Dark Age Food
What the Vikings ate
Ibn Fadlan and other contemporary writers describe the Norse people as tall and handsome, which implies that they enjoyed a healthy diet, with lots of protein. Archaeological evidence (e.g. from the Coppergate excavation in York) shows that the Viking settlers in England ate a wide variety of fruits, nuts, and grains; as well as meat, fish, and shellfish. The Vikings in York, for example, which is close to a river, consumed large quantities of freshwater fish of many kinds. Meat was not just for the wealthy; in Rig's Saga, a dish of boiled veal is served in the home of an middle-class farmer.
The Vikings ate two main meals a day, one of which usually consisted of some kind of meal or porridge. The mainstay of everyday eating was the big kettle of stew (or skause- a Norse word!) containing whatever vegetables and meat were available, and added to day by day. Food was a vital part of domestic life, and the evening meal was the focus for conversation, games, music, and storytelling. In an age where inns were virtually unknown, it was considered a matter of honour to practice hospitality - you never knew when a member of your family would need the hospitality of strangers in their turn. The kind of food we eat today would be a bit fancy for everyday Viking use, but most people who cook authentically understandably want something that looks more inviting and interesting than the interminable grey stew.
Bread was made in great quantity and variety, both flat and risen. It's uncertain if the Vikings had cultivated yeast as we know it, but they certainly made use of wild yeasts, raising agents such as buttermilk and sour milk, and the leftover yeast from brewing. They also used the 'sourdough' method, where a flour and water starter is left for several days to ferment. The most commonly grown cereal crops were oats, rye, and barley, but wheat was also widely used. Flour was also made from nuts (including acorns) or pulses (peas and beans), and even from tree bark. The inner layer of Birch bark, dried and ground, produces a flour with a sweet flavour and is highly nutritious. Bread could be flavoured with nuts, seeds, herbs, or cheese (yes, pizza is authentic!); or used to enclose fish or meat for baking it to succulent tenderness.
In the Viking age, as in Scandinavia today, dairy products formed an important part of the diet. Whole milk was rarely drunk (probably because it was too valuable a commodity when made into butter), but buttermilk and whey were popular, as were curds, butter, and cheese. Cheese and butter could be eaten fresh (a rare springtime treat), but were more commonly salted and fermented, to keep over the winter. Milk came not only from cows, but also from sheep, goats, and horses. It was a seasonal product, only available in the spring when the female animals were lactating.
These came from chickens, geese, ducks, and all manner of wild birds. Gull's eggs were considered a particular delicacy, and were collected from the clifftops during the spring months. Don't be tempted to collect wild bird's eggs- all British birds are now protected, and taking their eggs is a criminal offence.
Meat was available at all levels of society; even poorer folk managed the occasional bit of game or preserved meat. The most common meat animal seems to have been pigs (they breed easily and mature quickly), but sheep, goats, cows and horses were kept both for meat and milk. Horsemeat was forbidden to Christians, and was one of the grounds on which the Church vilified the Vikings. Domestic animals were slaughtered in November (known as Bloodmonth), to avoid having to feed them over the winter, and then preserved by various methods (see below). Game animals included hare, boar, wild birds, squirrel, deer; and, in the far north, reindeer, seal, and polar bear.
Freshwater fish such as salmon, trout and eels were widely eaten (see intro paragraph). In coastal areas there
were shellfish and herring, and deep-sea fish such as cod from the rich fishing grounds off the north coast of
Norway and Finland. There is evidence for a highly-developed trade in cod and herring in Norway during the
Fish (and meat) were eaten fresh, salted, pickled, smoked (see the Norway Gallery for a picture of fish smoking over a cook fire), or dried. Herrings were hung out on large frames to dry in the cold wind. This is still a common sight in Norway today. Dried herrings were eaten like biscuits, spread with butter. Fish could also be fermented or preserved in whey. If the idea of fermented fish revolts you, consider what that old favourite Worcester Sauce is made of!
Vegetables and fruit
Some of the common vegetables we take for granted were unknown to the Vikings; potatoes being an obvious example. Others include orange carrots (Dark Age ones were white, although I have been told that orange carrots were imported from the Netherlands during the 10th century); cultivated turnips, and hearted cabbages. Many Dark Age fruit and vegetables were like wild plants, which are rather indigestible to modern palates. The archaeological record can give us a good idea of some of the things people ate in the past, but the exact provenance and authenticity of any given item of flora can be (and is!) often the subject of heated debate among re-enactors and archaeologists.
The universal drink of the Viking period was ale - not as we know it today, but fairly weak, sweetish, cloudy, and often unhopped (a wide variety of herbs were used for flavouring, although the hop trade existed). This was drunk by everyone, including children, and for a very good reason - wells and streams were often dirty (in settlements like York they must often have been contaminated by the latrine pits ), but water for brewing was boiled and thus rendered safe. Mead, the favourite drink for celebrations, was brewed from the washings of the honeycombs after honey extraction (honey was the only available sweetener). The wealthy had expensive imported wine. And, as previously mentioned, there was buttermilk and whey.
1. From examination of the above-mentioned latrine pits, archaeologists have concluded that everyone in the Viking age probably suffered from some kind of intestinal parasite - worms, to put it bluntly. This is an excellent argument for following good food hygiene practice.