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The people who lived in Scandinavia during the Iron Age are often referred to as Vikings and their period was the Viking age. They were well known for their seafaring and trade voyages as well as their raids on other peoples' territories. The Vikings also had a rich culture, with various forms of art including jewelry, coins, and clothing styles that can be seen today in museums. We learn more and more about our ancestors through archaeological research.
Food was of course a big part of a Viking's life as it is for us today. It was not only used to nourish their bodies, but also a social event. Without all the modernities we have today, the Vikings had to preserve food so they could use it later when times were hard—and believe me, times were hard during the Viking Age!
If you want to channel your inner Viking then follow along with this article and learn how to make authentic Viking dishes that will take you closer and give you a better understanding of a Viking's life!
The Viking diet: An overview of their food ingredients
The Viking diet consisted of food that they could grow, pick in the wild, hunt, or keep as livestock and their by-products. Here is a list of common ingredients in the Viking diet:
- Fish and other sea creatures. These played an essential role in their diet and were eaten in most areas. Fish was eaten both fresh and preserved.
- Dairy. Milk from cattle, sheep, and goats was eaten in different forms such as butter, cheese, or soured. A soured product that was likely eaten is called "skyr" and is a thick yogurt. Skyr is also mentioned in the sagas. Fresh milk was probably seen as a luxury and wasn't a part of the daily diet. Butter, blubber, marrow, lard, and possibly oil from hemp, flax, and camelia were the main fats for cooking.
- Cereal. Played an important role, especially in southern Scandinavia. Until the iron age, wheat was the crop that dominated. But due to climate change, barley was the dominating crop and wheat became a "high-status crop". Two new crops came during the iron age: Oats and rye. Out of these crops they made porridge, beer, and bread. The two first are more common than bread. The bread was regarded as a symbol of wealth and prosperity.
- Vegetables. Due to the climate, the possibilities to grow vegetables in the northern parts were limited but vegetables played a more important role in the south. Peas and beans, cabbage, turnip, kale, and leeks for instance. Also, wild plants were used such as white goosefoot.
- Fruits and berries. Since sugar was not available in northern Europe during this time, fruits and berries were the only sweetness source, besides honey. Honey was the most sugar-rich available but was expensive. Though honey is mentioned as an ingredient in an exclusive dish in a story about Sigurd the dragonslayer, it was most likely primarily used for mead. Berries might not have been used as a sweetener but fruits were used in cooking and brewing. Findings suggest that they brewed ciders and fruit wines. Malt is a fourth sweet ingredient. Though it could be used as a sweetener, its primary use was for brewing beer.
- Drinks. Unlike today, water and milk were probably not so common drinks during the Viking age. More likely was leftovers from cheese and butter making: Whey and buttermilk. Beer was also an essential drink and a source of energy. The beer they drank daily was weaker than modern beer and was sourer. During feasts, mead, and beer were served. The festive beer was sweet and so was the mead. Mead was exclusive and was valued for its sweetness rather than its potency.
- Meat. Often as festive treats, especially when eaten fresh. But preserved meat was also a part of the daily meal. Vikings ate meat from cattle, sheep, and goats. While these were kept mainly for their by-products, pigs were held for meat alone. Horse and fowl were also a part of their diet. Archeological finds tell us that only a small percentage of the meat was from hunted animals and suggest that pork and beef were the most common.
Common ways to preserve food were drying, smoking, and pickling. Salting might have been used but was likely rare as salt was expensive. Two other methods we might not find traces of today but could have been used are storing the food underground or freezing it in winter-time.
- Drying. Probably the most common and also the oldest known method to preserve food. Vegetables, fruits, berries, meat, and fish could be dried. Out in the open air (In Norway this method is still used: tørrfisk) or in a warm and dry place.
- Smoking. Could be done in the sauna or malting room or why not make a hybrid by drying and smoking by placing the food near the roof over the hearth (longhouse fireplace)
- Pickling. Could be done with lactic acid whey. This method requires waterproof containers so vessels made out of wood or leather were likely used.
- Underground/Freezing. Placing the food underground has the same effect as a modern refrigerator or cellar. Storing it outside during winter and freezing the food is also a good way of preserving food.
