Preparing a feast the Medieval way
Tap into your inner Viking with these campfire-ready recipes and cooking methods
Edged against the great river, a short distance from the main road and yet well hidden, lies the Medieval Forest in Rollag, Norway, an area dedicated to the preservation of history, culture, and traditional skills.
It is here that I met up with Kjell and Maj-Lis Mogen for a glimpse inside the eating habits of the Vikings. The husband and wife team are passionate about their country’s history and the area of Numedal.
Every year during July, local municipalities put on a week-long festival featuring local music, courses based on traditional craft techniques documented from the discovery of the Oseberg Ship, and other Viking Age festivities. Courses include making Viking clothes with table looms and plant dyes; knife making, including forging blades and making sheaths; blacksmithing; bronze casting; weaving birch root baskets; building wooden structures with the notching technique; and archery. A large market day is held at the end with games, food, local products, dance, and song. The week’s festivities, held in stave churches and historical buildings, create an atmosphere true to Norway’s history for all ages and interests.Visitors can even ride in a copy of a Viking ship from AD 850.
The Numedal valley is a glimpse into life during the Middle Ages. Today, Numedal has named itself the Medieval Valley of Norway (Middelalderdalen). They can safely make such a proclamation because within the valley lies the largest collection of houses and buildings older than AD 1537. In Rollag, Nore, and Uvdal municipalities, there are between 50 and 60 buildings, including four stave churches, dating to the 1100s. The existence of so many medieval buildings still intact may be due, in part, to the wealth local people gained from the extraction of iron. They could then afford high quality materials and craftsmen to build enduring structures.
The valley has also acted as a crossroads for trading between the east and west for as far back as one can imagine. Knowledge, culture, religious beliefs, and other outside influences came through this area because of this important pathway. It also offered locals a way to barter for what they could not produce.
To better understand life during those times, Kjell, Maj-Lis, and I made a small, traditional feast of plankefisk (plank fish) and rugbrød (rye bread with barley grains). Kjell also showed me a fun way to cook eggs over an open fire.
To begin, Kjell cut into each of the wood planks, making four distinct small holes where the fish would be secured. He cleaned the fish and cut it in half. Using herbs and shallots known to be used by the Vikings, he generously covered the fish and added salt, and some lemon for taste—although this addition may or may not be quite as authentic.
He turned the fish fillets over onto each plank, skin side up, and fastened them with wooden pegs he whittled for the purpose. Secured in place, he took each plank and placed it upright next to the open flames of the fire pit. For one hour they slowly cooked. Juices dripping down; skin crisping. The aroma from the smoke and trout captivated us, making it hard not to fall into a trance staring into the glowing flames surrounded by a wild and green nature. Slow cooking means patience and, luckily, we were able to divert our attention to attend to the baking of the bread.
Kjell built the oven, as they would have done, by arranging large stones to form a bottom and top layer. A wood fire is started in the bottom and the front of the oven is sealed with more large stones to trap heat inside. With the front stones removed, Kjell carefully set four rolls inside and placed the stones back over the opening. The oven is primitive and reminded me that there was a time before all of our kitchen gadgets and technology. A time when our hands not only created the meal, but also the tools with which we cooked the meal. There’s a certain pride that comes from being a part of the entire process.
The trout was perfectly cooked, the bread was dense and soft, and the eggs had smokiness, which was surprisingly delightful. We feasted under the vast sky, surrounded by the green forest and entranced by the sound of the river. It was a perfect way to step back in time and connect with Norway’s history.
To feast like a Viking, here are recipes from our meal that you can prepare at home. You can also experience the food and lifestyle of the Vikings firsthand by joining in the Medieval Festivities in Numedal, Norway, from July 24 to 29, 2017. Courses are held throughout the year. For further information regarding the festival, riding in the Viking ship, and/or visiting the Medieval Park in Numedal at any time of the year, send an email to email@example.com or visit www.middelalderverkstedet.no.
