A taste of the Dark Ages

Go Viking!: Inexpensive plastic helmets at a souvenir shop in Stockholm. Photo: Zac O’Yeah

Go Viking!: Inexpensive plastic helmets at a souvenir shop in Stockholm. Photo: Zac O’Yeah

Commodifying history: Aifur Mead Bar in Stockholm’s old town. Mead was the beverage in vogue in the days of the Viking. Photo: Zac O’Yeah

Commodifying history: Aifur Mead Bar in Stockholm’s old town. Mead was the beverage in vogue in the days of the Viking. Photo: Zac O’Yeah

The more the merrier: You can taste various kinds of mead in tiny clay tumblers at Aifur Mead Bar, Stockholm. Photo: Zac O’Yeah

The more the merrier: You can taste various kinds of mead in tiny clay tumblers at Aifur Mead Bar, Stockholm. Photo: Zac O’Yeah

There are reasons why Viking food is scarce in Sweden. The first is health-consciousness. Second, the lack of flavour and finesse in what is dished out

I’m nervous. In keeping with Sweden’s hi-tech cashless economy, all other passengers have booked online and flash e-tickets on their phones. I don’t own a smarty-farty phone so I’ve tried to purchase a paper ticket at the booth, but they’ve stopped selling those. The ferry runs only once a day, so with no other option I board without a ticket. I mention to the shipmate that I want to pay in cash but he says, “Later.”

I owe SEK 390 (₹2,900) and worry I’ll be busted for ticketless travel and chucked overboard into the icy waters. By now the vintage 1984 ferry has left Stockholm’s central quay, Stadshuskajen, and chugs along inland waterways, which stretch all the way from the capital city into Lake Malar, the 120-km-long fjord that cuts through central Sweden and which, with its labyrinthine bays and headlands, became a preferred hideout for those barbarians known as Vikings. Unlike the present boat crew, they believed in cash, as the plentiful finds of Arabic silver coins at Viking settlements prove.

After cruising 30 km west, the ferry reaches its only stop: the virtually uninhabited Björkö (‘Island of Birch Trees’). But archaeologists think it was settled by an ancient king from the neighbouring island, Adelsö (‘Island of Nobility’), as his royal trading post. By 750 CE Björkö became one of the first towns of Scandinavia, and it was from here that the Vikings sailed west to France and Britain, sometimes to plunder, but mostly for trade, and eastwards on rivers deep into Russia, far enough to do business in Baghdad and threaten the crumbling Roman Empire’s last grand city, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). The Vikings even had a name for Constantinople — ‘Miklagård’, which roughly means ‘the biggest city we ever looted’. Even Chinese silk and Indian merchandise, such as carnelian beads exported from Gujarat, have been dug up from tombs on Björkö. In Latin, then the major language of Europe, the mighty Björkö became known as Birka.

Today the waters are peaceful and the only permanent inhabitants are a family of farmers who have tilled the soil at a lone farmstead for centuries. There are no shops except for the museum souvenir stall and snack kiosk, so the farmers have to sail to the mainland if they need groceries. But up to around 975 CE this was a prosperous harbour with a population of 1,500, as has been estimated from the number of tombs discernible as tiny mounds in the tall grass.

Instead of Vikings, Birka gets overrun with boatloads of tourists. The others chatter and their kids play catch, only I stop to study the signboard that says ‘Birka is one of the most complete and untouched Viking Age trading sites’, which is why it was made a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1993. The site is all of 17 acres, but there’s barely anything to look at except the earthen ramparts of a hill fort. A visitor needs a really vivid imagination and the aid of a guide dressed up in a rough homespun costume (to resemble a Viking) to understand what has kept the archaeological fraternity excited for hundreds of years.

Near the ferry point, half-a-dozen slightly sad-looking reconstructed wooden houses, built by experts experimenting with traditional tools and following ancient building methods, give an idea of how Vikings lived: in smallish, gloomy one-room huts, nothing as posh as the palaces of Rome, India or China. This also explains why the city itself is gone — it was made of wood. After walking some distance the guide points to an empty meadow and, laconically, states the most anticlimactic line I’ve ever heard on a guided tour, “This is where it actually once stood.”

