Bread and Porridge in Iron-Age Finland

No part of this text is allowed to be cited or published without my permission. Please note that methods of research get better all the time, and new interpretations may appear.

The Iron-Age woman was not so inept that his master had to chew cold, tough and nondescriptical bread. A good baker could make well leavened and tasty food even then.

Bread yeast

Plinius the older tells that in Gallia and Spain people raised bread with the foam of beer. This technique was used when very fine bread was baked. Ordinary bread in Finland was made leavened (Vehviläinen).

The bakers of the Middle Age Europe are known to order their yeast from alehouses (Lampinen). In Scandinavia beer yeast is supposed to be used only after 18-19th centuries (Lampinen). Does it mean that in the North bread was raised with different leavens, not with yeast? I think it is possible that bread was sometimes baked into ale yeast also in the Iron Age North, in the families who favor middle European fashion, but most likely the leftover ales were used in household in some other way.

Sour taste in Scandinavia

The familiar taste of the Nordic people was sour. Sour taste can be made with different leavens, and special yeast is not needed. Possible leavens, which are at least sometimes used nowadays in Finland and could have been used more frequently before, are rye leaven, oat leaven, honey leaven and a method of souring by salt and honey.

It is still common in Finland to eat sour rye bread, especially in the eastern part of Finland, where people make their bread more sour than those living in the west (see recipe at the end of the article). According to Hilkka Uusivirta sour taste had during Iron-age appreciated the whole of Finland (p.168). Karin Viklund has investigated some archeological bread in Sweden. She assumes that sour taste came with rye to the North. Also Hilkka Uusivirta mentions it (p. 168). Before the coming of the sour taste, people ate unleavened bread.

Moberg writes in his book that still in the Middle Ages people in South and East Sweden ate sour bread, while in the people in western Sweden already ate bread, which had no sour taste. It seems like the fashion of eating unsour bread came from the Middle-Europe during the Middle Ages. How soon, if at all during the Middle Ages, that fashion came to Finland, is unknown. Finland has always been further from the Middle-Europe than the other Baltic countries.

On my opinion the entire North has been an area of sour bread during Iron and Viking Ages. No recipes, though, have survived from the Viking Age Scandinavia. A handbook for a good servant from tsar Ivans time mentions rye bread to be given to the servants every day.

In Iron Age people also made their daily porridge by souring the flour before cooking. Isse Israelsson has forgotten this in his cookbook ’Mat på forntida vis’ and gives only unsour porridges in his recipes.

The fact that bread and porridge was sour makes sense because less fine flour is needed; the milling could be done with quite rough tools. The corn became soft, tasty and eatable during souring process: no teeth would be broken when the bread or porridge was eaten. Leavened food also has better digestibility, bake ability and preservability. The later would be an important thing in a society which had no freezers. Leavened bread stays fresh longer and the taste becomes even better from time. The taste is good though made only from water and flour. It is healthy in the true meaning of the word.

Bread in England

Already in the reign of Edward I (1272-1307) the London bakers of white bread were making light bread known as French bread, also called Puffe and Pouf. No bread leavened with sour dough would have been called a puffe. (David) Yeast and barm appear in Saxon manuscripts around 1000. Karen Hess believes (p. 114) that the ancient Celts and Gauls were using it in antiquity. She thinks that these puffe-breads were brought to English court from France. Wilson thinks that these puffes were then a kind of milk bread, confected with butter and eggs. Hess does not agree with her. She writes (P. 113), that though many persons write that the use of yeast came to France only in the 17th century, Hess believes that in the court they have always eaten bread leavened with yest.

The Assizes of bread from 1266 took upon itself the overseeing and policing of the bakers .The price of the loaf was fixed. The finest regular loaf was the penny white, then the penny wheaten, then household penny. The latest was (nearly) 100% whole wheat and about twice the weight of white bread. (Hess, p.17-18)

The wealthy ate white bread even in times of famine. The finest part of the wheat flour was reserved for the rich and the religious houses. The barn was mixed with flour made from beans or peas. (Hess, p. 18)

White bread.