Dining with Vikings: A look into their home and travel meals
When one was at home there were at least two meals: "Dagvard" and "Kvällsvard" (morning/early day meal and evening meal). The sagas suggest that the meal in the evening was also important for socializing. Whether it was porridge, a stew, or meat that was served, the cooked food had a smoky taste from the fire the food was cooked on.
Vikings are also known for their travels and explorations. During these travels, the food had to be long-lasting, light, and easy to prepare as the possibilities for cooking were limited. One can imagine that dried food was a common provision.
Cooking and serving traditions in Viking age Scandinavia
The food that needed to be cooked was prepared over the fire or baked in the ashes, embers, or cooking pits. While the food was being prepared, people who were passing by would gladly stop to see what was going on and exchange gossip with one another and maybe get some treats as well. One might be prejudiced to think that it was the women who made the food. But when looking at the grave finds there is as much cooking equipment found in male graves as in female ones.
The food could be prepared in different ways but boiling was probably the most common. An advantage of boiling is that all fats and juices won't go to waste.
- Boiling. Pottery or soapstone vessels were the most common but in richer households, cauldrons made out of copper or iron could be found.
- Baking. Ovens seem to be rare in Scandinavia during this time but baking could be done in the ashes, over the embers of the fire, on hot stones, or in cooking pits. A cooking pit is simply a pit dug in the ground. Hot stones were placed into the pit and the food was placed on top of the stones. the pit was then covered and the food is baked inside the pit.
- Frying. This might not have been a common method but in the "mästermyr find" a lattice was found and it is suggested to be a grill used for frying. Frying pans have also been found in graves.
- Roasting. Like frying pans, spits have also been found in graves which indicates that food also was roasted. However, with this method, all juices and fats would run and drip into the fire making it a wasteful method and probably not that common.
The food was served on trays, plates, and bowls made out of pottery or wood. And for storage barrels out of wood and leather bags were used. The cutlery consisted of a knife, fingers, and a spoon. The fork was not used before the middle ages.
Be inspired by the flavors of the Viking Age: Recipes
If you're curious about what it was like to eat like a Viking, why not try to recreate some of their dishes at home? Below are a few of our favorite suggestions that will transport you back in time with every bite.
- Salmon Stew. Vikings loved their fish, especially salmon. The key to a delicious salmon stew is to add in some salted butter, wild leeks, turnips, and egg yolks. Don't forget to sprinkle with fresh dill just before serving for a touch of brightness.
- Peas in a Bag. This is a simple yet flavorful dish that's perfect for those who love the taste of traditional Nordic cuisine. Put dried peas, thyme, and wild leek in a bag and add it to a pot of boiling water containing dinner meat. By doing so, the peas will absorb all the meaty flavors and create a satisfying meal.
- Birka Bread. Simple yet delicious, Viking bread was made from dried peas, barley flour, and a pinch of salt. Serve with a bowl of soup for a classic Viking experience.
- Hazelnut Treats. Satisfy your sweet tooth with a taste of Viking prosperity. Hazelnuts, eggs, honey, and flour come together in small cakes, about 1.5 cm thick. Dry the cakes slowly in a pan for a dessert that will leave you wanting more (The use of honey in any way was a sign of wealth and it’s most likely that this hazelnut treat was served on the most prominent feasts).
For full recipes on Viking meals that you can make yourself in the comfort of your kitchen, I can highly recommend the book "An early meal - A Viking age cookbook & Culinary Odyssey” by Daniel Serra and Hanna Tunberg.
After a long and hard day on the farm, Vikings would gather to relax and socialize in the long house by sharing food and drinks. The food that was served was ingredients that they could grow, pick in the wild, hunt, or keep as livestock and products they could make out of the livestock's by-products. They also had a variety of cooking methods but boiling and baking were most likely most popular, but for everyday meals and feasts. For those wanting to experience the flavors of the Viking age, there are a variety of recipes available to try in the comfort of your own home. With a better understanding of their food culture, we can gain a greater appreciation of our Viking ancestors and their culture.