My late Grandmother (on my late Father’s side) and her siblings were all born on a very beautiful and rather isolated island by the name Læsø in the North Sea bay of Kattegat in Scandinavia. This is where they grew up and this island became a wonderful place for holidays from my early childhood and when I get the opportunity I still go there. The size of the island is 118km². Last time I visited Denmark (2019) Peder and I went for a visit together with my Mother and my Aunt.
On this island you will find unique houses with thick layer of seaweed as roof and it is only found on Læsø nowhere else in the world! Læsø is known for these old houses. That’s awesome. At the time of writing this article there were 19 remaining seaweed houses on the island and 11 of them are preserved. I learned during my last visit in 2019 that it is actually not seaweed but eelgrass. On some of the houses the eelgrass almost touches the ground. A very interesting thing is that eelgrass has great insulation properties. Eelgrass is also fire retardant. It is CO² neutral which means the grass has a zero carbon footprint.The eelgrass can’t rot and last for several hundreds of years. In the 1930s the eelgrass was attacked by a fungal disease which rendered the grass useless. About 16 years ago a local thatcherstarted using the old technique bringing back old island culture and history. Today there are 13 of these houses on the world heritage list.
When I first visited my Grandmother’s birthplace on this magnificent island I saw all these old houses with lots of wild flora growing on the roof. The biggest bonus was that My Grandmother’s sister Kristine had one of these old houses with eelgrass. How marvellous is that!
I thought what was growing on the roof was growing in some sort of raised garden beds! I was flabbergasted. As usual! I was always asking questions when I was a child: Why has the cow got four legs, why does a chook lay eggs, how can a spider weave a web, why is the sky blue and not brown, why does the stars only shine at night and where are they hiding during daytime, why does the moon change shape all the time. I went on and on and I am still convinced today that my family enjoyed answering all my questions thinking I would grow up a professor with a ladder to the universe reaching for the sun instead of the moon.
I was more interested in what was happening with the ants and why they would build reinforcement around their habitat and why a grasshopper would be bright green and stand out when you can disguise yourself and blend in. My very important question and I was rather concerned was how did the people harvest all these plants growing in the raised garden beds on the roof? I thought they would need a ladder but was told that the plants just got there by means of wind, birds and insects. I also found it very interesting that peat was mixed into the eelgrass roof so whatever seed could be found in peat would germinate once on the roof. By the way the stork loved to build a nest on top of these roofs. I think it was from here the stork made the baby delivery. Then the stork population started to decrease and so today there are only 1,793 people living on the island and no babies!
I was very fascinated by what was growing on the roof of the house. It turned out to be: Toothache grass, Wild orchids, Mosses, Venus fly trap, Poppy, Cornflower, St. John’s wort, Plantain, Daisy, Mugwort, Chamomile, Tansy, Houseleek, Sorrel, Harebell and so much more wild and wonderful flora. Most of the wild flora growing on the roof turned out to be medicinal plants. They were picked, bundled and dried in the loft which was dark and airy.
These plants also grew on the dry stone wall which I also thought were raised garden beds. The plants grew in amongst the stones and I realised that the stones absorbed the moisture in the air during the day and when it cooled down late afternoon that moisture was irrigating the plants during night time. That’s awesome. I later read about this very special way of irrigation. It is still in use on the Canary Island of Lanzarote and it is not impossible that the men from Læsø could have picked up this idea from the Canary Island as they sailed the sea most of the year. Not to forget that the Vikings travelled far and beyond that. My Great, Great Grand Father sailed the sea as well. His beard pointed towards Greenland. He was gone for long periods at a time.
We stayed for a week at the time with Kristine and my first trip was in autumn and the rain sat in. After two nights of nice steady rain it started to drip through the eelgrass right onto my nice and cosy bed. The rain penetrated the doona and I woke up in the early hours of the morning wet and a damp smell of mould penetrated my nostrils. The doona was very heavy once in bed you could hardly move. They were stuffed with feathers collected over the years from naughty chooks next door and the likes. Lucky me we never went on holiday on the island in winter. Can you just imagine snow crystals on top of your doona? Today my doona is stuffed with 95% down and 5% feather. What a blessing!
We had snow crystals on the windows at home in winter. They were magic to look at and they had all different patterns. I had so many questions again. They were the most beautiful creations you could ever think of. Mum said they were made by the snow fairy. The world was incredible just like today as long as you open your eyes, mind and heart.