Bread in Denmark in the Middle Ages

Skaarup has studied the account books of Queen Christine from 1496 to 1521.The grain most commonly cultivated for bread in medieval Denmark was rye. It seems that the queen ate mostly purchased bread, made from wheat. (Skaarup, p.41)

Bread in Europe in the Middle Ages

Hagen writes about bread from the Anglo-Saxon England, that wheaten loaves were regarded as superior, white bread being preferred for the Eucharist. Those who chose to eat barley bread did so from ascetic motives. On feast days, at least in religious contexts, the ordinary bread was replaced by a finer kind, or by spiced cakes. Feast-day bread may have been made from enriched dough mixtures. There are instructions for making a cake of finely sifted flour into which cumin and march seed was to be kneaded, so perhaps seeds were incorporated in the dough. Such enriched loaves could have been kneaded with milk instead of water, or cream, and had eggs, butter or other fats incorporated in the dough. They may have been sweetened with honey, or contained fruits, preserved in honey or dried. (Hagen, p. 19-20)

Yeast was potentially available to the Anglo-Saxons from three sources. Wild yeast is present in the air, and a mixture of meal and water left to stand will begin to ferment, and can be used as yeast. Fermenting liquor from brewing produced lighter bread that had evidently been made on the continent before the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon period. The Anglo-Saxons may have also used the sediment from bottom-fermenting yeasts – produced by the fermentation at a low temperature of light beers. The yeasty sediment was slow-acting, and resulted in heavy, damp, sour bread. (Hagen, p. 15)

There are some recipes that have survived from the Middle Ages. Different kinds of bread are mentioned in medieval cookbooks, for example: Pain de Maine, Pandemain, Wastel Bread: Paynman or Manged brede in Harleian MS, 4016 about 1450, Paynemayns or Elles of tendre brede in Douce MS.55, about 1440, Floure of pandemayn in Liber Cure Cororum about 1420. (Hess, p. 118) Bread was made of the most delicate flour obtainable, two or three times sieved through woollen and linen bolting cloths. Bakers often stamped their pandemain loaves with the figure of Christ. (Wilson, p. 217)

Manchet: Manchet was a small, tender loaf made of the finest whitest flour, leavened with yeast or barm, not of sour dough. See the recipe from 1615 at the end of this article. (Hess, p. 118-119)

Cheate bread (Markham) was made with about 85 per cent flour: the ’sowre leaven… saved from a former batch is broken into bits in warm water, strained, mixed with flour into a sponge as thicke as pancake batter, let sit all night, mixed with a little more water, barme, salt to season it enough flout to make it stiffe and firme, then kneaded and turned into loaves. The same method may be used for any compound graine as wheat and rie, or wheat, rie and barley, as well as for wheat alone, as here.´ (Hess, p. 18)

Yeoman’ s bread from Emmison’s Tudor foods and Past times. (Hess, p. 18)

Carter’s bread was agreeable enough for labourers, says Emmison in Tudor foods and Past times (Hess, p.18). Browne bread or bread for your hinde servants, which is the coarsest bread for mans use (Markham), includes barley, peas, wheat or rye, malt and sour dough. (Hess, p.18)

Breads baked to coarse flour were usually leavened with sour dough, alone or in conjunction with ale yeast (Hess, p. 18).

Bread in medieval Poland

Different kinds of bread flour were available in Poland during the Middle Ages. There were two types of rye flour, one coarse and one finely ground, as well as common and speciality wheat flours. According to king Wladyslaw Jagiello’s accounts common wheat flour was used for loaf or trencher bread, while the white flour was used for baking manchet rolls, cakes and better quality baked goods. The third kind, the best grade of wheat flour was the most delicate of all and was used for only the highest quality cakes, cookies and pastries. From the listings of bread in the royal registers we know that there were nine broad categories of bread. Common rye bread, black rye bread, common white bread, wheat or manchet rolls, bagels or ring pretzels, crescent rolls, flat cakes and tortae. Common rye bread would equate roughly to a modern whole meal rye bread. This type of bread was commonly used for trenchers. Black rye bread was a fine-grained bread very dark in color. When baked down-hearth in kettles, as was often done in rural farmhouses, this bread resembled a dense pudding like German pumpernickel. One kinds of bread are first baked, then sliced and finally dried at a low temperature in the oven. They are not necessarily made of fine quality. The earliest references to this sort of bread comes from the early medieval accounts of requisitions for soldier’s rations. It was called Soldier’s bread and anise seeds was normally added not so much for the flavor as for health reasons. Large quantities of this kind of bread were consumed also in the royal court, perhaps as a servant’s food. Trencher bread and white wheat rolls were the most popular. (Dembinska, p. 114-115)

Porridge made with finely ground millet or millet grits was the staff of life for all Poles, princes and commoners alike.

