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by Nokki Nollason August 01, 2020 13 min read

All or at least the vast majority of people in the world know that the Vikings were brave and fearless warriors. Even those to whom Viking culture is not close or interesting must have at least heard of them. However, you will agree that Viking food and drink are not so famous. Today we are going to change that (at least a bit).

The Vikings are shown in many cultures as proud people with a strong fighting spirit, and details from their lives continue to intrigue archaeologists. And precisely thanks to numerous archeological discoveries, today we have access to a lot of information about where the Vikings lived, where they moved, and what their houses looked like. This is how we gained some insight into their way of life (to some extent).

We say to some extent, because there are still many mysteries when it comes to the Viking people, and one of them is certainly their habits when it come to food and drink.

What did the brave Viking warriors and their families eat in those distant and scarce lands and on their journeys? At what time did they have their meals? How did they prepare their food? What did they drink?

We will try to answer these and some other questions through this text.

Without further ado, let's get started.

Viking Diet

There are many series and movies about Vikings today, and in almost all of them, we see a scene in which a group of Vikings is gathered around a fire, above which a skewer is turning. Every scene also includes the ale they drank in large quantities from the recognizable Viking mugs.

However, while it is true that meat and ale were included in Viking cuisine on a daily basis, the overall Viking diet was much more varied and healthier than that. 

It is believed that even the most destitute Viking family ate much better than the English peasants who lived at the same time but in much more favorable living conditions. Also, contrary to what is usually presented on movies and TV Shows, the Vikings usually prepared their food by cooking, which is why Viking meals are considered healthier.

Where Did the Vikings Get Their Food?

The food that the Vikings used to prepare their meals were grown on their own farms. Although Viking farms were small, they were large enough to feed a modest Viking family on their own.

The aggravating circumstance was that the food they could produce on their farms was seasonal. As it is known that winters in Scandinavia are very harsh, farming was almost impossible during the winter season.

This meant that in one part of the year, the Vikings had food in abundance, while there were periods when food was very scarce. In those winter months, the Vikings ate only preserved food.

So, the Vikings had to carefully plan their household and adapt the available food to different weather conditions. This was also one of the main reasons many Viking families left their homes in Scandinavia to search for places with a more favorable climate.

Viking Meals - "Dagmal" (Daily Meal) and "Natmal" (Night Meal)

Viking families had only two meals during the day. The first, morning meal was called "dagmal." They ate an hour after getting up. This was actually their breakfast. For adult Vikings, "dagmal" was made of leftovers from the previous evening and bread, while children ate porridge and dried fruit.

The morning meal had to be plentiful, so that the Vikings would have enough energy for a hard day's work. And given the active life they led, the Vikings did not have to worry about calories or be on a diet (a problem that many of us face today).

"Natmal", that is, the evening meal, consisted mainly of fish, with the addition of stewed vegetables. With every meal, the Vikings ate bread that they baked themselves. The bread was mostly made of rye. For dessert, they ate dried fruit with wild honey, which was the only sweetener known at the time.

After a hard day's work and the end of the night's meal, the Vikings gathered around the central hearth, where grown-ups would tell various stories to their children.

What Kind of Food did Vikings Eat?

Viking meal

Viking meal

As we mentioned earlier, the Viking diet was varied and included all kinds of food groups.

Food used in the Viking diet: 

  • Meat (pork, beef, goat, sheep, horse, chicken, ducks),
  • Dairy products (cheese (soft and hard), Skyr, whey, butter),
  • Fruits (raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, apples),
  • Vegetables (cabbage, onions (black and white), white carrots, peas, beans, beets),
  • Nuts (hazelnuts and nuts they imported),
  • Cereals (rye, barley, oats, wheat),
  • Fish (cod, herring, salmon, perch, pike).

Meat

In addition to the domestic animals they raised on their farms (pigs, sheep, goats, cows, chickens, and geese), the Vikings often consumed wild animal meat in their diet. Since the Vikings were great hunters, wild rabbits, deer, elk, wild birds, and even bears were integral parts of the Viking diet.

