Sunday, 19 September 2010

But Wait... There's More!

Ah, yes, Patient Reader...

I had suggested I was sure I remembered coming across historic recipes for Nun's Farts. But long enough ago now, that I had no real idea where. Well, after some searching, and Googling, and rootling about, I've come up with several versions. Somewhat more oddly, three variations claim to be from the same source, so I'm assuming there may be differences due to translation, or translations of editions.

One website: has an article in a newsletter about "Tart's Toots", and as well as giving some links to other tidbits of info and history, quotes a recipe from La Varenne.

>(from La Varenne, Le Cuisinier Francois, 1680, page 444):
Put egg whites in a mortar and a litte orange flower water, beat them well and bit by bit put in powdered sugar, make a workable dough and make from it little balls the size of a walnut and put them on paper, cook them in the oven.

Another food blog that I have bookmarked is: The Old and there I found: with a second variation of the La Varenne recipe:

>Pets de putain (Farts of a Whore).
Make your Fritters paste stronger than ordinary, by augmentation of flower and eggs, then draw them small or slender, and when they are fryed, serve them warm with sugar and sweet water. [The French Cook, by la Varenne, 1653]
[Note the different edition date.]

After that I dug around until I found a copy of La Varenne which I have on my computer,(a 1653 facsimile) and tracked down:

Pets de putain
Make them the same way, [six eggs, half a pint of flowre, and a little salt; beat all together] but that you must put a little more flowre; draw them out very small with the handle of a spoon; after they are fryed, serve them sugred, and besprinkled with orange flowers.
(recipe #10 on page 198)

Elsewhere I found mention of:

>How to make small-whore's-farts.
Take roasted white-bread, wine, eggs, ginger and sugar. Mix well together and bake hereof small-cakes in the pan with butter and scrape thereon sugar and serve.
Eenen seer schoonen, ende excellenten Cocboeck, 1593. Carolus Battus (I believe the translation is by Jennifer Strobel.)

So there may be still more recipes out there, but these few at least justify the inclusion of Nun's Farts in our historic meals.


Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Patience Rewarded?

Back in the spring I was asked about an interesting dish that I’ve known about for years, a sweet called Nun’s Farts. Or Pets de Nonnes. I promised to write a few words about them, then promptly forgot how to write at all and fell off the face of the earth. Pretty much.

So finally I was thinking about them, again, and after dredging out some references and a recipe, even felt inspired to make a little batch!

One of the first cook books I was given, by my Dad, was James Barber’s Ginger Tea Makes Friends. A wonderful, tiny little book, written in a quirky comic strip style, and designed around cooking in a stripped down kitchen, with minimal gear.
I loved it. It was funny, and inspired, and full of really good recipes that I’ve continued using over the years.

His third book, Flash in the Pan, was just as enjoyable. One of the recipes, Hot Doughnuts for Breakfast, is a small simple fritter. And about them he says:
“In their original version, they were known (quite respectably) as Pets de Nonne, which literally translated means Nun’s farts. Should you, out of delicacy, prefer the original pre-eighteenth century French, it was Pets de Pute, which means Whore’s farts.”

I love it. And them.

Bill Casselman, in his book Canadian Food Words, calls them Pets de Soeur.
And it seems from searching on the internet that there is a variety of names, Nun’s Sighs, Nun’s Bellybuttons, and a number of different possible origins for these little pastries. French, Spanish, German…

Some of the descriptions vary: dough fried and spread with jam, pastry wrapped around brown sugar and cream filling, but I quite love these simple little puffs of choux pastry. (And they make a delightful little farting noise while cooking!)

Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of French reference material, and my language skills are, shall we say, frail, so I don't currently have an original recipe to post, or more precise historical descriptions, but in the meantime, here is the modern recipe I use, and I'll see what else I can find and follow up with.


