This is a little dated now, as it’s from a competition I entered in 2007, but most of the information is still valid
One of the ultimate goals of living history is to recreate not just the pomp and ceremony of former days, but the day-to-day life of the common people. One of the most important activities of day-to-day life is the production, procurement and preparation of food. Our daily bread (or porridge, or stockfish, or pickled herring) plays a central role in our lives even today when it’s comparatively easy to come by. How much more important must it have been for our ancestors who had to grow or gather their own food, or at least had direct daily contact with those who did the growing or gathering.
Unfortunately, in the case of our Viking forebears, we know precious little about what that day-to-day fare looked like. There is very little in the written record (what little of that we have) about the kind of food the Viking-age Scandinavians ate. Not only is the written record small and incomplete, but most of what we do have was written 200 years after the Viking age had passed. What’s more, what little mention there is of food in the sagas is cursory at best, with little detail. Since everyone in period knew and understood implicitly what food was like, there was no need to go into detail. Even 200 years after the fact when the sagas were penned, the daily diet had probably changed little enough that what was for lunch went without saying.
What we do have, however, is the archaeological record. The archaeological record as it relates to food and cooking can be broken into two groups: biological evidence such as seeds, bones, pollen, and other plant and animal material, and physical culture related to food and cooking such as cooking pots, frying pans, hearths, and glassware. The first tells us what they ate, the second how it was prepared. In order to build a theoretical reconstruction from this physical evidence, we must view it through the lens of what little contemporary literature we have, as well as what we can surmise from modern Scandinavian food culture.
Thanks to modern archaeological techniques such are pollen analysis and genetic fingerprinting we have a pretty complete picture of what ingredients a Viking cook would have had at her disposal. There are a few species that are probably under represented, due to their rapid decomposition (peas and beans) and some that are hard to distinguish from pollen, notably various kinds of brassicas like cabbage, turnips, mustard, and swedes (rutabagas). Aside from those notable exceptions, we have pretty good data about the species that the Vikings used for food.
While this is in no way intended to be complete, the following are some examples of food species excavated from various sites throughout the Viking world.
Mammals: cattle, pig, sheep, goat, hare
Birds: chicken, goose, duck, cormorant, plover
Fish: cod, herring
Shellfish: oyster, cockle, whelk, mussel
Cereals: spelt, oats, hemp, flax
Fruit: blackberry, apple, “stone fruits” (Prunus sp., probably plums/damsons/sloes)
Vegetables: celery, carrot, turnip, swede
Legumes: possibly pea, fields beans, and/or vetch
Nuts: hazelnut, walnut
Fish: cod, ling
Shellfish: cockle, mussel, oyster, scallop
Cereals: wheat, rye, oats, barley
Fruit: blackberry, apple, strawberry, sloe, elderberry, cherry, plum, hawthorn, mountain ash, rose hips
Vegetables: nettle, brassicas, celery, carrot, radish, fennel
others: black mustard, poppy seed, rape
Cereals: oats, rye, barley
Fruit: elder, blackberry, raspberry, strawberry
Vegetables: celery, brassicas
others: hop, coriander
Cereals: barley, oats, wheat, rye
Fruit: strawberry, bilberry, crabapple, sloes, raspberry
Cereals: barley, wheat
Fruits: crowberries, bilberries, cloudberries, juniper berries
Cereals: wheat, oats
Others: cumin, mustard, horseradish
Fruits: cherry, plum, sloe, elderberry, blackberry, raspberry, strawberry
There are finds of “soups and stews” which “contain flour and grits mixed with animal ingredients and vegetables”. There have also been a number of finds of partial loaves of bread, many of which contain more than one ingredient, including barley, oats, peas, and even the inner bark of the Scot’s Pine tree.
A wide variety of cooking implements have survived in the archaeological record. We have examples of not only cooking vessels such as pots, frying pans, and kettles, but also utensils such as spoons, forks, knives and strainers.
Cooking vessels include soapstone pots and porringers, pottery vessels, and metal pots or cauldrons. While any of these vessels could be placed directly in the fire, there are also examples of chains for hanging pots, and collapsible tripods for hanging them from.
Other implements used for cooking directly over the fire include large forks for cooking meat or fish, flat, long handled frying pans for cooking flat bread, and a gridiron (in a spiral shape) which could be used for cooking meat or fish, or toasting bread, etc.
