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Vikings Were Great Cooks Long Before The Rest of Us

As a Scandinavian chef, I've immersed myself into our history to figure out how people have pulled through our freezing winters.
January 16, 2016, 5:00pm

I am from Scandinavia and I am cooking Scandinavian food. I cook food that evolves around Norwegian produce and has an emphasis on the local climate. We try to stay progressive in the culinary landscape, but it is very important to me that our cooking is also rooted in our history and culture.

Since the growing season this far north only lasts three to four months, we have to plan ahead. The remaining months are harsh, cold, and unwelcoming to produce. Sure we have imported foods and industrialized farming to pull people through the winter months, but we want our cuisine to offer the finest components of the seasons because of the identity of our cooking. To achieve this, we don't use imported products or things that are out of season. We have to look back and understand how people survived this far north in pre-industrialized times. If the Vikings could do it, so can we.

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Preserving—a.k.a. the preparation of food so as to resist decomposition—is a reoccurring theme on the menus of ambitious restaurants around the world. Some say it's just jumping on the bandwagon, and to some extent, that's not completely untrue, BUT the technique is something Scandinavians and other cultures have done for centuries, long before this seemingly modern trend surfaced.

"Winter is coming" is not just a quote invented by American pop culture, but was once an actual way of life in these northerly climates.

In order to immerse myself into the identity and understand how people pulled through the cold months here, I have spent a lot of time researching the life of the Norse people from the Viking Age—the people who (when they had down time from chopping peoples heads off) literally lived off of the land and sea. The way they survived as far as cooking was concerned, was as up to date as it gets by modern standards.

The term 'Viking Age' is often used to describe a period in Northern Europe—especially Scandinavia—at the end of the Iron Age between the 8th and 11th centuries. In Norway, mountains and fjords formed natural boundaries, resulting in relatively isolated communities that remained independent of one another. Some 30 small kingdoms existed here, causing internal conflict and drama much greater than anything you'll witness on Game of Thrones.

It was the sea that must have been the easiest way of communication between the Norwegian kingdoms and the outside world. The Norsemen would sail out in clinker-built longships to seek fortune. It seems, originally, the desire for travel and exploration was motivated by many (non-hostile) factors: to escape overpopulated areas, to expand trading partners, and to find new, nutrient-rich areas to farm that were more fertile than the ones in the harsh climate of their native region.

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And when it came to cooking, things were simple and rooted in both farming the land and utilizing the surrounding waters for fishing. Meat and seafood were a big part of the diet. They consumed delicious meat, from cattle to horse, sheep, pork, goat, and even hen.

I know what you're thinking: This simple style of cooking was supplemented by exotic spices and goods acquired by robbing or trading in the major Russian market and trade regions, right? Yes, dear reader, the Norse traders met with Chinese and Persian traders, imported glass and silk from China, and fine wines from France and Germany. The wine, in particular, was reserved for elite Norsemen (the Earls) to vary their regular alcoholic intake of mead and beer. In exchange, the Vikings exported items such as amber, fur, wool, Norwegian wild game, salt, and cod.

Photo by Tuukka Koski 

Photo by Tuukka Koski

They were also keen hunters and foragers, so wild game, berries, herbs, and mushrooms could also have supplemented their diets.

Both meat and fish would have been smoked, dried, and salted during summer and autumn months to ensure survival through the long winters. Meat was boiled using clay bowls over an open fire or by dropping hot stones into a mixture of meat and water to bring up the temperature. The salty, cold winds along the coastlines would remove moisture to preserve and keep the fish from spoiling. Cooked meats were preserved in vats using the lactic acid in sour whey.

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And when we consider delicious modern day bakeries like Tartine in San Francisco, the Vikings were eating similarly wholesome grains from a wide variety of plants, including rye, barley, oats, and wheat. Porridges were made with whole or ground grains and water or milk. They even baked bread made from barley, rye, and wheat over an open fire. Flour was either milled by hand or on round grindstones which have been discovered in great numbers throughout Scandinavia.

It would be wrong if I didn't talk about alcohol to add to the cliché notions about Vikings. Naturally, large quantities of beer brewed from barley and mead made from fermented honey were consumed during feasts. A strong liquor called Bjorr, which was produced from honey and the fermented juice of different berries, was also a substance of choice.

These alcoholic beverages were very popular and important for the holy act of blót, a Norse sacrifice to the gods. The ceremony could be performed in relation to achieving general happiness and honor, but to also ask the gods to watch over vegetation and farms. The sacrifice usually involved the slaughter of animals like pigs and horses. The blood was considered the essence of life and and was poured over the fields and onto Vikings before gathering around large cooking pits to throw a feast and dine with the gods.

In our kitchen at Maaemo, we are working on the process of fermenting honey to make mead, the classic kind not only for drunken feasts and sacrificial rituals, but to also use in our cooking. We have also used this method in combination with different types of vegetables, fruits, and berries. The deep sweetness from the fermentation of the honey gives the liquid an amazing, complex, and layered flavor profile. It gives me a tremendous amount of inspiration to utilize the ancient methods from our region and bring them back into a contemporary context.

Here in Norway, preserving is not a trend. It wasn't among Vikings, either. I suppose you could say that it's something that might very well be etched into our DNA for pure survival. And pleasure.

This story was originally published on May 5, 2015 on MUNCHIES.