Food is something we all can relate to and when it comes to living history and reenactment, it’s always present. We can’t go around it, so we might as well dive into it. So two weeks ago, I started a trilogy of Iron Age/Viking food blogposts! I started with a post about the ingredients in northern Europe during the Iron Age. This time I’ll write about cooking and processing food. Next time I’ll go over the traditions of eating and dining in the same area and period. Hopefully this will cover a chunk of the subject, but I’ll probably not be able to stay away from it for long, there’s so much information!
For most people in the Iron Age, the kitchen wasn’t a specific room in their home. Some wealthier people could have a separate kitchen house, like a baking house. Large scale production of food for bigger households was easier to do in a separate space. But for a smaller and not so wealthy household, the kitchen was part of the main room. A domestic hearth was used both for cooking and warming up the room and the people in it. The fire could be set directly on the floor or, more commonly, on a heart made of clay, tiles and stone. Early hearths were built in the middle of the room and later ones may have been built against a wall, backed with stone. The centre built ones could, with air vents and air channels in the ground, provided a smoke free environment.
A living history group in Ale, Sweden, has made a top 10 list of the essential tools for the Iron Age hearth/kitchen. They listed (slightly in categories); axe and saw, fire-steel, fire-shovel, tripods, tongs, roasting spits, pot hooks, griddles/pans, toasting stone, pots made of baked clay and iron, and the water barrel with a scoop. All of these are of course not necessary, it depends on the kind of cooking you want to do; cooking with direct or indirect application of heat.
But before the cooking even starts, food had to be processed to keep longer. Different methods of preservation were used and the most common were smoking, drying, boiling and pickling. These methods ensured that food would keep beyond the stage of fresh, regardless of being harvested or slaughtered. Salt was another way to preserve food, it might not be as common as the ways mentioned above, due to its exclusiveness.
Drying was the most common process as it was the simplest one. It could be done outdoors or in warm, dry place indoors. Drying could also be combined with smoking if you put the food near the hearth, a sauna or a malting room.
Foods such as fruit, will keep much longer if boiled, so the sugars in them are concentrated. Sometimes, honey could be added to boost the effect. Boiling the fruits into a mush and then storing it in jars has been done since antiquity. It may have been used as a condiment.
Pickling was also a controlled process to avoid the decomposition of the food. This could be done by adding salt or some lactic acid and keep the food under water to keep oxygen away from the product. In this mixture, no microbes could survive and spoil the food. The important thing was that the vessel was waterproof, so the product was kept under the surface. Pickling of course keeps the vitamins and nutrition in the vegetables.
Between the harvesting and slaughter there was a period of storing the food, short or long. Cereals were stored in barns for the wealthy, or in pits and in the homes of the commoners. Grains and flour had to be kept dry to avoid insect infestations and moulds. Flour was stored in chest or bins. These containers were often locked. Bread could also be stored this way, usually only for a few days, to be eaten fresh.
Different kinds of jars were used for storage, a narrow neck on them allowed for a greased cloth to be tied over the opening. Meat in jars got covered with a sealing layer of oil or clarified butter.
Two ways to keep food cold was the bog-method and the pithouses. Butter and cheese were treated the same way when it came to storage and putting them in sealed containers and lowered 1-2 meters down in bogs seem to have been one way to keep them cool. The pithouses, cellars or simple holes on the ground used the coldness from the ground. Root vegetables could keep all winter in one, even though they probably didn’t have a lot of taste by spring.
Boiling seems to have been the most common way of cooking. Boiling could retain the juices and fats better than other methods and it was essential. Cooking meats and vegetables in meat stock were probably done in an iron cauldron. Stews, porridge and sauces were likely made in clay or soapstone vessels. Boiled dishes had a place at all meals, even the fancier ones.
Ovens were quite rare in Iron Age Scandinavia, but there was still a wide range of ways to bake food. Roots vegetables were baked in the ashes in the hearth and meat could be baked in cooking pits. The bread was probably baked over hot stones or directly in the ashes, more often than in ovens. Most bread would’ve been unleavened, but there are finds of bread with gas bubbles. They were probably made as sourdoughs or with yeast from brewing.
For special occasions, meat could be cooked on fire spits. The taste was probably more enjoyable than when boiled, but it was wasteful in terms of juices and fats. But they likely gathered the drippings from the metre long meat skewers. Using spits like this was time-consuming and took a lot of work. There’s also one find that indicates that there might have been grills as well, to fry meat or fish on.
When it comes to the seasoning of the food, there were multiple ways to add flavour. Salt might not have been added in the cooking process but was still there through the preservation. Herbs were used, such as thyme, dill, coriander, caraway and mustard seeds. Alliums, such as onions, leeks, garlic and wild garlic was the most common way to add flavour to the dish. Even vegetables in general were used to provide variety in the diet. But there are no physical finds of “exotic” spices from the raids/journeys of the Vikings or from trading. Nor are there any written sources that such spices reached Scandinavia in the period.
Sources of sweetness in northern Europe were dried or frost-bitten berries/fruit, malt and honey. Fruits and berries were probably not as sweet as they are today and might have been used more for cooking and brewing. Cider-like fruit wines were made and berries were added to the beers.
Due to the cold temperatures in Scandinavia, bee-keeping was not common, so honey was expensive. It was mostly used for mead. Malt was cheaper to make and the sweetener was likely used to make beer.
/Herrin Gele Pechplumin
-Hagen, Ann, Anglo-Saxon food and drink, 2010
-Serra, Daniel & Tunberg, Hanna, An early meal: a viking age cookbook & culinary odyssey, 2013
-Wickerts, Mari, Vikingatida köksredskap: köket under yngre järnålder: samlingsplats och kunskapsöverförare : råvaror & recept, 2013
(Photos with permission, top to bottom from:
Madeleine Bergman – Instagram _vikingventures_
Sarah Moores-Viking Klan Zebitz
Madeleine Bergman – Youtube Viking Ventures
Sofia Holmer – Instagram vikingspired