Ovens have been excavated from 10th century sites. They were all essentially the same beehive type. In medieval Latin texts there are breads baked under ash, in hot coals opt between two hot stones. . During periods of famine, the peasantry made ash cakes from knotgrass (Polygonum aviculare). The seeds were gathered and ground into flour, while the greens were used in pottages. The early use of yeast was widespread in Poland. (Dembinska, p. 119-120)

Bread in archaeology

Using archeological methods it is impossible to find out the sourness of the bread. But these methods are great when we want to investigate the ingredients of Iron Age bread.

In Finland a piece of Iron Age bread has been found in later Iron-Age grave in Åland. Its was 10 cm long and baked from barley. (Numez).

Karin Viklund writes about the Iron-Age bread finds from Sweden. She describes of different bread finds from the different parts of Sweden, but writes that because some breads were found from graves and some from living places, the conclusions of the construction of the everyday bread cannot be made for sure.

One big bread was found made wholly from oat and Viklund wonders how it was possible to bake such a mellow and big bread. I think that in this case the bread was probably leavened by sour oat, which is based on fermented oat porridge. Fermentation makes the porridge sour, which gives the bread a better bake ability. Normally a bread baked wholly from oat would fall apart when cut, but souring helps that problem. The method is so simple that people must have been using it as long as they have been baking bread.

Bread on the table.

Unleavened bread

Archaeologists have also found some kind of baking pans. They think they were used to bake unleavened bread on fire. Many possible recipes for these can be read from the modern Viking and open fire cookbooks. It is also possible that some sort of cakes were baked on the hot stones over a fire. Obviously leavened bread was more important, while unleavened bread and cakes were used as ”fast food”.

According to Hilkka Uusivirta towards the end of the Iron and Viking Age people living in Western Finland had already moved their baking oven from inside the house to out. That means they heated them more seldom and baked more at one time compered to people living in the eastern part of Finland where the baking oven stayed inside the house.


In Iron Age Finland all the species of grain that are nowadays common were used. The youngest was rye, which came here with Teutons (Uusivirta, p.)

Cultivated Durum and Turgidum are derived from wild emmer wheat. From durum all bread wheats derived: Triticum vulgare, T. compactum, T. sphaerococcum, T. spelt. Spelt appeared in south-central Europe from Roman times. The Romans used for most of their breads durum and turgidum. The Roman bread was so heavy that it sank into the water. The best of the Roman breads were made from T. compactum and T. vulgare. T. compactum probably originated from Iran in in the 4th millennium B.C.. T. spaerococcum is primarily in Indian wheat. The bread wheats T. compactum and T. vulgare spread over Europe from South Russia beginning about 2100 BC. (Storck & Teague, p. 33, 34, 87)


According to Rousi the oldest archeological finds of bread wheat in Finland are found in Paimio and Salo from about 300 AD. Some of these wheat is Triticum aestivum subsp. compactum, which is primitive autumn grain with better winter durability but weaker fertility. According to Rousi emmer wheat (Triticum turgidum) were used in Finland half a millennium earlier. Emmer wheat was common in Europe until Middle-Ages. From Finland there are no traces of its use anymore in the Middle-Ages. (Rousi, p. 73)

Spelt wheat (Triticum aestivum subsp. spelta) is known from Hildegard Bingen’s writings from the 12th century Germany. I have not found evidence of its use in Finland in Iron Age.

Bread baked from wheat stays well together and does not crumble apart when cut.


The oldest archeological find from the baking of rye is from Paimio, western Finland, from 100 AD, but it is supposed that rye came from east (Tolonen), where it had been used as the main grain for a very long time (Rousi, p.79). Rye was cultivated in burnt-over clearings.

