What the vikings ate

Saturday I visited MoMu (Moesgaard Museum) with my boyfriend who had yet to see the museum. I of course visited the museum shop and picked up a viking cookbook, that I was yet to own (Bålmad for moderne vikinger). It had a lot of great information along with quite a few interesting recipes. It also had an introduction where it among other things talked about which food were available in the viking age. It wasn’t quite sure about some of the items, which sparked me to research some more. I decided to make a list of food stuff that was available to the vikings at home and something might have encountered on their travels and possibly imported. I also decided to make a list of food stuff that they definitely didn’t have.

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Part of my luch today were vikings food: Hazelnuts, two hard cheeses – goat and cow’s cheese and some (italian) sausage.

This list if primarily for my own use, but I hope others will find it useful. I will include both the english names and the Danish ones in parentheses, so I don’t have to look them up, next time I wonder. This guide is based in the Scandinavian vikings more than vikings in Russia or Ireland etc.

There are a lot of food stuff that isn’t on either list, that is because we don’t quite know when they traveled to northern europe or because they are modern varieties of the original plants. See the bottom of the page to see my references. You can find a lot of extra inspiration on my pinterest board of historical food/cooking.

This is work in progress. I add more things as I find them and add notes as well. Please leave a comment if there is anything you think I should know about one of the products mentioned or if I have forgotten something.

Meat, poultry & fish

For the meat, be aware that it would have been scarcer than we often eat it today, unless there was a celebration of some sort. Animals were slaughtered mostly in October and as much of the animal as possible was used in some way or another. It is estimated that up to 25% of the calories in the diet of coastal Norwegians would have come from fish in normal years – so use plenty of fish.

  • Beef (oksekød)
    Very common but cows were kept for their dairy rather than their meat, so they were not high status meet like they are today.
  • Pork (svinekød)
    Priced for it’s fat meat and it’s ability to feed itself and consume kitchen scraps. The only animal that was kept primarily for the meat.
  • Lard (svinefed)
  • Goat (ged)
  • Horse (hest)
    Horse meat seems to have been eaten a religious context.
  • Mutton/lamb (får og lam)
    Mostly kept for their milk and wool. The meat was a secondary product. But spare lamb would have been eaten in the spring.
  • Game (vildt), such as deer, elk, reindeer, bear, boar, and squirrel, hare
    Game were hunted, especially in the northern parts of Scandinavia.
  • Chicken & hen (kylling/høne)
  • Eggs (æg) of all kinds (including sea bird eggs)
  • Duck (and), wild and domesticated
  • Game birdsgolden plover, grey plover, black grouse, wood pigeon, lapwing
    I am guessing duck, swan, geese and random sea birds as well
  • Herring (sild)
    One of the two most important fish in the viking diet along with the cod. Later salted herring would become one of Denmark’s biggest export goods.
  • Cod (torsk) – also haddock (kuller) & coalfish (sej)
    One of the two most important fish in the viking diet along with the herring.
  • Other saltwater fish native to Scandinavia and to a lesser degree freshwater fish.
    Such as: Bream (brasen), mackerel (makrel), plaice (fladfisk), halibut (helleflynder), stand out/whereas bream (karpe), pike (gede), perch (aborre), zander (sandart), salmon (laks), trout (ørred) and eels (ål).
  • Stockfish (tørfish)
    In Norway and Iceland especially cod is dried in this way to preserve the fish for later use or for trade.
    I have had it this year and it is surprisingly good
  • Seafood* such as shrimp, crabslobstercrayfish
    I just had danish shrimp this weekend and they are amazing. Just fried in a bit of oil.
  • Mussel (muslinger)
    Blue mussel (blåmusling), Oyster (østers), Scallop (kammusling), cockles (hjertemusling), winkles (strandsnegl)
  • Blubber & seal bacon (hvalfedt & sælbacon)
    And of course whale meat and seal meat.

