Although the Vikings were very much a real group of people, they seem somewhat mystical. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the Viking diet. How did they live off the land so successfully? Let’s not even mention how much they resemble the Wildlings from Game of Thrones. According to popular TV shows, Vikings are fur-coat-covered, sword-wielding wild men, always going into battle. So naturally, people want to demystify the Vikings. What were they really like?
How did they truly survive?
What food did they eat long ago? It’s easy to think the Viking diet included raw meat and scraps, but that’s not really true. As it turns out, the Vikings probably ate better than most of us do right now. And sure, some of their food wasn’t exactly conventional, but it clearly worked for them.
The Vikings only ate twice a day.
Snacking wasn’t really a thing. But maybe they just didn’t have extra time to set aside for midday meals. When the Vikings did eat, though, they often gathered together in homesteads or long familial halls that were fortified against the weather and intruders. Open fire pits kept the family members and their food warm throughout the long nights.
The first meal was very similar to a modern breakfast.
However, Vikings called their morning meal “dagmal.” They ate about an hour after waking. Usually leftovers from the night before, the breakfast might also be accompanied by bread, fruit, porridge, and dried produce. Adults and children, however, might have different breakfasts. The men in the family would enjoy stew from the previous night, and the children often had bread with buttermilk.
Their second meal was basically dinner.
Called “nattmal,” this second dish was served at the end of the day. The nighttime meal might consist of stewed meat or fish with vegetables. Dried fruit with honey wrapped up dinner. Many Viking families had tables in their homesteads. They were quite civilized! And many of the wealthier families even outfitted their dining areas with linen tablecloths.
The Viking diet wouldn’t be complete without drinks.
This group of early people loved to have ale or mead, a strong alcoholic drink made with honey. Usually, they had a mug or two with each evening meal. They usually drank their cold beverages from wooden cups. Craftsmen also created drinkware from metals like silver and copper.
The men were responsible for finding protein sources.
Typically, male Vikings hunted, slaughtered, and prepped the meat for the dagmal and nattmal meals. And they were able to find food no matter the weather. In fact, the notorious six-month-long Scandinavian winters hardly stopped the determined providers. As long as the men had a knife – the preferred tool for every occasion – they could bring down almost any animal.
The Viking women also had major roles as well.
They more than pulled their weight. Women cooked the meat men harvested. Furthermore, they made sure each meal was balanced, adding veggies, bread, and even a special, yogurt-like dairy concoction called skyr when necessary. The food prep was more advanced than you might think. The women worked over open fire pits. And rich stews were frequently on the menu.
Unfortunately, we don’t have many Viking recipes.
According to Viking expert, Diana Bertelsen, no recorded evidence of the people’s food measurements endured through the years, but they would have definitely been interesting. Bertelsen noted:
There are no original recipes from the Viking age available [but] we know for certain what crops and animals were available a thousand years ago. Excavations reveal what the Vikings ate and what they imported, for instance peaches and cinnamon.
They ate meat nearly every single day.
Vegetarianism was hardly a viable lifestyle choice for any Viking. In fact, the raiders tended to eat pork very often. It was a popular menu item because hogs were easy to raise, and they matured quickly. When the men couldn’t hunt, though, they relied on pickled meats. Women would preserve the protein in advance to prepare for winters and other rough times.
Horses provided another source of protein.
The Viking men and women raised the animals specifically to provide food and labor. Other nations really disagreed with the practice, though. Christians from England, especially, found the habit incredibly distasteful. In fact, Christian lawmakers forbade any man (even Vikings!) to use horse meat as food.
The Christian ban didn’t deter the Vikings, though.
They ate as much horse meat as they liked and supplemented the supposedly forbidden protein with a variety of other livestock like beef, mutton, goats, chickens, sheep, ducks, cows, and oxen. The Vikings raised most of the animals themselves. But when local resources were short, the people might raid areas with better farming land.
The Vikings didn’t usually view hunting as a sport.
Instead, they valued the practice for its usefulness. But only the especially capable men could capture reindeer, elk, and the occasional bear. Raiding, however, was initially considered a sporting activity. The first Vikings who sailed to other lands only sought treasures. Whichever group amassed the most wealth helped secure allegiances and marriages when the ships returned home.
Contrary to popular belief, Vikings didn’t only eat raw meat.
They didn’t have conventional stoves or ovens, but the Viking cooks would roast and fry meat over open fires. Their cooking utensils were pretty advanced, too. Vikings used cauldrons made of soapstone and iron to hold most meals. Skilled blacksmiths formed the pots out of thin sheets of iron.
The Vikings actually had surprisingly healthy and balanced diets.
They worked with what they had, finding much of their sustenance in nature. Moreover, the Vikings’ innovation helped them create filling meals; they certainly needed all the energy they could get to stay alert for all those raids.
Apparently, even the poorest Vikings maintained healthy and fresh diets.
Historians suggest they actually ate better than Middle Age English peasants. While peasants lived in a more industrially advanced era, the food they farmed wasn’t technically their own. English lords leased land to the Middle Age farmers and could claim any of the land’s fruits.
They definitely didn’t starve.
Vikings, however, often had an abundance of food. And while Viking lords did raid one another, their communities rarely went hungry.
