I spend a ridiculous amount of time attempting to document various forms of Finnish food. One project has been kalakukko, which is a rye bread with bacon-wrapped fish baked into the middle. It is cooked for a fairly long time in a pretty slow oven, so the bread gets pretty solid on the outside, while the bones in the fish become very soft. It is handy travel food.
I started the hunt for recipes of any kind of fish baked into breads or pastes. I started with a baked salmon dish, based on a single recipe found in 4 different manuscripts in Northern Europe, dated no later than the end of the 13th century. Grewe and Hieatt published this collection of 35 recipes, with translations from the original Danish, Icelandic, and Low German. They write that the original version of this cookbook may date as early as the 12thcentury, making these recipes some of the earliest recorded.
The recipe I am using is written for chicken, but states that it can also be used for fish.
How to prepare a chicken pasty.
One should cut a young chicken in two and cover it with whole leaves of sage, and add diced bacon and salt. And wrap this chicken with dough and bake it in an oven like bread. In the same way one can make all kinds of pasties: of fish, of fowl, and of other meats.
The directions are brief, like most early period recipes. This is where the other 3 versions of this recipe are quite useful. The next version tells us to use wheat flour, and additionally, pepper.
One should cut a raw chicken in two lengthwise, and take dough made of wheat and make it into a flat sheet, and cut small pieces of pork meat onto it, and place whole leaves of sage and ground paper and salt; and wrap the hen in the dough so that it is covered outside, and let it bake as much as you would bread.
There are many possibilities in making a dough. The third version of the recipe tells us to use flour and water. This greatly reduces our possibilities by taking fat, in the form of butter or lard, and eggs, out of contention.
Next, one should cut another hen in two. Make two sheets of dough out of flours and water. Put chopped bacon on them (the chicken pieces) and add whole sage leaves, and pepper and salt to taste. Wrap it in the pastry sheets and bake it as a roast. These are hen pasties.
The final version adds no extra details. This is the version I have seen around the internet as “Icelandic Chicken:”
One should cut a young hen in two, and wrap whole leaves of sage around it, and put in cut bacon and salt according to taste. Afterwards enclose it in dough and bake in an oven.
Testing and the Current Redaction
It is a simple recipe, but took quite a bit of testing to get something I was happy with.
- Preheat oven at 400F
- Make dough from 1 ½ cups of wheat flour, and ½ cup of water. Mix with fingers and add sprinkles of water to make a firm but slightly sticky dough. Roll out on a floured surface.
- Cut two slices of thick-cut bacon into 1 inch pieces. Use a little more than half of the pieces to line the middle of the dough circle.
- Cover the bacon with a layer of sage leaves.
- Place the salmon on the sage leaves, making sure to sprinkle both sides with sea salt and fresh cracked pepper.
- Cover the top of the salmon with a layer of sage leaves and a layer of bacon pieces.
- Wrap the dough around the fish, pinching it together at the corners and cutting off the excess pieces.
- Flip the bread over, and place on baking stone in the oven.
- Bake for 50 minutes.
- Remove from oven and wrap in a towel.
I decided to use a high temperature and a baking stone to help mimic the baking conditions of the period ovens I have seen in Finland (and also in demonstration areas like that at Estrella War). Additionally, a lower temperature dries out the bread dough too much. This tends to cook the fish far more than it needs alone, but is required for both the bacon and for a nice mixing of that bacon fat. Usually overcooked fish is dry, but that definitively isn’t the case for dough-incased, bacon fat-impregnated salmon.
I originally thought the salt from the bacon would be plenty for the salmon. I was very wrong. I went through three iterations of the recipe, each time adding more salt, until I found the level we liked. The same was true for the sage. The amount I now use is doubled from the first amount of sage that I tested. I also tried the recipe with and without pepper. It is better with pepper. The bacon is one ingredient I did not increase. Two slices for this sized bread is enough. It flavors the fish and makes the undersize of the bread taste wonderful. More than that and the grease is too much (and makes very strange sounds while baking).
The only aspect of the recipe that has remained the same throughout testing is the ratio of water to flour in the dough. I bake a lot, and tend to go by feel on dough. I wanted something malleable, but stiff enough to fold and hold in the ingredients. The dough bakes crispy, but it seems like a great texture, especially for a food that can be portable
The original recipes can be found in:
Grewe, R. and C. B. Hieatt (2001). Libellus de arte coquinaria: an early northern cookbook. Tempe, Arizona, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
 Royal Library of Copenhagen, Ny sampling, nr. 66. 8vo; original in Danish dated from 1300, believed to be a copy of an earlier text
 Recipe XXX, Royral Library of Copenhagen, Ny samling nr. 70R, 8vo; dated as 14th century
 Herzog August Bibliotek von Wolfenbüttel, Helmst. 1213, in Low German, dated to 15th century
 Royal Irish Academy of Dublin, 23 D 43, original in Icelandic and dated to the last part of the 15th century