Cereal & nuts

  • Barley (byg)
    The most common cereal in most of Scandinavia as far as we can tell from the archaeological finds. When baking a barley bread with no other cerials will not raise, but is great for flat bread, porridge and in stews. Grown as part of a crop rotation with rye.
  • Flax (hør)
    The fibers were used for linen and the seeds for oil and directly in cooking and in bread.
  • Hazelnut (hasselnød)
  • Oat (havre)
    In Denmark it was primarily an animal feed, but in other parts of Scandinavia it has been used for human consumption as well.
  • Porridge (grød, vælling)
    The primary way to consume grains though much of history. Can be made from almost any grain. The best porridge are made from crushed or barely ground seeds rather than flakes – like in modern oatmeal. Can be cooked both alone or with a variety of meat, vegetable or fruits added. Can be cooked on water, milk or soup stock depending on the dish.
  • Proso millet (hirse)
    I have seen it mentioned in multiple resources on the viking diet. It seems to have been part of porridge or bread. You can get it in bigger supermarkets.
  • Rye (rug)
    Was known but wasn’t the common stable of Scandinavian cereals until the middle ages. More common in south Scandinavia, than in the northern parts. Works especially well for sourdough breads. Grown as part of a crop rotation with barley.
  • Wheat (hvede)
    Rather than using the ancient wheat types like emmer and spelt, common wheat was grown by the viking ages. Commonly mixed with other grain in viking bread. Seem like it might have been imported from warmer climates.

Fruit & vegetables

  • Apple (æble) – mostly wild apples or crab apples.
  • Beets (rødbeder og beder)
  • Broad bean (hestebønner), fava bean, field bean
    Found in bread but can also be used as beans in a stew/porridge.
    NB: Most other bean varieties were not known in Europe at the time
  • Carrot (gulerod)
    The wild variety would have been the one used. But I think we can cheat and use the modern ones. Remember though that originally the carrot was more like a parsnip than the orange sweet root we have today.
  • Celery (selleri)
    The wild variety would have been the one used. But I think we can cheat and use the modern ones.
  • Cherry (kirsebær)
    Fresh or dried
  • Crowberry (Revling)
  • Fennel (fennel)
    Found in York. The raw plant, the bulbs and the seeds are used in cooking.
  • Kale (kål, grønkål, husmandskål) – brassica oleracea
    The first herb gardens were called “kålhaver” in danish, which literally means kale garden. The kale family is large. It seems likely that the kind that was eaten was kalewild cabbagebroccoli (very old in Italy), possibly collard greens. Can be eaten raw, cooked or pickled. There is also evidence of endive 
  • Leek (porre)
  • Lingonberry (tyttebær) or cowberry
  • Mushrooms (svampe)
    There are lots of native mushrooms in Scandinavia. Unless they are tied to fir (which is a very late tree in Denmark), then they would have been here during the Viking age. Mushrooms such as: Champignon, chanterelle and many more. (I am not a mushroom person – leave a comment with more ideas please).
  • Onion (løg), spring onion, possibly red onions
  • Parsnip (pastinak)
    The wild variety would have been the one used. But I think we can cheat and use the modern ones.
  • Pea (ærter), field peas
    Dried and stored, more common than broad beans. (Gule ærter)
  • Pear* (pære) G
    Grown in most of Europe at one time or another. Can be a bit delicate. Today we do grow pears in Denmark and southern Sweden. I wonder when that started?
  • Plum (blomme) both yellow and blue
  • Radish (radise)
    The wild variety would have been the one used. But I think we can cheat and use the modern ones. All of the plant can be used in cooking, though the roots were more wooden than the modern ones and is thought mainly to be used in stock.
  • Raspberry (hindbær)
  • Root parsley* (persillerod)
    Looks a lot like a parsnip but it tastes differently. Both the root and the leaves are useable but one mostly uses the root. You can do anything you would normally do to root vegetables to it.
  • Seaweed (tang), kelp
    Most seaweed found in danish water is edible but not all of it taste good. Seaweed has also been used for salt production, where it has been burn. I only have the danish names for these, sorry: Søsalat, blæretang, bladtang, sukkertang, purpurhinde, fingertang, blomkålstang, klørtang, savtang  etc.
  • Spinach (spinat)
  • Turnip (majroe)
    Staple of the medieval kitchen and has been found near viking houses. Seems to have been used like we use potato today. Boiled, baked, mashed, fried, grilled.
  • Wild strawberry (skovjordbær)
    Not the same as modern strawberries, they are about 1:10 of the size and has a far more subtle taste and more zing.

