Historic Scandinavian cuisine has a few unusual techniques and flavors otherwise seldom found in European cooking, such as the infamous lye preserved lutefisk, the caramelized whey cheese gjetost and whey preserved vegetables and meats. After tasting some fabulous whey preserved salmon chunks, I wanted to learn more about the process – how was it done, and especially, why did it work? And I found that in the age before refrigeration, foodstuffs were preserved in many different ways, mostly using dehumidifying (drying, salting, smoking), altering the pH (acidic or alkaline pickling / fermentation) and introducing antimicrobial alcohol (alcoholic fermentation) – or any combination of the above – all creating an environment unpleasant for spoilage bacteria.
Learning more about whey preserved vegetables and meats (acidic pickling) lead to an intriguing website claiming alcoholic fermented whey had come to Scotland by way of the Vikings, which piqued my interest. According to this website, blaand (var. bland, blaund) was made by fermenting whey with a sugar source, and it was touted as a traditional Viking / Scandinavian drink. Looking deeper into caramelized whey-cheese gjetost I had found that it was a fairly recent invention, from around the introduction of refrigeration, and that before whey was such a commodity to help preserve the harvest it generally was not used for much else. Which made me wonder, if caramelized whey gjetost is a more recent invention, then what about fermented whey blaand?
In the Orkhon valley, mare’s milk is fermented to make airag, a potent alcoholic drink, and turned into a variety of snacks. (Photo: Scott Presly / Flickr, 2012: CC BY 2.0)
With the domestication of animals to provide a regular supply of milk, meat and other by-products like leather, bone and horn, certain cultures also developed a type of fermented beverage different from the traditional fermentation of grains, fruits and honey. The consumption of animal milk is thought to date to the mid-6th millennium BCE, or maybe even earlier. Because of the in-between step of domestication, fermented-milk beverages were generally developed at a later date than traditional grain, fruit and honey ferments, the latter not even needing human intervention to occur. Archaeological evidence suggests fermented milk beverages have been known for millennia, and likely originated in the Middle East and the Balkans. Kefir and kumis are the best-known examples of fermented alcoholic milk drinks, and are made with certain strains of lactic acid bacteria and yeast. Numerous species of lactic acid bacteria, yeasts and molds can be involved, making the microflora of milk fermentation fairly complex and not always predictable. Alcoholic drinks produced with yeast & lactic fermentation are often of white or yellowish color, have a slightly yeast-like aroma, a somewhat tart and refreshing taste, and are often of a thick consistency. (Rasmussen 2014, 71-76)
Vendor of Koumis, Fermented Mare’s Milk poured from a leather bag, in front of the shrine Aulie-Ata in Syr Darya Oblast. Taken between 1865 and 1872 (Public domain).
Kumis is an ancient beverage traditionally made from mare’s milk. On average, mare’s milk contains 6.4% lactose by weight, which is about 30% higher than that of cow’s milk. Because of the higher sugar content, kumis generally ferments out with a higher alcohol content than kefir, varying from 0.6 to 2.5%, or similar to the small beer tradition of Western Europe. Both kefir and kumis carbonate, but where kefir is started from kefir grains (granular cultures), kumis is started from liquid starter culture including various thermophilic lactobacilli. A number of fermented beverages modified from kumis have been produced by various cultures and are often made with other animal milks. (Rasmussen 2014, 71-76). Sometimes kumis is distilled to make the much-stronger Mongolian arkhi, which has a 12% alcohol content.
Cheese curds & whey. (Photo: Cecilia / Flickr, 2010; CC-BY-2.0)
While kumis is produced from whole milk, blaand is made from whey, a by-product from the curdling process of milk which makes for instance cheese and yoghurt. Described as the national beverage of Iceland and the Faroe Islands, this whey-like liquor is a modification from traditional kumis, also indicated with whey-kumis as opposed to proper kumis (from milk). As proper kumis contains all the casein of the milk, it is much more nutritious than the whey based blaand. (Jagielski 1872, 124-125)
Occasionally, whey drinks are mentioned in literary sources, but the sources are sparse, and the mentions short. For instance, blaand is found in two Scottish newspapers, once as part of a larger article written as a travelogue (1928), and once as an interesting fact (1884), as well as in a travel account from 1774. Penelope’s Notebook, a column of interesting facts printed as part of the Aberdeen Press and Journal in Aberdeenshire, Scotland published Wednesday June 27, 1928 had the following to say on blaand:
“A common drink with the people of Shetland is called blaand. Sour buttermilk is stood over a gentle heat until the whey separates from the curds. This whey is the blaand. It is either drunk in a fresh state or stored away till it has fermented. Fermented blaand sparkles, but after a time it becomes flat and is not so good. This, however, can be remedied by adding new blaand as required. It is a refreshing drink in warm weather.”
