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Month: May 2017

íslenska sauðkindin: Icelandic sheep

íslenska sauðkindin: Icelandic sheep

I’ve actually been a spinner for a lot longer than I’ve been interested in all things Icelandic. Up until now, however, I’ve never worked with the fleece of an Icelandic sheep. I started planning this particular project before I decided to focus on Iceland and have an Icelandic persona, so it’s a bit of a happy coincidence that this project fits in quite nicely with my overall goal here. I decided a few years ago that I wanted to do a sheep to dress project – going from raw fleeces, straight off the sheep, and do every single step along the way myself, by hand, as close to the way it would have been done in the Viking age, and ultimately end up with an apron dress for myself. The first step in this project was to research breeds of sheep to find the right one, and as I did have a Viking era persona at that point, even if it wasn’t Icelandic at the time, I came to the conclusion that the Icelandic sheep was probably the closest to what would have been available in the Viking era. There are a few other breeds that would also have worked – the Soay, the Norwegian Spaelsau, and the Jacob, for example – but for some reason I decided on Icelandics. As it turned out, that was a good choice for me since a few years later I decided to narrow my focus to Viking-era Iceland! Icelandic sheep are directly descended from the sheep brought to Iceland by the people who settled it.

The Icelandic sheep is a Northern European short-tailed sheep which has a double coat.  They have a soft inner coat called the thel, and a coarser, longer outer coat called the tog.  When the two are mixed together during carding and spinning, they can make a yarn which is very stable while still being able to be spun fairly thin, called Lopi.  This yarn is best used for outerwear, though, as it’s not super soft and fine like Merino or wools like that.  Alternately, the tog and the thel can be separated with wool combs (or by hand) and spun separately.  The tog spun by itself will produce a softer yarn, and the thel will make a coarser (and I suspect more waterproof) yarn.  I will be doing some experiments with a small portion of the fleeces I get, to decide whether to separate the tog and thel, or to spin it together.

My project got put on hold for a while over the past couple of years, because I was struggling to get my hands on some Icelandic fleeces, for a few different reasons – but the main one being finances. I have not been able to find anyone in my immediate area who keeps Icelandic sheep, which meant either having the fleeces shipped to me, or going out of area to get them. While fleece is too heavy, unless you’re getting a lot of it, it is quite bulky, and would not be cheap to ship. Fortunately, I realized that the site for June Coronation is only a couple of hours from Biggs Ranch, a farm in central Alberta that raises just about Icelandic everything… sheep, horses, chickens, and dogs. They’ll be shearing their sheep sometime between now and the end of June, and I’ve made arrangements to make a stop there on my way to Coronation to pick up some fleeces. I’m hoping to get going early enough in the morning that I’ll have time to meet their dogs (they have new puppies that were born in the past few weeks too!) and take some photos for my project as well.

So now that I FINALLY have fleeces coming, it’s time to get going on researching, building, and documenting the fibre prep tools I’ll be using! First up: wool combs based on the Oseberg ship find.

Photograph of Icelandic sheep by Andrea Schaffer, used with permission under a Creative Commons license, and found posted on Flickr here.

Planting a Viking Garden

Planting a Viking Garden

Earlier this spring, it occurred to me that another good way to Viking up my life and home would be that when I’m planting the garden I was planning to plant anyways this spring, to make sure I planted as many things that the Vikings would have eaten fresh, as possible. So I did a bit of reading earlier this year, so that I could order seeds from a specialized merchant, if there were things I needed that I didn’t think I could find at the nursery. It turned out there were a fair few of these, since I was looking at herbs as well as vegetables, so it was a good thing I planned well ahead.

As it turns out, there is someone who has already written an article that did most of the research for me on this. So I will start by saying I relied fairly heavily on, and must give major credit to The Plants Used in a Viking Age Garden A.D. 800-1050 by Mette Eggen.

