Viking Diets Were Surprisingly Healthy And Well-Rounded
Though Vikings are known for pillaging the coasts of Europe, Viking facts reveal that the marauders were more than just bearded warriors filled with blood-thirsty rage. Analysis of what Vikings ate shows that the ancient Norse people had surprisingly modern appetites. The Viking diet went beyond slabs of meat and tankards of mead to include a healthy balance of vegetables and breakfast staples like yogurt.
The perception of Vikings as crude, dirty troublemakers doesn't match up with the refined nature of their meals. Viking cuisine incorporated a range of food and drink options, creating the balanced diet that made Viking men such notorious bruisers.
Vikings Traveled With Preserved Fish To Keep Them Full Of ProteinPhoto: Gunnar Hafda / WikiMedia Commons / CC BY 2.0
Fish were one of the fundamental staples of the Viking diet. Vikings fished rivers, lakes, streams, and oceans to dine on saltwater and freshwater fish alike. Like their meats, Vikings smoked, salted, and dried fish so they could pack it for long voyages at sea, as well as to preserve it over long winter months. Herring was ubiquitous on Viking plates, and Vikings made a dried cod dish known as "stockfish," which historians think may have been traded throughout Europe.
The Vikings Made A Lot Of Dairy Products, Including A Multi-Purpose YogurtPhoto: IcelandicProvisions / WikiMedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
Vikings had cows, sheep, and goats, so they had many types of milk. Because it was difficult to keep foods from going bad, they often used milk to produce fermented dairy products of some kind. They made butter, cheese, yogurt, and a specialty called skyr.
Skyr, which translates to "curds," is a soft, yogurt-like cheese that Vikings stored and kept over the winter when fresh milk was unavailable. To make skyr, Vikings heated up skimmed milk and left it out to curdle and develop cultures. Once curdled, they strained the curdled mixture through cloth, scraping the yogurt from the fabric. The thick whey that remained didn't go to waste. Vikings drank the liquid by itself, pickled vegetables with it, and used it to preserve meats. The Vikings also kept sour milk, which they would add to bread and other foods.
Boiled Meat Was A Key Ingredient At The Dinner Table
The Vikings' preferred method of cooking meat was to boil it. Hunters often caught reindeer, elk, or even bear, and farmers raised horses, cows, and pigs for consumption. Viking cooks usually boiled the protein in a cauldron over a fire. For unusually large feasts, they would dig pits in the ground, line them with wood, then fill the holes with water and hot stones to get a simmer going.
That boiled meat would form the base of a stew called skause. Skause was the backbone of the Viking diet, since it was always cooking in a Viking kitchen. Once the boiled meat was removed from the cauldron or pit, the liquid would be left behind to cook more vegetables and meat, generating more flavor over days and weeks. When left sitting overnight, a layer of fat would rise to the top of the skause, which both preserved the stew and made it relatively healthier. Sometimes Vikings would cook meat on a spit, but it wasn't as common.
They Didn't Shy Away From Fruits And VegetablesPhoto: Adriaen van Utrecht / WikiMedia Commons / Public Domain
With gardens overflowing with onions, cabbage, beans, celery, carrots, and peas, the Vikings were no strangers to vegetables. They supplemented their crops by gathering wild greens and seaweed. The Viking diet had plenty of flavors, too, thanks to the use of spices like mustard, horseradish, and cumin.
Vikings also relied heavily on foraged fruits, nuts, and seeds. Since the winters were so harsh, Vikings kept stores of dried berries, plums, and apples that allowed them to enjoy fruit year round. Farmers also incorporated seeds, fruit, and nuts, such as walnuts and hazelnuts, into bread and ground them into oils.
Vikings Preferred Multi-Grain BreadsPhoto: Algont / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Vikings ate skause with multi-grain bread, another daily staple in their diet. Vikings made their bread from a mix of grains (wheat, barley, oats, and rye), beans, honey, nuts, and ground tree bark that added a healthy touch to the loaves. Vikings often made bread in a skillet placed below the skause cauldron in cooking fires. This type of bread would harden as it cooled, so the skause stew was great for softening up old loaves. The Vikings would also take old bread dough to make loaves of sourdough bread.
Vikings Were Efficient Farmers And HuntersPhoto: Thomas Ormston / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
The Vikings had to keep an eye on the seasons and plan for the year accordingly, but compared to the average medieval person, they had one of the most balanced and nutritious diets. Archeological evidence from latrines and dumps shows that Vikings were pretty resourceful when it came to what they ate. Geography influenced the types of ingredients that were available, and as the Vikings made their way to new areas, they brought their farming and hunting techniques with them. Vikings grew vegetable gardens and even cultivated fruit orchards. They also hunted whatever was available, including elk, boar, deer, bear, and seal.