For the Althing, I cooked two pieces of venison. This post is to document what I did, and how it came out, and a few ideas on things to do next time. I wanted to cook it as Aodh, an early 11th century Dubliner, would have done.
First, the spit-roasting is limited a bit by the fireboxes I had access to. Ideally, I think what I’d like is to have a fairly strong fire burning, with the meat horizontally across from it, and be able to rotate it almost continuously. However, I don’t see much evidence for roasting in that style until quite late in the medieval period, and I think it’s entirely more likely that the 11th century Dublin Vikings would have had a fairly similar arrangement to mine. They would have had ground-level hearths or firepits, though, not my raised firebox – that’s essentially a concession to the sites where we hold events.
So the meat was on spits, about 30-40cm from the fire, and about the same height above the base of the firebox. The idea here is to cook in radiant heat. To that end, I had wood burning, not in a straight line, but in a C shape, centred on the meat, curving around a little at the ends. I supplied new timber at the “back” of the fire, away from the meat, and had the fireboxes arranged so that the wind (such as it was; it was a pretty calm day) blew the smoke and flame away from the meat, not toward it. I could probably have done both haunches on the same spit, but each one only had one built-in staple, so that the only way to make sure of even turning would have been to run one piece onto the staples, and tie or wire the other to it. This seemed, broadly, like asking for trouble, when I had two fireboxes and plenty of firewood available.
The meat itself was two mid-sized haunches of venison (4-4.5kg), which had been supplied frozen, on the bone. Lord Aedan’s local butcher had boned and rolled them for us, after they’d spent a few days defrosting in his fridge. I can’t think of anything I’d do differently about that, to be honest; the meat was excellent. Since venison is generally pretty lean – and this was no exception, I opted to baste it with butter. I gave some consideration to other fats – beef, mutton, or pork fat would all have been available in period, but since Irish cuisine was all about dairy, I decided that butter was the way to go. The application was simple; from about one third of the way through, I took thin slices of butter and laid them on top of the meat just after I’d turned it. This meant that they melted slowly, shielded from direct heat by the meat itself, and dripped down nicely.
I turned the meat 180 degrees every fifteen minutes or so (guessing at the time, not using a timepiece) for the first half of the cooking time, and then 90 degrees every ten minutes for the remainder. I started the fires on ash timber, which burns quickly and not too hot, moved on to beech for the mid part (an anachronism in and of itself; beech arrived in Ireland with the Normans), and then used hot-burning birch for the last quarter or so of the time. I keep saying “the time”, because I’m honestly not sure how long exactly it took. I went out to set up the fireboxes at about 09:30, and I carried the cooked meat into the longhouse to rest at about 17:00. I didn’t put the meat on until the fires were burning well, so I suppose that would have been about 10:30. That would give a 6.5 hour cooking time, which seems about right.
Gytha and Alays kept me supplied with food and drink, and Nessa brought me a pint of coffee in the mid-afternoon, all of which was terribly useful, so I was able to keep tweaking the fires and turning the meat all day. This kind of labour-intensive process isn’t wholly unreasonable; one can imagine an elderly Norse man or woman, not much for mobility anymore, taking on the all-day task of managing the fires. It’s pleasantly warm, and people come by to talk to you; a good way to spend a day.
The end result was excellent: cooked through, still a little pink in the middle, nicely soft, and not at all dry. There isn’t a whole lot I’d do differently next time, except that I might have the spit on the other side of the fire for a while to get a little bit more smoke into it (possibly early in the process), and Baroness Caitriona made the interesting suggestion of burning juniper wood for that purpose. The long, slow roast is absolutely essential, though – trying to speed up the process just won’t work.