James Barber’s recipe:
½ cup water
1 tsp sugar
4 Tbsp butter
½ tsp salt
Bring to boil and immediately take off heat. Add all at once,
½ cup flour (and stir well)
2 eggs, (one at a time, mixing vigorously with a fork till very smooth)
Cook over lowest heat, stirring until it doesn’t stick to sides of pan.
Heat 1 cup oil in a small fry pan or saucepan. (Med/High heat; 370 degrees)
Add one teaspoonful at a time into the oil, turning twice as they brown to medium, and leaving room for them to puff up. Drain. Sprinkle with sugar (and cinnamon!)

Sunday, 5 September 2010

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

(Okay, not really…but close.)

There’s a whole lot of pre-amble and follow-up that should accompany this, but being linearly- challenged as I am, it will wander along in its own chaotic way.

* * * *

Since mid-2008, there had been some discussions about having DARC (Dark Ages Re-Creation Company, ) go out to L’Anse aux Meadows, Nfld, to do a presentation at the historic site. 2010 is the 50th anniversary of the site, and it was decided that a series of special events would occur throughout the season, and we were invited there in August of this year for ten days.

Conversations with Dr. Birgitta Wallace, the site archaeologist, suggested a scenario of a boat going from Iceland to Greenland, getting off course, and ending up joining up temporarily with the crews already at L’Anse aux Meadows / LeifsbuĆ°ir. This meant we spent the year and a half fine-tuning and adjusting our gear to fit more specifically into a defined timeframe and locale, than we normally worry about.
It also meant I needed to start looking into foodstuffs of Iceland, circa 1000 AD.

Until this point, I’ve mostly done as others have done, accumulated a larger list of foods appropriate to the Viking Age, and the entire Norse world. Even that range of information is limiting. I’d had no idea beforehand how much more restricted a list of Icelandic foodstuffs would be!

I started by searching out as much info as I could, and it wasn’t till I began that I realized just how unspecific the usual sources were. Or how much overlap. Or how vague. Even in the current world of the internet, which at least opens up some new vistas, it appears to either be a case of ‘neat thing if it were actually written up/translated/available’, or ‘gee, same source quoted over and over again’. It was even scary to find odd vague things that I’ve said myself somewhere, usually in the dim dark past, were popping up as reasons why someone else believed something to be true! Ack!

(I suppose that’s one of the reasons why I’m so slow to ever make a statement or publish something; knowing I don’t have every fact available, and worrying that the next new bit of info will make whatever I just said obsolete.)

On the other hand, I am always truly thankful to anyone who, at the very least, talks out loud about his or her experiments. It’s that combined, if remote, brainstorming that can sometimes open a door…

I did turn to a friendly archaeologist who has done a fair bit of work in Iceland, and picked his brains more than just a bit. That’s about when the slim list of ingredients started to become an almost non-existent list! It seems that there’s not much by way of indigenous foodstuffs in Iceland. No land mammals, no fruits other than a few berries. So, fish, sea mammals and sea birds, blueberry and crowberry, and mushrooms.

The geography doesn’t allow for natural basins of salt, the temperature is too chill for evaporation, and there was quickly a shortage of fuel, which made other methods of salt production impractical. That would mean that methods of preservation would be reduced to drying or pickling in whey, with only minimal brining, or smoking, more by luck than by intent.

Arable land was used for growing fodder for herd beasts, and less for crops. Some grains were grown, though likely used in the production of beer. Certainly, I’m told there was no evidence of bread-making tools, querns or baking plates, until later. And dentition records imply no sugars in the diet until the post-Medieval period. (And no honeybees so no honey; even less possible sugar in the diet.) Apparently this sort of dentition evidence is peculiar to Iceland.

While this suggests a diet consisting of dairy products and meat and fish, which is not necessarily a meagre diet, it also wasn’t a good basis for pre-packing.
I needed us to be relatively self-sufficient. I’d had an offer from friends to provide us with some local availabilities information, but I assumed (correctly) that there’d be less than no time to go search for foodstuffs once we were there. I put some feelers out with other members of the team to keep their eyes open for some other sources of seaweed/dulse, and they also came across some other cheese and dried meat on their routes to the Northern Peninsula.
But primarily I needed to prep what I could ahead of time, sticking as closely as I could to what would have been likely foodstuffs.

