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A review of An Early Meal: A Viking Age Cookbook & Culinary Odyssey

juli 4, 2013

An Early Meal

By Daniel Serra and Hanna Tunberg, 2013 ChronoCopia Publishing

I suppose I should start by briefly saying something about who I am and why I am reviewing this book, as the reviewer’s approach is of course important. I have an academic background in Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Medieval English philology, but, more importantly, I am a reenactor (Viking and Medieval), and have been for more years than I like to count. My main focus in reenacting is and always has been food.

Cooking Viking style is very much a question of stumbling around in the dark, and by the dark I mean the void of cookbooks completely failing to exist. The search for Viking Age food is a dire quest for scraps of knowledge that takes you through obscure archaeological reports, dusty old books and layers upon layers of literature tainted by the toils of time.

That is, until now.

An Early Meal is not the first attempt to write something comprehensible on food in the Viking Age. However, it is my humble opinion that all previous attempts have failed to present something acceptably plausible in their attempt to meet the acquirement of the modern palate. It was therefore with great anticipation that I cracked open the covers of An Early Meal.

The first thing that strikes you is the utter beauty of the book. Both illustrations and pictures are right up to par with any trend setting cook book you will find on the top shelves. The book takes you through a journey of Viking settlements, a clever way of demonstrating the regional differences of the time, and an important message to any novice in the field of historic cooking in general.

The main focus of the book is archaeological evidence, and being a lady of letters and literature, I do find I am missing more references to textual evidence. True, literature tends to be a bit of a minefield as far as plausibility is concerned, but there are ways of distinguishing between the late Medieval, Christian influenced sagas and the formalistic poems that can linguistically be dated much earlier than their surviving manuscripts may suggest.

My academic heart would have preferred a more thorough reference system, but I suppose that isn’t entirely necessary for the target audience of the book. If you are a budding historical foodie with the same fetish for detailed reference as I am, though, I am happy to assure you that most if not all referrals to texts and finds ARE, indeed, correct, albeit underreported.

The book’s strongest parts, I find, are the general discussions in the first part of the book, as well as the discussions of the thought processes underlying each dish presented. It is very obvious and equally refreshing that the authors come from a solid, practical background of actually being out there and cooking the food, toiling with those pots and inhaling the woodsmoke. They know, because they have done it. They have fed those 200 hungry Vikings and have the scars and burns to prove it.

Above all, I find the discussions are always very clear on distinguishing what is based on actual finds or textual sources, what is based on Non-Viking sources, and what is based on speculation. Because of the afore mentioned source void, speculation is a necessity in a book about Viking food, and being very clear on which is which, is definitely the way to go.

As for Non-Viking inspiration, though, I have to say that quite a few of the recipes seem a tad too close to Medieval cooking for my liking. Perhaps it is because of my Norwegianness – things were rougher here – but I just don’t see the husfrue of Lade making cookies for the hird. But again, those inspirations are clearly stated throughout, so the choice is left to the budding Viking cook.

I found that a very few of the recipes, particularly the ones including shell fish, gave the impression of being too much of a modern dish using period ingredients. While the discussion clearly and rightfully states that shellfish probably would have been cooked in a stew at the time, and not like ie oysters, which today are eaten raw, the recipe still has the oysters grilled in their shells, individually. Which was a little odd. I think 32 recipes on porridge would have been better than one on how to cook mussels. Perhaps it’s just me.

Saving these reservations, the recipes are inspirational, practical, clever and, though I haven’t had the pleasure of trying any yet, seemingly delicious. The authors have courageously included some food that is very much period, but which does perhaps not sit quite so well on modern tongues, like horse and marrow, heart and offal, and I salute them for doing so. They made up an important part of the diet at the time, and have a rightful place in a book on Viking food.

My all time favourite trait is how every little silly, ludicrous myth about Viking age food is meticulously and relentlessly hung, drawn and quartered. May they each and every one remain dead and buried from this day forth!

Summing up, An Early Meal is a perfect place to start for both the inspiring Viking cook and the historically curious gourmand, as well as a good source of inspiration and knowledge for the more battle hardened steikari. It contains enough historical information to spark the interest of any serious reenactor, and is beautiful enough to wrap up in tinsel and put under the Yule tree as a gift for Old Gran.

This Viking cook and reviewer is happy to say that she finally has a book to recommend, wholeheartedly, to those who ask for readily accessible information on Viking food.

Now, where do we go from here?

I dream of hundreds of pyres where historical foodies gather and burn all those silly books on Viking food written by ignorants and for tourists, dancing and chanting ALU, ALU LAUKAR while waving An Early Meal like protest banners in the air.

I long for the offset of a rising interest in period food – a GENUINE interest, not just the commercial tourist display –  nerds in the dozens who wipe the dust from old books and trail the footsteps of archaeologists, demanding that they investigate those fatty acid residues further, and sift through the sill just one more time to look for that one little lost caraway seed.

I think An Early Meal can be the start of something very palatable.
Buy the book, and then go forth.

An Early bål

Buy here:
http://chronocopiapublishing.com/index.php/books/early-meal-viking-age-cookbook-and-culinary-odyssey/

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