What Did the Vikings Eat? The Surprisingly Sufficient Viking Diet


As the old saying goes, an army marches on its stomach, which must certainly have been the case with the Vikings. They fought the majority of their battles on foreign soil as they sought to improve their lot and expand their territories and lived in a region known for its harsh winters and seemingly inhospitable conditions for growing life-sustaining crops.

Despite living in a less than ideal climate for agriculture and generally harsh conditions that were characteristic of the Middle Ages, the Vikings had an unexpectedly substantive diet composed primarily of:

  • Meats (beef, pork, poultry, fish)
  • Vegetables 
  • Fruit (mostly berries)

If there are any traits shared by all Norsemen of the times, they would be resilience and resourcefulness. When it came to feeding and sustaining themselves, the Vikings needed these attributes, for the life of a Viking was a difficult one. Keep reading to find a more in-depth description of these different foods.

Strawberries in Scandinavia
How did the Vikings prepare and preserve their food? See below

What Foods Were Staples of the Viking Diet?

The Vikings did not live in a part of the world that allowed them to grow and harvest crops year-round (it was likely that they had around eight months at best of weather conducive to agricultural pursuits). Therefore, they had to hunt and gather to sustain themselves, in addition to raising livestock and maintaining small farms.

As far as the typical diet for the Viking people, staple food items included:

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Nuts
  • Grains
  • Dairy products [1]

Now that we know what the most seen parts of the Viking’s diet include, let’s go into some detail about how they prepared these foods.

How Did the Vikings Prepare & Preserve Their Food?

In addition to hampering agricultural pursuits, the long, harsh winters of Scandinavia also limited opportunities for hunting, fishing, and foraging, forcing the Vikings to adopt food preservation techniques to bolster their provisions during the dark, frigid months of the year. (Also see What Did the Vikings Drink Out Of?)

Some food preparation and preserving methods the Viking used include:

  • Pickling vegetables and fruit
  • Drying meats
  • Salting fish

The Vikings utilized a variety of cooking methods, including roasting, but the most common food preparation technique was boiling ingredients such as meat, fish, and vegetables, in the form of a stew. In fact, it was common practice to prepare a stew in a large pot or cauldron for the evening meal and eat the leftovers the next morning, perhaps adding a few fresh ingredients to revitalize the pot.

What kind of protein and vegetables did the Vikings eat? See below

How Often Did the Vikings Eat?

With the arrival of spring, various food resources would have become widely available, more plentiful, and perhaps most importantly, accessible. 

As far as how often they ate, unlike the three meals per day that people are accustomed to in modern times, the Vikings customarily had two meals per day and they were known as:

  • Nattmal – the equivalent of dinner in modern times
  • Dagmal – the Viking version of breakfast [2]

On special or festive occasions, the Vikings famously held feasts where a bounty of food and drink were offered to those in attendance. (Also see Did Vikings Have Piercings?)

What Kinds of Proteins Did the Vikings Eat?

Unlike most of their European counterparts during the Middle Ages, even the lowliest of Viking citizens could count on eating some form of meat or protein on a regular, if not daily, basis. 

The various types of meat in the Viking diet likely came from several sources, including:

  • Livestock raised and butchered on their farms, consisting primarily of pigs, cows, sheep, goats, and chicken (many of these animals would have also been major sources of dairy products like milk, which was also used to produce butter, cheese, and yogurt)
  • Wild game hunted from local forests, including reindeer, elk, squirrels, hares, and even bears
  • Freshwater fish caught from nearby lakes and streams, and saltwater fish from the ocean [3]

With respect to fish, by some accounts, it may have represented up to 25% of the Vikings’ diet, which is not surprising considering the prevalence of waterways around them. [4] From the ocean, the Vikings likely harvested large amounts of herring and cod which they salted and preserved. From freshwater sources, they probably fished for trout and eel. (Also see Did Vikings Have Tattoos?)

What Kinds of Vegetables Did the Vikings Eat?

The vegetables one finds in a typical garden or salad bar in modern times look a lot different than the types of veggies that the Vikings ate to balance out their diet. For instance, staples like potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, and cucumbers, were not available to the Vikings in their part of the world or in the time period in which they lived.

Instead, the Vikings relied on other types of vegetables, including:

  • Wild celery (also known as Norwegian Angelica) – native to parts of Scandinavia including Norway, this was a prominent vegetable and even appears in various sagas and local laws
  • Several types of peas
  • Onions and other alliums like garlic and leeks
  • Yarrow, with its hop-like quality, was likely used for brewing

Aside from consuming these vegetables as food items, the Vikings used them for herbal and medicinal purposes as well. (Also see What Did the Vikings Do for Fun?)

What Kinds of Fruit Did the Vikings Eat?

It is believed that the Vikings also planted pear and cherry trees on or near their farms. [5]

As far as fruit that grew in the wild, there were an assortment of berries for Vikings to pick from (no pun intended), including:

  • Sloe berries
  • Lingonberries 
  • Strawberries 
  • Bilberries
  • Cloudberries [6]

In addition to wild berries, the Vikings also ate wild plums, hazelnuts, and in some parts of Scandinavia, walnuts as well. (Also see Why Did Vikings Say Skol?)

Norse Myths Relating to the Fruit Vikings Ate

Though they almost certainly were not responsible for coining the phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, the Vikings apparently recognized that apples were an important part of their diet. There is evidence that apple orchards were not an uncommon sight in Scandinavia during the Viking Age. 

In fact, a popular Norse myth revolves around apples and their purported health benefits:

  • The Norse deity Idun was the goddess of youth and among her responsibilities was keeping magical apples under her care
  • All the Norse gods relied on Idun’s apples to keep them youthful and lively
  • When Idun was kidnapped by a giant (thanks to the trickery of Loki), the gods suddenly began to age as they no longer had access to Idun’s enchanted apples
  • Loki was threatened with execution if he did not bring Idun (and her apples) back to Asgard so he quickly made amends [7]

Although more lighthearted than most Norse myths, this tale does demonstrate the perceived importance of this particular fruit in the Vikings’ diet. (Also see What Hairstyles Did Vikings Have?)

The idea of apples as a symbol of fertility and of life appears to have been adopted by the Germanic peoples from the Romans at a relatively early period, since apples can be found depicted in Imperial Roman times as symbols of life on the altars of the Nehalennia.

The Apples of Hesperides in Classical Mythology – Gaia’s wedding present to Hera – could thus have served as the model for Idun’s apples, but it might equally well be derived from the Christian [i.e. Judeo-Christian] symbolism of the tree of life.

Norse Mythology, p. 18, Rudolph Simek

Conclusion

Relatively speaking, the Vikings were well-nourished for the times, eating a balanced diet consisting of proteins, vegetables, and fruit.

References:
[1] Source
[2] Source
[3] Source
[4] Source
[5] Source
[6] Source
[7] Source

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