Back in 1996, in the original demonstration of the interpretive program, there had been several other factors in play, which made it simpler.
- There were fewer of us. 4 interpreters from Ontario, and 4 local volunteers.
- There was less information easily available, so working with appropriate technology and avoiding modern ingredients was far simpler than trying to use only locale-specific ingredients.
- I had easy access to the staff kitchen at the visitors center, for clean up and storage. (This year the visitors’ center was still under reconstruction.)
- Water was more easily accessible. (I know this has to be a lie, since we carried drinking water from the VC in 1996, same as we’d started this year, and the VC hasn’t moved, neither had the reconstructed buildings. So perhaps it’s the intervention of 14 years? Not to mention that we needed water for 16 this time around…)
- There were fewer visitors in 1996. (Now it was always a goal that attendance would increase, and I think it’s a credit to the interpretive program that this has happened, but it meant that this time they really weren’t many non-public moments to attend to mundane basics of food prep.)
- In 1996 the fires we used were all real wood fires. Since then, because of smoke problems, the buildings have been fitted out with propane fires. This year I was alternatively cooking outside on the gate yard fire pit (which was far less pitlike, and could have used a bit of tweaking) or in the blacksmith’s house on his charcoal work fire.
- In 1996, it was still the heyday of public involvement in foodways programs. I was able to make flatbreads and share them out. A few very interested patrons could stay for a bowl of soup… Nowadays, when the public aren’t allowed to sample, I end up feeling somewhat inhospitable if I’m spending too much time paying close attention to food they’re only allowed to look at. And that could just be me and my feelings.

But I did want to find a way to simplify the process of feeding the team, while incorporating it into the overall aim of the program.

My plan was to prepack ‘Viking Cup-o-soup’ packets, so that each day we really only had to sort out the day's allotment of bits, and go. It was not a bad idea, and it really kept daily prep to a minimum.
It wasn't, perhaps, as much fun, or as much a ‘demonstration’ as chopping things up in front of visitors, and discussing ingredients as you go, but starting at 10am, after the visitors' day had already begun, and the difficulties involved in fetching water for clean up, as well as trying to not show too many modern foodstuffs, made it the wiser course

I'd ended up compromising on a list of foods. I'm sure the Norse at LAM would have been eating a lot of fresh fish or meat from sea mammals. And while, in the long run, our hosts graciously brought us a number of treats, I didn't want to rely on that possibility. So I'd planned our soups to use salted, dried fish, or dried beef. And because I wanted that to stretch a little further, I had also dried some onions and vegetables, and added seaweed and grains into the mix.
I also dried several roasts of meat into jerky, and made flatbreads (even if evidence of grain usage in Iceland is sketchy). After some experiments, I had decided to take along a number of blister packed cheeses which I brined as days went on, to more resemble young fresh cheese. (The new interpretation at LAM allows for some herd beasts off foraging...)

Once again, probably catering to our modern sensibilities, rather than those of the Norse, I attempted to make each soup packet very slightly different. (In 1996, these thoughts hadn’t even crossed my mind. I had dried fish to go in the soup, and all of the same ingredients each day. Variety occurred when the Parks Canada staff offered me a different ingredient. We had caribou one day, seal another. But beyond that, it was fish, fish, and fish.)
But I’m guessing that cooking for larger groups of people over the years, in an atmosphere of catering to needs and tastes, has made me awkwardly hyper-conscious, especially in a setting where alternatives are few and far between!

So, in preparation for the adventure I continued my regular drying of mushrooms, (I’ve been drying mushrooms for years, after having discovered how easy it is, and how useful they are) and to these I added onion, leek, and chive. Since every spring I harvest wild leeks, this year I also dried those in anticipation of the trip.

Because I could find mention of wild parsnip and wild carrot in some of the nearby countries, I decided to boldly risk the inclusion of their domestic counterparts, though I shredded and dried them, and overall it was a fairly minor ingredient. The inclusion of seaweed was a given, both for a useful green, and for its salt content and iodine.
I pondered a while about the inclusion of grains, since the archaeological evidence suggests they did not make up much of the Icelandic diet. But some kind of flatbread filled a gap in a lunch, where I couldn’t necessarily guarantee more dairy or meat, and grains in a soup make it heartier. It also seemed a more likely way of cooking a few grains, if there wasn’t evidence of flour-making or baking tools. I did try to limit myself to whole kernels of less modern grains.

