Seaweed: An Authentic Viking Age Beer Snack

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Few things are as telling about a culture as what, how, and where we eat. The seemingly mundane rituals of our daily meals, whether we skip breakfast, eat out, or prepare decadent dinners in our own homes, each meal is a piece in a cultural puzzle that reveals aspects we might not communicate or consider much in our daily lives.

Food fascinates me, and it's only natural that this fascination extends to my love of the past. For all intents and purposes, the fates wanted it so that culinary history became one of my prime research interests, and particularly the cultural history of drinking. The act of drinking goes far beyond the menial task of consuming liquids. At its best, drinking is the celebration of life and happiness. At worst, it's damnation. This dualism is worthy of investigation!

Whether it is tea or tequila, performative drinking offers a framework for social, political and religious rituals. In the case of alcoholic beverages, it contains an alibi for bonding, even courtship (and seduction), under the assumption that intoxication will undress our true motives and reveal who we really are.

Drinks and delicacies

Drinking fits well in the company of light meals. Bitter coffee or wine is frequently accompanied by chocolate, beer is suitedable for savory snacks, like nuts or chips. This was a truism even in Norse culture, where drinks were accompanied by krásir, a term best translated as "delicacies". It's not entirely clear what these delicacies consisted of, though the 13th century Trójumanna saga names the extravagant luxury of pairing wine with "peppered deliacies" of hens and peacocks.

There's no need to go overboard, though. I've found that beer and red dulse seaweed (Palmaria palmata), or sǫl in Old Norse, make for an excellent duo. Incidently, the combination of dulse and drink (though non-alcoholic in this specific case) saved the life of the infamous 10th century viking and poet Egill Skallagrímsson.

Egill thirsts for life

Throughout his days Egill was haunted by traumatic events and near-death experiences. When his much beloved son Bodvar died driving a load of timber that Egill had purchased, it finally drove him off the bend. He fell into psychosis and holed up in his bedchamber in an attempt to starve himself. However, his daughter Þorgerðr devised a cunning plan: She convinced him she was suicidal too, and sat down by his side, chewing salty dulse seaweed, which she claimed speed up the process. This puzzled her father, who asked for a taste. In fact, it did anything but kill him: Þorgerðr eventually called for a drink of water, which proved too tempting for Egill to resist (the saga paints a picture of a very thirsty man), though he was angry to find he'd been tricked into drinking nutritious milk. Once that was done, the girl compelled him to compose a funerary poem to honor their loss, an elegy, insisting they could well die later if they wished. Yet when the poem was finished, Egill no longer felt like dying. His thirst evoked his poetic passion, and his his passion for skaldic poetry whetted his appetite for life.

 

 Palmaria palmata in the wild. Photo: Secretlondon/Wikimedia Commons.

Palmaria palmata in the wild. Photo: Secretlondon/Wikimedia Commons.

The new and archaic Nordic kitchens

Despite its millennia old roots in the Nordic diet, dulse sank into obscurity in modern times. For long, the only means of acquiring it was by going to shore at low tide and foraging it yourself. This can be a quite charming activity if you live in a relatively unpolluted coastal area. Seaweed has since resurfaced in the commercial niche of the new Nordic kitchen, and today it is globally available through select online vendors and Nordic specialist markets. 

If for whatever reason dulse is not available where you live, there are many other options. Japanese and asian markets usually offer some variety of kombu or nori marketed for this exact purpose, and high end American supermarkets like Whole Foods may stock a small variety of kelp and seaweeds as well. Ultimately, there is no feeling that can replace the joy of a free, self-harvested batch dried on your kitchen counter. But whether you are foraging for yourself, or opting for a store bought variety, mind your teeth! You'll be wise to search them for small rocks or grains of sand that may be embedded in the surface (this is not a problem with processed nori). Most edible seaweeds make great snacks if you can stomach the ocean-y taste, and sure as hell makes for a healthier snack alternative than most!

 

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