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Viking Diet: Why you should eat like the Vikings did!

Posted by Sons Of Vikings on


Loud and rowdy Vikings in a mead hall chomping on massive pieces of meat and pitching the bones at a hapless minstrel may be a familiar trope in movies and TV shows. But what was the average Viking diet REALLY like? This article investigates common day to day Viking foods, how and when they liked to eat them, and how Viking nutrition contributed to their success.

Nutrition Played a Part in the Viking Success Story

Diet was one of many significant advantages the Norse had. This is ironic, perhaps, because the Norse were envious of the lush farms and open fields outside of Scandinavia. Unfortunately, there was not all that much arable land in the Vikings' homeland. They had to diversify to survive, relying heavily on a higher protein diet made up of cattle, livestock, hunting, and fishing along their endless coastlines.

Whereas the French and English farmers enjoyed higher carb focused diets made up of huge harvests of grain. With inland populations having less access to fish and the nobles aggressively discouraging peasants from hunting, these people had less food diversity than their Scandinavian counterparts. This meant more susceptibility to famine on occasion and a much lower-protein diet overall.

Plugging common Scandinavian foods into a nutritional calculator, we can reasonably speculate that Vikings had a diet that was roughly 30-35% protein, 35-40% energy-supplying fats, and 30% carbohydrates. Of course, this breakdown would vary from day to day and with the seasons. Still, overall this formula is VERY similar to what top body builders today consider optimal for extreme growth and performance.

The nobility of Christendom may have had a similar protein-rich diet. But the rank-and-file (Southern) opponents of the Vikings would have probably had a diet closer to 19% protein, 28% fat, and 53% carbohydrates. So, even when calories were equal, the higher percentages of protein and healthy fats meant that Vikings would have better body composition than most of their enemies.

Viking Mealtimes

According to the sagas, the Vikings ate their most important meal in the morning. They then had a leisurely dinner at night, after all the day's work was through. There was no lunch break for the busy Viking, but they may have very well snacked on apples, walnuts, or salt fish throughout the day.

Because of their uncertain and often hostile environment, hospitality with food and shelter was a cardinal virtue for the Vikings. The Eddic poem, Havamal, gives a glimpse of this hospitality ethic:

Hail to a good host! | a guest has come inside; 
He needs a fire | the one who has just come in
His knees are shivering; Food and dry clothes | will do him well,
After his journey over the mountains.
(Crawford 2015 translation)

In the Viking world, food was meant to be shared, because survival required a group effort.

Common Viking Foods

Vikings were very skilled homesteaders, able to prosper in adverse environments. However, accomplishing this required a lot of planning, work, and options.

Things did not always work out smoothly, of course. For example, when the historical Floki first settled a colony in Iceland, his people were so excited about the excellent fishing that they neglected to gather enough fodder for their animals. The result was near-starvation that winter and the colony failed. Later settlers learned from these mistakes, though, and Iceland eventually thrived.

Here are some of the Vikings’ most important food sources according to the sagas and archaeology.

Bread and Porridge

It is no exaggeration to say that European civilization is founded on bread. Easy to make (with a bit of practice), versatile, shelf-stable, and calorie-dense, bread sustains populations. But much of the Viking homelands were cold and with poor soil. Denmark had lands that could produce good wheat. But the rest of Scandinavia usually had to turn to other grains like barley, rye, or oats.

Rigsthula (a poem in the Elder Edda) describes the typical bread of the day as “heavy and brown and stuffed with husks.” The same poem speaks of the wealthy as eating bread that was "slim and white" (probably made with imported wheat from trading). So, bread remained important to the Vikings but perhaps less important than elsewhere in Europe, where every person literally ate pounds of the stuff every day.