The Dundee People’s Journal from Angus, Scotland published on Saturday January 19, 1884 an installment of a longer story following the exploits of Arthur and Osla, incidentally giving us a good description on how Scottish blaand was made in the late 19th century:
”I thought blaan was a sort of drink,” said Arthur. “I’m sure I’ve heard old William Raemusson talking about it.” “That’s blaand,” said Osla, “which is quite a different thing. Blaand is – father, please tell Mr Carew how blaand is made.” “Blaand is hot water poured upon the remains of the butter milk left in the churn. This precipitates the cheesy part of the milk, which is then lifted out; and then the whey and the water that remain are allowed to rest till they ferment, when the liquor becomes as clear as spring water and acquires an agreeable acid taste. This is blaand. They say the Icelanders have a drink like it. But I never was there, and I cannot tell.”
Joseph Anderson recounted in his “A Tour through the Islands of Orkney and Shetland” from 1774 the following:
“Bland, or the serum of Buttermilk separated by heat, is much used as a drink, kept till it is old and sharp, but I should think it dangerous, causing colics, and all kinds of gripes.”
Interestingly, while all accounts agree on the source of blaand being whey, it seems not to matter how the whey is produced. It can be alcohol-fermented (which would make it sparkle), or not, and while a connection with Iceland is established it seems that whey-kumis blaand is traditional to parts of the British Isles, not Scandinavia, nor the Vikings. If that is the case, then where does the Viking connection come from?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary the earliest occurrence of the word ‘bland’ in this context is in 1703 regarding the drinking of bland in Shetland. And the entry for 1821 quotes: “She filled a small wooden quaigh from an earthen pitcher which contained bland, a subacid liquor made out of the serous part of the milk.” Another dictionary which could be helpful because of the connection with Scotland is the Dictionary of the Scots Language (Dictionar o the Scots Leid).
- BLAND, Blaand, Blaund, n. and v. [bl?(:)nd]
- (1) Whey mixed with water, a drink used in the Shetland Islands. Given for Sh. by Edm. Gl. (1866), Jak. (1908), Angus Gl. (1914) s.v. blaand. Sh. 1774 G. Low Tour thro’ Ork. and Sh. (1879) 104:
- Bland, or the serum of Buttermilk separated by heat, is much used as a drink. Sh. 1914 J. M. E. Saxby in Old-Lore Misc., Ork., Sh., etc. VII. ii. 70:
- Blaund, whey of buttermilk. The whey is allowed to reach the fermenting, sparkling stage. Beyond that it becomes flat and vinegary. “Soor blaund” is a delicious and quenching drink, and used to be in every cottage for common use. It is what fashionable doctors recommend for consumptives under the name of the “sour whey cure.” Ork. 1929 Marw.:
The Dictionary of the Scots Language also lists the earliest occurrence of the word ‘blanda’ in its second definition of meaning a mixture of two fluids, especially sour whey mixed with water, dated to 1604 from a quote of the Sh. Sheriff court. And it notes the etymology, the heritage, of the word blaand as derived from the Old Norse blanda (feminine), a mixture of fluids, spec. ‘a beverage of hot whey mixed with water.’ This word matches the description of the Nordic Cleasy-Vigbusson entry of the Germanic Lexicon Project: blanda, any mixture of two fluids; but esp. a beverage of hot whey mixed up with water. It looks like a whey drink, called blanda, was known in the Nordic lands, but the etymological information does not confirm whether it was alcohol-fermented, like whey-kumis, or only acid-fermented. Norwegian farmhouse brewer Lars Marius Garshol knows only of blanda (var. blande) as sour whey mixed with water, without any alcoholic fermentation – the whey was left to sour in huge wooden vats and as it became too sour to drink it was then mixed with water before consumption. According to Garshol, it was the everyday drink in Norway, but much less so in Sweden. The acidic fermentation of the lactobacilli in the whey would, when mixed back in with surface water, sterilize possibly contaminated water and create a safe, inexpensive drink for everyday use.