Spices & herbs

  • Salt (salt)
    Used for seasoning and preservation. Wasn’t mined in Northern Europe till after the Viking age. Had to be either traded from Southern Europe or made by boiling seawater or by burning seaweed – both are energy and labor intensive processes.
  • Caraway (kommen)
    Quite common in Scandinavian cheese today, such as danbo cheese. Also as a spice in bread, pastries and alcohol such as snaps.
  • Coriander (koriander)
  • Dill (dild)
  • Garden cress (karse), also watercress (brønkarse), alliaria petiolata (løgkarse)
  • Garlic (hvidløg)
  • Horseradish (pebberrod)
    Is a common modern condiment to cold meat
  • Lovage (løvstikke)
  • Marjoram (merian)
  • Mint (mønte)
  • Parsley (persille) – the broad leaved variety is closer to the original.
  • Ramsons (Ramsløg) – wild chives like plant
    Has become very popular in New Nordic cooking. Has a strong garlic taste and is quite strong. The leafs are used rather than the roots.
  • Mustard (sennep) both yellow, brown and black mustard
  • Thyme (timian)
    The evidence is not quite there, but it was used in the mediterranean and is used later in Scandinavia. The plant is quite happy to grow here.

Wild plants

  • Angelica (kvan)
    Please make sure you know what you are getting because some other plants look like Angelica but are not eatable. The stems can be cooked as a vegetable, put into jam as a spice or used in alcoholic brews as a spice.
  • Beech leaves* (bøgeblade) & birch leaves
    Young beech leaves are quite tasty. They are tart and work well in salads.
  • Bilberry (almindelig blåbær)
    Not quite the same plant as the american blueberry, but in Denmark they are sold as the same plant and they are quite similar.
  • Blackberry (brombær)
  • Buckthorn (havtorn)
    Has tons of vitamin C in it and is very tasty. It is used a lot in New Nordic cuisine.
  • Buttercup (Ranunkel)
  • Camelina (Dodder)- an oil plant
  • Chicory (Cikorie)
    Parboiled it can be used as a salad green. Apparently quite bitter.
  • Chickweed (fuglegræs)
    Salad green. Pioneer plant that is quite a common weed.
  • Cloudberries (multebær)
  • Common sorrel (almindelig syre)
    Can be used in salad or in the same way you would use spinach, but is very tart.
  • Corn spurry (spergel)
    It  has grown in Denmark as early as the bronze age. Weather people ate it, is anyones guess. Common weed in fields – so if nothing else it would have been mixed in with the harvest.
  • Dandelion* (mælkebøtte)
    The leaves and flowers are edible. The stems taste rather nasty as they are very bitter. Young leaves can be eaten like you would rucola/rocket – you might want to remove the thicker stems in the from the leaves. The flowers are pretty and taste quite nice -. can be made into syrup.
  • Dog rose (hunderose) rosehip
  • Elder (hyld)
    Both berries and flowers are edible and can be used in cooking.
  • Ground elder*, herb gerard, bishop’s weed, goutweed, gout wort, and snow-in-the-mountain (Skvalderkål)
    The young leaves can be eaten like salad or be used like spinach. The taste is strong so they should be mixed with other herbs. It is a very common plant in danish forests and unkempt gardens. Have been in Denmark since the iron ages, but is also a cloister herb.
  • Juniper (enebær)
    Taste a bit like rose pepper. Works well in stews and with pork. Also works with coleslaw and fish such as herring. Is also used in alcohol such as gin.
  • Knotgrass (pileurt)
  • Nettle (brændnælle)
    Young plants/top sprouts can be used in the same way as spinach or kale. And is apparently good in soups. Also works well as herbal teas both fresh and dried
  • Plantains or fleaworts (vejbred)
    The leaves are cut finely and can be used as a herb or in salads. It is a good idea to blanch or parboil the leaves to get rid of the bitter taste. From the sound it it can (surprise surprise) be used like spinach.
  • Rowan (røn)
    Rowan berries can be used in alcohol or as a gelled preserve or they can be used with meat in stews.
  • Sheep’s sorrel (rødknæ)
    Sour flavoured plant, that is slightly toxic due to oxalates.
  • Sloe (slåen)
    Used in alcohol or as a juice berry today. Can be used for dying and is good firewood. Should not be gathered till the first frost has past or the berries are too tart.
  • Summer savory (bønneurt)
    Can be used in much the same way as sage.
  • Violets (violer)
  • White goosefoot/fat-hen (hvidmelet Gåsefod)
    Young leaves used like spinach or kale. The seeds can be used in flour.

