We will never be able to really know what Viking food tasted like. We have a great deal of archeological evidence to tell us what plants and animals the Vikings had to eat, and what equipment they used to cook them with. Nonetheless, we can’t know for sure how those ingredients were combined or prepared in a way that would tell us how it tasted.
Nor can we look to modern Scandinavian cooking to provide us with exact parallels, because of the changing fashions and many ingredients introduced into the region since the Viking period. However, many of the same environmental constraints that informed Early Modern Scandinavian cuisine existed during the Viking period, and may have had a similar influence on their food and cooking.
The term “Viking” isn’t particularly specific, so for the purposes of this paper it will mean the people living in the resource constrained parts of the Viking cultural milieu, namely Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the islands of the North Atlantic, including the Faeroes, the Shetlands, the Orkneys, and Iceland. There were other places that the Old Norse speakers travelled that had different environmental conditions, such as England, France, Denmark, Constantinople, and other points farther afield. In those regions there were different conditions and different resources available for the preparation and preservation of food, so we shall not consider them here.
In the areas under consideration, the primary factor that would have had an influence on the taste of Viking food is resource constraint. Specifically, that constraint was limited access to salt for the preservation of food. On the other hand, the environmental conditions were well suited to the use of fermentation for the preservation of food.
So, if we were to succinctly describe the overall “taste” of Viking food, it would be to say that it probably leant toward the sour rather than the salty.
The Viking period falls within what is now known as the Medieval Warm Period. While that means that temperatures in Viking Scandinavia were warmer than in subsequent periods, Scandinavia and the North Atlantic still tend to be much cooler in temperature than England or France, for example.
While warmer temperatures meant that it was possible to grow food in places like Iceland and even in Greenland, the Northern latitudes have a comparatively short growing season due to the length of the day, so the crops that could have been grown would still have been limited.
Short days and cooler temperatures also mean that solar evaporation of salt is not practical. While the French coast and even parts of England were being used for large scale salt production, it would not have been (and still isn’t) practical to use salt-ponds for solar evaporation in Scandinavia (Kurlansky). If solar evaporation isn’t practical, the only way of producing large amounts of salt is by boiling sea water or brine from brine springs. This takes an enormous amount of fuel. The Lewis & Clark expedition took three weeks of constant boiling to produce one bushel of salt from sea water (Holland). While they did subsequently learn to produce salt a bit more efficiently, it still takes a huge amount of fuel to produce much salt. While some parts of Scandinavia are heavily forested, even if such an operation was possible it would be very expensive in resources and labor. In places like Iceland or the Orkneys, there simply would not have been enough trees to provide the fuel needed to produce salt in quantity.
The other option for getting salt would have been to import it, and since salt is both bulky and heavy that too would have been expensive. This is important when considering food preservation, as will be discussed below.
Another aspect of the environment that has an impact on food and diet is the lack of open land for grazing in many areas. In Norway and Sweden especially, farms tended to be small because of the rugged nature of the terrain, which left comparatively little land for grazing. This is borne out by the sheep, goat and cattle bones from Viking archeological digs, which show that most animals were slaughtered for meat when they were older and no longer giving milk. This suggests that for many Viking households, dairy products would have been a more common part of the diet than was meat.
From the archeological record we know that the Vikings had a wide variety of plant and animal species to eat.
They grew and gathered a wide variety of grains, including bread wheat, spelt/emmer, rye, barley (hulled and “naked”), oats, and fat-hen (lambs quarters) (Hansson). At least some of the barley was carbonized, possibly suggesting that it was being malted for beer production.
Other plant remains identified are bilberries/cowberries, wild strawberries, raspberries, hops, hemp, meadowsweet, juniper berries, hazelnuts, sloes, crowberries, peas, vetches, flax seeds, hawthorn, crabapple, blackberry, and rose hips (Hansson; Hall and Kenward). Seaweed and Icelandic moss were both commonly eaten in Iceland, but not in other parts of Scandinavia.
Wild animal species hunted for food include walrus, seal, whale, numerous sea birds, porpoises, cod/saithe/haddock, and ptarmigan (MCGUIRE).
Domestic animals included cows, sheep, goats, pigs and horses (MCGUIRE). f
During the Viking period, agricultural technology in Sweden and Norway was very primitive, even compared to neighboring regions. Up until the very end of the period, plowing was done with primitive ards pulled by oxen. Horse-drawn metal plows don’t appear in Sweden and Norway until the very end of the Viking period, although they had been introduced into Denmark a bit earlier. Plowing with ox-drawn ards is slow and inefficient. Ards cannot plow as deeply or thoroughly as the later mould board plows, and crops grown in fields plowed with ards will yield less. In some poorer areas, farmers were tilling fields of up to 5 acres in size using only hoes, which would be very time consuming and only turn over the soil to a very shallow depth.
