Food in the Viking Age: the self-sufficient Norse cuisine

The development of the Norse cuisine was highly marked by three distinct elements: the lifestyle of the early medieval Scandinavian communities, the Nordic climate of most of Scandinavia, and the relative geographic isolation of this region from most of continental Europe.

Accustoming in the passing of time to the long, cold, and dark winter seasons, the Norsemen had to cope with the challenge of making considerable supplies of food products stemming mostly from their livestock. Very few plants were used in the Norse cuisine during the Viking Age, especially because of their scarce presence throughout most of Scandinavia, which also explains why the contemporary Nordic cuisine makes quite little usage of vegetables.

An artistic depiction of three Norsemen by English illustrator Angus McBride. Image source: www.pinterest.com

An artistic depiction of three Norsemen by historical illustrator Angus McBride. Image source: www.pinterest.com

The lifestyle of the Norsemen was another significant aspect playing a pivotal part in the preservation of meat. In many regards, the longship could have been regarded as the most ‘durable’ house for a Norseman. It was there that livestock were transported overseas, while fish, grains, vegetables or herbs got inevitably pilled up.

The Norsemen had to adjust their culinary needs according to the changing of the seasons, which is why they hunted, gathered, and prepared fresh dishes that matched the transitions to spring, summer, autumn, and ultimately winter.

Illustration by Christian Krogh from a 19th century edition of Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

At first, geographic isolation from most of continental Europe (most notably with respect to modern day Norway, with its predominantly mountainous landscapes working as physical borders) proved to be a challenge not only for nutrition in Viking Age Scandinavia, but also for long term external trade. In this particular regard, this might have been one of the causes that ‘triggered’ the tumultuous Viking Age.

Given the fact that Industrialization reached Scandinavia to a certain extent later compared to other European regions, many national Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish dishes are not that different from what the Norsemen used to eat roughly 1,000 years ago. Marinated fish (most notably herring, but not only) is still popular in Norway, while some types of meat are still being salted, dehydrated, and cured in Sweden, regardless of the modern preservation methods by using the freezer or refrigerator.

On the other hand, in early medieval Denmark, the southernmost Scandinavian state, soils were far more favourable for crops than in most of present day Norway and Sweden. Pork was also preferred over fish, which explains why until quite recently Denmark was the largest pork producer in the European Union.

Frikadeller: flat, pan-fried meatballs which are popular in Denmark. Image source: www.pixabay.com

In the Faroe Islands puffins — or other sea birds for that matter — alongside their eggs are still being considered as a culinary delicacy. Their eggs used to be collected from where they were nested along the cliffs, next to the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean.

Puffin. Image source: www.pixabay.com

Nonetheless, Iceland is by far the Nordic country that has preserved the most of the Norse culture, including the Viking Age cuisine, given its geographic isolation. Fermented shark (or ‘Hákarl‘) has been steadily prepared in Iceland since the arrival of the Norwegian Vikings who colonised the island in the 9th century.

Another historical dish that has been well preserved in the Icelandic cuisine throughout the ages is the ‘skyr‘, somehow similar in terms of consistency to the Greek yoghurt. It has only survived in Iceland and is served with cream and sugar.

Cooking in the longhouses was done in holes that were dug in the floors, being thus used as earth ovens. A variety of cooked meats and diary products were stored in vats of sour whey. Bread was made mostly of barley, or of a mixture of barley, wheat, oat, and rye flours.

Because of the lack of recorded recipes of Viking Age dishes and treats, most information about the Norse cuisine stems from subsequent historical and archaeological extensive research. For instance, thanks to the efforts of the archaeologists, a reconstruction of a Viking Age bread recipe was discovered in the trading town of Birka, near Stockholm, Sweden.

Regarding the beverages, during holidays and on the occasion of important celebrations, beer, mead, and wine were consumed in copious amounts by the Viking warriors, while fresh water stemmed from streams for everyday purposes. They were also known to have drank buttermilk and weak ale.

Mead is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey with water, occasionally also with various fruits, grains or spices. It was also very popular in Eastern Europe and the Baltic region during the Middle Ages.

Home-made mead with fruits and honey. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Nowadays, the Norse cuisine is in a certain process of revitalization through the efforts of several Viking Age museums based in Scandinavia. One such museum is Lindholm Høje Museet near Aalborg, Denmark, where chef Jesper Lynge is on a ‘mission’ to revive Viking food.

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