I’ve written a post about the current modern equivalent of a traditional viking diet before; The New Nordic diet. While the scientific approach to the New Nordic diet proved useful, considering it has had some important positive outcomes in different studies, the Vikings of the old ages actually did eat somewhat differently. This article explores how exactly.
Let’s begin by setting the scenery. It’s between the 9th and 11th century, you’re in the Northern parts of Europe, anywhere from modern Denmark to modern Finland. You have no idea what corn is, and potatoes are in the domain of science fiction, not that you’d know what they are.
Your lifestyle is anything but sedentary. The daily chore of staying alive takes its toll on the amount of calories you need to consume each day in and out, from spring to winter. Moreover, you’re burdened by the fact that your environment is not the most hospitable. You’re continuously required to forage for different berries and herbs, as well hunt for wild game to get that extra ration of meat.
The Nordic diet(s)
Indeed, life in 10th century Europe was not an easy one. This was reflected in the Nordic diets that were being eaten by the Vikings at the time. While speaking about a singular Nordic diet is something we could do, it would be a grave mistake. An important aspect to understand is that trading was not as rampant as today, and highways did all but exist. Travelling between two cities by foot or horse to trade resources was not risk-free. And with that said, it was also less common compared to today.
This introduces the importance of local produce. The Nordic diet can be characterized by a few distinct similarities, but can also be very distinguishable by the area in which a particular village or town was built. We can imagine that coastal towns and villages had much more fish in their diet, as it was more abundant in their environment. Nords with settlements with nearby woods, however, could rely more heavily on wild game hunting.
In any case, let’s look at the foods that the Vikings were eating in those time, and what the Nordic diet actually consisted of.
We might as well start with the fact that they usually ate two meals per day, one in the mid-morning and one at dinner time. And not the 3-6 which the so-called experts claim we should be eating today. Why a lower eating frequency is something we can safely incorporate in our diet has been covered by me.
Vegetables and fruit
I’ve mentioned that trading wasn’t as rampant as it is today. This means that many vegetables and fruit we take for granted every time we visit a supermarket weren’t available in those times. As such they weren’t included in the traditional Nordic diet. While their climate couldn’t really sustain all the possible vegetables and fruit that could have been found in Europe at the time by itself, they did eat certain vegetables and fruits that could be found in their environment.
Nowadays, scientists and scholars agree that the Nordic diet of that time included turnips, spinach, peas, beets, mushrooms, leeks, onions and carrots, cabbages, mushrooms, a mixed variety of herbs, and possibly seaweeds in settlements that lived near a coastline. They also ate a variety of wild plants, many of which aren’t consumed today anymore. One reason being the abundance of different foods due to globalization and capitalism, and the other being that they didn’t have any other choice at the time.
An interesting example was scurvy-grass. Because this plant was high in vitamin C, it helped prevent scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency where your teeth tend to fall out.
As far as fruit goes, I’ve said that they had to rely on foraging, this meant a number of berries such as raspberries, elderberries, hawthorn berries, cherries, strawberries etc. Plums and apples are two exceptions found in archaeological findings as well.
We have fruits and vegetables covered with that. You’ve probably noticed that the traditional Nordic diet didn’t include a huge variety of either, mainly due to their climate. However, let’s continue to see how they managed to overcome that.
Meat was another major source of nutrients and calories for them. Pigs, cattle, sheep, chicken, and goats were domesticated/cultivated by the Vikings; obviously different types of animals were domesticated/cultivated in different areas and were more or less abundant because of that. This gave them access to a variety of meats, as well as their organs, and other useful parts. We can imagine that they didn’t really waste any of it. Knowing that, the liver and brains are two good sources of vitamins and minerals that are essential for optimal bodily functioning.
Apart from that, hunting wild game and catching fish was a common practice as well. This in return helped them meet a healthy amount of protein and other nutrients found in meat. In the Nordic diet, meat wasn’t a sporadic indulgence as it was in most Christian settlements at the time. Their cuisine had much more emphasis on meats that were prepared in different ways.
As a side note to meat – because chicken, cattle, goats, and sheep were not a rare occurrence, eggs and dairy products weren’t either. Milk, cheese, whey, and different dairy products were readily available for Vikings. This, of course, depended whether a particular household/village/settlement had animals capable of producing it and whether they had the necessary knowledge on how to do it.
But milk itself wasn’t a drink that was consumed so often compared to other dairy products. Butter, whey, curds, and cheese were a more common choice. They did this because they could keep the latter edible for a longer time. Remember, there were no fridges back the.
Grains were another staple in the Nordic diet. Bread was widely consumed, and wide was its variety as well. Vikings were familiar with oats, rye, and barley. Wheat, was used as well. Furthermore, they weren’t as “picky” when it came to some more exotic foodstuffs. Some archaeological diggings found that they were making flour out of acorns, tree bark, and a variety of nuts. Because they lacked the required knowledge about the nutritional value or even toxicity of some of the used foodstuffs, being slowly poisoned by their own food wasn’t out of the question either. This was noted in some excavations where the researchers concluded that one particular settlement was probably mixing something into their flat bread which shortened their lifespan.
Speaking of grains, beer was a common drink too. This may have had some important benefits when you think about the hygiene level of their water. Water in those days had the tendency to be dirty and full of disease-spreading bacteria. So drinking beer, which required the water to be boiled during preparation, was a safer alternative. Mead was another alcoholic alternative which was popular in Viking areas where bees were cultivated.
Both of these alcoholic beverages had another practical aspect during winter times. When food was more scarce, having a constant supply of alcohol, with its rather high caloric content, was a welcome addition which enabled them to survive more easily during times of winter hardship.
That was it. As we can see, an average Viking was eating quite healthy, judging by today’s standards. There were no processed foods (obviously), but more importantly, it was/is a very healthy eating pattern. If you’ve read the New Nordic Diet recommendation then you’re probably familiar with the short-term sucess the diet has had in the few studies. Whether this is something you can oblige to, is, however, totally up to you.