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.