It may not chime with the image of bloodthirsty warriors trekking over rough seas in their longships, but most Scandinavians in the Viking era were involved in agriculture and farming. And when they returned home, licking their wounds, they had animals, farms, and families to tend to. 

The Viking diet was heavily plant-based. The far north of the Nordic countries, the Scandinavian Alps, and much of windswept Denmark were hardly blessed with great swathes of pastoral lands. Still, the Norse managed, keeping herds wherever possible and cultivating where they could. 

Despite the conditions, it's likely that Scandinavians benefited from consuming more protein than many other Europeans during the Viking Age

For a relatively balanced diet, most had small vegetable plots and perhaps a pig or a handful of chickens. In larger settlements, there were sheep, goats, and cattle. 

The Viking diet incorporated a variety of vegetables such as onions, cabbages, peas, and legumes, which were resilient to the cold Nordic climate. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Green fingers 

Commonly grown vegetables included onions, cabbages, peas, and other legumes. These were all relatively low-maintenance and could withstand the cold extremes of the Nordic north. Women and children harvested them late in summer. 

Fruits and other vegetables, such as berries, apples, and other wild fruits, were primarily consumed in their natural, wild state and were integral components of meals. 

Wild celery grows abundantly throughout Scandinavia, particularly in hilly regions. During the Viking Age, all parts of these wild plants, including the stalks, roots, and leaves, were eaten and used in cooking. 

Wild peas were also gathered and later cultivated, especially in southern Norway. In coastal areas of Sweden, sand leek and sea kale were harvested, while "victory onions," a type of wild onion, were abundant in the Lofoten peninsula of northern Norway. 

Typically, they also grew barley, rye, and oats. In more southerly regions, such as Sweden, wheat was also grown. 

Oatmeal, what we think of as porridge, served as a crucial source of fiber and remains popular in Scandinavian countries to this day. 

Barley was also used to brew ale, sometimes incorporating herbs or spices for flavor. Ale, rather than water, was the primary daily beverage consumed by most Vikings, regardless of their social status. 

All kinds of grains were used in making the basic flatbread, which was baked on a stone. It was commonly served with a dish called skause, often accompanied by soured milk or buttermilk as additional ingredients. 

Dairy products included milk, whey, and buttermilk, as well as cheese, butter, curd, and skyr, a fresh sour milk cheese eaten in a similar way to yogurt today. 

Meat played a significant role in Viking culture, being essential for religious festivals, sacrificial ceremonies, and celebrations of victories. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Meaty feasts 

Eating meat was important for religious festivals and holidays, even for sacrificial ceremonies and celebrating great victories, although the adoption of Christianity altered some of these rituals. 

Given the types of animals the Vikings kept, the kinds of meat were pork, chicken, mutton, and goat. In the wealthiest households, there would have been horsemeat and game. 

Meat would have been stewed or boiled over several hours, with a roasting spit prepared for big feasts. Salt and pepper were available to all; wealthier families were able to add coriander, cumin, or mustard for flavor. 

Codfish drying on wooden racks in the Lofoten Islands, Norway, continues today, following the traditional method used by the medieval Norse. Photo: EyesTravelling / Shutterstock

Let them eat fish 

Scandinavia's coastline, fjords, rivers, and lakes made fishing a crucial means of survival, especially during harsh winters. 

The medieval Norse didn't always have to venture into the open sea to fish. They could utilize simple methods like lines with hooks or traps to catch fish from the shore. 

Whenever they did put out to sea, fish served as an important source of protein and beneficial fatty acids. Whether caught and cooked or salted to preserve the meat, fish provided most of the Viking diet on longer journeys and at least one-fourth of it in the homestead. 

Dried fish, typically cod, was a common practice. It was dried on wooden racks exposed to the wind, resulting in a long shelf life lasting several years, making it an ideal staple for the winter months. 

A small amount of fishing was still done in the colder months when holes were cut in ice-covered lakes to catch the fish lying below, particularly salmon.

In addition to being a staple source of nutrition, fish played a crucial role in the local economy. Dried stockfish was frequently exported to lucrative markets in England, France, and Germany.

To see what a Viking marketplace would have looked like, take the STOEX Viking History Extended tour to visit the former trading center at Sigtuna, an easy hop from Stockholm.

This branded article was produced in collaboration with STOEX, a partner of The Viking Herald. You can find out more about their Viking and history tours - and book one - here.

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