In the flatbreads that I made ahead, or each morning, I was also using oat, barley, and spelt flours, with just a small bit of whole wheat to bulk it out. They were made using just flour, water, and a little salt; except for the ones I made our last day that used up some leftover blueberries!

Overall, except for the need to feed a large group of people at a specific time, when they had tasks that kept them busy at their own stations, or possibly trying to cater to some less-experienced or adventurous tastes, and the requirement that it all be packed along with us for the days it took to drive to Newfoundland, and the ten days of the presentation, I think it wasn’t an outrageously incorrect menu.
Certainly it worked, and none of us appear to have starved. I didn’t get the opportunity to play around with any of the experiments I’d had faint ideas of, or look into some of the local ingredients I’d been interested in, but then there’s often more I want to try that just doesn’t fit into the time allowed. I’ll just have to treat this as a starting point, and explore further.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Everybody's Doin' It, Doin' It

As Irving Berlin might say...

Doing what?
Blogging their way through cookbooks!

(Okay, not everyone, but it does seem to be the new trend du jour.)

There are several levels on which this resonates with me:
- It's a useful and in-depth way to meet/present a cookbook.
- I'm interested in the thought processes that guide other cooks.
- I enjoy being involved in a progress through a cookbook, even if I'm not particularly interested in the cooking, or the eating, of some of the recipes.
- I find it valuable to get a sense of other people's opinions on the results, the processes, and on the cookbook and how its information was presented.
- It gives a basis for an on-line journal, when blogging with any sort of regularity, or intelligibility can be a struggle.
- Sometimes it's just very entertaining, and a window onto other people's worlds.

There are some cons, though.
I don't know of any cookbook on my shelves, of which there is a goodly quantity, which I'd want to 'cook my way through'. I either am not interested in all the recipes, or can't get or afford ingredients for them, or simply would not wish to tread where they might ask me to. And it is the act of 'cooking my way through' which would actually be the useful goad to write about them, and the spur to an ongoing set of experiments. (Trying to make skyr can sometimes just involve a little too much curdled dairy product!)
And since my faintly intelligible food blog is about historic food, not just any cookbook will do, either. (Not to mention that it's where my head is at right now!)

So, after commenting that 'gee, if I were going to do that, the cookbook I'd do it with should be...', let's come right to the point and say it out loud:

I think I should take a stab at wending my way through Prehistoric Cooking by Jacqui Wood. [] I mean why not? Fortunately, her first chapter with recipes is about bread. That should at least give me a chance to try to actually make some recipes before I run into the roadblock of inaccessible or mystery ingredients. And by then, well, maybe I can just talk my way through them. (Hmmm....yes, Clay-Baked Hedgehog might prove problematic!)

I do imagine that there are recipes in here that I'll want to try again come spring, when the possibility of outdoor cooking once more comes our way. She's mostly proposed these recipes for use in a modern kitchen, though she does make mention of probable methods that would be used in period. And I'm nothing, if not all, about the period cooking techniques. (Can they work? How can I reproduce them? How do the techniques/tools affect the results?) Also I fully imagine that I'll have to have some mental discussion about how to apply some of this stuff on my side of the pond. As we move into the chapters on herbs and vegetables, there will be ingredients I probably can't get, and quite possibly ingredients I won't even be able to easily identify.

And since Ms. Wood is looking at Iron Age cookery, there will be some aspects to this that may be both very appropriate to my interest in early period, specifically Viking Age cooking, as well as being quite different. Certainly there may be types of food that will not apply to the Scandinavian world, and possibly techniques that may be unlikely, either for having been outmoded, or less suited. But I do feel there will be enough parallels that it will be a useful and intriguing experience.