Similarly primitive technology was used at harvest time. The scythe was virtually unknown in Viking Age Scandinavia, and harvesting was done almost exclusively with sickles. It was only toward the end of the period that the bow sickle became widely used. Before that the older style, less efficient early sickles.
Harvesting grain with a sickle is very hard work, and extremely time consuming, requiring a great deal of labor to harvest relatively small fields.
This lack of technological sophistication in agriculture meant that the average farm size was small, and the yields smaller than what they would have been in continental Europe during the same period. It was also more difficult to bring waste land under cultivation. Very late in the Viking period when the mould board plow was introduced, more waste land was brought into cultivation, often planted with rye that grows better than wheat or barley in marginal land. (Astill and Langdon)
The combination of small farm size with inefficient farming practices means that there was probably not much in the way of surplus food, and that what food there was had to be preserved as long as possible in order to keep households fed through the Spring.
In the absence of a ready supply of salt, the most practical ways of preserving food for the winter are either by drying or by some kind of fermentation. Some foods can be practically dried without salt, including the nearly fat-free codfish, and some fruits and vegetables, as well as some grain products. The most common way to preserver fatty meat or fish today is by canning or preserving them with salt, but if salt is lacking some form of fermentation is required. Vegetables and fruits, dairy products, and grains can all be preserved for comparatively long periods by fermenting them.
In cool temperatures such as those prevalent in Scandinavia, lactic acid fermentation is a simple and reliable way to preserve vegetables. Cruciferous vegetables are easy to ferment into sauerkraut, as are mustards, turnips, carrots, and many other vegetables. There is archeological evidence (from pots) that is consistent with this kind of vegetable fermentation (Isaksson). Similarly, dairy products are easy to preserve using lactic acid fermentation into cultured milk products like skyr, cheese, buttermilk and “sour milk”. In the case of both vegetables and dairy products, lactic acid fermentation decreases the pH of the food in question, making it more difficult for harmful bacteria and parasites to grow. (Katz; Bentley)
Fermenting vegetables requires little to no salt, and many dairy products require none at all. Cheese typically requires some salt to preserve for long periods, but much less than does meat or fish. There is archeological evidence for the production of cheese in the form of a curd draining board, and numerous finds of wooden and hair strainers for separating curds from whey.
Meat can also be preserved through fermentation. There are a number of Scandinavian fish products today such as surstromming, rakfisk, gravlax, and hakarl which may have been produced in similar ways in the Viking period. They require comparatively little salt, and will keep for a long time. While modern graxlax are salt cured, the etymology of the word means ‘buried salmon’, and it was traditionally fermented in the ground. Rakfisk is lightly salted and then fermented in buckets of water during the cool days of Fall. Surstromming is herring preserved by lightly salting it and fermenting with bacteria that give it its strong smell (Campbell-Platt; Steinkraus, Symposium Workshop on Indigenous Fermented Foods).
Skyr is spoken of in the sagas, and was a very common food in Iceland after the Viking period. It requires no salt at all, and will keep well in cool temperatures. It is curdled with rennet in addition to being cultured with lactic acid bacteria. A byproduct of skyr production is a large quantity of whey impregnated with lactobacilli. In Iceland this was known as syra or mysa, and it was not only consumed as a beverage but used to preserve other foods without requiring any salt. Vegetables and meat were submerged in the syra which provided a sufficiently acidic environment to keep them from spoiling. (Lysaght, Dublin.;European Ethnological Research Centre.)
Grain can also be preserved by fermentation in the form of beer. The calories from barley are easier to preserve in the form of beer, whose alcohol content keeps it from spoiling where raw grain can become damp and rot easily. Evidence from Viking period vessels consistent with brewing have been found in a number of locations (Hansson). Beer that is brewed in wooden or pottery vessels, particularly in an environment where fermented dairy products were common, was likely to have had a sourer flavor that what we are used to today. Beer in open containers (particularly in wood) is highly susceptible to lactobacilli infection which makes the beer sour but does not make it any less safe to drink.
If not made into beer, grain can also be made into bread and dried, which will keep well over the winter. In the process of making bread, grain is often fermented with both yeast and lactic acid bacteria (what we know today as sourdough) before baking. This improves the flavor and texture, as well as making the bread less likely to mold (Mardewi). Fragments of bread found in a grave in Västergärden show clear evidence of being yeast-risen (Hansson).
If no salt is available, souring grain products makes them more palatable then grain by itself. Grain exposed to liquid will eventually sour naturally, so bread dough and porridge both sour regularly if left out in cool temperature. In early modern times in Scotland, oat porridge was routinely soured overnight before cooking to improve the flavor and texture (Katz).
