CategoriesCookingDaily Living and Pastimes

Making Early Medieval Soft Cheese (Skyr)

You can prepare Viking-age skyr as either a soft cheese or yogurt. The name skyr originates from the Old Norse word skera “to cut.” A fitting term that describes the coagulating protein, separating and cracking apart as the soured milk heats up.

Making skyr is relatively simple, even over an open fire. Although, temperature regulation can be tricky, you’ll have a passable soft cheese in a few hours. Depending on how long you drain the cheese determines whether you’ll have a runny yoghurty cheese, or a crumbly cottage cheese, and how acidic tasting it will be.

Ingredients for Skyr

Measurements are in metric/British Imperial units.

  • 2L / 3 ½ pints of un-homogenised whole milk
  • 300ml / 10 ½ fl oz crème fraîche

You can use either raw or pasteurised whole milk, but if using the latter make sure you buy un-homogenised. The fat is thicker and creamier and perfect for cheesemaking. Crème fraîche is basically soured cream that we can use to inject all the sourness and acidity we need.

Making Skyr

Step 1:

Sour your milk. If you use raw milk, you can leave the milk out at room temperature for 24 hours to sour on its own. For pasteurised milk, add a drop of lemon juice or vinegar or other edible acidic solution (we’ve used liquid from a pickle jar before!), it’ll be ready in minutes.

soured milk is poured from a jug into a pot with crème fraîche

Step 2:

Mix the soured milk and crème fraîche together in a pot or saucepan. In our experiments using an open fire, we used a clay pot. On the stove, use a low heat.

Step 3:

Heat the mixture gently without stirring. On a fire, place the pot to the side and turn the pot regularly. You may want to cover it to stop ash getting into it.

A pot of dairy product is placed next to a fire

Step 4:

The fats curds ahve risen to the top of the pot

When the mixture is at the right temperature, it will look yellowish and the curds will crack. If it starts frothing, it’s too hot – it’ll probably still work, but results will vary. Now it is time to drain the whey.

Take the pot from the heat and scoop the mixture into a cheesecloth. A loosely woven linen is most practical. Stick the cloth over a bowl while you do this: you can keep the whey to add to stocks or broth, or as a protein rich drink.

Pour the skyr mixyure into a cheesecloth.

Drain for 6-12 hours depending on the consistency you’d like.

Skyr soft cheese ready to eat

More On Skyr and Whey

Sheep’s milk appears to be the preferred cheese making diary product in Anglo-Saxon Britain. What’s more, sheep’s milk is richer in milk solids than cow’s milk, meaning more cheese can be made for the same quantity of milk. It probably no coincidence that the Month of May in the Anglo-Saxon Tiberius calendar shows a shepherd tending his sheep.

Image form the cotton tiberius manuscript - shephers tending their flock in a line drawing style.
May: tending sheep, Cotton Tberius B. v, fo. 5r

Cheesemaking is important in Viking households too. The sagas suggest that it was a substantial part of women’s work, with some houses having their own dairy room (skyrbúr) for cheese, or even a separate out building for a serious operation.

Historically, the use of whey was important in food preservation, and adding much needed protein to food in lean months. Enormous coopered barrels have been discovered in Viking settlements such as Hedeby and in burials such as Oseberg. These may have been whey vats. A 13th century Norse saga describes a whey vat that is so vast that a grown man can hide in it.

In Anglo-Saxon Britain, food rents included cheese, and workers were allotted a portion of whey. The cheesemaker received an entitlement of “100 cheeses” provided she made the lord butter from the whey. Female slaves were paid a penny or whey in the summer.

Further Reading

A delicious accompaniment to early-medieval soft cheese or skyr are flat breads. We also made a tutorial on how to make them, check it out.

  • Banham, D. Faith, F. (2014). Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming.
  • Friðriksdóttir, J K. (2020). Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World
  • Hagen, A. (1992). A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food: Processing and Consumption
  • Jochens, J. (2015). Women in Old Norse Society.
  • O’Sullivan, M. Downey, L. (2018). Cheese-making. In: Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Winter 2018), pp. 38-41. Available at
  • Palmer, N. (2019). A Cheese-monger’s History of the British Isles.
  • Pearson, K L. (1997). Nutrition and the Early-Medieval Diet. In: History Faculty Publications. Old Dominion University. 1. Available at
  • Serra, D. Tunberg, H. (2013). An Early Meal: A Viking Age Cookbook & Culinary Odyssey.
CategoriesCookingDaily Living and Pastimes

Making Early Medieval Flat Bread

One of the most exciting things about ‘Living History’ is exploring the methods of making something using the tools and materials of the people we’re trying to represent. One of the most fulfilling things to do – mainly because it’s yummy – is cooking.

