Of all the books I’ve read about cooking, An Early Meal: A Viking Age Cookbook and Culinary Odyssey remains a favorite of mine. A combination of history book, archaeological study, and treasure trove of interesting recipes, An Early Meal covers the cooking techniques of the Viking Age alongside evidence found in the ancient sagas and stories of the time. The first portion of the book is dedicated to exploring seasonal foods and regional styles, as well as customs and recommendations for replicating the recipes. Culinary history has always been a fascinating topic for me, but this book reaches the top of the list because of its meticulous detail. If you’re a writer and your thing is historical fiction, this would be the book to use.
Much of what has been learned has come from grave offerings. The types of cooking pots and types of bread have shown not only the social class of the person who had been buried, but they’ve also indicated the beloved traditions of this culture. We know what grew naturally in the area, and can help build the cookbook from there.
An Early Meal offers a range of interesting facts about everyday cooking. Salt was not widely available, so curing was common. (Astute Skyrim players will remember the fish racks on the seashores.) Vessels were typically made out of pottery, wood, or leather. Beer was flavored with meadowsweet, gale, rose hips, yarrow, or juniper. Sugar was sourced from fruit, honey, and malt. Hops came on the scene around the 14th century. In addition to curing, pickling was also common.
As the hearth was the heart of the home, the cauldron was the central feature. They were usually made of pottery or soapstone, and richer households used iron or copper. Pithouses (or firehouses in Iceland) were built next to longhouses, and were used for baking, smoking, and curing. Some things, like turnips, were cooked directly in the ash.
While the below feast is based on some of the recipes in the book, I took some liberties with them. Years of cooking and watching shows like Chef’s Table (Netflix) got me beyond following recipes to the letter, in favor of a bit of experimentation, depending on what’s seasonally available, and frankly, what simply inspires as I go along. What I made was sirloin tips with a drizzle of the berry sauce found on page 100, with my take on a combination of two other recipes—boar stew and frumenty—and making sautéed kale and leeks with farro, and a loaf of Danish rye berry bread. It didn’t take much for me to convince my Renn-fest-loving husband to play the part, complete with a drinking horn from Grimfrost.
The first step was to make the berry sauce. This turned out to be the most finicky aspect of the meal, but well worth the effort! Using a sturdy sauce pan that has been in the family for generations, I began by combining the fruit and heating it until it soften, then it was time to add the mead. The rest of the mead wound up in the drinking horn, as it should.
Berry Sauce for Red Meat
· 3 plums
· A small container of raspberries
· A small container of blackberries
· ~1/3 cup mead
· 1 tablespoon fresh mint, chopped fine
Add fruit to sauce pan and boil until soft. Press through strainer to extract juice. Return juice to sauce pan and add mead. Reheat, add mint at the end. Serve over grilled meat.
Kale and Leeks with Farro
· One bunch kale
· 2 to 3 medium-sized leeks
· 1 cup farro
· 2 cups vegetable broth
· Butter and seasoning to taste
In one pan, melt about ¼ cup butter. Add leeks and sauté until they start to brown. Tear kale and take out the larger stems. Add to leeks and sauté.
Rye Berry Bread
· 1 package yeast
· Sprinkling of sugar
· 2 ½ cups rye flour
· ¾ cup regular flour
· ¾ cup rye berries
· 2 teaspoons salt
· 1 ½ cup buttermilk
· ½ cup water (a good beer is also recommended as a substitute with more flavor!)
Put rye berries in a mixing bowl. Pour boiling water over them until covered (about and inch or two over the berries), and let sit for 45 minutes before draining thoroughly.
Combine yeast and sugar in large mixing bowl. Add both kinds of flour, salt, rye berries, and stir in buttermilk. Add water (or beer) slowly, until dough is sticky—you may need to adjust flour to liquid until the bread dough feels right. Knead for 10 minutes. Place dough ball into large bowl and cover—let rise for 2 hours. Punch down, let rise another two hours.
Preheat oven to 350. Grease bread pan with butter and shape dough into a loaf. Let rise in pan for another 30 minutes. Bake for approximately and hour and a half. Cover with foil after an hour to prevent burning. I use a bamboo skewer to poke into the loaf to check the density. If it comes out clean, it’s done. Remove from bread pan and let cool. Serve with your favorite butter.
Put all together, and it was definitely a hearty feast worthy of the tables around the mead hall. I look forward to trying out many more recipes—the fish stewed in ale and the hazel nuts treats being next on the list. Perhaps a follow-up post will be in order!