Dairy

  • Milk (mælk) from cow, goat & sheep
  • Butter (smør)
    The most common cooking fat. Generally made from cow’s milk.
  • Cheese (ost)
    Both hard, soft and fresh cheeses can be used. And fresh cheese is quite easy to make, while the hard cheese stores well, so you have milk fat at in the fall and winter or on voyages.
  • Skyr (skyr)
    A cheese product that resembles yogurt. It can be either runny or very firm.
  • Sour milk (tykmælk af forskellig art), junket
    Scandinavia has a tradition for a lot of different sour milk products, from the simple leave it out overnight, to the more cultured product where you add a bit of the desired product to start the production. You can also use a unwashed plumb to start the process (apparently – or a grape).

Beverages

  • Ale/beer (øl)
  • Buttermilk (kærnemælk)
    Byproduct from butter production. Excellent for baking or for milk based dishes. Perfect for making a quick fresh cheese as well.
  • Herb tea (urtete)
  • Mead (mjød)
  • Milk (mælk)
    Many sources indicate that people did not drink cow’s milk, but they might drink other kinds of milk and milk is great in cooking – even if slightly sour.
  • Water (vand)
  • Whey (valle)
    Acidic byproduct from cheese making. Can be drunk on it’s own or used in cooking or baking with great effect. I prefer it in my flatbread.

Other edibles in Scandinavia

  • Honey (honning)
    The purest sweeter available. Used for sweetening and for brewing mead.
  • Hops* (humle)
  • Meadowsweet (mødurt)
  • Sweet gale/bog myrtle (porse)
    Used in beer and mead and today in alcohol such as “snaps”.
  • Vinegar* (edike)
    We don’t have any evidence, but the vikings had all the things needed for making vinegar. So go ahead and use it! It is great for preserving stuff and for taste. Assume they had malt-vinegar rather than wine based vinegar – which I have no idea how to get hold of.
  • Yarrow (Røllike)
    Another herb used in brewing and as a medicinal plant against fevers and influenza.
  • Chervil* (Kørvel)
    Questionable but it taste good and looks very wild. I can’t find anything about when it turned up in Scandinavia.

Foreign food stuff

  • Wine (vin)
    Until recently it has not been possible to grow grape wines in Scandinavia, so all wine would have been imported. Wine used to be quite a lot more sour than it is today, which is why people often used to spice their wine.
  • Pepper (peber)
    Extremely expensive and imported from East Asia as early as the Ancient Romans.
  • Figs (figen)
    Grows in the mediterranean but is easy to dry and export. Found in York, where it couldn’t have grown. Can grow in Denmark in very sheltered court yards, so it seems unlikely that the Viking would have had them fresh at home.
  • Grape (vindrue) – more likely as raisins 
  • Peach (fersken)
    Can’t be grown in Scandinavia, but a peach stone has been found in Hedeby, so there must have been some kind of trade.
  • Date (dadel)
  • Walnut (valnød)
    Not grown in Scandinavia until later. It is thought that the husks has been imported for dying purposes. But they did grow in the German area during the viking age – so not implausible.
  • Cinnamon (kanel)
    Imported from the far east – probably a luxury good.
  • Imported medieval spices – so only for the later period
    • Cumin (spidskommen)
    • Saffron (saffron)
    • Ginger (ingefær)
    • Cardamom (kardemomme)
    • Grains of paradise (Paradiskorn)
    • Cloves (nelliker)
    • mace & nutmeg (muskatnød)
    • anise-seed (anis)
    • bay leaves (laverbærblade)

Food I need to research more

These food are not impossible, but none of my sources mention, so they are not impossible but I can’t say that the vikings did have them… If you know anything about any of the foods mentioned here, please leave a comment!

  • Melon (melon) – I am guessing they would not travel well, but also that the vikings could very well have had them while traveling south.
  • Cucumber (agurk) – I am guessing they would not travel well, but also that the vikings could very well have had them while traveling south. Common in the Roman empire. They don’t seem to have reached northern Europe until the middle ages.*

* No good sources for this, but plausible

I have put a * next to a few food items, such as edible wild plants that are not new in Scandinavia, that could very well have been eaten. Such as dandelions, where both the leaf and the flower is edible. I have also added common herbs that thrive in Denmark, where I can’t find information about them being brought here by monasteries – an example is parsley – where I can’t find information one way or another.

References


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