Wednesday, 20 January 2010

What's for Dinner in Iceland, Part 2

So it appeared that I was pretty well able to produce a menu that wasn’t a bad one for a Norseman in the Scandinavian world, but what could I come up with for Iceland? Now that I was discovering how the rules seem to be different there…

I’d known that Iceland was a marginal settlement, a harsh land. I had never realized until talking with archaeologists, and being steered towards more focussed research, just how different it was. Basic things that I took for granted about northern Europe; geography, climate, growing season, trade distances and likelihood, didn’t necessarily apply to Iceland. Until now, I had just assumed… But as I’ve started learning more, I just end up with a longer list of questions, and have had to try to completely rethink some things.

In the end, I came up with menus for two meals, a lunch, and a dinner. By rights, a day-meal or ‘dagverthr’ would probably have been a morning meal, but only some of us were staying on the site, and the morning hours were required for setting up the demos. Thus, lunch.

Because I’d be cooking over a fire in a simple camp setting, I decided that a soup was the best way to go. (As it turned out, we ended up having to use a ‘fire ring’ for our fire pit, which altered access to the heat, and left no convenient way to use ashes or embers for cooking. That put paid to any ideas about experimenting with salt evaporation or roasting eggs, or making use of the bake pots.)

(picture by Karen Peterson)

One of our number doesn’t eat farmed meat, so my lunchtime soup included mushrooms, fish, and dulse.
I am a compulsive dryer of mushrooms. I like them for demos, but I like them for anything, and I always manage to feel remarkably thrifty when drying mushrooms. Also, mushrooms shrink when they dry, but not by so much that you don’t feel rewarded at the end of the process. For this soup I also dried onions, leeks, and fish. I did this partly for the convenience it would lend to packing, and storage, but also because I felt that for Iceland, I might be able to justify some dried ingredients, where it would be harder to guarantee fresh.

I brined the fish lightly before dehydrating, as a way to incorporate some salt. (Icelanders didn’t have the access to salt that was possible in other locations. It was too cold for natural evaporation, and there wasn’t the fuel to waste. I’d wanted to try experimenting with a basin of salt water by my cooking fire, but with the fire ring, didn’t actually have anywhere to try this. Another thing to add to the list of ‘must try’.) But sea fish would have some natural salt to them, and I was thawing frozen fish anyway… As well, the dulse has a salty taste. (I think I also used some carefully hoarded wild leek bulbs…)
But as far as I’ve been able to find, there weren’t many indigenous greens that I have any way of obtaining or replicating, except for seaweeds.

We also had some smoked sausage, and dried meats. I didn’t make the sausage myself, so had less control over flavourings, but I did have some elk sausage to offer up. (Elk isn’t appropriate to Iceland, sadly, but is a bit more interesting than store-bought!) I had made several batches of dried meat/jerky. One was elk, again with the one person in mind. (Apparently there were no indigenous land mammals at all in Iceland, other than the arctic fox, so this is a case where using beef or mutton would have been more correct!) I did try one small batch of dried beef with minimal flavouring: a mild marinade of water/vinegar/salt, and slight seasoning of smoke and mustard seed. It is SO hard to give up my perceptions of taste! (When we were at the 2000 celebrations in Newfoundland, I had made up dried meat to take, that was only lightly brined and dried, with no other seasoning. - this was prior to learning about the no salt in Iceland rule. - I ended up using it happily as an ingredient in cooking, but found it unpalatable on its own.)

I had made some unleavened flatbreads, mostly of barley flour, with a bit of rye, and a bit of wheat, because otherwise serving a soft cheese is awkward! But the leathery flatbread crackers also keep well and travel, so maybe cousins coming to the Althing brought them or the flour along.

(And thanks to the cousins for also bringing along some dried apples!) (And justifying some other dried fruits I’d made, plums, and berries.) A belatedly-remembered plan to make some butter resulted in trying it with cream still too chilled from the cooler for butter. Instead we ended up with a thickened cream, which tasted very fine with the dried fruits.