When there was no time (or energy) to grind grains into flour and let the yeast raise the dough, Vikings simply boiled their whole grains until they were soft enough to swallow down. This porridge was probably not the sweet, wholesome oatmeal your grandmother used to make, but more of a catch-all of whatever herbs or flavorings were available. In the Tale of Sarcastic Halli (Icelandic, 13th century), the Vikings of Harald Hardrada’s court grumble when they are served porridge instead of a feast. But the ever-hard Harald says, “With butter, it is the best of dishes.”

Archaeologists have noted the skeletal remains of even relatively-young Vikings have teeth worn down from chewing these tough grains.

Beer and Mead

Grains were not only boiled into porridge or ground into flour. Much of the Vikings’ grain consumption came in the form of beers and ales. Norse sagas and poems speak of ale and mead being guzzled from horns in social settings or calmly sipped by the hearth on quiet evenings.

Mead was made from fermented honey and water. These beverages were consumed daily and came in endless varieties. Each family had their own recipes and used different recipes for different occasions. Read more about mead here.

 

Fish

Almost all Vikings lived near coastlines or rivers. We always associate Vikings with their longships (and for good reason). Still, some of the most common aquatic vessels in the Viking Age were simple dug-out canoes (Price, 2020). Almost every family owned one of these or similar small boats, and nearly every Viking family fished. The Vikings cultivated various fishing techniques for all kinds of waters, whether by sea or along the shoreline. Large fish that could feed a family (like salmon, halibut, striped bass, haddock, or cod) were caught with a line. Small fish like herring (that could be salted and stored for later) were snared with nets. Fish provided protein, Omega-rich fats, and vital nutrients.

Dairy

In the Viking Age, two of the essential measures of wealth were the heads of cattle a family owned and the bales of wool their farm produced. Both cattle and sheep could be good for eating but were even more valuable for the milk they produced. Milk is a sustainable resource, and the butter, cream, yogurt, and cheese made from it formed the primary source of protein and fat in the Viking diet. Not ones to waste food, the sagas mention Vikings drinking whey – the protein-rich byproduct of cheese making. Along with fish, dairy products made up the bulk of the Vikings’ daily essential nutritional needs. So it is not surprising that even today, peoples from Scandinavia and the British Isles have some of the best lactose tolerance globally.

Domestic Animals

Animals like cows, goats, sheep, pigs, and chickens were essential to Viking life because of dairy, eggs, and wool. Some, like oxen, horses, or donkeys, were good for labor or transportation. But domestic animals were also eaten as food, and not only under the duress of famine.

If a Viking ate his domestic animals faster than he could replace them, he quickly came to ruin. So, herd management and animal husbandry were essential skills. Moreover, the lack of cold storage for food meant that a large animal must be shared with many people lest it goes to waste. Food sharing was a way of strengthening relationships between friends and kin.

Again, from Havamal,

To their homes men would bid | me hither and yon,
If at meal-time I needed no meat,
Or would hang two hams | in my true friend's house,
Where only one I had eaten.
(Bellows 1936 translation)

Sheep were one of the most important animals in the Viking Age because the wool they produced was used for clothing and boat sails. They do not live forever, though, and volcanic ash in places like Iceland sometimes wore their teeth out prematurely. So, mutton was a common dish amongst the Vikings. Lamb (which is much more flavorful and tender) was probably seldom eaten due to the loss of wool production.

Beef was eaten especially at feast times. Beef was also a staple of specialized warriors, such as Housecarls (professional bodyguards of a lord) or Varangians. Beef remained associated with elite military forces throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance (for example, Ireland’s Gallowglass or London’s Yeomen Warders “Beefeaters.”). 

Pork (domestic and wild) was the most celebrated meat of the Vikings. The Einherjar (Odin’s chosen slain) were said to feast on pork every night in Valhalla. The pig and the boar were associated with Freyr and Freyja, the god and goddess of plenty and fertility. This association with luck and prosperity is one of the reasons that pork (especially ham) is served at feast days even today.

