Eat Like A Viking

One of the things I enjoy about re-enactment events is cooking dinner over the firedish.  Everything tastes better cooked over a fire and people are endlessly fascinated by even a simple stew.

When it comes to deciding what to cook we don’t have a huge amount to work with, there’s an excellent book “An Early Meal” which presents Viking Age recipes based on archaeological evidence from various sites, but there are no actual surviving viking recipes.  The best we can do is to use archaeology and written records to identify what ingredients were available to the vikings and combine them in ways that make sense.

Odin’s Aett portray Vikings that have settled in East Anglia, so our food needs to be made from ingredients available in that area during the 10th Century.  An Early Meal doesn’t have any records from East Anglia, although there is a section on food from Jorvik which includes Wheat Frumenty with Cheese, Steamed Mussels with Fennel and Leek, Oysters Baked on Embers, Simmered Mackerel, Goose Stew and Alenog.

I have found Ann Hagen’s book Anglo-Saxon Food & Drink a valuable resource on what was available in England around our time period.  She has combed all manner of literary resources and compiled the data into a comprehensive review of dark age food.

Lisa from Odin's Aett Viking Re-enactment chopping vegetables for a stew. Leeks, carrots, parsnips and cabbage.
Food prep at an event

One of the first things we discover is that bread was a staple part of the diet, much moreso than it is today.  Meals frequently consisted of bread and accompaniments.  If bread wasn’t being served the cereals could instead be cooked into porridges or dishes like the frumenty from Jorvik.  The cereals were important as they are high in carbohydrates which the body uses as fuel meaning the protein consumed is available for building and repairing body tissue rather than being consumed as fuel.  There are recipes in An Early Meal where the cereals are either made into bread or simply tied in a bundle and cooked in whatever broth is being made.  Wheat was the preferred cereal for bread making in this region, but barley, rye and oats were also grown in this area and all could be used.  When we think of the vikings eating bread it’s easy to imagine ‘rustic’ brown chewy wholemeal loaves – but like many of us, they preferred soft white bread and that is what would have been served at the Jarl’s meadhall.

When it comes to meat, beef and pork were served most often. Goat, mutton and poultry were also available to most people, although sheep and poultry were valued for their wool and eggs so it made sense to keep them for those rather than their meat – only eating them when they stopped producing or reached the end of their lives.  Trapping would have added animals like rabbits, hares, badgers and foxes to the diet and much of the population would have had access to spears for hunting on foot. 

Only the rich could afford to keep hunting dogs and horses, or to keep the birds of prey that allowed them to hunt crane and curlew, so serving game at feasts was preferred over the more common meats. as it was a show of wealth and status. Bear, Boar and Venison were posh nosh for impressing important guests.

Meat does not keep for long so it was usually dried or cured, this in turn meant it would usually need to be cooked in broth to soften it for eating. Even when fresh meat was available, roasting meat costs a lot more than stewing both in turns of fuel and labour, so would have been restricted to the rich and feasts.

A cauldron set over a wood fire, always makes for a delicious meal
Stews were the common way to cook and smoking meat or fish preserved it for longer keeping

Fish was a popular part of the diet, especially in coastal regions and areas near rivers, but fishermen also caught whales, seals and porpoise.  Here in the fens eels were a huge part of the economy, elsewhere it was oysters or mussels.  

Meat and fish would have often been out of the reach of the poorer population, for them the main source of protein would be beans and peas.  There are records of Thorney Abbey buying bean seeds for planting in Yaxley.  Kidney beans, broad beans and fava beans have all been found as well as peas and chickpeas. Nuts were also collected and eaten especially hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds and sweet chestnuts.  Acorns and beech mast were probably not eaten raw but could be dried and ground into meal for making bread.

There was a range of dairy produce available, as well as the milk, cream, butter and cheese we use today they drank the whey and buttermilk, possibly even fermented into alcohol.  Available cheeses would have ranged from fresh soft cheese, through hard cheeses and even blue cheeses, although not everyone would have the means to enjoy the harder cheeses which would have been costly to produce.  

When it comes to vegetables, leeks, onions, shallots and garlic seem to have been as popular then as they are now. Cabbage, carrots and parsnips, radishes and turnips were all grown for food. Lettuce and watercress are also often mentioned.  Beetroot was grown, but the references to eating it talk about the leaves rather than the root. Celery and fennel were also cultivated.  There are references to eating all manner of green plants, from nettles to goosefoot and it is likely that during times of famine whatever was still growing would have been eaten regardless of how it tasted.  

There are 300 different herbs mentioned in the leechdoms. Many of them still used today – dill, chervil, mint, parsley, rocket, horseradish, rosemary, sage, bay, cumin, lovage, fenugreek, coriander, poppy others we’ve all but forgotten like rue, betony, agrimony, horehound, and tansy. 

Spices such as cinnamon, pepper, ginger, cardamom and sugar were imported via trade routes that had already existed for centuries.  Sugar was not consumed as a regular foodstuff, it was regarded as a medicinal spice. The main forms of sweetener were honey and the natural sweetness of fruits like apple, pear, plum, peach, fig, cherry and medlar. Soft fruits included blackberries, strawberries and rowanberries.

As you can see from the above, there was a lot of variety available, which means that we have a lot of options when cooking at re-enactment events.  Since we portray a Jarl and his company we would have been at the upper end of society, with access to all of the delicacies that could possibly be had.  Feeding us was how the Jarl kept his position of power, in return for his hospitality his men would fight to their deaths.  The way to a warriors sword was very much through his stomach.

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