On the whole our luncheon wasn’t exactly what might have been a plausible meal for a Viking Age Icelander, but it wasn’t totally unlike, either: a soup, cooked in a kettle over a fire, of fish and mushrooms, with some dried flavourings: some dried or smoked meats to chew on; some cheese; and maybe some dried berries. The most glaring inaccuracy would be the flatbreads. Though even they might be partially excusable because of the festive occasion of an Althing. (Though that’s just guessing, on my part. And extrapolation from what my archaeologist friend told me.)

Our dinner strayed a bit further still from the Icelandic path:
I did two stews, one of venison and elk, for the same non-farmed-meat eater, (though to be honest, it was farm-raised elk, but maybe closer to free-range?) and one of lamb. I had felt that I needed to make two pots’ worth of stew because of the numbers that ended up being involved in being fed, so that did allow me to use a meat in one that would be more appropriate to the Icelandic diet, lamb. Because there were no huntable mammals in Iceland, the only meat would have been that which they brought and farmed themselves. Sheep, mostly, goats, and pigs to a lesser degree, and some cattle, though cows were valued more for their milk production.
One of our folk had a quantity of leftover vegetable and lentil broth that they’d pleaded with me to use up, so that justified its inclusion! Even so, I wasn’t able to squeeze in as much as they had for me to use.

We had some smoked fish of varying kinds. (Thank goodness smoked fish is justifiable! We all love it. Now I just need to build a smoker and make my own…) And I’d made some pickled fish. And some other pickled fish was contributed. The major difference is that these were fish pickled with vinegar, and it should have been pickled in whey. I need to do some experiments with whey-pickling, more than I’ve tried up till now, but then I also need to fine-tune methods of whey-production, since it’s not an ingredient one can just run out and fetch.
We justified some leavened bread, since the Althing is also a festival, and we had those cousins popping over from Norway…
To end the meal, I faked out some skyr.

At the point of that early Althing menu, I barely knew what skyr was. Some soft curded cheese. Then, it was all more conjectural anyway. There was also far less accessible research material, and no-one within reach who knew much about it, or had tried eating or making it. Now I know about skyr. I’ve had skyr. At least I’ve had modern incarnations of skyr, which may or may not be what was produced in the Viking Age. I’ve even tried making it myself with varied results. (Yes, you, my faithful reader, have struggled along with me on that!) But since I’ve still not been able to define to myself, or have other experienced skyr-tasters define to me, just what skyr is exactly reminiscent of, or like unto, unless it’s right before us… there’s still a sort of x-factor that allows for some play. What I did this time was to drain some yoghurt for a yoghurt cheese, and blend some cottage cheese to smooth out the curds, and then combine the two. I think the end result wasn’t unlike some of the grainier versions of skyr that I’ve had. Essentially, flawed skyr. Oh well.
With it we had a cooked-down compote of berries, blueberries, which might have been available, cranberries, and red currants, because I happen to have a whole truckload of red currants, thanks to my mother-in-law. Crowberries also grew in Iceland, but aren't something I had access to. Against all Icelandic food rules, I sweetened this with some honey. (No bees in Iceland, therefore, no honey.)

But we seemed to have enough food to go around, and it was neither too strange for people, nor completely wrong for an Icelandic Norseman, even if didn’t quite follow our expected habits of eating. I need to do a lot more research, taking the information I have about possible indigenous herbs and plants, and trying to identify them and relate them to what I know. However, there’s a good chance that I’ll never be able to replicate ingredients, which means that Icelandic food, more so than that of any other Norse cultures, may always stay just a little elusively out of grasp.

Friday, 15 January 2010

What's for Dinner in Iceland, Part 1

Yes, my nagging reader. I’ve been an absent girl. I’d like to blame it on the process of writing something for what tries to be a semi-lucid blog, when semi-lucid is usually way beyond my means. But truth be told, in the last year there have been huge stretches where even a multi-word status update on Face Book was beyond me!

(Though it does still take way more time to write something that’s thought out, intelligible, researched, and makes some kind of point, which is what I aim for here…)

My previous question-to-myself had been “what’s for dinner in Viking Age Iceland.” The reason? Two-fold.