Let’s get back to the holiday. The dunny bucket was in a lean-to shelter/room where firewood was stored. The dunny smelled and I didn’t like it. We had to sprinkle sawdust and ashes on top of the poo when job was finished to avoid the horrible smell we would have had seeping through the house. Dad had to empty the dunny bucket. Poor Dad! He only managed to get out of the lean to and out in the garden then he was sick and puked. Then he had to clean up his mess as well and nobody but me felt sorry for him. The house had no electricity so Kristine had kerosene lamps and candles in the evening which I found very cosy. In the evening the adults talked about when they were young and all the adventures they had. They would tell stories about the elves, gnomes, woodland troll, pixy, mermaids and sirens.
When Grandmother was a young girl she was a shepherdess looking after the sheep. She knew a lot about the planets and zodiac constellations. She did some stargazing while out in the wild with foxes lurking around waiting for an opportunity to seize a sheep. She would tell me bedtime stories when she was babysitting me and it took hours to settle in as I thought it was scary for a young girl to be herding sheep. She also told stories about the old Viking Gods and Goddesses. She was a wealth of information and such an inspiration.
My father’s cousins Ester and Sventage inherited a farm from their parents living on the farm next door to Kristine called “Marie’s Minde”. The farm had four wings and in the middle of the yard they had a dunghill always smelling to high heaven. They produced fantastic vegetable and the rose garden was splendid. They grew: Potatoes, Carrots, Beet, Celeriac/celery root, Strawberries, Sunflowers, Dandelion, Kale, Red and white cabbages, Lettuce, Leek, Parsnip, Horseradish, Beetroot, Brussels sprouts, Comfrey, Chives, Tarragon, Parsley, Valerian, Lovage, Green pea, Asparagus, Beans, Cucumber, Calendula, Borage, Tomatoes, Pickling pumpkins, Onions, Gooseberry, Red and black currant, Raspberry, Chervil, Rhubarb, Oats, Wheat, Rye and Barley. They were very dedicated seed savers which was absolutely crucial as their life depended on the saved seeds.
While I was holidaying I raided Ester and Svendtage’s green pea patch. I just love green pea and my stomach ached. I have never had so much pain in my stomach before and the wind I let out was unbelievable. However Esther and Svendtage found it peculiar that they had never had a green pea loss before and now it was such a major concern. To ease their mind of disappearing green peas I made up a story about this most wonderful and stunning looking elf that had 11 elves kids to look after and the elves kids were therefore employed to collect green peas for H.C. Andersen so he could write his fairytale about the Princess and the Pea. They gave me a big hug and said that I could come back next year and please bring a copy of H.C. Andersen’s book. Esther and Svendtage are long gone but I still love them and I have never met people like them who trusted me and my imagination to be true life.
Esther and Svendtage led the chooks roam the house and sometimes the chooks were settled in on the sofa other times you would spot the rooster on top of the cupboard even on the kitchen bench or on the dining table. I think that was one of the many reasons why I liked Ester and Svendtage a lot. Mum did not like it one bit. I think she was worried that there would be chook droppings in the layer cake or scones. Or imagine her face drinking a cup of coffee and realising that at the bottom of the cup is a nice whitish looking chook poo that mum thought was cream. She will never have another chook poo coffee in that house.
I consider Peder and I to be more adventure loving creatures. We went to Sumatra one year and had Civet coffee known by the locals as “Kopi luwak”. This special and very expensive “Kopi luwak” is a coffee that consists of partially digested coffee beans or cherries, which have been eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet. This animal is a wild cat and the coffee is also called civet coffee. The cherries are fermented as they pass through a civet’s intestines, and after being defecated with other faecal matter, they are collected. We enjoyed this cup of coffee at a small homestead somewhere up in the mountains and the woman serving the coffee and also the collector of this incredible nice coffee bean had heaps drying up in the sun in the yard. Some of the beans or cherries as she called them looked like Civet poo! The woman told us that she was exporting this coffee to Australia. She was dealing with a company in Melbourne. When we returned to our hotel I immediately went to the World Wide Web and look up Civet coffee in Australia and found that the price for 50 g of “Kopi luwak” was $49.95. That indeed makes it a very expensive and adventurous coffee.
Back to Læsø, dear readers! Ester was able to communicate with the animals or was it the other way around! Anyway one day goose mother came into the yard to chat up Ester. Goose mother makes a great racket and walks away. Ester just watching! Then goose mother walks up to Ester and makes another racket and walks away. It happened a third time before the penny dropped. Ester now understood that goose mother wanted to show her something. Goose mother leading Ester out of the yard and into the vegetable patch and here in the barbwire were three of goose mothers goslings caught up. Ester got the mess untangled and every creature involved was so happy and lived for ever after.
