As a foodie, I am always interested in learning what people ate in other time periods.
Living in the Bay Area of California today, I am spoiled with choice — partly because so many immigrants have brought their cuisines here with them. On any given day, I have my pick of imported fruit, seasonal vegetables, authentic Mexican tacos, fresh sushi, gourmet Italian food… you name it. I can even search the internet for foreign recipes and, in many cases, find the ingredients I need at my local supermarket.
Had I lived in Viking-Age Scandinavia — some 1,000 years ago — I would not have had that much choice in what I ate.
The Vikings’ Daily Meals
As I was writing my book Song of the Shieldmaiden, I wondered what my Viking characters would actually eat — and when. I learned that Vikings typically ate just two meals a day, a day meal called dagmal and a night meal called nattmal. Dagmal was essentially their breakfast, eaten after they woke up. Some people might have eaten bread, berries, and porridge, but they also ate leftovers from the night before. (Imagine heating up fish stew first thing in the morning…) Nattmal was their dinner, eaten after the day’s work was done. This meal usually consisted of fish, meat, seasonal vegetables, and stews.
To understand exactly what went into these meals, we need to first understand that the Vikings were farmers.
Scandinavia’s climate is pretty cold and harsh for growing food, but the Vikings were nothing if not self-sufficient. This is why Viking farms relied on a few staple crops like oats, rye, and barley; in the south, they could also grow wheat, a luxury. From these crops, the Vikings concocted their popular beer drinks, porridge, and bread. They also grew vegetables such as onions, garlic, cabbage, leeks, beans, and peas. These vegetables would have been served as side dishes, mixed into stews, or used as flavoring.
I find Viking bread especially fascinating. A common type was a flatbread, cooked on a griddle over the fire, but there is also archaeological evidence of Viking ovens. It’s likely Vikings used these ovens to bake loaves of sourdough and rye.
Given that Vikings enjoyed designing things and created elaborate wood carvings and tapestries, I imagine they would carry that creativity over to their bread-making, too. In Song of the Shieldmaiden, I reference bread baked into the shape of knots, as well as bread shaped like birds. This would not be everyday bread, but I can envision the Vikings having fun with their baking as they prepared for a feast.
Did the Vikings butter their bread? At least we know they made butter — but only seasonally. Since cows birthed their calves in the springtime, this is when the Vikings would churn butter. Archaeologists have found utensils for butter-churning, and several sagas dating back to the Middle Ages mention cheese and skyr. It seems like dairy was a big deal to the Vikings.
But what exactly is skyr? Here in the U.S., it’s marketed as a type of Icelandic yogurt — but many would argue it’s technically a cheese. Either way, the Vikings clearly made a lot of it, for Glaumbær Museum Village displays hefty vats used for skyr and whey. We can guess it was common and eaten even among the poor. In a Viking saga, the character Egil is outraged when his host only serves him skyr instead of ale. To me, this indicates a couple of things: a.) skyr might have been drunk rather than eaten, and b.) skyr was so common, it was not a luxurious thing to serve guests.
As farmers, Vikings also kept animals they would slaughter for food, including cows, horses, sheep, pigs, and goats. (Yep, Vikings ate horses.) Pigs in particular were kept only for slaughter, while many other animals also produced milk. Since the Vikings kept chickens and other fowl, they would also have fresh eggs.
Vikings hunted wild animals for food, too. They likely also picked mushrooms; the orange chanterelles are known to be particularly delicious. But an even greater source of nourishment for the Vikings was fish.
Since the Vikings often lived in coastal areas, seafood was a cornerstone of their diet. Visiting the Viking settlement of Hedeby in the 10th century, the traveler al-Tartushi wrote, “People eat mainly fish which exist in abundance.” Some of the fish they consumed were salmon, trout, herring, shellfish, and cod; they also loved eating eels.
Archaeological evidence reveals all kinds of tools for fishing, including nets, hooks, and spears. It’s clear the Vikings spent a lot of time fishing! To preserve the fish, they often salted and pickled it. This fish jerky was probably handy during raiding season, when warriors were stuck at sea for weeks at a time.
The Viking Sweet Tooth
As someone with a sweet tooth, I like to think the Vikings enjoyed sweet things, too. We know they kept bee skeps for honey production. They also had access to nuts and fresh fruit in the summer and autumn months, including almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, apples, pears, and many types of wild berries. They could dry fruit to preserve it for the winter, too.
Some farms might even have boasted apple orchards. It seems the Vikings knew how healthy apples were, for their Norse goddess Idunn feeds the gods apples to keep them young.
Imagining this combination of fruit and honey, I like to daydream about the sweets the Vikings must have enjoyed! I imagine them sitting down for dagmal in the morning, eating porridge sweetened with sliced apples and honey… It’s not such a far cry from the oatmeal I eat for breakfast every morning today.
If you’re curious to learn more about Viking foods, here are a few quick and easy online resources:
“Viking Food” – National Museum of Denmark
“Viking Food and Cooking with Leoba” – The JORVIK Group (YouTube)
“Vikings – A History of the Danish Viking Era” – Royal Danish Consulate General
“How to Eat Like a Viking” – National Geographic
“Scandinavian Mushrooms” – The Daily Scandinavian
Feature image by Nick Grappone via Unsplash