Because rye does not stay together well, it is baked by souring. Rye has been scientifically reseached recently and it is said for example to prevent heart diseases (Helsingin Sanomat). Rye needs to be baked in high temperature, so it cannot be made into quickly cooked fire cakes.


Barley is the oldest raised grain in Finland. From Niskala, Turku, in the very west, grain from 1500 BC has been found.This so-called many-facited barley was still in 16th century Finland the only barley type. Barley was a main grain in Finland until 19th century. (Rousi, p. 61)

Barley can change into starch and sugar, which is why it was used, besides bread, in beer making. The choir of barley stays well together when baked. Barley preserves extremely badly, so it is mostly used in unleavened bread eaten warm. If you want to bake leavened barley bread which also preserves, use honey for leavening. When the grain is souring, the bread stays together and preserves better.

It is possible, that the poor preservation qualities of barley are the cause for the bad reputation of the barley bread. In the Häme castle 16th-century servants ate mixed barley-rye bread while the better people ate rye bread (Vilkuna, lesson).


The oldest find of oat grain from Finland is dated to about 300 BC from Salo, western Finland. Oat came to Finland from the east, which means that its earliest use was in the eastern parts of Finland. (Rousi, p.88).

Oat stays together very badly and bread baked from oat flour spoils quickly. Oat includes a lot of fat, for example linol fat, which lowers blood cholesterol (Luomuleipojan käsikirja, s.19). Oat also needs a pretty high baking temperature.


Flour in Iron-Age was mostly whole-meal flour, and included all the nutrients that are today separated into brans and others. Today they are sold separately for an expensive price. Grain crust has many minerals, trace elements, magnesium, phosphor and silicide acid. The grain pith includes mostly starch and protein, which have good baking possibilities but less nutrition.

Ground grain is rarely recoverable from archaeological contexts. Evidence of flour comes from York where quantities of bran were recovered together with parasite ova, indicating that elements of that population probably ate 100% flour; flour from which nothing had been removed by sieving. (Hagen, p. 15)

The writers of Luomuleipojan käsikirja (p.40) write that after it became normal to separate the grain parts, after steel mills became common in 1950’s, the amount of heart and intestinal disorders increased rapidly. Today the flour is milled to be too fine, and the bread from it is not the best possible. Modern bakeries use flours that are milled coarser than the ones sold to consumers in the markets. At least so it is in Finland.

Preservation of grain

The grain was trashed and some of it was smoked, dried or roasted. The grain was preserved in whole. Israelsson writes that in Sweden some tall pots were found that were used in grain preservation.

Heating increases the preservation ability. The grain is easier to be crushed after heating, but heated grain can not leaven any more. Every time flour was needed only the needed amount was crushed, not more. It ensured the freshness of the flour. The whole-meal flour cannot be preserved longer than one week. The good taste disappears very quickly. (Luomuleipojan käsikirja, p. 41).

Anneli Schöneck gives a receipt for heating the grain (p. 23): A damper full of watered rye is put into an oven for an hour, temperature 80-100 Celsius. After this the rye is crushed. This makes a tasty porridge. The method can be used also with wheat and barley. Oats are prepared the same way as rye, but the temperature is higher, 125 Celsius: Put about 1 kilogram of oats into a damper; sprinkle some water so that the grain becomes moist but not wet (if wet, the taste would not be good). Put the damper into an oven but do not close the door. Mix the grain now and then. In time it starts to smell and gets a beautiful, golden color. The grain should not be roasted. Put the temperature to 100 Celsius, close the door and leave the damper in the oven for 30 minutes. After this put the grain into tight boxes, where no air can enter. This flour does not get old and loose its taste as easily as ordinary flour. When baking, only some of the flour that will be used is to be heated this way.


The Romans had water mills (Jacob, p.124) and they brought them with them every place they conquered. Water mills were built in Viking-Age Denmark (Birkebaek). Anglo-Saxon England had them (Hagen) but not yet Iron-Age Finland (Uusivirta). Not even milling stones were common. The grain was milled between two stones (saddle stones, handstones) by crushing or flattening (Uusivirta). These kind of stones were found also from the graves of late Iron Age graveyard of Luistari, Finland (Lehtosalo-Hilander).