For serving and eating, there are numerous examples of shallow wooden plates, either rectangular or rounded, with flat wooden handles. For soups or porridges, there are wooden, soapstone, or metal bowls, wooden and metal spoons, and one example of a flat-bladed wooden “spoon” that was probably for eating thick porridge.
One particular area for which we have a number of interesting artifacts is milk production and processing. There are examples of curd-draining boards, butter churns, numerous buckets, wooden sieves or curd-drainers, and mesh nets or strainers (think cheesecloth) made from horse hair using the nålbinding technique which were placed inside the wooden sieves. There is even an example of a “sippy cup” for serving milk to small children. In Iceland, there are examples of large vats for holding sour whey, which were dug into the pantry floor.
There are a number of environmental factors that should also be taken into account. Because of the wide variety of physical environments that the Vikings occupied, we can’t really come up with an unified “Viking cuisine”. The environment in the Danelaw or Denmark or Normandy is markedly different from that of Trondheim or Uppsala or Iceland. Not only the climates are different, but the resources available as well. In Iceland, for example, there are very few trees but lots of grass. In the fjords of Norway, on the other hand, farms by the fjord-side would have plenty of access to wood and water, but not much open land for grazing. Thus there is evidence of a large-scale cattle market in Ribe, but in places like Trondheim or Iceland, cattle would probably have been raised on a small scale by individual farmers, alongside sheep and goats which require less grass and hold up better in bad weather.
One constant throughout most of the Viking world would have been the cost of salt. Most of the Northern latitudes inhabited by the Vikings don’t get enough sun to produce salt by solar evaporation, so would have had to a) boil water from the sea or salt springs, which is very resource and time intensive b) trade for salt from other regions (probably solar salt from France or mined rock salt from Germany) or c) rely on small local sources such as brine springs or localized salt deposits.
On the other hand, the low average temperatures and lots of wind provide other options for food preservation such as fermentation and wind-drying, which are less practical in hotter, wetter climates. Also, foods such as root vegetables and brassicas keep well in the cool dry air. The lower temperatures and shorter growing season also influence what kinds of crops can be grown. For example, in most of the Northern Viking world (Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Russia) barley, oats and rye are more prevalent than wheat as the staple grain. Wheat was more available in regions farther South like the Danelaw or Normandy.
Most of the Viking world was close to either the sea or major rivers, so fish would have been widely available.
There are very few mentions in the sagas of food or eating habits, probably because they were taken for granted. If everyone has a similar understanding of what kinds of food are prepared, what’s for lunch isn’t worthy of comment. The few mentions that do exist consist mainly of lists of resources available, rather than how those resources were prepared or eaten. Mention of food sources in the sagas include:
- sea birds and their eggs
- dried fish
- “meal” probably barley or oat meal
- horseflesh (this is mentioned specifically in the context of the shift from paganism to Christianity. One of the differentiating factors was that the Christians abstained from horseflesh.)
Eirik the Red’s Saga
- malt, “meal”, and “corn” (probably barley, and/or oats)
- porridge (barley? Oats?)
- eggs (from seabirds)
- seabird eggs
All of these references are to raw materials, but little or no mention of how they were prepared or in what combination is made. This suggests that everyone in the Viking cultural context had a common understanding of how food was prepared and served. The Vikings themselves wrote very little down, and the sagas were compiled (we believe) some 200-300 years after the events they portray. That means that the things we do have in the written record are those that were considered worthy of comment. Thus it’s not surprising that there isn’t more written evidence of Viking cuisine. Before the modern era, most of the written sources we have on food and cooking come from cultures that were both a) literate, and b) could support professional cooks, who wrote cookbooks for one another, not for the common people. Examples include the works of Apicius, and medieval works like Forme of Cury, or le Viandier de Taillevent. In the Viking context, cooking would have been something passed down orally from mother to daughter, or father to son rather than something that was done professionally, although there were doubtless full-time cooks working for the nobility.
Now comes the living history part. What trends can we extrapolate from the information extracted from the written and archaeological records?
- At least in the cities, there was a great diversity of foods available. Probably more diversity than exists in the diet of most modern Americans. From the archaeo-botanical record we can see that there were a great many fruits and vegetables available, as well as oil crops, grains and cereals, and even a few spices.
