I met Josefina Nelson at the 2nd Annual Saskatoon Highland Games. It was a cold day for September and Josefina was much braver than me, sporting a long undyed linen dress and apron, while I shivered even wrapped in my Columbia jacket. Perhaps it was the cook fire nearby that was keeping Josefina warm. Perhaps she was so engrossed in cooking delicious-looking Viking Era meals that she didn’t notice the cold.
Josefina is an historical re-enactor, a member of the Saskatoon group Nordhere. Known in the group as Alfdis Hallvarsdottir, she has a lively imagination and a long love for role playing. At her wedding two years ago, she wore a green medieval Scandinavian-style dress in honour of her ancestors while her husband, who is Scottish, wore a kilt. At the weekend-long celebrations, they held their own unique version of the highland games. They used fence posts for the caber toss. They had axe throwing, archery, horse shoes, sword fighting, dueling. They had a medieval feast with a spit roast wild boar and fancy breads and butters. They had horn drinking cups. They had a backdrop of shields and swords and antlers. So, moving into a group like Nordhere was a natural fit for her.
As I am sure is true for everything she does, Josefina has thrown herself wholeheartedly into the organization, and clearly loves every minute she spends as Alfdis. “I am from Orkney,” Josefina/Alfdis says. “My father sold me to pay off a debt so I worked for about 20 years to pay off that debt. I’ve just recently been freed but I still work on the farm I was on. We have sheep and some vegetables so we learned to spin and sell that.”
The day I met her, Josefina/Alfdis was busy preparing and cooking food for the other members of the group. On her work table were small linen sacks filled with oat and barley flour, salt, onions (not the bulb kind which they didn’t have but more like a leek), barley, split peas, celery leaf, parsley, pepper and multi-coloured carrots (grown by another member in her garden as orange carrots are modern).
She was mixing a dough made from oat and barley flour and water. She formed a little pocket with it in her hand which she filled with haddock, lemon, thyme and pepper. Then, she placed them on a metal grill to cook.
Simmering away next to it was her pot of vegetable stew. It was filled with peas, barley, carrots, celery leaf and rutabaga, which she said was similar to a type of root vegetable to which the Vikings had access.
“Fruits and vegetables were much different then,” Josefina explained. “Carrots weren’t all orange. Apples were much smaller. We have just bred them to be more and more what we want.”
When I asked her where she got her recipes, she replied, “For recipes and stuff, we don’t necessarily know how they combined foods but from fragments in cooking pots and midden heaps you know what they ate and then you just sort of play with it. I am sure they wouldn’t have been too picky, especially during the winter, whatever was edible was eaten.”
“This morning, we had a tea of rose hips, mint and elderflower. I wild foraged them. It was delicious,” she says grinning. “Yesterday, we had venison stew with crabapples and barley – it was phenomenal – and flatbreads with dill and garlic.” I am sure any Viking would have been thrilled to have her for a wife.
“People really romanticize the past,” Josefina says, “but it was really difficult. You couldn’t just go to the grocery store.”
Josefina/Alfdis had recently begun pewter casting and proudly showed me the tiny goddess Freya that hangs from around her neck. She told me that her next Viking Age project is to learn about the healing practices of the era. Her enthusiasm for re-enacting was so infectious that I don’t doubt that I will find myself attending attend the Gimli Icelandic Festival someday, where Josefina/Alfdis will likely be ready and able to mend any bruises or scrapes I may have.