It’s time to party and feast with Odin and his companions.
The Gods welcome you to gather in Odin’s mighty hall in Asgard.
Arm wrestle with Thor!
Test your skills with Skadi!
Feast and drink because you are mighty warriors!
So goes the invitation for this year’s O.N.C.E. in Valhalla, the annual grub and imbibe fest best known for scratching your most carnal instincts (of the food and drink variety, at least). For this 10-course celebration that will feature treats like goat stew and roast leg of lamb, we reached out to the local Viking god behind the storied pop-up, JJ Gonson, as well as the brewer and the mead maker who will help gorging parties get appropriately rowdy next weekend.
JJ Gonson (Owner, Cuisine en Locale)
Is the cuisine actually based on what Vikings ate at all?
Yes, or at least what they could have dreamed of eating. I have had a great time in nine years thinking about the subtleties of the menu. There must have been something in the air around the third year, because I was really fortunate to have met a wonderful cook who wrote a cookbook of the food from Game of Thrones, but even before the first one, I did a lot of research and spent a lot of time talking with other chefs to come up with an ingredient list we felt good with.
There are things that we are fairly sure they flat-out did not have, so we don’t use them. For example, they had a lot of root vegetables, which grow and store well in the home climate, but probably not potatoes and other “new world” foods, like eggplants. But this is not real Viking history that we are doing here. It is a reenactment of a mythological Viking place. So they certainly did not eat 10-course feasts, probably ever. We pull out all the stops on what we imagine might have been heaven for a Viking.
Does there have to be any cultural sensitivity taken into account when riffing on a Viking theme?
Happily, our Valhalla, which is really a riff on Norse mythology even more than Vikings, is a really fun and friendly place. The show is somewhere between dinner theater and Viking cosplay. More theater than history—Thestory?
What is a contemporary yuppie food that Vikings would have absolutely hated, and why?
Pizza. Aside from the texture of white flour, which would have freaked them out, I’m not sure that they would have had the ability to grow tomatoes in the northern climate in a sustainable way. There is nothing I have read about them eating or cooking with tomatoes, which are a “new world” crop. They were more about fish dried in the salty wind. Yes, they had lots of ability to grow stuff and most certainly ate fresh vegetables in season, but I do not think tomatoes were something they experienced, and that means they would be unlikely to like them. Spaghetti would also do it.
I know that you are heavily involved with the local food movement. How far outside of Greater Boston do you have to go every year to find fare fit for a brood of Vikings?
Not very far for most things. I think the farthest away is Maine, where the organic oats come from, but most of our food comes from the Hadley/Montague area. We get food from New Hampshire and Central Mass, too, and we get a couple of really special oils, like roasted squash seed, from the Hudson Valley area of New York.
We have quietly plugged away at buying local for 15 years, and the super big change since I started is that now the local food distributions systems have begun to work themselves out. There are a few farmers who deliver, and the rest we get through two small distributors. The oils from New York come to us through the bike delivery company Metro Pedal Power in Somerville.
The menu is quite a remarkable thrashing, but what are a few highlights that people can expect?
Dessert is worth saving room for. It is called “Blood of the Gods” and is strained yogurt with a berry compote. The diner favorites are always the cheesy oats and the turkey braised in cyser, but my personal favorites are the in-house, gnome-made liverwurst and the roasted leg of lamb.
Will Meyers (Brewmaster, Cambridge Brewing Company)
We understand that there will be mead on hand, so please tell us, in what order does a proper Viking consume their alcohol? What comes before the meal? During? After?
A proper Viking has one alehorn full of beer in one hand and one horn full of mead in the other, at all times.
What should a proper Viking brew taste like?
The screaming souls of one’s vanquished enemies, of course.
Are you careful to make sure it isn’t too fruity? Because, you know, Vikings.
Well, we did add a little citrus peel to balance the flavor of the boiled skulls.
