Viking Foods 4 – Fish and Sea Life by Rob Shackleford
As we have seen with our Viking Food discussion so far, a typical evening meal could include fish or meat stewed with vegetables. They might also eat some more dried fruit with honey as a sweet treat. Honey was the only sweetener the Vikings knew. Vikings drank ale, mead or buttermilk daily.
The Norse of Scandinavia and the Viking raiders who travelled on raids overseas required a significant amount of energy on a daily basis, and this diet seems to have more than sufficed. There is little evidence to suggest that the Vikings were underfed or suffered from nutritional deficiencies, so an adequate supply of food must have been available year-round, at least most of the time.
When the Norse went on raids to other countries, they carried enough provisions for the trip and for at least a few meals once they reached their destination; afterwards they would live off the land. At home, however, a plentiful supply of food was provided by each person’s farm and the surrounding environment.
When on their voyages, food would often have been rations consisting of hardtack style breads and dried or salted meat or fish. It could only be cooked if the crew were able to land. They’d drink water, beer or sour milk. The hardship of life on board, especially in rough seas, meant that Vikings did not make voyages in the winter but waited until spring.
But in everyday live, when food was abundant, a rich variety of foods were enjoyed.
Let’s look again at the ABC History Viking home life scenario we began in past blogs. To refer to them, simply select the topic at the top of the page.
For a midday break Sven and Tostig share some cottage cheese, unwrapped from a soggy piece of linen. If they are very lucky there may be some fruit, wild plums or a crab apple. A little butter and stale bread completes the meal. To drink they may find a fresh water stream, have the buttermilk left over from breakfast, or even some weak ale.
That afternoon, Ingrid’s brother Rigsson and his family call at the farm. He is a fisherman and has brought fish for his sister’s family. Herring and cod fresh from the nets are handed over along with some shellfish. Ingrid repays Riggson’s generosity with some salted bacon (home cured), and some venison – the remainder of last month’s hunt. Whilst Ingrid cuts and guts the fish, the children go into the woods to collect nuts and berries, which are just coming into season. They find raspberries, elderberries and some cherries, and nuts such as walnuts and hazelnuts. These will be left in their shells, cracked open only at mealtimes for greater freshness.
With no fridges or freezers our Viking family has to take special measures to stop their food going bad. Meat and fish can be smoked or rubbed with salt. Fruit can be dried; grains are made into bread or ale. Dairy produce such as milk is made into cheese. Cooking the meat will make it last a little longer, making sausages will make it last longer still.
Salt was expensive to make as the usual method would be to boil down salt water, which required a significant amount of timber for the fire as well as the time it took to complete the process. Salt was more often imported, making it a luxury not everyone could afford. Meat, therefore, had to be consumed shortly after the animal was killed because, for most people, there was no means of preserving it.
Aside from a predominantly vegetarian diet, Scandinavians took full advantage of the rivers, streams, and the sea. Fish from fresh and salt water as well as eels, squid, seals, walruses, and whales were eaten frequently. Seafood could be preserved through drying or fermenting in brine and remained fresh as a staple food. Whales are mentioned a number of times in the Icelandic Sagas and almost always as having been washed up on the shore and killed and harvested there rather than hunted.
Both whale and seal meat were considered delicacies and the oil was used for lamps and, in the case of seal oil, as an alternative to butter. As with other creatures hunted for food, every part of the whale was used for some necessary aspect of life but to actually go and hunt a whale was considered too dangerous. Scholar Alan Baker makes note of this in relaying a story of a Norse fisherman discussing his daily routine as told in the Colloquy of Aelfric, Abbot of Eynsham (c. 955 – c. 1010 CE):
He begins by boarding his boat and casting his net into the river, followed by a hook, bait, and basket. He sells his fish to the people of nearby towns who eagerly buy his eels, pike, minnows, turbot, trout, and lampreys. Sometimes he fishes in the sea, but not often, as it takes a lot of rowing to get there. When he does fish in the sea, he catches herring, salmon, porpoises, sturgeon, crabs, flounder, and lobster, among many other things. When asked why he does not catch whales, the fisherman replies that it is very risky to go after whales and it is far preferable to catch a small fish that can easily be killed than to chase a large animal that can kill one with a single stroke.
Fish and other sea creatures were also used in stews, one of the most popular dishes because it could be left over a fire to keep for days, but were also preserved through salting, drying, smoking, or fermenting in brine. The Norse also harvested dulse, a red alga, from the seashore which was an important source of vitamins and frequently included as part of one’s daily diet.
Fishing was such an integral aspect of Norse life that it frequently features in the Icelandic Sagas as a plot device. The mention of livestock in the sagas is also noteworthy but cattle were kept primarily for milk production and working the land (in the case of oxen), not as a major food source.
Here are a few fish-based Viking Recipes to try:
Find out more
Viking Life by John Guy and Richard Hall (Ticktock, 1998)
Encyclopaedia of the Viking Age by John Haywood (Thames &Hudson, 2000)
Cultural Atlas of the Viking Age edited by Graham-Campbell et al (Andromeda, 1994)
Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings by John Haywood (Penguin, 1996). Detailed maps of Viking settlements in Scotland, Ireland, England, Iceland and Normandy.
Previous Viking Blogs
|Vikings at Home|
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Hi, I’m Rob Shackleford. I am author of a number of novels, though so far only Traveller Inceptio and Traveller Probo have been officially published. As Traveller Inceptio looks at the fates of modern historical researchers sent to the early 11th Century Saxon world, Vikings do feature.
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