Viking Food Guy

Recreating the food and drink of the Viking Age (and others)

**Beware, rampant speculation**

I don’t have any direct evidence, but the more I read about early modern Finnish food and foodways, the more I suspect that the Finns remained more culturally isolated (due to language, geography, politics) than did the rest of Scandinavia, and thus that early modern Finnish food can give us more insights into what Viking food was like.

Again, this is just speculating, but early modern Finnish cooking relies heavily on forest products, fish, unleavened or sourdough breads, cultured dairy products, wild game, and fermented food and drink.

Also, there are a lot of examples in early modern Finnish cooking of utilizing all parts of animals at harvest time (blood soups, blood dumplings, offal soups, blood porridge, many different sausages, etc.).  There are also cooking techniques such as cooking on stone hearths, cooking fish wrapped in newspaper (read leaves or wet straw) in an open fire, and brewing traditional beers using hollow logs and juniper branches that may well be holdovers from a much earlier time.

Your mileage may very, of course, but I think it’s worth considering…

This weekend at Grand Thing I’m teaching a class on this subject, so I thought I’d jot down my notes here first…

There are lots of Viking-possible foods that will survive a weekend without refrigeration.  They possibilities really break down into two groups depending on whether or not you are willing to do any cooking, or just want to live off the cold food.

Cold food:

  • Pickled vegetables.  Some suggestions are sauerkraut, sauerruben (much the same only with turnips), pickled carrots, fermented kale, pickled radishes, pickled/fermented apples, cherries, plums.  All of these things can be lacto-fermented (which is what the Vikings would have done) or modern vinegar pickled versions can be substituted.  Any of these will survive a weekend without cooling, particularly if you can keep them from getting too hot.
  • Bread.  Any heavy wheat or rye bread will keep well.  Alternatively, barley based hard tack or crisp bread.  Easy to make, easy to keep, and filling.  The hard tack can be eaten dry, or broken up into soup.  You can also break up the hard tack into water or small beer and eat like grape nuts.
  • Sour milk/buttermilk/yogurt/skyr.  If you can keep it reasonably cool, these will all keep just fine for a few days.  These go will with bread (above), by themselves, with fruit, or with roasted flour.
  • Roasted flour.  I’ve long suspected that the Vikings probably used pre-roasted barley flour as a travelling food, mush as the modern Tibetans do.  Just recently, I found references to a Finnish food called talkkuna (or kama in Estonian) that is flour made from roasted barley, oats, rye, and/or peas.  Since the roasting pre-cooks the grains, they don’t require additional cooking to be digestible.  The modern Finns mix talkkuna with villi (a cultured milk product) or other yogurt/buttermilk to make While that doesn’t mean for sure that the Vikings did the same, it certainly is plausible.
  • Cheese.  A nice hard cheese will keep easily without refrigeration.  Think a nice hard, sharp Cheddar, or Emmantaler for something more Norse.  Parmesan or other hard grating style cheeses (mizythra, asiago) also work well.  While probably not Viking, modern Scandinavian whey-cheeses like gjetost also keep well.
  • Pickled meat or fish.  You can make your own, or use modern equivalents.  Pickled sausages are good.  If you are willing to deal with non-period spices, bar-style pickled hot links are (aside from the chili pepper) very similar to Icelandic whey-pickled sausages.  Some import stores also carry German sausages in glass jars (think giant Vienna sausages).  These are really “pickled”, but they are salty enough to last the weekend, particularly until opened.  Pickled pigs feet, salt pork, or salted and potted pork (think rillettes) also should keep, although I haven’t tried them.  If you bring any kind of non-canned meat, make sure they stay cool and check them carefully for spoilage before you eat them.  Canned kippered or other styles of herring are perfectly appropriate, and will keep indefinitely.  They go really well with bread, cheese, and pickled vegetables.  Dried meat such as jerky is passible, but I personally don’t think that the Vikings would have had the salt to dry rather than pickling beef.  Maybe, though…
  • Raw root vegetables or cabbage.  Carrots, turnips, and green cabbage all store well if they are not too hot, and can be eaten raw or with skyr or other dairy products.  Cabbages can be shredded for salads, and lightly salted cabbage with piima or other “buttermilks” is a simple coleslaw.  Onions also keep well.
  • Fruit.  Apples, cherries, plums.  Dried fruit keeps even better, but the fresh ones will last the weekend if kept out of the sun.

If you are willing to do some cooking, there are lots of possibilities.

  • Grain + sour milk + salt + heat = flat bread
  • Grain or peas plus water + preserved meat and vegetables makes soup or stew
  • Sour milk, preserved fish + broken up hard tack makes “chowder”
  • Grain + water + heat = porridge.  Excellent with sour milk, fresh or preserved fruit,  nuts.
  • Old bread, cheese, preserved vegetables + hot broth makes “sops”.
  • etc.

