We all know that alcohol and feasting played an important part in their society but just what made up the Viking diet?

New Nordic Cuisine: the new Vikings taking over Europe (and kitchens)?

In recent years, food from the Nordic countries has been extremely popular thanks to culinary movements like New Nordic Cuisine (Det nye nørdiske kjøkken). However, long before Noma opened its doors in Copenhagen, the Vikings were perhaps the first Nordic people to spread their culinary skills around Europe.

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of Viking society was employed in agriculture and farming. It was only a small minority of young men that took to the longships to raid, trade, and explore. When these young men came back from their adventures and exploits, they had animals and farms to tend to.

Nordic climate affected diet

The far northern location of the Nordic countries – where the Vikings originated from and settled – is hardly conducive to farming. The Scandinavian Alps run down the spine of Norway, large parts of Sweden and Finland lie beyond the Arctic Circle, and much of Denmark is at sea level, barren and windswept. These are not exactly the best conditions for growing crops, yet the Vikings managed.

Typical crops grown were barley, rye, and oats. In more southern regions of the Viking lands, especially Sweden, wheat was also grown. Oatmeal/porridge was an important source of fiber and a typical Viking dish that has survived and is popular in Scandinavian countries to this day.

Cultivated and wild vegetables, plants, and herbs

Believe it or not, Viking societies had a diet that was heavily plant-based. The lack of pastoral lands in the Nordics made herding animals difficult; thus, vegetables were an important source of fiber.

The most commonly grown vegetables were peas, cabbages, onions, and beans. These were all relatively low maintenance and could put up with the cold extremes of the Nordic north. It is believed that cabbage was first cultivated throughout the Nordic countries during the Viking Age.

Wild vegetables and plants were also an important part of the everyday diet in Viking societies. Wild celery (Angelica archangelica) grows all over Scandinavia, especially in the more mountainous regions. All of these wild plants – the stalk, the root, and the leaves – were eaten and used in cooking during the Viking Age. It even makes a mention in the saga of Olav Tryggvason.

Wild peas were also picked and then later cultivated. These were available throughout southern Norway. In the more coastal regions of Denmark and Sweden, sand leek and sea kale were plucked whilst "victory onions" (a type of wild onion) were plentiful in the Lofoten peninsula of northern Norway.

The meat was usually boiled; the day's main meal usually consisted of boiled meat and vegetable stew, called skause, which offered rich and hearty warm comfort food. Photo: FOYN / Unsplash

Meat: hunting, feasting, and for sacrificial purposes?

The majority of people in Viking societies were employed in some form of agricultural employment. People often had small plots of land to cultivate vegetables and often had a pig or a few chickens. Sheep, goats, and cattle were also herded and kept in larger settlements and cities.

The eating of meat was important for feasting on sacrificial and religious festivals and holidays or for celebrating important military victories. A feast often lasted days and involved large amounts of meat and beer or even wine. Rulers used feasts as a way to both solidify support and project power. The use of meat for sacrificial and religious reasons decreased as Viking societies started to adopt Christianity.

The importance of fish

One thing that all the Nordic countries have in common is that they all possess long coastlines. Fish was an important source of protein, fiber, and fatty oils. Whether caught and cooked or salted to preserve for those long voyages across the seas or even longer and colder winters, the backbone of the Viking diet was fish-based.

Dried fish – often cod – was a common snack in Viking societies. Fish was caught and then dried on wooden racks in the open air. Preserving fish this way gives it a "shelf life" of several years and makes it the perfect snack – or light meal – for either long voyages or through the dark and cold Nordic winters. One estimate is that fresh, seasonal fish was about a quarter of the diet in Viking societies.

Many of the recipes of the New Nordic cuisine movement, and the culinary traditions of Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and Finland, have their roots in what was consumed in Viking societies. The diet of the Vikings appears to make a modern-day comeback thanks to modern Nordic chefs.

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