Take note of the entry under ‘blanda’ in the Cleasy-Vigbusson: it also lists ‘mjöð bland’ which one could interpret as whey mead, but unfortunately means generic mead-mixing (derived from mjaðar bland). The earliest dated Scandinavian mention of blande as a beverage seems to be in the Natural History of Norway, written by Bishop Erik Pontoppidan in 1752-53. He writes that Norwegian peasants used to drink blande, made by mixing milk and water, or in winter, water and sour whey. The peasants’ wives boiled sour whey to preserve it through the summer as a beverage. (Fosså 2000, 147)
James, from Happy Homestead, Orkney, UK brewing Blaand wine with whey and sugar, and living the allure of anything Viking.
Then where does the prevalent idea that blaand is a Viking whey wine, made from sour whey, a sugar source and yeast come from, as perpetuated by sites like the Orkney Happy Homestead and Wikipedia? It does look like the Vikings might have had an acidic fermented water & whey drink called blanda, but it was unlikely to be alcohol fermented. The Scottish did have an acidic & alcoholic fermented whey beverage called blaand, but while likely related, the two do not seem to have mixed (no pun intended). Another ingredient connected to blaand which does not come up in any of the historic and etymological material is the addition of another source of sugar to the whey, to boost alcoholic fermentation. That might be a more recent addition, as our modern tastes enjoy the sweet & sour taste, as well as a higher alcohol level. In history, sugars were a valuable commodity and used sparingly. It was not until cane sugar became farmed large scale in the West Indies that sugar moved from being stored, together with the valuable spices, under lock and key to become, with the spices, a staple of everyday life. In regards to the Viking connection one should also note that there was basically no honey production in Norway and most of Sweden before the 1750’s, and even after that access to honey was extremely limited.
Apart from boosting the fermentable sugars to raise the alcohol by volume (ABV) levels, another reason to ferment modern blaand with an additional sugar source could be that whey contains the complex sugar lactose. Ordinary brewer’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae does not easily convert complex sugar into alcohol and needs a hand to help break down the lactose into galactose and sucrose, which then it can convert. (IFIC) This is why dried lactose can be used as a sweetener in beer and wine, as the yeast will ignore it. Successful open-air fermentation could capture microorganisms such as Kluveromyces lactis or Kluveromyces fragilis that can convert lactose to alcohol. (Yang) There is a strain of S. cerevisiae that can ferment lactose, the infamous Saccharomyces cerevisiae var. diastaticus but this strain should be used with extreme caution as it is very virulent and once it takes hold in a brewery, it is very hard to eradicate. (Chai) Historically, this might not be as problematic for breweries dedicated to the fermentation of whey – traditional breweries often brewed at the most a handful of similar brews utilizing the house-yeast strain that colonized their structure, inadvertently creating place-specific yeast strains with unique flavor and character (and the basis of our modern day yeast libraries). But contamination is most definitely a problem for modern-day brewers, and luckily, we can circumvent the problematic yeast and add digestive enzyme lactase directly (conveniently available at the drug store) to convert the lactose after which it can be fermented with a traditional brewer’s yeast.
The Longboat’s Landing Party Whey Wine by Sean Bailey at the Fat Friars meadery, from cow’s milk whey and fermented with honey and lactase (www.thefatfriarsmeadery.com)
Another more recent invention to ferment with whey is the production of whey beer. Whey is a bulk by-product of strained yogurt production – 10 pounds of milk makes one pound of cheese and 9 pounds of whey (Yang) – and thus creates quite a disposal challenge for the dairy industry. As sour beers are gaining popularity, sour whey beer, which already is sour to start with, could be the next big thing. The idea behind sour whey beer is that barley contains enzymes capable of breaking down lactose into galactose and glucose, which can then be fermented by brewer’s yeast S. cerevisiae. Acid whey typically has a pH <4.5, a lactose content of 3.0 to 3.5%, and calcium content greater than 1.2 mg/g. Experiments by Professor Samuel Alcaine of the Food Science Department at Cornell University showed that lactose hydrolysis using a raw barley mash did indeed raise the levels of fermentable glucose of the mash. In the production of sour beers, acid whey can thus potentially act as a natural acid as well as a fermentable sugar source. (Lawton 2019)
What is often thought of as a problematic waste product requiring a high energy intake to commercially process into whey protein powder, turns out to also have wonderfully useful incarnations, especially in history as well as in our modern times. Perhaps, next time you make cheese and yogurt, put some of the left-over whey back into the container and stick it in the fridge until it clears and make a Viking blanda. Add some lactase, and let it wild-ferment for a bit and see if you can make a Scottish blaand. My favorite is fresh whey generously topped off with concentrated syrup, or honey, which will spontaneously ferment if left alone. Throughout history, whey has always been seen as a nutritious resource worth exploring. Even now, with our myriad choices of beverages – fermented, and not – it is exciting to experiment with something different: why not brew some refreshing whey wine, or sour whey beer!