These are just a few of the possibilities.  It does take some planning, and as mentioned above it’s best to keep many of these things out of high heat or direct sunshine.  I sometimes use an insulated wooden box in the shade to keep things as cool as possible without resorting to ice.

If you come up with other ideas I’d love to hear about them.

Last year I tried a new chicken dish that worked pretty well, and a few weeks back at Faire in the Grove I decided to make it as part of my Viking cooking demo (plus feed the extended household lunch) with excellent results.  The two biggest additions were a little bacon, and some cumin, and both really made it from something good into something super good. 

I used cast iron again, because I don’t have a potter vessel that will hold that much chicken.  I chopped up some bacon and fried it in the pot, then used the bacon fat to brown the chicken.  I used a mix of drumsticks and thighs this time.  Once they were browned I added some salt and cumin seed, plus a bunch of watercress, and a container of baby arugula.  When the chicken was well cooked and falling off the bone, I threw in a pint of full-fat sour cream.  Once it was all warm we dished it up on flatbread.  The cumin, in particular, really made it this time.  Also, the sour cream rather than the piima I used last year gave it a less runny texture. 

I sent some over to my wife, and within minutes half the fighters we know were coming by saying “I heard you had some really great chicken I should try”. Smile 

I’ll definitely be doing this one again, and have a few more changes I’d like to try.  I think dandelion greens, nettles, or lambs quarters (if I can get some) would be great instead of or in addition to the arugula.  More greens more better.  I’d also use boneless chicken, since the whole pieces made it both a little greasy (I didn’t remove the skins until they were browned) and hard to navigate on flatbread.  The advantage to the whole pieces, OTOH, is that they are cheap.  I think the addition of some mustard or horseradish would be good too.  Wild mushrooms of some sort could also be good.  We don’t have any archeological evidence of mushrooms, since they don’t really leave much in the say of stuff in the ground, but I think it’s reasonable to suppose they were eaten.  YMMV. 

Some more sources

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Jørgensen, Grethe. Analyses of Medi[e]val Plant Remains, Textiles and Wood from Svendborg. [Odense]: Odense University Press, 1986. Print.

This is an older volume, but it has some good photos and descriptions of plant remains (mostly seeds).

Mitchell, G, and National Museum of Ireland. Archaeology & Environment in Early Dublin. [Dublin]: Royal Irish Academy, 1987. Print.

Great analysis of and report on plant and animal remains from the Viking Dublin digs.

Hall, Allen, and Harry Kenward. Assessment of Plant and Invertebrate Macrofossil Remains from Excavations in 2002 at Kaupang, Norway. York: Centre for Human Palaeoecology, 2003. Print. Reports from the Centre for Human Palaeoecology, University of York.

More plant and animal fossils.  There is a fair amount of this kind of report/analysis available.

Walker, Harlan. Milk : Beyond the Dairy : Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. Prospect, 2000. Print.

In particular, an article on gammalost, or “old cheese”, and how long it has probably been made in Norway.

Johnstone, C. et al. “Assessment of Biological Remains from 41-49 Walmgate York (site Code 1999.941).” Reports from the Environmental Archaeology Unit, York 4 (2000): 46. Print.

More plant and animal remains.

I got a question about where I get my pottery for fire cooking, and as that information wasn’t here anywhere, I wanted to make sure to add it for next time.

I get most of my pottery from Mistress Morgaina (  She has been making pots in a number of Viking appropriate shapes that work very well over the fire.  I also get some stuff from Mistress Gwen the Potter (  I have had excellent success using Gwen’s pots over the fire as well.

When looking for something appropriate for Viking cooking, look for something flat bottomed, with a “vase-like” (?) shape.  Most of the examples I have seen from the archeological record are shaped like that, although not 100%.

Some sources


In response to a challenge from Kaðlin, here’s a quick list of some of my go-to sources on Viking food.

If other folks have favorite Viking food related sources, I’d love to hear about them. Also, if this is something people are interested in I’ll post more.

Astill, Grenville, and John Langdon. Medieval Farming and Technology: The Impact of Agricultural Change in Northwest Europe. Brill Academic Publishers, 1997. Print.

This is a great source on the state of agriculture before and during the Viking period, and the changes that took place shortly afterward. Lots of technical detail for the serious nerd. Note: this is totally about agriculture and agricultural technology, not food in any way.

Hansson, Ann-Marie. On plant food in the Scandinavian Peninsula in early medieval times. Stockholm: Archaeological Research Laboratory Stockholm University, 1997. Print.

One of my very favorites. This is the book I come back to again and again. Some of the best research into Viking bread, with some info on porridge and other grain based foods as well. Excellent pictures and analysis of the extant bread fragments.

