Saturday, January 14, 2012

Food in Fiction

Today we're privileged to have talent Carina Press Author Julia Knight visiting the blog and talking about her latest release, The Viking's Sacrifice.

Over to you, Julia.

 I hit a bit of a quandary in my latest book. It’s a story about Saxons and Vikings in the 9th century, and obviously in a historical, you need to really be grounded in the ‘when’ of the story. How to do that? I found two ways, but the one I’m talking about today is food. Because, let’s face it, Vikings didn’t eat ready meals or Big Macs, but subtly showing what they did eat, how and why, working it into the story (in moderation—I don’t list recipes, honest!) really helps to show what is different, that we aren’t in modern times any more, and also, food is something that is a reflection of the society it’s in, in many respects—the rituals of food, such as Christmas dinner, and all its worldwide variations.

For instance, did you know that Vikings often measured wealth in cows? Their word for money actually derives from their word for cattle. Not because of the meat. Despite my mental image of Vikings wolfing down large slabs of meat and quaffing ale all year round, beef, mutton etc. were seasonal. Your Viking would calculate how many animals he could feed for the winter, and during Bloodmonth would slaughter the rest. As dairy products were more prized than meat, each cow slaughtered was an economic loss, almost an admission of failure if you will.

So if they weren’t eating roast beef every night, what were they eating? Dairy produce, mainly. Not milk as such, but things they made out of milk. Cheese—they used the whey to pickle meat—butter, buttermilk and something I’m meaning to actually make for myself. Skyr—a not-quite-yoghurt, not-quite-soft-cheese often sweetened with honey.

All of which comes as a bit of surprise to my Saxon heroine, but it did help ground us in the ‘where’ of the story. It also made me very hungry when I was researching!

Anyway, as recipes seem to be popular in romance blog land, here we have a recipe for skyr, which is still popular in Iceland. It probably won’t turn out exactly the same—to make skyr, you need, er, skyr—but I’m told it’s a reasonable likeness. As it uses skimmed milk, it’s low in fat (useful in the post Christmas ‘OMG where did my waist go?’ fug). The slightly less healthy, but tastier method of eating it includes topping with honey, or you can mix with fruit. And it sounds easy enough even I wouldn’t get it wrong!

10 l skimmed milk, preferably not pasteurised
8-9 drops OR 1 1/2 tablet rennet
10 g skyr, for the bacteria starter. If not available, use 1 tbs live culture sour cream or buttermilk.

1. Heat the skimmed milk up to 86-90°C, and cool slowly for about 2 hours, down to 39°C. Stir a little scalded milk into the starter to make a thin paste and mix into the milk with the rennet (if you are using dry rennet, dissolve in a little water before adding).

2. Close the cooking pot and wrap in towels or a thick blanket. The milk should curdle over a period of about 5 hours. If it curdles in less than 4 1/2 hours, the curds will be coarse, but if it curdles in more than 5 hours, the skyr will be so thick it will be difficult to strain. When the milk is curdled, cut into the curds with a knife. When you can make a cut which will not close immediately, then you can go on to the next stage.

3. Line a sieve or colander with cheesecloth or a fine linen cloth and pour in the skyr. Tie the ends of the cloth together over the top and hang over a bucket or other container so the whey can drip off. If the skyr-making has been successful, there will be little whey, and it will not float over the curds, but will be visible along the edges of the sieve and in the cuts you made into the surface. You can judge the quality of the skyr from the appearance of the curds when you pour them into the sieve. If the skyr is good, it will crack and fall apart in pieces, but should neither be thin nor lumpy. Do not put a layer thicker than 7-9 cm into the sieve. Keep the sieve in a well ventilated room, with a temperature no higher than 12° and no lower than 0° Celsius. The skyr should be ready to eat in 12-24 hours.

4. The skyr should be firm and look dry when ready. The whey can be used as a drink, to pickle food, or as a replacement for white wine in cooking.

The Vikings’ Sacrifice is available now from Carina Press, Amazon and all good e-book retailers. You can find out more about Julia’s books at


Susanna Fraser said...

What fascinating research, Julia! I always enjoy old cookbooks and historical food websites.

Patricia Preston said...

Interesting to learn they were so fond of dairy products. I have never heard of rennet.

Misha Gericke said...

Oh. Skyr is like what we call dikmelk (thick milk). I have some in the fridge. Love it to bits. :-D

Rae Renzi said...

Interesting post, Julia. I'll look forward to reading the Viking's Sacrifice (loved Ten Ruby Trick!) Skyr sounds something like the Indian cheese Panir. I've never made it with rennet--only with lemon juice. Great stuff!

Cathy Perkins said...

Interesting post, Julia.
I love that you wove those setting dealings in to add a layer to the story.