The Vikings are famous for their great feasting halls, in which an image of a rowdy bunch of beer-drinking men gnawing on meaty bones comes to mind. But what did they 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.
Vikings apparently ate better than their medieval counterparts in Britain, says a story on the Viking diet on History.com. One thing archaeologists know from studying medieval literature and examining the contents of ancient cesspits and sewers is that while most Vikings ate meat, they also unfortunately had intestinal worms and ingested some seeds in their bread from weeds that are poisonous to humans.
One of the primary ways of cooking meat among Vikings was to boil it in a stew called skause, perhaps in a cauldron this Gundestrup Cauldron from the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Viking era lasted from 800 to 1066 AD. They were based in Scandinavia but spread their conquests and settlements over much of Europe and into Russia and the British Isles.
The Viking Answer Lady has a long blog detailing the rich and varied Viking diet. One interesting fact she points out is that beached whales were an important part of their diet. She said scholars have investigated midden or garbage heaps to find what types of animals bones were in them, analyzed bogs and lake bottoms for pollens to see what kinds of plants they consumed and also read the eddas and sagas for hints into their diet and culinary activities. She excerpts a 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.
The Vikings apparently didn’t roast or fry their meat but rather boiled it. Some of the meat was game, but especially in the lower latitudes they ate domesticated cattle, horses, sheep and goats and pork. The most important kind of livestock, she writes, was cattle, which is known from bone remains. Also wooden remnants of holding pen partitions indicate some farms held up to 80 to 100 head.
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.
These goods from a Swedish grave included Viking vessels. (Photo by Berig/Wikimedia Commons)
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, writes the Viking Answer Lady, was drying because this way it could be kept for year.
Dairy, vegetables and fruits, which were much wilder then than now; and seeds for oil were a big part of the Viking diet. They ate various types of berries, apples, sloes and plums and preserved them by drying them. They grew in gardens and gathered in the wild vegetables such as carrots, turnips, parsnips, spinach, celery, cabbage, fava beans, peas and radishes. They also ate leeks, seaweed, mushrooms and onions.
While they ate oats, barley and rye and made flatbread from the barley, most of it was used to make beer, the Viking Answer Lady writes. They prepared gruel, porridge and bread too.
All of this food sounds delicious and wonderful, but they apparently made it even tastier by adding herbs and spices.
“Dill, coriander and hops are known from Jorvík and the Danelaw,” she writes. “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.”
Viking drinking horns (Photo by Mararie/Wikimedia Commons)
But what’s a hungry Viking to wash it all down with?
“Alcoholic drinks were heartily 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,” she writes.
They also drank mead, milk, whey, and water.
The Viking Answer Lady details some of the food-preparation methods and gives some recipes that speculate about how they prepared their food.
Featured image: Fermented shark, hákarl, is an example of a culinary tradition that has continued from the settlement of Iceland in the 9th century to this day. (public domain)
By: Mark Miller