The earliest Celtic querns in Britain, dating from the 3rd century BC are small and have conical grinding surfaces, the upper stone merely being centered on a peg. They were rotated slowly, since the grinding surfaces are almost, if not actually, in contact. Gravity was relied on to carry the rather heavily ground meal out of these slant-faced implements. At the beginning saddle stones outnumbered querns ten to one; by the first century BC querns were more numerous by two to one. With the coming of the Romans in 55 BC the stones became thinner and increased in diameter, until some of them were mere discs, but better balanced and supported. In medieval times the querns became smaller, and were almost invariably worked by women, except in monasteries. (Storck & Teague, p. 90-91). This was in Britain, not Finland.

The bread the master of the house ate was commonly made of finer flour than the one the rest of the household ate. Hagen writes (p. 14), that according to English literature different coarseness of flour existed even in Anglo-Saxon times, but probably only the richest members of society would be able to use the finest qualities. Kurt Genrup claims that the Viking chiefs ate fine, white bread and imported wines from Rheinland. White and fine flour-bread is also mentioned by roman Plinius. I believe that the food history of Iron-Age Finland can leave this kind of fine bread without a notice. Even our milling techniques show it.

The usual flour was coarse and unevenly ground; it could include even unmilled grain. There were some unclean items left, such as sand and husks. This can be noticed from the skeletons teeth that are found from graves (Birkebaek, p. 60). During winter preservation mouse faeces undoubtly caused illnesses and more cleaning work. Though during Iron Age cats and dogs were domesticated, they could not always go everywhere.

Pan bread

Pan bread was baked using a long sleeved pan over the fire or over a baking stone. The bread was baked very thin and the mixture was left unleavened. Because this mixture did not have yeast or leaven, the bread had to be eaten warm, right after baking. Barley flour was most often used because it tastes best when fresh. Of course flavours can and could be used when making thin breads, like nuts or crushed turnip mixed with the flour.

Pan over the fire shows how Pan bread was baked.


The basic cake mixture is made from flour and water. Typically they taste delicious when warm, but become hard when getting cold. The tastiest ones are made from ice-cold flour, icy water and baked in an oven red-hot. The cakes were often made with berries. Tasty leaves are practical when baking the cakes on ash or coals: put the dough a bit loose on top of a turnip leaf or a piece of bark, the leaves give their taste into the bottom of the cake. The dough is made so loose you cannot form it by hand. The mixture can be cooked quickly and could be baked for example over the stones around the fire. (Uusivirta)

The cakes were the delicacy of summertime. Unleavened bread could be baked quickly while travelling or staying short time in a hunting camp.

Other bread ingredients

Traditional, good bread is made from liquid, leaven base and flour. Nowadays the bakers often add salt, sugar, spices and / or fat. Sugar is not needed in a leavened bread, because leavening process produces sweetness by itself. The liquid needed not to be water, but also sour milk, blood, beer, whey or other leftovers from the process of food making could be used.

Fat was very worthy ingredient during the Iron-Age. Sometimes people baked fat bread, in which pieces of fat were added. Bread of this kind had to be eaten soon, otherwise it would spoil. According to Uusivirta in Finland in the 19th century fat bread was eaten in Shrove tide before the beginning of fast. That might be a part of a tradition given birth by the catholic religion. Butter was offered in the rich mans table and eaten with bread.


Wild seeds or roots picked from the nature plants or bark gave a taste often spicy enough. For example putting caraway seeds into dough makes sense, since they prevent flatulence. That is a trouble for many that like to eat rye bread. Except to taste, spices could be added to increase preservation, though leavened bread preserves well. For example wild mint and wild thyme are especially effective preservers (Pirkka 1-2/96).

Baking ovens

Baking over the fire

An Iron-Age bread was baked in the oven, over a fire, covered by ashes or coals or using a special baking pot.  A pot was obviously used only when the bread was baked over the fire or covered with ashes. Karin Viklund introduces one archaeological find from Sweden, a baking stone. A flat stone was put inside the oven and a bread loaf was placed on to it. This is the forerunner of the modern stone baking-base. Ann Hagen thinks that peasants in England always did their bread baking in the fire.

