Viking Foods 6 – Meats – by Rob Shackleford
A major feature of the Viking diet was that every level of society, from kings to common sailors, ate meat on most days. Often this would have been pork, as hogs were easy to raise and quick to mature, but Vikings also ate beef, mutton and goats. Horses were also raised for food, but was also eaten only rarely as horses were highly prized and very expensive. Horsemeat was only eaten on festive occasions. In Haakon the Good’s saga it is described how horsemeat can be used to make a soup. This was a practice that led to later clashes with Christian leaders, as horsemeat was a forbidden food under church doctrine.
Vikings were avid hunters, and would capture reindeer, elk and even bear to bring back to the hearth fires. And of course, since Vikings spent so much time on the water, fish formed a major part of their diet. Herrings were abundant and prepared in a plethora of ways: dried, salted, smoked, pickled and even preserved in whey.
While we might tend to think of Vikings standing over huge roasting pits with joints of mutton dripping onto hot coals, evidence suggests roasting and frying weren’t the favoured cooking methods of the time. In fact, Vikings most often boiled their meats. Indeed, the centrepiece of the day’s meals was a boiled meat stew, called skause. As meats and vegetables were taken out of the pot, new ones were added, and the broth became concentrated over days of cooking. Skause was eaten with bread baked with all sorts of grains, beans and even tree bark–birch bark can be dried and ground and is actually very nutritious. Vikings used old bread dough to make sourdough loaves, and would also use soured milk and buttermilk to enrich their breads.
Vegetables and fruits were much more wild than any of our modern varieties. Carrots would have been added to the daily skause, but they weren’t orange; white carrots were the only ones available. Viking farmers cultivated cabbages, beans, peas and endive, and wild apples and berries were also available to later Middle Age diners. A wide range of herbs and seasonings helped flavour Viking food, with spices like coriander, cumin, mustard and wild horseradish eventually making an appearance at the table through trade.
Despite the overall balanced nature of the Viking diet, there were some major pitfalls. We know from archaeological excavations of Viking cesspits and sewers that most Vikings suffered from parasites in their intestines: yes, they had worms. And the same cesspit excavations revealed undigested seeds from the whole wheat breads Vikings ate, some of which came from weeds that are highly poisonous to humans.
Boiling meat was the most common means of preparation because one could complete other tasks while the food was cooking and the meal could feed a large number of people. The meat would be cut up and put into a cauldron over fire, to which, presumably, would be added various spices and vegetables. The result could be a stew or simply boiled meat with vegetables, served with a chunk of bread. Meat might also be cooked over an open fire on a spit – as in the famous depictions of Viking meals – or slow-roasted in soapstone pots placed on hot stones in a pit.
The Vikings kept many of the domestic animals that we are familiar with today. A typical Viking household in an agricultural area possessed cattle, horses, pigs, sheep and goats. In addition, there were hens, geese and ducks. Fish were also caught and seals sometimes hunted.
The Vikings got the most out of their domestic animals. First they were used as working animals, then later they were slaughtered and eaten. The same is true of sheep with their wool and goats. The bones, horns and skins were later used to make clothes and implements, including needles, spoons and many other objects.
If the cow was old and worn out, it was obvious what the menu would consist of in the following days. Pigs were the only domestic animals solely kept for their meat. The Vikings were therefore extremely good at utilizing their food resources.
Most meat dishes came from wild game that was hunted such as rabbits, wild boar, elk, deer, seabirds, bear, reindeer, and squirrels. Dogs and cats were kept as pets and companions and were never a food source. The Norse valued the cat and dog so highly that one of the most popular goddesses, Freyja, rides in a chariot drawn by cats and dogs were thought to accompany their masters into the afterlife (more dog skeletons have been found in Norse graves than in those of any other culture). Seabirds were frequently caught and eaten, but some birds were strictly off limits as game, most notably the hawk and falcon, which were prized by royalty and could command high prices.
Meat and fish were also dried and salted so that they could be preserved for a long time. The Arabic traveller and writer al-Tartushi wrote of the inhabitants of Hedeby, that their most important source of nourishment was fish. But they also lived close to the sea. They could choose from 26 different types of fish – the most important of these was herring, which was probably preserved in brine. Archaeological finds also indicate that fishing was an important occupation. These include nets, metal hooks, eel spears and fish bones.
The Vikings made sausages from the offal and blood of their domestic animals. The sausages were made after animals were slaughtered in the autumn.
Here are a couple of Viking Meat 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.
More Viking Blogs
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About the author:
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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