The Norsemen are famous for their great mead halls, filled to the brim with a rowdy bunch of beer-quaffing, mead-chugging and meat-eating Norsemen - and women. While this is the first image that comes to mind when we think about a true Norse Feast, the reality might be somehow different.
What did ancient Norse peoples really consume besides beer and mead in their dining rooms? It turns out they had a rich and varied diet of both domestic and wild animals, grains and fruits, fish, fowl and other menu items they could grow, hunt or gather from nature.
Iron cauldron, soapstone pot and frying pan, from the
Oseberg ship dig site.
Surprisingly, the Norse people ate significantly better than their medieval counterparts in Britain. Their food was healthy, fresh, and even a poor person ate much better than an English peasant during the Middle Ages. That’s not to say that their diet didn’t have inadequacies, but on the whole, it was a model of efficiency and innovation in a time when cooks had to make the most out of some very limited ingredients.
A typical Norsemen, regardless of his social level, ate meat almost every day. Often this would have been pork, as hogs were easy to raise and quick to mature. In the menu there was also beef, mutton and goats. Horses were also raised for food, a practice that led to later clashes with christian leaders, as horsemeat was a forbidden food under church doctrine. Norsemen were avid hunters and would capture reindeer, elk and even bear to bring back to the hearth fires.
Despite how visually pleasant is the image of a hog being slowly roasted over the fire in the middle of the longhouse, archeological evidence suggests that most of the time meats were boiled as part of some kind of stew, called skause, which was often the centerpiece of the day’s meals. As meats and vegetables were taken out of the pot, new ones were added, and the broth became concentrated over days of cooking.
Skause is also eaten in the halls of Valhalla, where the boar Sæhrímnir is slain and eaten every night by the Æsir and einherjar. The cook of the Gods, Andhrímnir, is responsible for the slaughter of Sæhrímnir and its preparation in the cauldron Eldhrímnir.
The Gundestrup Cauldron from the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen
Skause was eaten with bread baked with all sorts of grains, beans and even tree bark, usually from the birch tree, which can be dried and ground and is actually very nutritious. Norsemen used old bread dough to make sourdough loaves, and would also use soured milk and buttermilk to enrich their breads.
Here is a recipe for Nordic nut and seed bread (Nøddebrød) from the website https://likehotketo.com The model is using the Ullr Oath Ring, Brushed Black Titanium Carbide Ceramic Wedding Band
Norsemen also kept ducks, geese and chickens for meat and eggs. The northlands were the favorite hunting grounds of the Norse peoples, who hunted elk, deer, reindeer, bear, boar, squirrels, hare and wildfowl more than their southern cousins, but they still hunted in the south too.
In the harsh north weather no meat went wasted, and even beached whales became part of the Viking diet, as immortalized 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.”
Norsemen fished the Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea for cod, haddock, herring, mackerel and other fish. They fished rivers for salmon and took shellfish from fresh- and saltwater. They hunted seals and porpoises but usually ate beached whales instead of hunting them.
Meat was preserved by smoking, salting, fermenting, pickling and drying it. In the far North, it was a simple matter to preserve the meat by freezing it during most of the year, by simply leaving it outside. However, the most common preservation method was drying, which kept the meat edible for longer times and was specially useful during sea travels.
Vegetables and fruits were much more wild than any of our modern varieties. Carrots would have been added to the daily skause, but they weren’t orange, white carrots were the only ones available. Norse farmers cultivated cabbages, beans, peas and endive, and wild apples and berries were also available to Middle Age diners. They also ate leeks, seaweed, mushrooms and onions. They ate oats, barley and rye and made flatbread from the barley, preparing gruel, porridge and bread.
A great deal of barley was not actually eaten, instead being used to make beer. Ale was heartily consumed, but mead was usually reserved for festive occasions such as weddings, as the drink was much more expensive.
Herbs and spices were surprisingly common, with dill, coriander and hops being widely used in food. There is evidence from Dublin for poppyseed, black mustard, and fennel. The Oseberg ship burial site included watercress, cumin, mustard, and horseradish. Other spices included lovage, parsley, mint, thyme, marjoram, wild caraway, juniper berries, and garlic. By the Middle Ages, Scandinavia had access to exotic spices obtained by trading. These included cumin, pepper, saffron, ginger, cardamom, grains of paradise, cloves, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, anise-seed, and bay leaves. Vinegar was used as a flavoring in foods, as was honey. Many European Kings did not have such variety of flavors during the middle ages.
Despite the overall balanced nature of the Norse diet, there were some major pitfalls. We know from archeological excavations of cesspits and sewers that most Norsemen suffered from parasites in their intestines. The same cesspit excavations (a very unglamorous way to practice archeology), revealed undigested seeds from the whole wheat breads they ate, some of which came from weeds that are highly poisonous to humans, perhaps in an early attempt of creating a deworming medicine.
Coprolite found on the Viking settlement of Jórvík (now York) in England. Analysis of the stool has indicated that its producer subsisted largely on meat and bread whilst the presence of several hundred parasitic eggs suggests they were riddled with intestinal worms. Archeology can be less than glamorous sometimes...
Jette Arneborg, Niels Lynnerup, Jan Heinemeier, Jeppe Møhl, Niels Rud, and Árný E. Sveinbjörnsdóttir. Norse Greenland Dietary Economy ca. AD 980–ca. AD 1450. Journal of the North Atlantic. Special Volume 3: 1-39. 2012.
Short, W. Food, Diet, and Nutrition in the Viking Age. Hurstwic. 2021. Hurstwic: Food, Diet, and Nutrition in the Viking Age
Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. ISBN- 9780859915137
Jesse Byock (2005) Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda. 1st. edition. London, England: Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN-13 978-0-140-44755-2