The Vikings 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 Viking Feast, the reality might be somehow different.
What did ancient Vikings 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.
Surprisingly, Vikings ate significantly better than their medieval counterparts in Britain. Their food was healthy, fresh, and even a poor Viking ate much better than an English peasant during the Middle Ages. That’s not to say that the Viking diet didn’t have inadequacies, but on the whole, the Viking diet 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 Viking, 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, but Vikings also ate 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. Vikings were avid hunters and would capture reindeer, elk and even bear to bring back to the hearth fires. Fish was an ever-present course as Vikings spent so much time on the water, comprising a major part of their diet. Herrings were abundant, and prepared in a plethora of ways: dried, salted, smoked, pickled and even preserved in whey.
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 was eaten with bread baked with all sorts of grains, beans and even tree bark–birch bark, which can be dried and ground and is actually very nutritious. Vikings used old bread dough to make sourdough loaves, and would also use soured milk and buttermilk to enrich their breads.
Vikings also kept ducks, geese and chickens for meat and eggs. In the northlands the Vikings hunted more and took elk, deer, reindeer, bear, boar, squirrels, hare and wildfowl more than their southern cousins, but they still hunted in the south too.
The Gundestrup Cauldron from the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen
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.”
Vikings 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.
They preserved meat by smoking, salting, fermenting, pickling and drying it. In the far North they could freeze it all year. But the most common preservation method was drying, which kept the meat edible for longer times and was specially 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. Viking 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 burial 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 Viking diet, there were some major pitfalls. We know from archeological excavations of Viking cesspits and sewers that most Vikings suffered from parasites in their intestines: Bluntly put, they had worms. The same cesspit excavations (a very unglamorous way to practice archeology), revealed undigested seeds from the whole wheat breads Vikings ate, some of which came from weeds that are highly poisonous to humans, perhaps in an early attempt of creating a deworming medicine.
Smorrebrod Viking Bread