The Vikings are famous in the common imagination for their large banquets of meat and beer, but what did they actually consume beyond alcohol and meat? The peoples of the North had a varied diet, rich in wild and bred animals, fruit, cereals, poultry and fish and many other foods that they collected in the wild. Although one might think that it was a simple people, their diet was much richer and more diversified than the rest of Medieval Europe.
That’s true, Scandinavia is cold, however many foods are available there, and what was not obtainable via agriculture and husbandry was available by trade with more temperate countries.
Unfortunately, the Vikings did not write cookbooks. The earliest cookbooks from Scandinavia come from the Scandinavian Middle Ages, ca. 1300 and 1350, books based solidly in Continental culinary tradition, sharing a common French origin.
Another post-Viking Age Scandinavian source would be a list of meals served during the course of a year to the Swedish bishop Hans Brask around 1520. More information may be determined through archaeological investigation, like pollen analyses from bogs and lake bottoms, but also from the Eddas and sagas, as for example in this passage from Egils saga Skallagrimssonar:
“Skallagrim was also a great shipwright. There was plenty of driftwood to be had west of Myrar, so he built and ran another farm at Alftaness and from there his men went out fishing and seal-hunting, and collecting the eggs of wild fowl, for there was plenty of everything. They also fetched in his driftwood. Whales often got stranded, and you could shoot anything you wanted, for none of the wildlife was used to man and just stood around quietly. His third farm he built by the sea in the west part of Myrar. From there it was even easier to get the driftwood. He started sowing there and called the place Akrar (cornfields). There are some islands lying offshore where a whale had been washed up, so they called them the Hvals Isles (whale islands). Skallagrim also had his men go up the rivers looking for salmon, and settled Odd the Lone-dweller at the Gljufur River to look after the salmon-fishing.”
There were two traditional meals, one in the morning and one in the evening. The dagmál, “meal of the day”, was consumed about two hours after the start of work in the fields or in the workshops, then between 8am and 10am in the morning. The náttmál was instead the “evening meal” and was consumed at the end of the day’s labor, between 7pm and 8pm. These times would vary seasonally, depending on the hours of daylight.
Although it seems incredible, beached whales were a significant part of the diet of the Vikings, obviously in the coastal areas of the territories, due to the enormous quantity of meat that a single animal was able to provide. The whales obviously did not beach themselves on their own as they do today much more frequently, and were pushed into narrow inlets and bays where they were then killed with spears and poisoned darts.
Scholars have examined huge piles of garbage to find out what kind of bones remained from the Nordic Middle Ages, and in addition to whales they found beef, mutton, lamb, goat and pork, which were eaten throughout the Viking homelands and settlements.
Horse meat was also consumed, and by the Christian Middle Ages the consumtion of horseflesh had become identified as a specifically heathen practice.
The hunt provided deer, elk, reindeer and hare, which were the most important animals hunted for meat, while bear, boar, and squirrel were all hunted at times as well. Squirrel was the most important animal hunted for furs, and so may have been eaten fairly often.
In the northernmost parts of the areas occupied by the Vikings, then Norway, Sweden and Finland, the supply of food from the hunt was quantitatively greater than that of the South, where farms with 80/100 animals were preferred each.
The Viking Age people also kept chicken, geese, and ducks both for eggs and meat. Hens, geese, and ducks were used to provide fresh meat throughout the year.
Preservation of meat was quite important, and various methods for preservation were in use, including drying, smoking, salting, fermentation, pickling in whey, or in northern Scandinavia, freezing. Drying was perhaps the most common method, and since properly dried meat could keep for years.
Fish was also important. The fish resources in the Atlantic off the western coasts of Scandinavia were (and continue to be) extremely rich, providing cod and coalfish, and freshwater would have been a source of salmon.
Herring was caught in Bohuslän, off Denmark, and in the Baltic, and salmon in the rivers and lakes.
In northern Scandinavia, the dry, cold conditions allowed fish to be preserved almost indefinitely by drying. The fish, mostly cod, was strung up and hung it from a rod and allowed to dry. It was called skreið (“sharp-fish”) in Old Norse. During the Viking Age, the rock-hard skreið was prepared for eating by being beaten and pounded to break up the fibers, and served with butter.
From the land the Nordic peoples obtained fruits and vegetables, while the animals allowed a flourishing production of cheeses. Although it is not a particular famous for this people, the Vikings were skilled farmers and, in addition to the classic products, they were able to stock up on large quantities of plums, sloes and apples. Fruits were preserved by drying during the Viking Age, and by the Middle Ages in Scandinavia fruit was also preserved in honey or in sugar. Some fruit was imported in the medieval period, and there are archaeological finds in medieval contexts of fig seeds and grape pips.
They also ate radishes, peas, beans, broad beans, cabbage, celery, spinach, parsnips, turnips, carrots, onions, mushrooms, seaweed, and leeks. Even cereals such as rye, barley or oats were used for feeding, but were often used to make beer.
Alcoholic drinks were larged consumed, this being one way to preserve carbohydrate calories for winter consumption, and consisted usually of ale. Hops and bog myrtle were used to flavor ale.
Mead was also consumed: honey was cultivated in southern Scandinavia, and imported where bees cannot thrive. A drink which was both very alcoholic and which is described as being sweet was bjórr. Other beverages included milk, buttermilk, whey, and plain water.
In Dublin Vikings used fennel, black mustard and poppy seeds to flavor food, while their use of horseradish, mustard, cumin, garlic, juniper berries, marjoram, thyme, mint, parsley and lovage was discovered from the burial of the Oseberg Ship in Norway.
In addition to local products, the Vikings were skilled traders, and they imported bay leaves, anise seeds, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, ginger, saffron and pepper.
The Horns of the Vikings, which were used to pour wine and mead: