Scandinavian Cuisine During the Vendel and Early Viking Age

Touchstones

When researching I find it helpful to have some touchstones to come back to in order to avoid too much speculation. When doing this sort of research, some speculation is required. These are my touchstones for a regional cuisine:

  1. Waste not, want not. Waste is bad.
  2. Tradition is slow to change.
  3. Knowing something is incorrect is more important than being right.
  4. People are fundamentally lazy and will complete a task in the most efficient manner unless this is impacted by social constraints.

I started my research with a year of just reading archaeological papers from the sites. Gathering known ingredients, tools discovered, housing, read the Icelandic Sagas, and actively avoiding any analysis as to what this means so as to avoid the ‘it is known’ trap. Just gathered as much raw information as I could to have a picture of the time and place. I chose the period from roughly 650-850 and specifically Scandinavia to try to reign in the variables.

After this I put my experience as a professional chef and years of farm work to use and started processing food. Rolling a kitchen using these tools and ingredients. Started with making butter, skyr, and whey and then the logical progression of what these ingredient turned into. Use of by product from one day for ingredients the next. Adding in known ingredients and keeping in mind seasonal variances. Experimenting to with implements that seem poorly designed for a task to find what tasks they are perfect for. Then started reading and communicating with other’s about their analysis on the subject.

I hope this will further the conversation on this fascinating subject. There is constantly new information, we can be constantly less wrong, and it is never boring.


Tools

When working out a cuisine the physical tools used in the society play a large role in what is possible and give excellent insight into what is important. I break these down into categories for ease of use.

Cooking Implements

These are things like the pots, cauldrons, and pans made of iron. The hearth and the flat baking stones around it. Soapstone pots make for a very different cooking experience. There are spits and long two pronged forks, spoons, ladles, and strainers. Chains and hooks to hold the pots.
As important as what has been found is what has NOT. Ovens are rare, later in the period, and only in larger settlement. Pans and grills are small. There are no known spit racks that I know of. These are all clues to how things are prepared.

Eating Utensils

The dishware and eating utensils provide many clues into the cuisine. What people eat greatly influences what they eat with and on.
Wooden plates and bowls are fairly common. A more squared food trough appears to be the most common. Clay, wooden, and horn drinking vessels were most common with imported glass being used by the most conspicuously wealthy.
Food was mostly eaten with spoon, knife, and fingers. Physical evidence is common for the first two and the scant written records refer to washing which strongly alludes to the latter.

Storage Containers

How ingredients are stored provides much insight into what ingredients were used, how they were modified, and at what time of year they would be available. Vats, barrels, bags have all been found in whole or in parts. Clay does not seem to have been used as much and the majority of finds appear to be from imported goods, especially wine.

Housing and Structures

The place that one lives affects ones relationship and options for food. There are many structural remains that can be looked at. Barns with evidence on animal husbandry, homes with hearth and high rafters. The largest longhouse in Iceland dates to before permanent occupation hinting at its purpose being primarily for processing of raw materials gathered and storage of rather than as living quarters.

Techniques

Looking at the tools available provides the most likely techniques to be used for preparing food. When using the tools if they seem awkward or ill suited to a task, then that task is probably not for them or we are doing it wrong. Some tools may be combined and from use, some techniques that are less in use today become obvious.

Boiling or simmering

This appears to be the most common technique used. The dominance of pots and cauldrons strongly support this. It is also one of the most common cooking techniques throughout the world.

Baking/Roasting

This is different than what is modernly considered baking or roasting. This was done on flat stones near the hearth and was probably reserved for flat breads.

Fermentation

Lacto-fermentation of vegetables appears to be common. There is also evidence of pickling of meats and other foods in acidic whey. Sites where fish were fermented in pits have also been found.

Searing

This is where I am more on my own. The combination of pot chains, cauldrons, and the types of spits and pans that have been found are perfect for this. The main cooking is simmering to preserve the fats and broth, with the finish being done quickly on the spit or small pan.

Social Pressures

Social Capital

There are many types of social pressures that will impact the cuisine of a culture. This is true world wide and needs to be taken into account when recreating a cuisine.

Scandinavian society had a strong feast culture. Food and hospitality was used to garner favor, celebrate achievement, and garner the favor of gods. Foods for feasts would be considerably different than day to day fare.

Tradition

Food traditions exist everywhere in the world. What people eat when growing up tends to be what they want to eat in adulthood and what they will feed their children. Traditions can change, but this is a very slow process unless there is a cataclysmic event. No such event is evident during the Viking Age in Scandinavia. The food probably stayed fairly consistent for centuries.

Taboos

This is the opposite of tradition. There are things that a society just does not do. Not because they can’t or should not, but because it is not done. The best example of this in Scandinavia during the Viking Age is shellfish. Shellfish leave a lot of residue. There is only one find of shells in Denmark during the period. A Taboo is the most likely explanation for this. There is also little evidence of mushroom use although they leave less evidence.

Climate

The primary factor for what people eat is the climate and land where they live. Nothing has a greater impact. This very true for Scandinavia. Surrounded by ocean with long winters, forests, and high mountains. This causes regional changes within Scandinavia.

Southern Areas

Southern Sweden and Denmark have a more mild climate. Summers are consistently warm enough to grow rye and, often wheat. Large forest covered the inland areas and the ocean was rich with fish.

Northern Areas

Norway and northern Sweden had a harsher climate. Summers were short and barley was the only reliable cereal crop. Fisheries were robust. Northern Norway also shows a strong hunting culture based off of whaling, seals, walruses and other sea mammals.

Climate effects the storage methods available and storage methods effect your ingredients and flavor profile. In a large swath the climate is perfect for air drying fish and meats. Winters were cold, but this aids in long term storage of root vegetables and grain. Winter would be a time of plenty with more time to concentrate on more complex dishes.

Ingredients

The raw materials for what can be made is the most important aspect when working on a regional cuisine. These are the building blocks that everything is created from. This is a shortened summary in order of probable importance by category.

Agricultural Products

Dairy

Cow, sheep, and goat milk played a pivotal role in the life and diet of the early Scandinavian people. Milk appears to be more of a raw ingredient than a finished one and was made into a number of products for use and trade. Milk would be stored in large vats or barrels until the cream rose and was skimmed to make butter. The remaining milk would continue to ferment into skyr which would either be drunk or strained. There is evidence the whey was used as an acid for preserving meats. Butter hoards have been found alluding to the value of the butter.

Grain

The people grew mainly rye and barley. To a lesser degree oats and, in the southern areas, wheat. Rye has a short growth cycle, barley even shorter. There is also a lot of pollen from knot grass that has been found. It is unknown whether this was grown on purpose or was a wild harvest item. Knot grass is very similar to buckwheat and the volume of pollen does suggest it was grown on purpose.
Grains would have predominantly been made into porridge. Some would have also been ground into flour, but they used hand querns which suggests this was not a cultural priority. Barley was especially important for the making of beer. The rise of rye production correlating with the decline in naked barley while hulled barley remained consistent suggest that much of the hulled barley was used for beer while the rye and naked barley was eaten.

Vegetables

There is evidence that most homes and farmsteads had a vegetable garden next to the home. This would have been where they grew cabbage, or at least the predecessor to cabbages, turnips, beets, broad beans, and some form of alliums. We are not sure what alliums as they do not survive well. Two bulb onions have been found, ramsons/wild garlic is native, and leeks showed up at some unknown point.

Livestock

The early Scandinavian farmers raised a number of livestock and they almost all server multiple purposes. Sheep provided wool and meat, goats and cattle milk and meat. Pigs were useful in the conversion of waste to meat. They also raised ducks, geese, and chickens for meat, eggs, and pest control.

Gathered/Hunted

Fishing

Fishing was probably even more important to the early Scandinavian diet than agriculture. Analysis has shown people living near the ocean getting around 40% of their caloric intake from seafood. Enough to throw off radiocarbon dating.

Herring, cod, flatfish, and salmon were common. Often simply dried on stocks for storage. Marine mammals were also hunted for their meat, hides, and ivory.

Berries

There is a plethora of native berries in Scandinavia. Lingonberries, strawberries, raspberries, cloudberries and others. These were probably not cultivated but the areas that they grew were probably maintained to encourage production. Little is known about preservation but drying and, in the case of lingonberries, freezing in water was probably used.