Although no surviving written recipes exist from the early medieval period, we gather information from remains of bread and the cereal used to make it. Coupled with the finds of domestic ware like pots and pans, mill stones and threshing tools, we can build a picture, and make our own experiments.

For example, cereal husks survive in the archaeological record, so we know that some breads were made of wheat, barley, rye, and spelt, and some were made from pulses (peas and beans) mixed with oat flour. Archaeologists have found bread in the Viking world, such as in burials at Birka, Sweden. They discovered a small biscuit-like bread full of protein in a cremation burial in Jämtland, Sweden. It may have been mixed with blood (the protein) to create something akin to black pudding.

Various kernals of cereal in a container - wheat, oats, barley etc.
Ceral husks before the kernels are harvested and ground into flour.

Leavened Bread

Some breads were leavened (like modern fluffy bread that rises), but probably using a sourdough starter as domestically grown yeast hadn’t yet been adopted. Sourdough is made from a culture of flour, water, and wild yeast that lives on the flour or is blown around by the wind in the environment.

Leavened breads would require a large clay bread-oven to get an even heat for the loaf to raise. Ovens such as these are passively described in an 8th Century biography of the abbot of Wearmouth and Jarrow called the Life of Ceolfrith.

Flat Bread

Much simpler is a flat bread, or cake – kaka in Old Norse, and what Old English speakers would call cycel (pronounced ‘kytchel’) which is where we get the word ‘cake’ and ‘kitchen.’ It’s suggested in Sally Crawford’s Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England that these can be cooked on hot stones, the hot ash of a fire, or on a frying pan or skillet.

For our experiment, we used wheat, which needed to be ground into flour. There’s evidence of small hand-turned quern stones throughout the early medieval world, which suggests that grinding flour was a part of the daily routine of bread-making.

A rotary quern stone used for grinding grain into flour.
A small rotary quern that we used to grind the flour.

One thing to note here is that reproducing historical food is often full of ‘ifs.’ While we know certain ingredients existed, they certainly weren’t distributed evenly – it’s not like Vikings could pop to Tesco. Without modern techniques, farmers in the north of England would have a tough time growing wheat, whereas the south has the perfect soil and weather conditions for that crop. People in areas of poor soil, or urban areas might make flour from garden crops such as beans and peas, or oats.

Trading towns may have had access to a larger variety of grains with which to make bread, as well as ingredients to add to it. Contaminants might also be a factor in geography. There’s a fair bit of evidence that weeds such as corncockle got into the flour, so there may well have been plenty of upset tummies! So, with that in mind, ‘if they had access to wheat, they may have made…’

Viking Flat Bread – The Recipe

Start with flour and add a little water until you form a dough that isn’t super sticky. If you over do it, add more flour. Water is a interesting resource here – there’s plenty of myths surrounding potable water (that is, water that is safe to drink). Water procured from flowing streams or rivers that aren’t downstream from waste or latrines would be fine to use in cooking. We could potentially use salt water to flavour the dough (there’s an experiment!)

Knead the dough until everything is mixed and form it into cakes. If you are cooking on an open fire, let it burn down to the embers – you don’t want ash and grit in your bread.

Viking flat breads being cooking in a large iron pan over an open fire.

Use an iron pan or skillet. The pan is dry – not oiled – put it on the fire for a few minutes to warm up, then place to one side. The pan can’t be too hot else you’ll burn them or have them fire-welded onto the pan!

Archaeologists have discovered pans like the one pictured at Winchester and York (or bits of them anyway), but there’s loads of flat skillet-type pans from around the Viking world. The above isn’t too dissimilar from a wok.

The flatbreads take a couple of minutes on each side. Enjoy with butter, cheese, or salt. The Saxon Forager has a gorgeous recipe with oats and butter.

A freshly cooked viking flat bread on the end of a spatular.

Further Reading

Like making bread? Consider making some soft cheese to accompany it! Here’s our tutorial on making early-medieval soft cheese or skyr.

  • Banham, D. Faith, R. (2014). Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming.
  • Crawford, S (2009). Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England. p101-107
  • Hansson, A. (2002). Pre- and protohistoric bread in Sweden: a definition and a review. In Civilisations Vol 49.
  • Karg, S. (2007). Food: The Rest of Europe in Graham-Campbell, J. Valor, M eds (2007) The Archaeology of Medieval Europe Vol. 1.
  • Serra, D. (2013). An Early Meal-A Viking Age Cookbook & Culinary Odyssey.