It may be disturbing to some, but Vikings occasionally ate horses. Eating horses was taboo in Christian countries in the Middle Ages, but the Vikings ate horses in association with certain religious rituals (now poorly understood). Though horses are sometimes the steeds of gods and heroes, like Odin’s Sleipnir and Sigurd’s Grani, most Vikings fought on foot and looked at the horse as a mode of labor. When Iceland became Christian in the year 1000, it was legally stipulated that the eating of horses would be allowed to continue.

Wild Animals

In the Middle Ages, Northern Europe was characterized by vast stretches of dense forests teeming with wildlife. Vikings took advantage of this and hunted deer, reindeer, elk, hare, and other mammals big and small. Vikings were famous fur trappers, and they may have eaten some of this quarry, too. Vikings used bows, slings, nets, and falcons to bring down wild fowl to eat. In some cases, children could contribute to the family by catching birds in nets.

Glamorous as it has always seemed, bringing down game with short-range weapons is time-consuming and requires skill and effort. Vikings had to weigh the pros and cons of leaving their other work undone to pursue game into the dangerous forests. It is also true that some of the places the Vikings called home, like Iceland or the Scottish isles, did not exactly boast of forests filled with deer ready for the taking. Therefore, the idea that Vikings ate their daily fill of venison is likely a myth. Game was a welcome supplement to the diet rather than the diet itself.

Marine Animals

Seals, walrus, and aquatic birds appear in the archaeological record at Viking settlements – especially the more remote locations like Greenland, Iceland, and northern Scandinavia. For most Vikings, this was probably a supplement to the diet, but fur trappers in the far north probably relied on these food sources while they were afield. Walrus ivory (tusks and teeth) were traded as far east as Iraq, and seal skins were used for ship rigging, so the meat of these creatures was more of a side benefit.

Vikings did not usually attempt to bring down whales at sea like northern Europeans later would. However, Vikings did make extensive use of whales that had washed ashore, eating their meat and using their bones and fat for various other purposes. Sagas such as Njal’s Saga and the Vinland Sagas speak of feuds arising over the rights to beached whales.

Fruits and Vegetables

Vikings farmed cold-hardy vegetables like cabbage, carrots, leeks, turnips, parsnips, garlic, onions, and other root vegetables to add vitamins and variety to their diets. They ate peas, beans, and other legumes. They were fond of apples and cherries from wild or cultivated trees and collected berries and nuts when they were in season.

Flavoring and Cooking Techniques

Today, those of us living in developed nations indulge in an endless array of cuisines, sauces, spices, and cooking apparatus. This was not available to the Vikings. Though there was high demand for spices in southern Europe at the time, Vikings do not seem to have been very involved in the spice trade. Viking cooking was – by our standards – straightforward.

Meat was stewed, boiled on the bone to make soup (and thus feed more people), or roasted on a spit. The court records of Charlemagne (a contemporary of the Vikings) noted that his physicians wanted the Emperor to eat his meat boiled and not roasted the way he liked it. This was perhaps because the higher cooking temperatures made it less likely for parasites to survive – or it could have just been another quirk of medieval doctors. Archaeological studies in one Viking neighborhood in Britain did find a high incidence of intestinal parasites, but studies in some other places have not.

Meat and fish could also be smoked, dried, or salted to preserve it. Archaeologists have uncovered Viking Age smoke houses and storage sheds for these purposes. Cooked meat could also be preserved for a while in vats of whey, because the acidity of the whey would slow spoilage. Sagas mention these vats of whey, including one Viking hero using such a vat to escape his hall burning.

Baking was done on the hearth or in wood-fire ovens. Cooking temperature depended on careful manipulation of the fire and placement of the loaves. Some know-how was required to avoid bread that was burned on the bottom and raw in the middle. In the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, Ragnar’s men are so smitten by Aslaug’s beauty that they burn the crew’s breakfast bread. King Alfred was famously upbraided by the farm wife for burning the cakes (cakes here means a type of quick bread, not like our cake today) while in deep cover hiding from Vikings.