We are working to put together a presentation in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the World Heritage Site at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. A few of us have a very long time connection with the site. In 1996, we went there to present a prototype interpretive program. Before then, there had been no costumed interpreters at LAM. So in ’96, there were four of us, and a big bunch of gear, and three or four local volunteers that we kitted out, who worked with us to flesh out the presentation.

When the program got the green light, there was more involvement as my husband designed it, and produced the artefacts for their use. I designed and sewed the costumes, and had a hand in shaping the domestic crafts side of the program, and we have had an on-going relationship with the site for a number of years since.

(photo by Karen Peterson)

(photo by Karen Peterson)

There is a fine balance, I find, between what is purely a food demonstration, and what is a meal for a crowd, especially in a short time frame, and on a primitive site. (We had to bring our water and firewood.) Initially I’d assumed it was the ‘usual suspects’ I’d be feeding, and pretty much knew what give-and-take would be involved. But more of the team decided it sounded convenient, so the whole project expanded a bit.

In the end it meant it wasn’t purely ‘Icelandic’ food, but I did learn a lot in the process, and tried to bear in mind those limitations.

One of the first hurdles I faced were our modern perceptions when it comes to food. While I will admit to hardly ever eating breakfast, on the whole, people today think in terms of three meals. And snacks. And anyone who prepares his or her own meals is often aware of the need to attempt a balanced diet. And… is usually interested in variety.It seems quite likely than in the context of Viking Age world, food was fuel. It was a colder harsher climate, and a more active, working lifestyle. There was also much more labour involved in filling the cook pot. I imagine that the reward of a meal was sufficient in itself!Variety, then, and even not that long ago, was more by season, or luck, or forethought.

Some number of years ago, I’ve forgotten (conveniently) when, I did a menu for an Icelandic Althing event. That was one where we were actually serving a feast. Admittedly, there was much less to be had as reference material at all, and certainly very little on early period food, so in retrospect, it doesn’t surprise me to look back on the menu and see the weak points.

- roast eggs, flatbreads with ‘skyr’ and cheeses, stuffed breads, pickled fish
- sausages, cabbage with apple
- fish soup, dish of lentils
- bread with butter, salt chicken, roast pork, baked onions with garlic, mushrooms
- frumenty with soft fruit, roast apples
- and some roast goat for the Chieftains.

Knowing what I now do about the possibility of Icelandic foodstuffs, some of this is less than likely.
The eggs could have been seabird eggs, and since that time I have successfully roasted eggs in the ashes of my fire; though it would be helpful to do a bit more experimentation with that, so I have a better sense of how hot = how long. (I’ve also exploded eggs in my fire pit; much excitement ensued!)

The flatbreads, stuffed breads, basic bread, and even the frumenty of grains aren’t an impossibility for elsewhere in the Norse world, but are far less likely in Iceland. (This is one of those points where my brain just stalls, and goes ‘huh?’) While my sense is that bread, or grain, is one of the major food items of any agrarian culture, it turns out that very little grain was grown in Iceland during the Viking Age. Arable land was used to grow hay for herd beasts. There were some grain crops, most likely barley, but it’s suggested this was used more for brewing. In fact, I have been told that there’s almost no archaeological evidence for any grain processing or baking tools till later in Iceland’s history. Dentition evidence also suggests no processed sugars and starches in the diet till almost the post-Medieval period!

Sadly, for the cabbage and apple, there were no indigenous fruits in Iceland, and cabbages were introduced well beyond the time period I’m looking at.
Lentils, at least, travel well, so there’s a faint chance…
The roasted meats, on the other hand, are far more likely!

So, after I’ve shot down my years-old menu in flames, where do I go from here? While still being able to produce some food that will be manageable within the constrictions of the day and budget, which will also sufficiently feed a group of people with varying tastes and preferences…

[As an aside, several friends have often mused about the possibility of doing some kind of small event, where for the most part, we'd only be allowed to have what we'd legitimately be able to carry in a sea chest. I wonder if we'd also be up for an occasion where we'd only be allowed to eat what they would have...]

(end of part 1)


Feel free to walk around and stretch, take a trip to the loo, or rootle out a snack. Smoke 'em if you got them. See you soon for part 2.