1 whole, fresh trout
2 shallots, sliced finely
1 bunch thyme
1 bunch ground elder / bishops weed leaves (skvallerkål)
Prepare two planks of wood for the fish, with a 2 to 3 cm thickness. Each plank should be at least 20 x 50 cm, depending on the size of the fish. Cut four small holes in the planks, where the wooden pegs will hold the fish. These should be measured to the fish (two at the top of the fish, two toward the bottom).
Prepare 8 wooden pegs by removing the bark from wooden branches and whittling them down. The middle of each peg should be slightly thinner than the thickness of a little finger. These need to fit inside the holes in the wooden planks.
Remove the head and insides of the fish, and clean and rinse. Slice the fish in half, lengthways, to get two filets, leaving the skin on.
Dice the shallots and herbs and cut the lemon into small slices. Cover the flesh side of each fish with them. Sprinkle with salt.
Carefully flip over one of the filets onto a wood plank, flesh side down, and attach the fish to the plank with 4 of the wooden pegs, hammering them in with the back of the knife if necessary. Do the same with the other fish and other plank.
Once fastened, place the planks upright next to the fire. You can use large stones to keep them upright. After about 30 minutes, turn the planks top to bottom for even cooking. The fish is finished when it is soft and the flesh has brightened, around 1 hour total cooking time.
Rugbrød (Rye Bread with Smoked Barley)
Taken from An Early Meal Cookbook
1 pinch fresh yeast (about the size of a pea)
1 ¼ cups water (86 °F)
1 ¼ cups rye flour
¾ cup smoked barley malt, crushed (normal barley malt if you can’t get smoked)
1 ¾ cups water (150 °F)
1 ¾ cups whey (86 °F) (or water if you cannot get whey)
2 ½ cups rye flour
approx. 5 cups wheat flour
1 tbsp. salt (optional)
Starter dough: Dissolve the yeast in water and mix in the flour. The consistency should be like loose porridge. Let it ferment overnight (8 to 10 hours) at room temperature covered by a linen cloth. When you notice a lot of bubbles on the surface, the starter is ready to use.
Scalding: Let the barley malt steep in heated water. Keep the temperature at 140-158 °F for about half an hour in order to convert most of the starch to sugar. After about half an hour, raise the temperature to 212 °F and let the mixture of malt and sweet liquid boil until the grains are soft and porridgy. Let it rest overnight at room temperature, covered by a linen cloth.
The dough: Mix the starter, scalded barley, whey, rye flour, and salt if you choose to use it. Add the wheat flour little by little in order to achieve the right texture. Work the dough thoroughly by hand, around 10 minutes. Leave it to rise for 3 to 4 hours at room temperature, covered by a damp linen cloth. When it has doubled in size, it should be finished. If using a modern oven, heat it to 437° F and leave a baking stone or metal baking tray in the oven so it will also be heated. Otherwise, try to get the same temperature in a stone oven, making sure to heat it properly before baking. Divide the dough into 24 pieces, and roll them out into small buns. Roll the buns in some flour. Let them rise for 40 minutes, covered. Cut a cross on the top of the buns with a sharp knife. Put them into the oven, on the hot stone or hot baking tray. Bake until they turn a nice brownish color, 40 minutes. Wrap the baked buns in a linen cloth, and they should keep a few days.
Gently poke a small hole into each end of an egg with a sharp knife. Take a whittled stick, sharpened at the end, and put it through the holes in the egg. Cook over the fire until set, like you would a marshmallow, being careful to keep the egg horizontal. The shell must be quite strong in order to do this, otherwise the yolk and egg white will run out.
Nevada Berg is a writer, photographer, and recipe developer living in Rollag, Norway, in the Numedal Valley. She shares the stories, traditions, and history behind Norwegian food, as well as inspiring dishes from local and seasonal ingredients, at www.northwildkitchen.com.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 9, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.