The Viking Diet
Here’s some notes I took from the talk today by Dr. Mark Clinton. It was focused on the vikings and the food they ate, as it took place during a local food festival.
The viking diet was seasonal, and it depended heavily on the summer harvest as they’d be snowed in during the winter. It was also protein rich, as the remains of the vikings show they were big robust people and as such it’s safe to say they had a very good diet. Cattle were very important to them, but less so for beef and more for the dairy they produced. They ate a lot of unsalted butter, cheese and whey. It was rare to consume unprocessed milk, and by processing the dairy it extended it’s shelf life. In November they had to make the difficult decision of how many cattle to keep over winter and how many to cull. They had to work out how much feed they had for cattle over the winter, but also how many they should keep in order to get plenty of dairy. November was called slaughter season, or blood season (my notes go a bit dodgy here, I didn’t quite catch the term), due to the amount of blood shed during the slaughter of cattle. When they arrived in Ireland, things were a bit easier as winters were less harsh and they didn’t have to go through the trauma of the yearly cull. As Ireland was a cattle based society it was very easy for the vikings to get access to them, either by trading or participating in the ancient Irish tradition of raiding their neighbours. They ate a lot of pork, as they were easier to keep and feed. In Dubh Linn they kept a lot of pigs, and most of the houses were situated right beside the pens so things weren’t very sanitary.
Fish was a staple of the viking diet, and wind dried fish was very important to those on long voyages. There are records of large wooden structures made out of poles used to dry the fish, like they are today in Nordic countries. Fish was also salted and fermented to better preserve it. Fish, such as herring or cod, was dried then became almost biscuit like and it was often eaten smeared with butter or a slice of cheese. There has been some new evidence regarding the presence of rudimentary drift nets aboard longships, so they could add fresh fish to their diet or replenish stocks while at sea.
The vegetables that the vikings ate were tough and hardy, like themselves, and included white carrots (the orange having been developed in Holland in the 17th century), hearted cabbages, turnips and parsnips. Many of the herbs we take for granted today weren’t available to the vikings as they are Mediterranean in origin and couldn’t grow in the harsh northern climate. Instead they used berries such as lingon berry, Cloud berry, bilberry and arctic bramble to make sauces and add flavour to dishes.
Meat was mostly boiled, and interestingly enough some kept an “ongoing pot”. Basically the pot was always cooking over the fire, and contained a mix of meat and vegetables. When food was served from it more ingredients were added to replenish the pot. At night when the fire grew low a layer of fat congealed on top sealing the juices of the stew in, so after a while the stew would be quite tasty. The vikings had two meals a day, morning and evening. They rose at first light and ate a sort of porridge or gruel, then they had their evening meal at nightfall. Bread was also baked, out of oats, barley and rye. Though some natural yeast would have been leftover from the brewing process most breads were unleavened, meaning they were flat cakes.
Ale was brewed, using plants such as bog myrtle for flavour. This weak ale was drunk regularly, as water wasn’t typically safe to drink. Mead was typically kept for ceremonial events and feasts.