Some animals, primarily cows, were bred by the Vikings solely for their milk and would be killed for food only when they stopped giving milk. Of the other domestic animals, pigs were most often eaten, because they were the easiest to raise. An interesting fact is that the Vikings even ate horse meat.

And in order not to have to feed the animals in the harsh winter months, the Vikings slaughtered them in November and preserved their meat by drying, smoking, or dipping it in sour whey. These ways of preserving food could not protect the meat from spoilage for a long time, so the Vikings had to eat it soon.

The meat was usually cooked together with the vegetables, and that is how the famous Viking stew was created, which was cooked in a large pot made of clay or iron. 

The food cooked in this way was enough to feed several families. And the soup in which the meat was cooked sometimes stood over the fire in a boiling state for days, and when the meat from the first round of cooking was eaten, new meat would be added and cooked. In this way, the thick soup was made, which the Vikings gladly ate with bread.

In addition to meat, as the primary source of protein, the Vikings also ate eggs. Both chicken and goose eggs from their farms, as well as eggs of wild birds. One of the most excellent delicacies were seagull eggs, which sailors collected from sea cliffs.

Dairy Products

Milk and dairy products made up a large part of the Viking diet. Cheese, whether hard or soft, butter, sour whey, and especially Skyr, were present daily in the diet of every Viking.

Skyr could be flavored with berries or dried vegetables, as well as cereals, and it is still a very popular part of the Icelandic diet. But Skyr isn't the only Viking-era dairy product to survive to this day. In the Norwegian village of Vik, a special type of Gamalost cheese is still made according to the Viking recipe It contains 50% protein and only 1% saturated fat.

Whey, which was created as a by-product in the production of cheese and Skyr, in addition to being used for drinking, was also used for preserving meat. This way of preserving meat was possible thanks to the lactic acid found in whey.

Fruits, Vegetables and Wild Plants

Evidence that the Vikings used fruits and vegetables in their diet are the seeds found during many archaeological excavations. Thanks to the analysis of the found remains, it is known that the varieties of fruit and vegetables that the Vikings grew and ate were wilder than the fruit and vegetables we know today.

From the vegetable category, the Vikings grew cabbage, onions (black and white), beans, peas, beets, and white carrots on their farms (orange was not known in the Viking Age). The Vikings planted these crops in the spring and picked them at the beginning of autumn. 

Also, some wild plants, such as nettles, were a part of the Viking diet.

The Vikings added large amounts of vegetables to the dishes they cooked, which made their diet extremely healthy.

As for fruit, the Vikings had apple orchards on their farms, while wild varieties of raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, or strawberries were also used in their diet. 

Fruit was preserved by drying, and it was a group of food that was used in large quantities during the winter months as well. Dried fruits were eaten by the Vikings as a dessert, pouring honey over them, and as an addition to Skyr or in various porridges combined with cereals. 

Due to the high content of vitamin C, fiber, and minerals in fruit, this part of the Viking diet was very important for preserving Vikings' health.

An interesting fact is that the Vikings, even at that time, knew about the healing properties of individual plants that grew in the wild. For example, sailors in the Viking Age are believed to have known that scurvy-grass (Cochlearia officinalis) helps treat tooth decay. And as an additional source of vitamins and minerals, the Vikings picked and dried red algae (Palmaria palmata).

Opium was also grown on Viking farms. It is believed that they used these two plants as medicine, but also during their rituals.

Nuts

Of the nuts, only the wild hazelnuts and nuts they imported were available to the Vikings, and they were one of their favorite treats. The Vikings added walnuts and hazelnuts to porridge or Skyr and thus complemented their main meals. Nuts were a source of vitamins B, E, and magnesium.

Cereals

Given the northern Scandinavian climate, oats, barley and rye were the cereals that thrived best on Viking farms. From these cereals, more precisely from the flour produced from them, the Vikings baked their bread, which was an integral part of every Viking meal. 

The Vikings used barley to make their favorite drink, ale.

Also, as we mentioned earlier, cereal porridge, combined with fresh or dried fruit, was served as a dessert or as breakfast for children.

