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.
While there’s no surviving written recipes from the early medieval period, we do get information from remains of things like bread, and the cereal that was 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 have survived in the archaeological record, so we know that some breads were made of wheat, barley, rye and spelt, and some from pulses (peas and beans) mixed with oat flour. Bread has been found in the Viking world, such as in burials at Birka, Sweden. There’s a small biscuit-like bread full of protein that was found in a cremation burial in Jämtland, Sweden, and may have been mixed with blood (the protein) to make something akin to black-pudding.
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.
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.
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 they 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…’
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 precured from flowing streams or rivers that aren’t downstream from waste or latrines would be fine to use in cooking. Salt water could potentially be used to flavour the dough (there’s an experiment!)
Knead the dough until everything is mixed and you can 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.
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!
Pans like the one pictured have been found 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.
- 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.