From the list provided in that article, I will be planting: Onion, Cabbage, Turnip, Peas, Beans, and Cress. The last 6 plants in the list I did not plant – Hemp, Flax, Woad and Hops are not plants used for eating (ok, yes, you can eat flax seeds, but it’s much more frequently used for pressing for oil, or to make linen), and apples and plums are, of course, tree fruit. Apples and plums I can readily buy at the grocery store in the summer, I can get them from the farmer’s market, or from friends who have an abundance. If I’m lucky, and the people who bought the empty lot next door haven’t chopped the trees down by the time they produce fruit, this summer I could even get some from the trees next door.

The first plant in the list, Angelica, is an herb that grows wild in Iceland, and it is native to Europe and Asia, but is not found in my area of Canada. it has been found on the eastern coast of Canada1, where is has been deemed an invasive weed. Given the fact that the Vikings are known to have landed in Canada around the year 1000, at sites like L’Anse aux Meadows2, I can’t help but wonder if it was brought over by the Vikings. This is pure conjecture on my part, however, and I have no evidence for this (yet. It merits further research though, I think!) I did order seeds for Angelica, but because it is difficult to germinate, I also ended up ordering some seedlings to be shipped to me.

I did do further research on my own, and to this list I have added:
Carrots (which wouldn’t have been orange, I am certain of that, but I’m not sure what colour they would have been)
White Mustard
Lamb’s Quarters
Stinging Nettle (I can get this wild here, in fact I think I’ll just be transplanting some from a friend’s yard)

Things the Icelanders grew which I am not growing, because they require too much land and are readily available in the store:
Garlic (not because of the land use, but because it requires planting in the fall and I didn’t)

There are also a bunch of medicinal herbs that I am going to grow (most are still in seed form), but I will save those for another post. Right about now is the time to be getting things planted where I live, so that’s what I’ll be doing in the next week!

2. Wikipedia page about L’anse aux Meadows

Eat like a viking: Summer Coronation menu

Eat like a viking: Summer Coronation menu

I have a few different projects on the go at the moment, but right at this very minute, I’m thinking about Summer Coronation coming up, and the idea of eating like a Viking for the entire time I’m at the event. As far as I can see, this shouldn’t be all that difficult to do. I’m going to the event solo, as my husband doesn’t participate (and could very well be working all weekend, for all we know at this point), and only have to worry about myself. As far as limitations go, I don’t have any true food allergies, and only have one real limitation on what I’m cooking with outside of working within the Viking Age/Iceland parameter, and that is that I don’t eat any fish or seafood. We do know that the Icelandic Vikings *did* eat a lot of fish, but they also ate a lot of other stuff as well, so I’ll be just fine. I am a bit of a fussy eater, so you are not likely to see me trying things that are really bizarre (to modern palates, or at least the pickier ones), such as fermented shark fin or whatever. I am also “allergic” to alcohol (it’s really alcohol flush syndrome), alas, but I can at least handle things with the alcohol content cooked out of them.

I was fortunate enough to have taken an ongoing class on medieval cooking many years ago, and I still remember a fair amount from it. It wasn’t specific to the Viking period, but has served me well in general when it comes to period cooking. To start, there are two basic categories when it comes to period cooking. The first is working from actual extant cookbooks. This largely applies to later period cooking, such as the Renaissance and Elizabethan periods, as there is plenty of existing works from those times.

The second is what I call conjectural cooking – in which we take what we know about a place and time in terms of what was available for foodstuffs, and for preparation methods, and come up with plausible dishes based on those. This is what we mostly have to do with the Viking period, because (so far as I have seen) there is little to nothing available for actual extant recipes. I will be doing much of this, as well as trying out recipes and ideas that other folks have come up with.

If I get into lists of food available and such in this post, it’s going to end up so long nobody will read it, so for now, I present the menu I have come up with for Summer Coronation:

Friday: a travel day for me, and at the very most, I will be having dinner on site, but it will be cold meat, cheese, etc. that is easy to prep.

Saturday: this will be my main day for actually cooking
Breakfast – a porridge of barley, with blackberries, hazelnuts, honey and cream

Lunch – cold roasted chicken, flatbread, raw carrots and apples, and perhaps a salad of fresh vegetables if I am lucky (my cress may be ready to eat by then!). Also possibly a viking cheese, made by me!