Fish

Viking's meal - dried fish

Viking food- dried fish

In addition to hunting, it is known that the Vikings were also engaged in fishing, so, understandably, fish was a typical food in Viking cuisine. More than 25% of the Viking diet consisted of various fish. The most common fish species in Viking meals was herring, but they also ate salmon, perch, pike, and cod.

The ways to prepare the fish were different. The fish could be dried, eaten smoked, salted, as well as preserved in whey.

The most famous Icelandic dish Hakarl also dates back to the Viking Age. Hakarl is a dish created by the fermentation of the Greenland shark, whose meat is poisonous when fresh. In order to remove the toxins from the meat, the shark is buried in the ground for several weeks (it is left to rot, hence the other name for this dish - rotten shark). After a few weeks, the shark is dug up and left to dry for about five months.

The rooms where the shark is dried, and even the shark meat smells of ammonia, but despite that, thanks to this product, the Vikings are still mentioned in Icelandic cuisine.

Spices in the Viking Diet

In the Viking diet, various spices were used to flavor dishes. Most often, they were coriander, horseradish, primrose, thyme, cumin, and mustard, if we talk about the spices that the Vikings produced themselves.

As for salt, at that time, the production of this spice was not easy, so the Vikings had to import it. Due to the extremely high price, both production, and import, it was a luxury that not every Viking family could afford. Because of that, preserving food with salt was not available to everyone, which is why the period in which meat could be safely preserved from spoilage was significantly shorter.

When it came to sweet spices, the only sweetener available to the Vikings was honey. Honey was produced by Nordic bees (brown bees), which the Vikings raised in hives.

What did Vikings Drink?

Viking drinking horns

Viking drinking horns

Vikings' reputation, according to which they drank more than they ate, followed them everywhere in the world. Even during their expeditions on the high seas, Vikings would carry ale instead of water. The reason for this wasn't their love of ale. It's merely because ale could last longer than water and was therefore considered a safer drink.

The most common Viking drinks were:

  • ale,
  • syra,
  • mead,
  • fruit wine,
  • grape wine.

Ale (Viking beer) and Syra (a by-product of Skyra production) were the beverages most commonly consumed by Vikings. Ale was most often drunk from beef horns, although the Vikings at that time also had wooden mugs from which they drank during their meals. Syra was a cheap alcoholic beverage, obtained by fermenting whey, and before it could be drunk, it was necessary to ferment it for at least two years.

Mead and grape wine were mostly available to wealthier Vikings and were used most often for feasts, as not all Vikings had their own hives for honey production, and also not all could afford to import wines from abroad. The wealthier Vikings, to whom wine was available, drank it from clay jugs they imported, or from silver cups produced by local artisans.

The alcohol percentage in Viking drinks varied from 3.5% to 20%. As ale had a low percentage of alcohol, it was consumed by Vikings of all ages, which means that even children drank it. 

Ale, mead, and fruit wines were made almost the same way and were initially produced by women. The preparation procedure was as follows:

  • A pot of water is placed above the fire to heat.
  • After the water reaches a certain temperature, honey, barley or fruit was added to it, depending on which alcoholic beverage is being produced.
  • When the mixture of water and added ingredients would boil, the pots would be placed under the wood, in order to catch the wild yeast necessary for further fermentation of the alcoholic beverage.

Therefore, the alcohol content varied depending on the amount of added sugar (honey or sugar from the sap of the tree).

Viking Feasts

Unlike the common meals of their daily diet, the Vikings enjoyed organizing large feasts, where food and drink were plentiful. Feasts celebrated various religious rituals, then Mabon (harvest ceremony), seasonal events such as Jol (Norwegian Winter Festival), and Ostara (Spring Equinox Festival). Additionally, celebrations were organized to celebrate weddings and the birth of children. The mentioned feasts sometimes lasted for more than one day.

The richer Vikings enjoyed more exotic food because it was an opportunity to brag about their wealth acquired during their war campaigns and thus stand out in the community where they lived. On the other hand, the poorer population would celebrate by eating ordinary meals that they used in their daily diet, only in larger quantities. 