They even boiled certain dishes.
Evidence suggests the Vikings boiled certain meats as well. In fact, one popular dish, called skause, was a boiled stew. Made of meats and vegetables, the skause boiled for a few days until it formed a nice broth. Vikings ate it with bread made of grains, beans, and sometimes even tree bark. They especially liked birch bark.
Speaking of bread, the Vikings made their own sourdough loaves.
They took their old bread dough and flavored it with soured milk and buttermilk. The Viking harvesters didn’t just use grain for breads, however. After chopping and drying barley, for example, cooks added the grain to oatmeal-like dishes and to meads. Its versatility made it extremely valuable, but it was hardly an easy crop to grow.
On normal days, though, they ate flatbread.
Vikings used their homegrown barley, rye, and oats to make unleavened loaves. And they frequently scooped up portions of their boiled meats and stews with the multigrain flatbreads. The community cooks didn’t just pop bread into an oven, though. They heated the dough in sturdy skillets that often rested on hot stones and bark.
Seafood was another popular option.
In fact, Vikings spent a lot of time on the water, so it’s not surprising that they ate a wide variety of sea animals. Both fresh and salted bodies of water offered them an abundance of food options. When it came to fish, they often dined on herrings prepared in a few different ways. They might dry it, salt it, smoke it, pickle it, or preserve the fish in whey.
Depending on their locations, the Vikings also dined on other water creatures.
They enjoyed salmon, trout, eels, shellfish, and cod. Because their diets were balanced, fruits and vegetables were important parts of the daily meals too. Viking sailors, especially, relied on fish for their meals. During long sea voyages, properly prepared fish could provide sustenance for extended periods of time.
Viking farmers grew their own vegetables and added them to stews.
The hearty stews included things like cabbage, beans, peas, endives, carrots, onions, garlic, leeks, and turnips. Unfortunately, the Viking land wasn’t always hospitable. The soil was often cold and hard to manage. In fact, many Vikings raided various English countries to find better farming grounds. Yes, some people wanted riches, but many Vikings just wanted soil that could grow produce.
Fruits were especially valuable.
As one of the only sweet things in the Viking diet, fruit didn’t appear at every meal. Everyone enjoyed the natural dessert, though. In fact, farmers either grew their own or ate wild fruits from the surrounding areas. They often enjoyed apples, cherries, and pears. Wild berries like strawberries, cloudberries, and lingonberries were popular, too.
They didn’t have granular sugar.
So if the Vikings wanted to sweeten a dish, they used honey. Sometimes they added the sticky treat on loaves of bread and fruits for extra flavor. Even without traditional sugar, though, the Vikings could still ferment their ales. They soaked barley in water until the grain formed malt. Then they dried and heated the malt until it released the malt sugars necessary for alcoholic beverages.
The Vikings even used seasonings.
We don’t know how much seasoning they used. But research proved the Vikings liked coriander, cumin, mustard, dill, and wild horseradish. Interestingly, the seasonings weren’t used to simply mask the smell and taste of rotten foods. Many Vikings actually used spices to enrich various dishes. They liked flavor.
They also drank a lot of milk.
Maybe that’s why they grew so big! In fact, the Vikings raised a variety of milk-producing livestock, so all dairy products were commonplace. Milk, buttermilk, and whey helped the Viking women form various cheeses, curds, and butter. Viking communities stockpiled those items for the winter seasons when cows stopped releasing milk.
Even the Vikings loved eggs.
And of course, all of their eggs were free-range! Not just limited to chickens, the Viking people ate eggs from ducks and geese, too. Wild eggs, like the ones from gulls, were considered delicacies. And Vikings would ambush the seabirds, swinging from ropes to reach the birds’ clifftop nests. They had no qualms eating the bird, too.
In addition to their normal activities, Vikings hosted plentiful feasts.
The occasions were usually held to celebrate major occurrences. Plus, food and drink were plentiful to satisfy the many attendees. Vikings served special foods at these seasonal events. For example, the communities sacrificed boars during the winter Yule celebrations. The meat roasted on spits over the open fire, and everyone was invited to partake in it.
Feasts also marked other important moments.
To celebrate things like weddings and births, the Vikings would host large gatherings with food. They were just like us! Religious rituals and successful raids might also be reasons for feasts. The host’s wealth would determine how extravagant the food choices were, though. Vikings who weren’t especially wealthy still celebrated, but instead of having more luxurious menus, they just provided more of the typical foods.
The Vikings might expand their palettes for special feasts.
They served all sorts of items if they could afford to. Roasted meats, buttered vegetables, and sweet fruits on platters were often in rotation during a celebratory feast. Of course, they drank plenty of ale. And those horns that you always see fictional Vikings use on TV shows? They were real. Just like the Wildlings on Game of Thrones, the Norsemen used huge animal horns and tusks as cups, especially on feast days.
The weather played a vital role in the Viking diet.
If rains were scarce, for example, the Vikings had to plan for a meager crop. When the winter seasons were especially harsh, the entire food stores had to be rationed. Vikings spent most of the summer days drying fish and preserving meats, vegetables, and fruits for the colder weather. If they neglected their duties, entire clans would struggle for most of the remaining year.