Isaksson, Sven. Food and rank in early medieval time. Stockholm: Archaeological Research Laboratory [Arkeologiska forskningslaboratoriet] Univ., 2000. Print.

There is some great stuff here about how food is associated with rank. Of particular interest (to me) is an article about what we can learn from Viking pottery shards in terms of what foodstuffs they once contained. Isaksson looks at cellular material from the shards, as well as doing an analysis of the fat residues.

Katz, Sandor. Wild fermentation : the flavor, nutrition, and craft of live-culture foods. White River Junction Vt.: Chelsea Green Pub., 2003. Print.

Not strictly historical, but the best book out there on fermented foods and how to make them. A great resource for those trying to recreate Viking foods (many of which, I think, were fermented).

Lysaght, Patricia, and University College, Dublin.;European Ethnological Research Centre. Milk and milk products from medieval to modern times : proceedings of the Ninth International Conference on Ethnological Food Research, Ireland, 1992. Edinburgh: Published by Canongate Academic in association with the Department of Irish Folklore University College Dublin and the European Ethnological Research Centre Edinburgh, 1994. Print.

Very good book of articles on how milk was processed and consumed historically. Of particular interest is an article on skyr and whey in medieval Iceland. A bit later than Viking period, but I think much of it still applies. Also an interesting piece on the mixture of beer and milk in early modern Sweden.

Meyer-Renschhausen, Elisabeth. “The porridge debate: Grain, nutrition, and forgotten food preparation techniques.” Food and Foodways 5.1 (1991): 95-120.

A very interesting article on how changes in grain processing have effected the way we percieve/use/digest grain.

Trekking fail!

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OK, fail is maybe too strong.  We had a nice hike, and discovered that our gear worked pretty well.  3 1/2 miles isn’t too far to hike in Viking shoes, and the bed roll wasn’t too heavy.  Only then there were the mosquitoes.  Mid August should have been too late for that many, but it’s been a damp summer. 

We found a lovely campsite near Blue Lake, and sat down to eat some of our provisions, but were immediately covered in mosquitoes, to the point that we had to eat with one hand and swat with the other.  Not fun.  So, we hightailed it. 

7 miles is a long way to walk in Viking shoes.  And the bed roll got pretty heavy by the end. 

But, we learned stuff, and will definitely try again next year, some place with fewer bugs. 



This weekend my friend Eulalia and I are going to try “Viking trekking”, or backpacking in the wilderness using only (or at least mostly) Viking appropriate gear.  I’ve been making some oilcloth for shelter, gathering wool blankets, fixing up my Viking shoes, etc.  I’ve also been prepping the food I’m going to take with me. 

So far I’ve roasted some barley which I’m going to grind into meal.  In extremis in can be eaten as is, but I’m hoping to boil it with some of the other stuff I’m taking, like dried fruit and dried meat.  I’m also sprouting some peas, which I will dry and take for either stewing or just snacking on dry.  I’m hoping maybe some huckleberries will be ripe so we can do some foraging too. 

Today’s tasks are to bake some wheat/barley hardtack and get the peas dried, plus grind the barley meal. 

One of the only non-period things I’m bringing is my camera, so I’ll post some pictures after we get back…



One of the very common finds from Iron- and Viking age Scandinavia sites are seeds of chenopodium album (fat-hen, lambs quarters, etc.).  The seeds have been found mixed into bread and grain paste, in addition to just being in the ground.  The inclusion may have been accidental, since fat hen grows as a weed in and around grain fields, or it may have been intentional as an additional source of protein.

Chenopodium album grows around here, and I may see if I can gather some seeds in the late summer.  In the mean time, it turns out that a close relative (chenopodium quinoa) is readily available in the grocery store as quinoa.  I’m thinking it might be worth experimenting a bit with adding quinoa to some breads or pottages and see how it turns out.

Thoughts?  Is this a reasonable substitution?

At June Faire last weekend I tried a couple of new Viking-possible dishes that worked out really well.  Both were cooked over the fire, one in pottery (cabbage) and the other in cast iron (mostly because it was bigger than any of my pottery).

In a clay pot, heated up some chopped bacon ends until they started rendering a bit, then added 6-7 chopped leeks, a cabbage, and about a pint of sprouted peas of different varieties.  I added a little salt, and just barely enough water to cover, then let it simmer until the peas were firm but not crunchy.  I was really happy with the way this came out.  The sprouted peas are sweet, take much less time to cook than dried peas, and were still a bit toothsome for texture.

In the cast iron I browned about 20 chicken drumsticks, then added a big box of baby spinach, a bunch of watercress, a little salt, and a pint of filmjölk cultured half & half.  Simmered until everything cam together.  If I’d had either cumin seed or some dry mustard I would have added one or both, and will try that in the future. 

These were both quite popular with the crowd I was feeding, and I’ll definitely keep them in rotation.