Viking Food Guy

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

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.

I just recently got ahold of a copy (thanks to the wonders of ILL) of an article called The Porridge Debate: Grain, Nutrition, and Forgotten Food Preparation Techniques1.  I had seen references to it in Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation, but hadn’t actually read the article.  In it, the author discusses how changes in grain processing techniques have made our modern porridge both less tasty and less nutritious.  In traditional societies, in order to remove the husk from grains, the grain was moistened and then dried before being pounded in a grain stamp to loosen the hulls.  This technique has several advantages over our modern grain milling.  First, the wetting/drying process causes the grain to begin the saccharification process, which converts some of the starch to sugar and makes the grain taste sweeter.  Once the moistened grain is dried, the husks are pounded off, which leaves the protein layer under the husk intact.  Modern milling skips the saccharification, and the husks are milled off, which also removes the protein layer.  This means that traditionally processed grain was both tastier and more nutritious. 

Also, the repeated wetting, drying, and pounding meant that very little additional cooking was required to make the grain edible, which required less time and fuel for cooking. 

So, grain porridge as a staple food is a lot more attractive when it tastes better, reduces the need for additional (meat based) protein sources, and takes less time and fuel to cook. 

She also asserts that grain was most often eaten as porridge that was fermented (soured) overnight, or as a “sour soup” with root vegetables and legumes. 

This was all pretty welcome news to me, since I’m a big fan of porridge, both soured and otherwise.  Stone ground oats soured overnight with whey are delicious, and take very little time to cook, which makes them a great breakfast. 

I have yet to try this with whole oats, so I’d be interested to see what that does to their cooking time.  Hulless barley might be good to try also.  Barley flour (coarsely ground) also makes a fine porridge, although I haven’t tried fermenting any yet. 

So many grains, so little time…

1 Meyer-Renschhausen, Elisabeth. “The Porridge Debate: Grain, Nutrition, and Forgotten Food Preparation Techniques.” Food and Foodways 5.1 (1991) : 95-120.

One down

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Last night I tried my rendition of Ålandskt svartbröd without the modern ingredients.  The result came out looking like this

I used Peter Reinhart’s method for whole grain breads, so I made a separate starter and soaker on Tuesday evening.  The soaker was whole grain wheat flour, salt, and filmjolk.  The starter was rye flour, rye sourdough culture, and water.  They both sat on the counter for around 24 hours, and last night I added some barley malt syrup and a little commercial yeast, plus more wheat and rye flour to bring it to the right consistency.  I proofed the dough for a few hours, shaped it into two loaves the size of small dinner plates, and let them proof for another hour or two.  Just before baking, I pricked the surface of each with a toothpick.  They baked at 355° for 40 minutes, then another 10 at 340°.  Three times during the 40 minutes I “basted” them with a mixture of barley malt syrup, butter, and a little water.  That’s what gives them such a dark color (which doesn’t really come out in the photo).  The cooking times and temps were based on this description (in Finnish).

Things I would do differently next time:

  • skip the commercial yeast, and just rely on the sourdough.  In this case I would probably proof and form the loaves after the first 24 hours, then let the loafs proof another 12-24 before baking.  I think they would come out more sour that way.  Plus, of course, Vikings didn’t have commercial yeast. Smile
  • the third “basting” was too close to the end of cooking, and didn’t dry completely.  The tops of the loaves are distinctly wet and sticky.  If I did all three closer to the beginning of baking I think they would have dried out. 

The result is very tasty, and not dry at all.  The malt gives it a nice subtle sweetness without being overly noticeable like the first batch I made with molasses and treacle.  The sourness is noticeable, but not strong.  Again, I think a longer proof, possibly in the refrigerator, would make it come to the forefront a bit more. 

This bread would go really well with some nice strong cheese and/or some pickled fish.  Reports of the modern version say they keep well, so I’ll see how well these do.