- —, Aberdeen Press and Journal. Wednesday 27 June 1928: page 6 https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/search/results/1928-06-27?NewspaperTitle=Aberdeen%2BPress%2Band%2BJournal&IssueId=BL%2F0000577%2F19280627%2F&County=Aberdeenshire%2C%20Scotland
- —, Dictionary of the Scots Language (Dictionar o the Scots Leid) http://www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/snd/bland
- —, Dundee People’s Journal. 19 January 1884 (1): page 5 https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/search/results/1884-01-19?NewspaperTitle=Dundee%2BPeople%2527s%2BJournal&IssueId=BL%2F0000697%2F18840119%2F&County=Angus%2C%20Scotland
- —, Germanic Lexicon Project; Cleasy-Vigbusson (BLANDA: page b0067, entry 7; MJÖÐR: entry 4) http://web.ff.cuni.cz/cgi-bin/uaa_slovnik/gmc_search_v3?cmd=formquery2&query=bland&startrow=11
- Anderson, Joseph. A tour through the islands of Orkney and Shetland: containing hints relative to their ancient, modern, and natural history, collected in 1774. Kirkwall [Orkney]: W. Peace, 1879. https://archive.org/details/b2486612x/page/n6
- Controlling Diastaticus in Your Brewery. Updated Nov 2018 https://www.chaibio.com/beer-spoilage/diastaticus
- Ove Fosså. “How Old is Old Cheese? Gamalost in Coffin-shaped Boxes and Eccentric Jars.” In: Milk– Beyond the Dairy: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food. Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1999. Harlan Walker (ed.). England: Prospect Books, 2000. Article: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.465.5176&rep=rep1&type=pdf Book: https://books.google.com/books/about/Milk_Beyond_the_Dairy.html?id=tuor2vcVtiQC
- The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation. https://foodinsight.org/background-on-carbohydrates-sugars/
- Anni Irish. Tired: water into wine. Wired: whey into beer. May—30—2018 11:18AM EST https://theoutline.com/post/4736/greek-yogurt-acid-whey-alcohol-beverage-waste-economy-sustainable?zd=1&zi=ipvphkbz
- Victor Jagielski (1872) Koumiss In The Treatment Of Phthisis. Brit Med J 1(579):124–125. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2297185/pdf/brmedj05233-0008.pdf
- James & Dee from Eday, Orkney, UK. Blaand: Recipe, Method and Review https://www.happyhomestead.co.uk/blaand-recipe.html
- Lawton M.R., Alcaine, Samuel D. Leveraging endogenous barley enzymes to turn lactose-containing dairy by-products into fermentable adjuncts for Saccharomyces cerevisiae-based ethanol fermentations. J Dairy Sci. 2019 Mar;102(3):2044-2050. doi: 10.3168/jds.2018-15586. Epub 2019 Jan 17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30660415 https://www.journalofdairyscience.org/article/S0022-0302(19)30067-0/fulltext
- Liquid Irish – Distilled and matured in Ireland. Whey alcohol. http://www.liquidirish.com/2012/05/whey-alcohol.html
- Seth C. Rasmussen. The Quest for Aqua Vitae. The History and Chemistry of Alcohol from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. SpringerBriefs in Molecular Science, History of Chemistry. Springer: 2014.
- Viking Food Guy. Recreating the food and drink of the Viking Age (and others). Preserved foods of the Viking Age. http://vikingfoodguy.com/wordpress/papers/preserved-foods-of-the-viking-age/
- Wikipedia / blaand https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blaand
- Wikipedia / kumis https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kumis
- Yang, Hoy Y. et all. Utilization of Cheese Whey for Wine Production. National Service Center for Environmental Publications (NSCEP). Oregon State University: June 1977. https://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPDF.cgi/9101PZOB.PDF?Dockey=9101PZOB.PDF