Tree Fruits and Nuts

It appears that orchards were not planted. There are no finds at least. It would appear that they were more naturally created by logging the non-fruit or nut bearing trees. Cherries, plums, and apples were gathered. Hazel nuts, walnuts, and acorns were gathered as well. Fruit was probably dried for storage.

Wild Greens

There is a lot of pollen and some seed finds that suggest wild greens were gathered during the spring and summer. Goosefoot, catsear,sea beets, and sea beans are all common in the area.

Putting It All Together: Cod Gröt

Cod Gröt

This dish has all of the characteristics of cuisine defining staple. It is hearty, easy enough to make every day, pulls in many of the elements that define the cuisine, and has thousands of possible variants to make the debate over which is best sustainable over generations. This is a spring variant that would be probable on the west coast of southern Sweden. I will go over the recipe and then the reasoning.

Recipe

½c Rye berries

½c Naked or pearled barley

¼c oats, whole or steel cut

4c skyr whey, fresh

1/2c sea water (½c water with 1t salt)

1c sour cream

2lb fresh cod, diced

4c mustard greens, chopped (can use kale or cabbage or wild greens)

1c garlic green chopped (can sub chives or green onions)

butter

Add whey, salt water, and rye berries (also barley unless it is pearled) to your pot.

Bring to a boil covered. Stir occasionally.

Once boiling add the pearled barley, oats, garlic and greens.

Bring back to a boil, stir, and then put on a lid. Move it up the pot chain or turn heat to low.

Let simmer for 45 minutes. Use this time to go about your morning.

After 45 minutes stir. It should be fairly thick. Stir in the cod and replace the lid for 5 minutes.

Finally stir in the sour cream and serve with a dollop of butter if you like or a dollop of lard for those you like less.

A hefty dollop of skyr on top will add to the protein and makes a really satisfying meal.

Serves 4

Nutritional estimates:

720cal – 67g Carbs – 25g Fat – 58g Protein

Reasoning

This is a spring dish. We are using the diminishing store of grains and I am using a mix that corresponds with pollen records of the time and place for what was grown. The oats are a stretch, but really do amazing things for the mouth feel. Dairy is in full swing and we will have an abundance of skyr whey and skyr. Souring cream that has not yet been churned would also be readily available. Ocean fishing for cod, haddock, and herring would have started. I chose cod for availability. Spring greens will be growing. The mustard adds some flavor but any greens will do. The ramsons will also be up and the greens ready t harvest even if the bulbs are under developed. You can add status to the dish by serving with butter instead of lard or other fats that appear to be less desirable. The sea water is used as I am unaware of dry salt works in the area at his time and sea water was plentiful.

We are cooking this in the simplest way. In a pot or cauldron hanging over a fire. It has the added benefit of being able to be held at the ready for a long period of time before adding the cod just before serving. This makes it convenient for larger gatherings or households. The tools for eating are a bowl and spoon. All of the equipment for making this would be very common both in a household and a traveling kit.

Most importantly, this is delicious, nutritious, and simple to make. It has the flavor profile of sour/salty. Also the gröt is thick enough that it is unlikely to spill and is an easy clean up.

Preserved food for winter snacking

Variations

Any fish can be used. When using herring, I recommend filleting, peeling, and then soaking in whey overnight to soften the small bones. In the late spring/summer salmon would be abundant. In the winter you would use pickled herring or pounded and soaked stock fish.

Grains will vary by region and what is available. The ratio of just over 4 to 1 liquid to grain is the important part for a good gröt.

In the summer you will end up with a lot more vegetables and less grain. Just enough to hold it together with broad beans, cabbage, beets, celery, and other available vegetables filling the bulk. In the winter this will turn to pickled or dried and reconstituted vegetables and the whole will add that umami and funk from fermentation.

References

Cod and Herring: the Archaeology and History of Medieval Sea Fishing

Luckhardt & Orton – Oxbow Books – 2016

An early meal. A Viking age cookbook & culinary odyssey.