Ester and Sventage also had a small fruit orchard growing Cherry, Apple, Pear, Prune and Cherry plum. I spend lots of hours in the top of the apple tree the view was excellent and the apples so tasty and juicy. I just loved apples when I was a child.
They had cattle, a horse, sheep, pigs, chooks, rabbits and geese. They did home butchering and made sausages using pig casings. Those sausages were the best in the world. They milked the cows and sold most of the milk to the local dairy. They made their own cheese, butter and buttermilk. It was wonderful to be a part of their life style and they were self-sufficient. I remember one cream cheese in particular with thyme, salt and pepper. They fermented food mainly the sour kraut version. I love fermented food and I can share some recipes with you – please read How to Ferment Your Food. Remember to return to this story. It is a fun story and a true story as well. They also made their own sourdough rye bread.
My family and their forefathers as well as Ester and Sventage, Kristine and Grandmother were gatherers and if an opportunity presented itself I went with them. In the thicket we found Woodruff, Woodcock, Wood sorrel, Wild strawberries, Crab (wild apple), Goutweed and Horsetail. Along the tracks in the ditches towards the beaches we collected Wormwood. In the open forest we gathered Mushrooms. I loved Chanterelle. We found Blue berries, Elder, Bog Myrtle/Sweet Gale (Pors), Hazelnuts, Hips, Elder berries in big numbers for making jam and cordial for winter. I still remember the soothing effect the Elder berry cordial had while I was in bed with high fever and influenza. They made all their healing medicine themselves. Nature was full of medicinal plants in them days. Everything was made with natural ingredients. In the meadow we collected Meadow primrose and Cowslip. We harvested Spiraea plant for making mead. On the heath and moor we picked Heather to decorate inside the house and picked Sloe.
Hip grew everywhere in thicket, bush wood and close to beaches. We had so much fun collecting the hip and we had to avoid the top of the hip which contained some very itchy small fluffy stuff and I can’t remember the name of it.We actually carefully collected this itchy fluffy stuff and when we saw the opportunity we put it down the shirts or trousers of our best friends. It was such a fun game.
We made hip jam. It was beautiful and my absolutely favourite jam. 1000g hip = 500 g when cleaned and seeds removed. 2 dl water. 500 g apples. 1 vanilla bean. 250 g sugar. We added some sort of preservative called Atamon. Clean the hip and remove the seeds. Boil until tender approximately 30 minutes. Add apples cut into dices boil another 15 minutes then add sugar. Boil til finished when ever that was. Today I think I will cut back on the sugar. It is pure poison for the body. Maybe use Stevia instead of sugar. Grandmother was always preserving vegetable and fruit in season such as apple jelly, stewed apples, apple charlotte, apple sauce and cider. All the surplus Gooseberry, Red and black currant, Raspberry were preserved. Cucumber and Green tomatoes were pickled. Mushrooms were dried. There was preserved food throughout the whole winter. It was amazing and a lot of hard work but the only way of surviving harsh times!.
We carefully picked Stinging nettle for Kristine’s nettle soup. She used plenty of wild stinging nettle growing profusely in the nearby edge of the wood. She added Chervil, Broad and Narrow leaf plantain and Goutweed. Her Nettle soup was absolutely delicious just like Grandmother’s. Read my article Me and My Stinging Nettle here.
Rice pudding was often on the menu as it was cheap to make and my family did not have lots of money. I loved some of these porridge sort of dishes. I hated sago soup because my uncle told me that the sago grains were frog eyes and they were staring at me while I tried to come to terms with eating frog eyes. It was impossible for me to eat this dish. I was devastated and I got punished for not eating the food served. Bread-and-beer soup was another interesting dish. It was made up of old bread crusts kept safe for maybe a month or two. Then soaked in water before cooked with a dark beer, cream if you could afford it or else you used milk. Some dishes were made out of fruit like stewed fruit. I guess they were mainly for desert.
My forefathers were hunters getting pheasant, hare, partridge, eider, marten and doves. The animal skins were utilised for mittens, inner soles and slippers, small bags for keeping medicinal plants and much more I am sure. They collected the eggs of the sea gull and rook on a tiny rocky island off the main island. I sometimes went with Ester and Sventage in their tiny wooden row boat but I was not a brave sea child and was worried about the waves and sea creatures such as the Loch Ness Monster. Sometimes we would hear the Siren’s song when we came too close to the reefs and rocks sticking out of the water.