A pot - oven made from iron

Hagen describes (Processing, p.17) the most simple oven, which is made by turning an iron pot upside down and covering it with hot coals. Hagen writes that an oven like this makes a soft bred because the loaf raises slowly in mild warmth. Salt and honey leavened bread would be on its best in an oven like this. Salt and honey leavening needs very slow raising and a slow baking. Salt was not so important in bread-making, since there were at least three other ways to leaven the bread,. Still salt and honey leavened bread is extremely preventing and tasty, that is why the method should be kept on.

Cato describes this kind of oven in Italy in the 2nd century B.C. Once established in Britain it continued among the peasantry into medieval times and beyond. (Wilson, p. 208)

Pit oven

A simple cooking and baking method was to make a hole in the ground and line it with stones or turf. Then a fire was lit in it. Over the fire you could cook, heat stones to warm water, cure meat etc... When the fire has gone out, the bottom stones still retain a lot of the leftover heat and you can put a top made from branches with leaves on top of it and use it as an oven. I have baked in an oven like this. It works all right even for fatter bread loaves. Holes like this have been found dating from the Finnish Stone Age (Linturi).

Dome oven

In English literature certain ovens are mentioned already from 7th century. These ovens were prepared for baking in such way that the ashes were taken away before baking (Hagen, Processing, p.17). An abbey bakery is mentioned around 9th century (p. 18). From Lund, Sweden a leftover from an oven like this has been found (Hagen). There are no such finds from Finland as far as I know yet. Though, not necessarily any reminds at all are left from mud and branches after centuries (Linturi).

Uusivirta writes that people in eastern Finland did have a dome oven inside their living houses before the end of Iron-Age. In western Finland the dome oven was located outside. Maybe it was used more seldom in the west than in the east. It was build by using a bundle of branhces that were tightly tied together from the top and spread into a hollow cone from the bottom. The cone was put on the ground sharp end up and the sides were covered with stones and/or turf. A hole was made on one side at the bottom. To use the oven a fire was lit inside to heat it. As there was only one hole, this acted simultaneously as the fire-hole, smokehole and the hole through which the bread was put inside the oven after the hot ashes had been raked out. As the smoke had to go out through the only hole it must have been difficult to check the coals while the fire was on! There were no thermometers; you can quickly learn to estimate the warmth when you put your arm into the oven.

Other pastries

Using an oven for bread-making means that you usually still have leftover warmth after the baking is done to use for cooking or baking something else. If the usage of ovens for baking was as common as Uusivirta writes, the rich culture of eastern Finnish pastries such as cuckoo and kurniekka were already baked in the Iron-Age. What else did they cook or bake in ovens? According to Uusivirta our tradition of root casseroles known from traditional Finnish Christmas dinners was formed only a couple centuries ago and are not that old.

Hagen writes that the Anglo-Saxons baked pancakes and spiced feast cakes with milk or cream, eggs and butter mixed with flour. These cakes were sweetened with honey, spiced with fruits. They were possibly dried (Hagen, Processing, p.20).


Porridge is a mixture of flour and liquid. Mixed with flour people have put several flavours: seeds and roots of wild plants, fat, berries, meat or fruits. Grain was also added to soups and the difference between soup and porridge was sometimes very hard to tell. According to Uusivirta the oldest porridges and gruels were made of barley, oats or rye (p.158) and they were cooked on sour milk, birch sap, beer, ale, blood or whey.

From a folk tradition both in England (Lindow man, p.109) and Finland we know that sometimes flour was mixed with liquid and formed into small tough pieces. These were then eaten with soup or as muesli with sour milk. Made from toasted grain and spiced with rose- or rowanberries it was very tasty. Special flour soups like mutti and pepu are known from the Finnish folk tradition. Was this kind of food always bitter? At least it preserved better if made that way.

Instead of cooking over the fire and using a whole bunch of firewood, porridge can be stewed. Fist cook it over the fire and let it boil well. Take the pot from the fire and wrap it carefully with clothes. Let it stay this way a couple of hours, overnight would be best. The porridge is then ready and very tasty.


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