Aside from food preservation, there are nutritional benefits to fermenting foods. Fermenting grains in the making of bread makes more of the protein in the grain available for digestion, and breaks down chemicals called phytates that naturally occur in wild grain. These phytates hinder the absorption of certain minerals including zinc (Katz; Hansson; Fallon) and can contribute to vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
Fermenting dairy products breaks down the lactose in the milk and makes them easier to digest, even for those who are otherwise lactose intolerant (Bentley).
Modern Scandinavian cooking
While we cannot use modern Scandinavian cooking to inform us about what Viking food tasted like, we can examine how the environmental constraints that are present in Scandinavia now as then (at least prior to globalization) affect the food choices made by the people who live there. Features of modern Scandinavian cooking that may be related to those environmental factors and constraints are:
- Reliance on grain products, particularly rye, for staple calories (rye grows well in the marginal conditions in Scandinavia)
- Use of dairy products, and especially fermented dairy products such as sour cream, piima, fil mjölk, yogurt and skyr (dairy products keep well in cool weather, and fermented dairy products even more so. Because of this many Scandinavians are lactose tolerant.)(Nabhan)
- Fruits, particularly berries, are found in a wide range of dishes including both sweet and savory dishes (berries grow well in Scandinavia where other fruits do not, and provide much needed nutrition)
- Sour tastes are very popular, including the use of pickled vegetables, pickled fish, sourdough bread, and fermented dairy products (which may have once been necessary for food preservation and now are culturally preferred)
The same influences that informed those directions in modern Scandinavian cooking may have come into play when defining the diet of the Viking Age Scandinavians as well.
Taken together, the things we know about the Vikings of Northern Scandinavia can inform our thinking about how their food may have tasted:
- Salt was likely scarce and/or expensive
- Food was scarce and had to be preserved over the Winter, due in part to growing conditions and primitive agricultural technology
- There is solid archeological evidence for fermenting vegetables, brewing beer, and fermenting bread, and the making of cheese
- Lactic acid fermentation is easily accomplished in cool weather using wooden containers and implements
Given that, what we can suppose about the Viking food aesthetic is that the predominant tastes were sour rather than salty, that preserved and fermented foods were a common part of the diet, and that dairy products (often fermented) were commonplace. Bread and beer were also more likely to have a sour flavor than the bread and beer we are used to in modern America.
We will never really know if the food we recreate tastes anything like the food the Vikings really ate, but we can use the information we do have to inform our decisions about what and how we recreate that food.
Astill, Grenville, and John Langdon. Medieval Farming and Technology: The Impact of Agricultural Change in Northwest Europe. Brill Academic Publishers, 1997. Print.
Bentley, Nancy. Truly Cultured : Rejuvenating Taste, Health and Community with Naturally Fermented Foods : A Cookbook and Nourishment Guide. 1st ed. [S.l.] ;Indianapolis IN: Nancy Bentley Two Pie Radians Foundation ;;in association with IBJ Custom Pub., 2007. Print.
Campbell-Platt, Geoffrey. Fermented Foods of the World : A Dictionary and Guide. London ;;Boston: Butterworths, 1987. Print.
Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions : The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. Rev. 2nd ed. Washington DC: NewTrends Pub., 2001. Print.
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.
Hansson, Ann-Marie. On Plant Food in the Scandinavian Peninsula in Early Medieval Times. Stockholm: Archaeological Research Laboratory Stockholm University, 1997. Print.
Holland, Leandra. Feasting and Fasting with Lewis & Clark : A Food and Social History of the Early 1800s. Emigrant Mont.: Old Yellowstone Pub., 2003. Print.
Isaksson, Sven. “The Culture of Food in Early Medieval MiddleSweden. A Pottery Use Perspective.” Food and Rank in Early Medieval Time. Stockholm: Archaeological Research Laboratory [Arkeologiska forskningslaboratoriet] Univ., 2000. Print.
Katz, Sandor. Wild Fermentation : The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-culture Foods. White River Junction Vt.: Chelsea Green Pub., 2003. Print.
Kurlansky, Mark. Salt: A World History. Penguin (Non-Classics), 2003. Print.
Lysaght, Patricia, 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.
Mardewi, Yoke. Wild Sourdough: The Natural Way to Bake. New Holland Publishing Australia Pty Ltd, 2009. Print.
MCGUIRE, ERIN-LEE HALSTAD. “Archeology in Iceland: Recent Developments.” Scandinavian – Canadian Studies Volume 16 (2005) : n. pag. Print.
Nabhan, Gary Paul. Why Some Like It Hot: Food, Genes, and Cultural Diversity. 1st ed. Island Press, 2006. Print.
Steinkraus, Keith, Symposium Workshop on Indigenous Fermented Foods. Handbook of Indigenous Fermented Foods. New York: M. Dekker, 1983. Print.