Family lunches were eaten in the house's common room, usually equipped with a large table with benches. The poorer families' tables were made of rough wood, while the richer Vikings polished the tables and covered them with linen tablecloths.

Ways of Preserving Food

Viking's smoking fish to preserve food

Viking's smoking fish to preserve food 

Summer and autumn were full of fresh food, but winter and spring were not such favorable seasons for growing crops, nor animals. Therefore, the Vikings had to preserve fresh food and store it for months when fresh food was scarce.

Meat and fish were preserved by smoking, drying or salting (if salt was available). Then, another way of preserving meat was to store it in sour whey. Cereals were ground into flour, from which the Vikings baked bread, which they preserved and kept. Fruits and vegetables were preserved by drying.

Viking Recipes

Since the Vikings did not know how to write down their recipes, there is very little reliable information today about how they prepared their food. The most reliable data was obtained during the aforementioned archeological excavations, where the remains of food were found, as well as the utensils they used to prepare the food. 

But, in what quantity and in what ratio they added ingredients to their dishes, is not entirely known.

What has been discovered is that the Vikings ate bread with almost every meal, and among the most famous Viking bread was bread made from rye. To make bread, the Vikings used wild yeast, as well as dough growth products made from milk.

Below we will explain in detail the process of making Viking bread (nowadays), as well as another popular dish from the Viking Age, meatballs.

Rye bread

Ingredients:

  • 200g rye flour
  • 200g strong white flour
  • 7g sachet fast-action dried yeast
  • ½ teaspoon of fine salt
  • 1 tablespoon of honey

Instructions:

  1. Add the yeast, flours, and salt into a bowl. Mix the honey with 250ml warm water, pour it into the bowl, and keep mixing to make a dough. Put the dough on the work surface and knead for 10 minutes until it becomes smooth.
  2. Put the dough into an oiled pot and cover it with cling film. Leave it in a warm place to rise (this usually takes 1-2 hours). 
  3. Make a smooth oval loaf out of the dough and put it into your bread tin. Cover it with oiled cling film and keep it in a warm place for an additional 1.5 hours.
  4. Heat the oven to 220C. Dust the loaf with rye flour—Bake for 30 minutes.
  5. Take it out of the tin and wrap it in a dishcloth. Leave it like this for 20 minutes.

Viking Meatballs

Ingredients: 

  • 25g heavy cream
  • 2 slices of bread
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 1 teaspoon butter
  • 1/3 pound ground pork
  • 2/3 pound ground beef
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 12.5g chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/2 container of sour cream
  • 3 tablespoons of flour

Instructions:

  1. Heat the oven to 175C,
  2. Use a bowl to mix the breadcrumbs with cream. Leave the mixture for 10 minutes.
  3. Take 1 teaspoon of butter and melt it on medium heat. Put the onion in it and stir the mixture for approximately 10 minutes. The onion should turn light brown.
  4. Take the onion and put it into the mixing bowl. Add ground pork, ground beef, salt, egg, and spices. Don't forget to add black pepper.
  5. Now it is time to use those breadcrumbs with cream from step number 2. Add them to the mixing bowl.
  6. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter and in the skillet. From the mixing bowl, make meatballs and add them to the skillet as well. Cook on medium heat for about 5 minutes, or until they become brown.
  7. Take the meatballs out and place them into a baking dish. Add the chicken broth and cover with foil. Place it in the oven and bake for 40 minutes.

If you like Icelandic cuisine, and especially products that are still made according to Viking recipes, you can find more interesting recipes at the following link: https://wanderingwagars.com/easy-icelandic-recipes/

Conclusion

After all that has been written, it is more than clear that the Viking diet was much more than a pig turning on a skewer over a fire. Although at the mention of Vikings, we often imagine wild warriors, for whom nutrition was not so important, the evidence says otherwise.

The Vikings may have been aggressive in their campaigns, but when it came to their diet, they were very careful about what they ate. In the Viking Age, food was considered a gift from the Gods, and the Vikings certainly, more than any other people, knew how to enjoy that gift together with their families and friends.

Until the next meeting,

Skål!


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