Saturday, December 29, 2007


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 honor 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 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.

In the Viking age, dairy products formed an important part of the diet. Whole milk was rarely drank (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.

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. 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. 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. Fish (and meat) were eaten fresh, salted, pickled, smoked
or dried. Herrings were hung out on large frames to dry in the cold wind. Dried herrings were eaten like biscuits, spread with butter. Fish could also be fermented or preserved in whey. If the idea of fermented fish makes you sick, 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.

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). And then there was buttermilk and whey.