Dinner – a stew made of beef, barley, onions, parsnips, and dill, likely with more flatbread on the side

Sunday: leftovers

For beverages, I generally keep to water at events, as I don’t drink, as I previously mentioned. For hot drinks, I will stick to peppermint tea, as peppermint was available in Iceland (It was mentioned in the Icelandic Pharmacopoeias as early as 1240 AD as an herbal remedy, and gained in popularity over the next two centuries) and I actually love peppermint tea.

Photo taken by Chris Jones used with permission as it was posted on Flickr under a Creative Commons license here.

Upcoming Events and Projects

Upcoming Events and Projects

I’m extremely excited about a few things that are coming up in the next few weeks. The first thing is Summer Coronation, which is happening on the first weekend in June. I haven’t been to an event since March, although I had planned to go to one in April and one in May. I ended up having to cancel out on Silver Arrow and TUA, because I have a rule that Real Life Comes First, always. Well, real life intervened and I ended up on a trip to Vancouver so that my husband could get a cornea transplant instead. This trip also resulted in my missing the hatching of my chicks completely.

My eggs had what I considered a poor hatch rate – 12 out of 24 eggs hatched, and we lost one chick after hatching – and I’ve heard from other chicken people that this is anywhere from an average hatch rate to a poor one. Due to not getting as many chicks as I’d hoped, I decided to find another source of Icelandic hatching eggs. This will also have the benefit of broadening the genetic pool within my flock. I am technically not supposed even have a rooster in my flock, due to the noise, and I’m not supposed to have more than 6 hens, but I know from a discussion with our bylaw office when I reported having gotten rid of a bird that had turned out to be a male last year, that unless my neighbours complain, nobody is going to come around and count my birds. Juveniles also don’t count. I’m hoping to keep a rooster out of my Icelandics, using a No-crow collar, both for protection of my flock, and to also hatch some eggs in the future. Apparently Icies go broody quite easily and frequently.

Anyways, I did find another breeder of Icelandic chickens within what I consider a reasonable distance of me… or at least it is since I will be travelling anyways. On June 2nd, I’ll be picking up another dozen eggs from Rhyant Rock Farms and popping them in the incubator when I get back from my Coronation trip. She has absolutely beautiful birds and I can hardly wait to see what I get from that batch.

I’ve also made arrangements to make a stop at Biggs Ranch on my way TO Coronation. Biggs Ranch is a breeder of Icelandic, well, everything, just about! They have Icelandic chickens, sheep, horses, and sheepdogs! I’m hoping to get an Icelandic sheepdog someday, but that’ll have to wait until after my current pup passes as he doesn’t like other dogs. Anyways, besides wanting to visit and photograph all their critters, I’m going to be picking up some fleeces from Icelandic sheep to work with on a big, long-term project I’ve been plotting for quite a while now. I can hardly wait to get my hands on it.

In the meantime, I’m starting some research on some Viking-age fibre preparation tools, specifically wool combs, a swift, and drop spindles, most likely based on the Oseberg ship grave finds. I need stuff to use to prepare all that fleece!

(Picture of an Icelandic hen and her chicks at the top of the post is entitled “A mother’s job is never finished”, and was taken by Lisa Richards, and posted at, used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

chicks with names!

chicks with names!

I don’t usually name my chickens until they’re a few months old. This is because I give them gendered names, generally, and I also want to see their personalities come out before I name them. I currently have a Lacey (she has a lacey pattern on her neck feathers), a Princess Peach (or Peaches) because she’s got a lot of peach feathers, and my two Silver Laced Wyandottes are Beatrice and Henrietta, just because they’re so pretty and prissy looking. I’ve also had a Trouble (he was… especially in that he turned out to be a rooster instead of a hen!), a Bella (because she was pretty… except she was also actually a rooster, so she became Beau instead), a Zelda (a female video game name to go with Princess Peach), a Sunny (she was a pretty gold colour and the feathers around her head looked like a sun) and a Meredith (she was Grey).