Soups, stews, or porridges were flavored with herbs. This included “classic” herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage, dill, coriander, tarragon, and the like. It also included less well-known herbs, like ramsons, nettles, angelica, mugwort, and woodruff. Vikings didn't have hot spices, but they did have access to horseradish and may have used it. Onions, leeks, and garlic created some strong flavor profiles. All Vikings had access to salt, either from trading, finding it themselves in the environment, or boiling down seawater. On the other hand, pepper was a hot commodity in Europe and probably seldom available to the Vikings.

Some sagas mention Vikings adding honey to meats, but little else is known about Viking sauces (if there were any). Overall, Vikings ate food that was elegant in its simplicity, letting the flavor of the natural product shine over the inventiveness of the cook.

What Vikings Didn’t Eat

When reconstructing a historical diet, it is essential to remember that some foods synonymous with European cooking today were not introduced into Europe until the 1500's or later. Things like potatoes, tomatoes, or chilis are indigenous to the New World. Chowing on a fried turkey leg? Didn’t happen.

The Viking Feast

In a feast, people pull out all the stops as the family and community come together to strengthen their bonds, celebrate victories, or prepare for struggles. The Eddic poem Thrymskvitha (Thrym’s Poem, a.k.a., The Theft of Mjolnir) gives a humorous account of a wedding feast. The menu may have been typical, though, and included oxen, salmon, mead, ale, and “delicacies reserved for the women” (deserts?).

Eat Like a Viking ...using Modern Supermarkets?

Today, it is easy to eat like a Viking. Why would you want to? Well, you may find that it is an easy, straightforward, low hassle, and healthy way to eat. Or you may want to see if you derive any of the benefits that made the Vikings the terror of Europe for so long. Or you may simply want to try it for a week out of curiosity. Here is a two-day meal plan we put together, based on commonly available foods in the grocery store and with modern time constraints in mind. Note, this is to approximate the Viking diet in contemporary life, not to host a reenactor-worthy exhibition. Adjust portions to fit your needs.

Day 1

Breakfast: Two boiled eggs; oatmeal cooked in milk, topped with cream, and berries, or chopped fruit.

Snacks: walnuts, apple, and 2 ounces of hard cheese

Dinner: Grilled salmon, cabbage, whole grain bread, 2 servings of brown ale

Nutrition: 2450 calories, 211g carbs, 103g fats, 122g protein.

Day 2

Breakfast: Skyr (use Greek yogurt if you cannot find skyr) with honey and berries. Whole grain bread with butter. Two Eggs with goat cheese.

Snacks: canned fish such as smoked trout or mackerel. Walnuts or other tree nuts. Apple or pear.

Dinner: Beef stew with onions, carrots, root vegetables, and herbs (made in advance using a slow cooker or on the spot using a pressure cooker). Whole grain bread with one ounce hard cheese. Two servings beer or mead.

Nutrition: 2250 calories, 122 carbs, 108 fats, 142 protein.

 

 

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References

  1. 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. https://nyheder.ku.dk/alle_nyheder/2012/2012.11/nordboerne_i_groenland_maeskede_sig_i_saeler/Norse_Greenland_Dietary_Economy_ca._AD_980_ca._AD_1450.pdf
  2. The Poetic Edda. Crawford, J. (translator). Hackett Classics. 2015.
  3. The Sagas of the Icelanders (editor, Thorson, O. & Scudder, B.) Penguin Books, New York, 2001.
  4. Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda. Byock, J. (translator). Penguin Classics. London, England, 2005.
  5. Rodgers, D. & Noer, K. Sons of Vikings: History, Legends, and Impact of the Viking Age. KDP. The United States. 2018.
  6. Price, N. Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. Basic Books, New York, 2020.
  7. Short, W. Food, Diet, and Nutrition in the Viking Age. Hurstwic. 2021. Hurstwic: Food, Diet, and Nutrition in the Viking Age
  8. The Poetic Edda. Bellows, H. (translator). 1936. The Poetic Edda Index (sacred-texts.com)