Have you had any whiffs in the past at Valhalla? A beer that didn’t quite fit the bill?
No, no “whiffs.” Do you know what Vikings do to a brewer who makes bad beer?
What are you brewing for this year’s festivities?
This year we’ve brewed a strong ale, golden in color like the hair of Freyja, goddess of fertility. Flavored with herbs such as elderflower (the goddess Freyja lived in an elder tree, which was sacred and was said to ward off evil), gentian (a spicy bitter root known for healing powers—it’s got Moxie!), orris root (prized for its aromatics), and red clover (favorite flower of the faeries and said to offer good luck in battle).
Garth Shaneyfelt (General Manager, Artisan Beverage Cooperative Crafters of Katalyst Kombucha and Green River Ambrosia Libations)
We felt like it was just too easy to Google “Did Vikings drink mead,” so I’ll ask you: Did Vikings drink mead?
Well, yes, although the brews they made back then were a bit rougher and often included many different plants with medicinal (and other) properties. Nothing like putting some heather tip infected with ergot in your drink before battle to really go berserker. They didn’t typically have horned helmets, however—that is a more modern, cinematic conceit.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about mead? I hope one isn’t that Vikings drank it, because this whole ordeal wouldn’t be doing much to fight that stereotype.
The biggest misconception we run across is that mead is super sweet and/or like a beer. “I had mead at Bunratty castle when I visited Ireland—I loved/hated/can’t remember anything else about that week.” Mead is honey wine, and like other wines comes in a huge range of varieties, from very dry traditional (just honey, water, and yeast) or oak-aged, to sweet high-potency [18 percent-plus ABV] meads fermented with various fruits to newer lighter carbonated session meads [5 to 8 percent ABV].
Interesting note about the Bunratty mead often sold around here in ceramic flagons: If you read the label closely, it is actually white wine with honey added, which is not mead.
Who have been some of the biggest mead drinkers in history?
We often associated mead with vikings, but in fact most ancient cultures had mead or honey brews. It started to fall out of favor in the Middle Ages as wine and beer became more accessible and honey more dear. The national drink of Ethiopia is a mead with gesho root called Tej. Mead is also quite popular in Eastern Europe—Poland, former Czech Republic, etc.—and some Polish meads are even distributed in the US.
Are there peaks and valleys in the popularity of mead stateside? Anything in particular that has given it an extra boost over the years?
When we started our meadery, Green River Ambrosia, in 2007, it was to support local beekeepers, raise awareness about colony collapse disorder, and because we had been doing a little home-brew but could only find one or two meads from California and Denmark out in the local marketplace. Since that time, the number of meaderies in the US have exploded—although your percent growth always looks good when starting from almost zero—to 350-plus. A few years ago, many of the mead companies at the Mazer Cup, the largest international mead competition, got together to form the American Mead Makers Association, like the beer and wine guilds.
As craft beer and cider has grown, so has mead. People are more willing to try new things and are interested in the story and terroir. Carbonated session meads—lighter and often served on draft—have been booming recently and are a bit more accessible to folks that are used to beer. Using local and varietal honeys in our mead really gives it a taste of the season. Obviously the blooms in early season—apple, clover—are different from late—knotweed, aster—and can add different flavors to the finished mead. I like to say we pride ourselves on our inconsistency.
Exactly what mead will be served at Valhalla?
Meads for Vahalla are still under consideration. We usually try to have two or three different ones available. This year we are considering a tangerine session mead on draft; buckwheat mead (made with buckwheat honey from Western Mass); a dry blueberry mead that’s red wine-like; or an apple cyzer, mead made with honey and cider [as opposed to] honey and water.
Where else can people get them?
Our meads will also be served at the Odd Bodkin storytelling events at Grendel’s Den this winter.
O.N.C.E. IN VALHALLA. SAT 1.26, 7-11PM. ONCE BALLROOM, 156 HIGHLAND AVE., SOMERVILLE. ONCESOMERVILLE.COM