristen Olafson-Jenkyns, says of skyr:

“The seafaring Vikings brought this ancient dish with them when they settled in Iceland. Skyr is a smooth curd with a creamy texture and is classified as a cheese. It is made from 2% or skim milk and is very low in butterfat content. Protein rich, skyr was for centuries one of Iceland’s most important staple foods and in earlier days was made from sheep’s milk and preserved all winter in casks.
“The traditional way to eat skyr is with milk or cream and a little sugar. It is also delicious with fresh fruit. On farms in Iceland, it was also served mixed with porridge, which is called ‘Hraeringur’. It was served with milk and accompanied by the traditional ‘black pudding’ and ‘liver pudding’ which were made at the slaughtering time in autumn.”

Okay, then. Some kind of thickened milk product. Dare I say, “curdled”? Our connotations of the word ‘curdled’ aren’t great, although by definition it merely means ‘form into curds’ or ‘thicken’, which doesn’t sound so bad. Cheese is made up of the curds of milk. Cheese curds themselves are a great thing, and poutine wouldn’t be poutine without them!

Googling, good ol’ Wikipedia, imperfect though it may be, says:

“Skyr is an Icelandic cultured dairy product, a type of fresh cheese that has been strained, not unlike Greek yoghurt. It is said to have originally come from Norway, brought to Iceland by the Norwegian Vikings, but is currently unique to Icelandic cuisine.
“Traditionally, skyr is made with pasteurized skimmed milk and live active cultures such as Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus. Then, "skyr condenser" — good skyr, used to ignite bacteria growth, and rennet was added, and the milk was left to coagulate. The skyr was then strained through fabric to remove the whey, called "mysa" in Icelandic, a by-product that Icelanders used as a thirst-quenching drink. Today it is made from non-fat milk.”


Anyway…. What happened is that a friend discovered a supplier of skyr in Manitoba, and managed to mail order some. He’d tasted it several years back on a trip to Iceland, and had been searching for a North American source ever since. Gimli, Manitoba is a major Icelandic community, and a logical direction to be looking for Icelandic delicacies.
But this means that suddenly we have some skyr on hand, and I now have some first hand experience with “what is skyr?” (Though Neil says it seems different tasting than he recalls.) And because making skyr seems to require some skyr to make more skyr, along the lines of making sourdough, I’m now in a scramble to figure out how to make it.

A number of the bits and pieces I could find out there on the interweb, remarked on how ‘skyr keeps forever’. Hmmm…. Not my experience. Mind you, there seem to be a multitude of different descriptions of what sky is actually like out there, so perhaps there’s also a wide range of opinions on how it keeps. It is a dairy product, so I’ve got it in the refrigerator, but I’m still thinking there’s a time limit on these experiments.

I started my experiments by tracking down recipes. Neil had one, given to him by a friend from Gimli, that was supposedly what her mother made. The Culinary Saga of New Iceland cookbook has several, one of which seems word for word like the Neil gave me. And I googled up several others.

Some mentioned that you use low fat milk.
Stephanie Zonis, of Whey to Go! wrote, in an article from July 2006:
“From everything I’ve read, skyr, by tradition, was a product low in fat. I found it strange that a traditional farmstead cheese (“farmstead” means a cheese is made from the milk of animals raised on the same farm where the cheese is produced) would be low in fat. However, it was explained to me that the Icelandic word for skim milk is “undanrenna,” literally “running from underneath.” Milk from cows or sheep would be placed into a container and allowed to stand for a day, sometimes on ice (the separation process was dependent on the milk’s temperature; colder milk meant faster and better separation). The next day, the milk was separated from the cream via a bowl with a hole in the bottom, out of which ran the skim milk. Milk separated in this fashion would retain a slightly higher percentage of fat than milk separated by more modern methods, but evidently skyr has been low fat for centuries. This isn’t just a modern fad we’re talking about, after all!”

This, at least, gives some logic for the lower fat. Not all the recipes I found specified a lower fat milk. Because I think of this as a ‘cheese’ of sorts, it confuses me a little to be thinking of low or no fat. I mean something has to turn into curds, right? The milk solids. And I guess I’ve assumed that milk solids are synonymous with milk fats.

Checking my book on cheesemaking, I see that milk is about seven-eighths water, and the rest of it is made up of proteins, minerals, milk sugar (lactose), milk fat, vitamins, and trace elements. Those are the milk solids.
It is casein, the protein part of the milk solid that forms curds. “When milk is converted to cheese, most of the fat remains in the curd, with very little going off in the whey. Homogenizing breaks up the fat globules into very small particles, and then distributes them throughout the milk, so they do not rise the top as cream. It is more difficult to make a cheese from homogenized milk because it forms a curd less firm than one made from whole milk.”

Hmmmm… In today’s world, it’s getting much harder to buy unprocessed milk. And of course, I started this whole adventure in the middle of winter in Ontario, when tracking down accessible sources of anything is difficult. While in summer, I might be interested in hying myself off to a farmer’s market for non-grocery store milk, or down to a local cheese maker for ingredients, in winter I tend to stick close to home.

Anyway, before I bore everyone to tears, let’s recap what’s happened thus far with this whole project.
I had some skyr to use as starter. (Apparently the starter works as the bacterial culture to tell your dairy experiment which flavour-way it wants to go.) I had some recipes. What I didn’t have, at that point, was any rennet. Excitingly, I did now have thermometers, too! New-fangled stuff in my kitchen. Whee!

Anyway, to make a long blog short, here’s the preamble. Next installment is the first round of experimentation.

Please Do Not Adjust Your Set...

Yes, I'm off to a slow start with this one! Sorry.
Perhaps it wouldn't or shouldn't be quite so difficult, and maybe it all just hinges on my perceptions (or possible misconceptions) of what you should write on a "public" blog on a specific topic, and how it should be framed and referenced.

My other blog had no illusions of being literarily or politically or grammatically, (or any of several other 'ally's) correct. It's just thoughts strung together. Stuff about the theatre I'm working with, pictures of critters, mutterings of hobbies.... basic random thoughts.

But here I'm finding that even a random thought feels like it should have a lot more behind it. More research. More basic explanation of what I was trying to accomplish. Some background to the whole experiment. And of course, that slows me down.

I'm sure at some point I'll find a balance, and it will be easier to decide what to post, and how to frame it, and to make it happen. After all, the whole point of this was to find somewhere to jot down some thoughts, let them out before my brain explodes. (Such a messy thing!)
There's no way at all I can wait until I suddenly achieve some kind of intellectual greatness; ain't going to happen, no point in waiting. Godot will get here quicker!

So, as long as you, my unknown, and probably lean, audience are willing to roll with the stylistic punches, we may be almost in business.


Friday, 11 January 2008

The Dagda's Cauldron

Because I'd mostly forgotten the Celtic legend until I was reading a book in this past year, that mentioned the myth...

an excerpt from the prologue of Lyn Hamilton's The Celtic Riddle:
"Now there was a god! An excellent one, by his own description. A giant, with appetite to match. It was the Dagda who had a cauldron in which pigs were cooked. This was no ordinary cauldron, nor ordinary pigs. Was always a pig ready, and the cauldron never empty, no matter how many came to dine. And, to top it all, the cauldron's contents were said to inspire the poet and revive the dead."

And it seemed like the right name for a journal about period food and cooking.