But two of my chicks have earned themselves descriptive names already… which was actually VERY common in the Viking period. Just think of Eiríkr Þorvaldsson, who most people know better as Erik the Red (Eiríkr hinn rauði in Old Norse), for his red hair. This little one up above is named Svartur, which is Icelandic for black. Of course, chicks change SO quickly that 2 days after naming her, she now has lighter spots on her wings and belly. Oh well. Once I know whether she actually is a hen or a rooster, she’ll gain a given name, and then I’ll probably add “inn svarti” to it, unless she shows some other prominent trait that would make for a better descriptive name.

This little one’s name is Lítill, which is Icelandic for Small. She was the second to last chick to hatch, and the youngest living chick (we lost the last one to hatch, as it was born with 3 different health issues), and is definitely the tiniest of them. She’s probably just a bit behind in her development compared to her siblings, but occasionally I worry about her a bit, especially this morning when I discovered they had emptied their food dish and it had gotten flipped over ONTO her, and she was trapped. She seemed fine when I rescued her, so it probably hadn’t happened too much prior to my coming in to check on them this morning.

The flock has 4 chicks whose main colour is a dark grey or black, and 7 whose main colour is lighter, ranging from a pale cream to yellow to grey, and all of those currently have some level of dark markings on their wing feathers, but chickens’ feather colouring and patterning can change 3-4 times before they hit full grown, so it will be interesting to watch how they develop.

Landnamshænen – Icelandic Chickens

Landnamshænen – Icelandic Chickens

I have a project I’ve been working on for a while now, but didn’t want to mention too much detail on until things got to a certain stage. It’s been in my Upcoming Projects list as “Secret Project #2 (codename: feather)” for a while now. As of last week, I’ve been clear to post about it, but due to a trip out of town for a cornea transplant for my husband, I haven’t had the chance to write or take photographs until now. But it’s finally time for details!

When my husband and I first moved to the north-eastern BC area, we originally only planned to stay about 5 years, but within a few months, we had fallen in love with the area and changed our minds, and in the process, decided we wanted to buy an acreage and start a hobby farm. We bought our first house in August of 2015, which was on a double lot and in an area where backyard chickens and bees were allowed, since we weren’t able to find a small acreage within our price range. That first fall we were in the house, we built a small chicken coop, and in the spring of 2016, I brought home a few hens. At first I just got mixed breed chicks, and then when I got tired of waiting for them to grow up enough to lay, I got my hands on a couple of year-old Silver Laced Wyandotte hens, which are beautiful chickens, and excellent winter layers (which I didn’t even know when I got them), and have been enjoying owning chickens and eating fresh eggs from my backyard since then.

But somewhere along the line, I discovered something I thought was really cool, and that I absolutely had to have. Icelandic chickens. There are Icelandic chickens. They are traceable back to the chickens brought to Iceland by the Vikings who settled Iceland. This is SO COOL.

Technically, they are what is called a Land Race, not a breed. A breed can be identified by physical characteristics – for example, my Silver Laced Wyandotte chickens can be identified by how they look, as well as other things. A land race is a “domesticated, locally adapted, traditional variety of a species of animal or plant that has developed over time, through adaptation to its natural and cultural environment of agriculture and pastoralism, and due to isolation from other populations of the species” (quote from the wikipedia page for Landrace). In particular, the fact that the population of Icelandic chickens were isolated from the rest of the world by being on an island has contributed to the development of the Icelandic chicken landrace. They’re still domestic chickens, Gallus gallus domesticus, just like all chickens, but they have developed characteristics because of being isolated.

Being a landrace rather than a breed, Icelandic chickens don’t have a standardized appearance. There are all sorts of colours and patterns that they can come in, which makes for a lovely variegated flock.

In Icelandic, they are called Islenska hænan (Icelandic Chicken), Haughænsni (pile chicken) or landnámshænan (hen of the settlers).