- Salt was scarce, and/or expensive. Because of this, lactic acid fermentation (pickled herring), wind drying (stockfish), smoking, and cold storage were probably more common that salt-cured meat and vegetable products (especially in poorer regions such as Iceland), although some salted products were no doubt available.
- Meat would have been comparatively expensive. Grazing land was limited, and greater value could be had from dairy products than from meat. This is backed up by the fact that in Jorvik, most of the cattle bones discovered were from animals older than years, and sheep over 2. This would suggest that for the common people, meat was probably only eaten fresh around slaughtering time in the Fall, and the rest of the year it was used mostly as a condiment.
- Fish would have been a major source of protein. Stockfish is easy to produce in the cold, windy climate of Northern Scandinavia, and keeps almost indefinitely. There is evidence of a herring processing plant in Jorvik, which suggests large-scale production. Salmon is mentioned several times in the sagas.
- Dairy products were common. The sagas mention butter and cheese. Milk, cheese, curd, skyr and whey would have been everyday food items for most people. Milk and dairy products keep well in the cold, and there are numerous examples of dairying equipment in the archaeological record.
- Bread and processed grains made up a significant part of the diet. Querns have been found in numerous locations, along with samples of grain either whole or ground, or made into unleavened bread. Porridge bowls and spoons, and long handled frying pans are common in the archaeological record. Residues of soups and stews include flour or grits. Other cereal crops like flax, hemp, and various grasses are common finds.
- Hazelnuts were popular. Hazelnut shells make up the most common plant material found in several excavations, indicating that there were eaten in quantity, or possibly used for oil production.
- Fruit was very common, particularly stone fruits and berries. Prunes and sloes are especially common, followed by cherries, blackberries, strawberries, and apples.
- Ovens are rare (although some examples exist, associated with either fish or bread) and cooking pots meant to be used over a fire are common. This suggests soups/stews/porridges would be popular.
There is also something to be learned from modern Scandinavian cuisine. Things have doubtless changed over the last thousand years, and modern Scandinavian cooking involves heavy use of New World ingredients such as potatoes, but again, trends can be extracted.
- Dairy is popular, often soured. There are numerous cream sauces, especially with fish (such as lutefisk with cream sauce, and Jansson’s Temptation, which includes cream along with sardines and potatoes). Vegetables such as beets and cucumbers are served in sour cream. Milk is combined with eggs to form cheese-like substances.
- Fish is often paired with starches (lutefisk and potatoes, Jansson’s Temptation, herring and hardtack).
- Fruit is combined with vegetables and meat more often than in Western European or American cooking. Cabbage with apples and red currents, pork with prunes and apples, fowl with apples, game with berries.
- Flatbreads are popular. There are many kinds of “hardtack” style flatbread or crackers, often made from barley, rye, oats and nuts. These could easily be made on Viking-style long handled frying pans, as could the biscotti-like “rusks” common in modern Scandinavia. Some modern Finnish flatbreads are still made on large iron frying pans, then propped up next to the fire to dry. Pancakes are also common, such as the famous “Swedish pancakes” or Danish ableskivar.
- Sour tastes are popular, from sour cream and buttermilk to pickled cucumers, pickled herring, skyr (still popular in Iceland). Sweet and sour herring and sweet and sour cabbage are also common.
We can use these modern Scandinavian themes as a lens through which to view the archaeological evidence. While too literal a comparison could be dangerous, what modern food tells us about period tastes could be instructive.
With all of the above in mind, we can proceed to some concrete examples that adhere to these principals.
- 2 cups barley flour
- 2-3 eggs
- water or milk to make a thin batter
- pinch of salt
mix everything into a thin batter, then cook like pancakes on a griddle or frying pan
barley is the most commonly occurring grain
these could easily be made on the long-handled iron frying pan
the eggs can be left out, which makes them ultimately simple, although they cook better with the addition of the eggs.
In modern Scandinavia, pancakes are common
these go well with butter and honey (both common in the Viking context), or with smoked or pickled fish, roast chicken, or other savory dishes.
Barley and fish
barley, either whole or grits (grits are better). If whole, preferably hull-less (see Bob’s Red Mill) rather than pearled, since it more closely resembles period barley.