They fished for flounder, Norway lobster, cod, plaice and eel, the deadly weever, crab, sole, mackerel, garfish, catfish, common mussels and ocean snails. Some of the plaice were hung out for months in the weather to dry. It was a speciality or maybe for some a delicatessen. I didn’t like it one bit but I had to eat what was served. It was fried on the pan and the smell was absolutely dire. Unfortunately the fish was fried in the indoor kitchen. The house was full of steam and smoke you would think the kitchen was on fire. The stink of the fish clinged to every furniture, fabric, carpet you name it. It took a fierce autumn storm to air it out but then it was truly gone with the wind.
They salted the raw fish Herring and I learned to like it as a child. Later in life I loved it. I always have it when I go and visit my friends and family back in Denmark. I even had an overdose of Herring in 2019. The raw Herring is soaked in a marinade of vinegar, sliced brown onion, salt, pepper and Bay leaves for a week. It is served on a slice of dark sourdough ryebread with homemade mayonnaise (and it is not a sweet and sour English version) or curry pickle. I just love Norway lobster’s tail. The tail is soaked overnight in a marinade consisting of honey and garlic then roasted in the oven sprinkled with edible flowers in season just before it is served. This dish is so yummy and great for your complexion.
I can’t remember if they collected sea weed for eating but I guess so. Why wouldn’t they. They were utilising every edible creation so why not sea weed. A sea full of food! Today sea weed is a very popular food.
They traded their goods for barter no money involved. They practised share farming epically when preparing the soil, sowing the crop and harvesting the produce. At harvest time they killed a beast or two. All the neighbouring farm people came together and helped each other. Big meals were prepared and shared. After the harvest and when the crops were stored for winter a big celebration was held. The whole village was involved. The barns were decorated with flowers and sheaf, food was in abundance, lots of homemade ale was consumed. The local folk musicians and fiddlers were playing music standing on a platform. Everybody was dressed in their finest clothes and much dancing went on into late night and for some it did not stop before early next morning. On other special occasions such as summer and winter Solstice and Equinox people wore their local national costume and had big parties.
During the dark and cold winter the women were spinning using natural dye for their yarns, knitting, embroidering, weaving, felt making and dress making. I remember they darned old socks and my Grandmother taught me the ins and outs of this crafty invention. I also got to learn how to use a thimble and soon I was cross stitching. It was not until after my Grandmother passed away that I got to know that she was a spinner when she was a very young girl and up until she got married. Grandmother did Hedebo and Venetiansk embroidery. It was absolutely exquisite work. She was great with a crochet hook and she made one beautiful doily after the other.
The men when at home from their sea adventures did wood work and metal work fixing tools and machinery. The men prepared the field for sowing then took to the sea and returned just in time for harvesting. While they were away it was the women’s job to tend to the vegetable gardens. I remember one autumn where we all helped with the harvest of hay. Some basic machinery turned the hay into bales. We had to stack the bales on a wagon which was hard and heavy work. The pile was tall and we sat on top while driving home pulled by a tractor. Gosh, that was scary as we travelled a bumpy road!
As I just mentioned the men were quite often seamen sailing off to far away. My great grandfather sailed to Greenland on a big schooner. He was gone for months and months and the family did not see much of him. The women stayed at home looking after the farm, houses and the kids. In them days families consisted of a lot of children. My Grandmother had 12 of which three died early in life. So Grandad must have been home 12 times while Grandmother was still in her childbearing age!
The weather could be very rough and after big storms we went to the beach to find amber. High tide, king waves, thunder and lightning was all exciting news for me. I still love wild weather as long as I have a bit of shelter. Ester and Sventage knew exactly what beach to go to in search of the golden amber depending on where the storm came from. They were experts at locating the amber washed up and into the seaweed. We had to get up really early to get to these beaches before anyone else was there. It was a great sport and I always found bits and pieces. However Ester and Sventage had heaps of amber stored in shoeboxes. The summer tourists would have payed a fortune to get their hands on these pieces of amber some pieces as big as a fist of a three year old.
I am very grateful for my upbringing. I am very fond and proud of my creative textile background in particular extremely proud of my spinning skills. I love gardening and I am a keen seed saver. The list is long. I am sure that my skills are all passed down to me from the Viking/Celtic forefathers of mine.
The apple never falls far from the tree!