He leads us through a dent in a grassy rampart, apparently once the Royal Gate, up on a cliff which he claims was the fort. Despite this glaring lack of attractions, Birka pulls in upwards 50,000 tourists per year, proving that Vikings are hot.

After poking around the museum, I accost the guide and ask when I’m supposed to pay. He looks perplexed at the idea that someone has gatecrashed his guided tour, but says he’ll remind the boat crew to collect money. As we chat, I learn he studied to become an archaeologist, but finds it more lucrative to guide rich Americans who come to Scandinavia looking for their Viking roots. Later on, as we’re about to moor back at Stockholm again, I ask him when those elusive tickets are going to be sold and he looks at me queerly and shrugs, “So it’s a free ride for you, then.”

Had he had any Viking blood in his veins, like his garments imply, he’d have chopped off my head with a broadsword there and then. Having saved the cash, I first consider buying myself a plastic Viking helmet from one of Stockholm’s old town souvenir shops (SEK 45 or ₹335 for the cheapest) but instead decide to have a proper Viking meal. Now, what is a Viking meal?

Viking grub is surprisingly scarce in Sweden, now that health-consciousness has gone haywire — today’s Viking descendants are mostly vegans eating gluten-free locally cultivated biodynamic fare. But as luck has it, the town’s only joint dedicated to Viking supping lies in the touristy parts, a short walk from the quay, a showcase basement diner promoted by a retired popstar known as E-Type. Lots of fancy eateries are run out of similar medieval vaulted basements, priding themselves on being over 500 years old — meaning the buildings, not necessarily the establishment’s history.

At the Aifur Mead Bar (Västerlånggatan 68B), I climb down steep steps to well below street level. Aifur is all done up Viking-style with rough-hewn wooden furniture, hand-wrought metal utensils, and the light is dim as can be expected of the Dark Ages. The female maître d’, dressed like a Viking matron, says it’s a one-hour waiting time for a table in the dining hall — again suggesting that Vikings are hot. But meanwhile, I may have a drink and starters at the bar.

Mead was the beverage in vogue in Viking times. In fact, traces of something meady has been found at sites in Denmark dating back 3,500 years, long before the Viking era. If the Vikings drank mead and went on to discover unknown worlds like America, as they evidently did 492 years before Columbus, I figure it has to be good for something. I sample various meads in tiny clay tumblers for SEK 92 per pop (₹685), which, despite its exorbitant rate and august pedigree, turns out to be a low-alcohol beverage of fermented honey water that tastes much like what horse’s piss might if flavoured with berries. Basically a dessert wine gone bad. A modern sommelier might jot down words like ‘execrable, repugnant, loathsome, nauseous, abominable’ if offered the gunk at a wine tasting. Besides, it has none of the bitterness of modern beer. But I notice the bar imports interesting Icelandic brews on bottle and has its own microbrews on tap, so I soon make the switch.

The cooking recipes are developed with the help of archaeologists, so hopefully they’ll be more exciting. To go with my beer I order a fancily titled starter, L’anse aux Meadow’s mead and cream boiled mussels (SEK 199/₹1,500), which refers to the part of Canada where a millennia-old Viking settlement, known in ancient Viking sagas as Vinland, was unearthed a few decades ago. This creamy over-salted dish claims to recreate what was eaten by Vikings there. Yuck! Another more promising snacky item is the platter of cold cuts (SEK 170 or ₹1,300) sourced from Björkfjärden, the fjord area immediately around Birka. However, it looks like random roadkill or offal collected from a trash bin behind the nearest supermarket: slimy slices of reindeer, elk and bear sausage, smoked pork and reindeer heart. It’s hard to tell if one is chewing on moose buttocks or pecker.

This terrifying menu also features Istanbul-style items to prove the Vikings’ cosmopolitanism, like Varangian roasted dwarf chicken and garlic-honey marinated lamb rack with Constantinople herb sauce, but by the time a table is available I determine that Viking food was inedible and, like a wise warrior, cut my losses, ask for the bill and beat a retreat. I now understand perfectly why there aren’t too many restaurants specialising in Viking gastronomy. No wonder those berserks sailed far and wide — to avoid their own home-cooking!

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist; [email protected]

Published on June 09, 2017

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