Herring, pickled or smoked, or smoked salmon or trout
cook the barley until soft
sautee the onions and cabbage in butter or nut oil (hazelnut or hempseed oil would be good, but don’t let it get too hot)
mix the vegetables with the barley and fish, add the dill and salt to taste
grain made up a large part of the diet
vegetables keep well, particularly root vegetables and brassicas
fish was a major source or protein
fish is often paired with a starch in modern Scandinavia
serve up in bowls like porridge, top with butter for a one-pot meal or as a side dish
Oats with apples and pork
oatmeal (not instant) either rolled or groats
bacon or ham
fry the bacon or ham until crisp, then add onions and cook until soft.
Add apples (chopped) and sautee until starting to soften
add the oatmeal and water to cover, salt to taste, and cook until oats are tender
meat is expensive, so used as a condiment
grains make up a large part of the diet
fruit often paired with meat
makes a great one-pot meal or side dish
Pea spread (Viking hummus?)
cook the peas until soft and water absorbed
sautee the onions in butter or nut oil
when the peas are cool, mix in onions, chopped dill weed, and grated horseradish
salt to taste
peas a common find, as are onions
dill and horseradish both found in context
goes well with “hardtack” style flatbread as a spread
Sweet and sour root vegetables
turnips or rutabagas (swedes), or both
vinegar, preferably malt vinegar
chop vegetables into bite sized pieces
sautee in butter or nut oil until starting to soften
add honey and vinegar, and stir to coat
when tender, add chopped watercress and salt to taste
root vegetables keep well
honey and vinegar commonly available in period
watercress found as a flavoring
makes a great side dish with meat or porridge
meat with berries
stew meat (beef, mutton, venison)
berries (blackberries, blueberries, lingonberries, raspberries, or any combination)
brown the meat in butter or nut oil
add berries and water to cover
stew until the meat is tender
stir in honey, horseradish and watercress
salt to taste
small pieces of meat more likely
fruit and meat common today
makes a good main course along with root vegetables or grain porridge
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Anonymous. The Saga of Grettir the Strong. Project Gutenberg, 2005.
Apicius. Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome. Joseph Vehling, trans. New York: Dover, 1977.
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Grahm-Campbell, James and Kidd, Dyfydd. The Vikings. London: British Museum Publications Limited, 1980.
Hansson, Ann-Marie. On Plant Food in the Scandinavian Peninsula in Early Medieval Times. Theses and Papers in Archaeology B:5. Stockholm: University of Stockholm. 1997.
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Jensen, Stig. The Vikings of Ribe. Ribe: Den antikvariske Samling, 1991.
Jørgensen, G. et al. Analyses of Medieval Plant Remains, Textiles and Wood from Medieval Svendborg. The Archaeology of Svendborg 4, Odense: Odense University Press. 1986.
Kenward, H.K., et al. “The Environment of Anglo-Scandinavian York.” Viking Age York and the North, ed. R.A. Hall, pp. 58-70. Council for British Archaeology, Research Report 27. London: The Council for British Archaeology, 1978.
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Mitchell, G.F. Archaeology & Environment in Early Dublin. Medieval Dublin Excavations 1962-81, Series C, Volume 1. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy and the National Museum of Ireland, 1987.
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Palsson, Hermann and Edwards, Paul, trans. Egil’s Saga. New York: Penguin Press, 1975.
Prescott, James, trans. le Viandier de Taillevent. Eugene: Alfarhaugr Publishing Society, 1989.
Press, Muriel A.C. trans. Laxdæla Saga. Project Gutenberg, 2006
Sephton, John, trans. Eirik the Red’s Saga. Project Gutenberg, 2006.
 Kenward, p. 61
 Kenward, p. 63-65
 Mitchell, p. 22-37
 Jørgensen, p. 51-58
 Hansson, p. 23-25
 Hansson, p. 21-22
 Grahm-Campbell, p. 122
 Ibid., p. 123
 Fitzhugh, p. 45
 Fitzhugh, p. 52
 Ibid., p. 53
 Grahm-Campbell and Kidd, p. 81
 Almgren, p 180-185
 Lysaght, p. 126
 Jensen, p. 21
 Kenward, et. al., p. 63
 Ibid. p. 65