Serra – Chronocopia Publishing – 2013

Cereal husbandry and settlement: expanding archaeobotanical perspectives on the southern Scandinavian Iron Age

Grabowski – Environmental Archaeology Laboratory, Umeå University – 2014

Prehistoric plant food of Denmark
by Eva Koch 12 December 1999

Animal Bones from Sondum (27012) Sandoy, Faroe Islands 200 Season Collection

NORSEC ZOOARCHAEOLOGY LABORATORIES REPORT No 23

Stable isotopes as indicators of change in the food procurement and food preference of Viking Age and Early Christian populations on Gotland (Sweden)

Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 26 (2007) 394–411

Henriksen, P. S. (2008). Carbonised macro remains from Iron Age and Viking Age in Denmark: results from recent investigations. Abstract from AEA 2008 Annual Conference. The Consequences of fire, Århus, Denmark.

Graff, S.R. Archaeological Studies of Cooking and Food Preparation. J Archaeol Res 26, 305–351 (2018)

Sven Isaksson 2000. Food and Rank in Early Medieval Time. PHD DISS. Archaeological Research Laboratory, Department of Archaeology, Stockholm University

Kosiba, S.B. Stable isotopes as indicators of change in the food procurement and food preference of Viking Age and Early Christian populations on Gotland (Sweden) Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 26 (2007) 394–411

Hansson, A.M. The Bread From Ljunga in Central SwedenNew Analyses. Laborativ Arkeologi 8 (1995)

Agricultural plants in the Viking Age: Fotevikens Museum

https://www.fotevikensmuseum.se/d/en/vikingar/hur/mat/recept/vaxter?fbclid=IwAR0YjoRCEqlJAkI5KalIzldcwY8zxXon76kl5EgKPmGmuCqmVk38W3BPq9M

Household

http://www.vikingage.org/wiki/wiki/Household

Danmarks ældste løg

AF METTE MARIE HALD, PETER STEEN HENRIKSEN, LARS JØRGENSEN OG IRENE SKALS. Nationalmuseets Arbejdsmark 2015

Hald, M.M. Fragments of meals in eastern Denmark from the Viking Age to the Renaissance: New evidence from organic remains in latrines

Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports Vol 31, June 2020

16 Replies to “Scandinavian Cuisine During the Vendel and Early Viking Age”

  1. There is a lot of good work that has gone into this. I’d like to see some broader thinking – the Vikings were isolated, but also did a lot of trading and raiding. They also were not a homogenous group – what was true of the Icelandic Vikings were not true of the Vikings of Scandinavia and Denmark.

    You state that traditions change slowly so you expected the food to remain relatively static for a long period of time – because there was no upheaval or cataclysmic event to cause change. How did trade with Europe affect the evolution of food culture in Viking Scandinavia? For example, the Vikings were definitely exposed to Northern European cheeses through their interactions with the Celts and had access to young calves and goats, whose stomachs they could use to create cheese. Cheese would store the nutrition from milk longer than skyr. What do we know about Vikings and cheese? You might want to look into the Fotevikens Museum, a Viking living history museum. They’ve been conducting experiments creating Viking cheeses (https://www.fotevikensmuseum.se/d/en/vikingar/hur/mat/recept/ost) and have created a small recipe book of other foods and drink (https://www.fotevikensmuseum.se/d/en/vikingar/hur/mat/recept).

    1. Thank you for the feedback and resource links. A large part of the reason I am holding this to 650-850 is it is a relatively stable period between Migration and the Viking Age expansion. During the time before and the time after there was a significant amount of imported culture. Most of the trade appears to be Baltic. The project is a primer that is designed to be interesting and read through in 10-15 with more questions than answers.
      Cheeses and the entire dairy industry I have not delved into deeply. There were very probably many kinds of regional cheeses, both hard and soft. There is one later example in and Icelandic saga of a cheese being carved into an anchor. Whether this is impressively good or impressively bad is up to debate. Dairy and dairy byproduct as well as brewing and byproducts are both future projects.
      The Foteviken Museum site looks like one of the better museum sites for food. They are putting in a real effort. There are some things I agree with and some that I have more questions about, but everything I have seen falls mainly in the Probable or Plausible zones with a few things down to Possible.

  2. Nice work, but it made me miss your Gröt intensely. I really enjoyed how you organized this, it’s got me wondering about the taboos (if any) against shellfish. I look forward to your brewing chapter!

  3. I really enjoyed reading your journey and your end result. I like the way you have it organized for diving into a culture that did not leave much written record and how you thought through what information you needed to obtain. I’m planning to start researching into Irish culinary history and I’ll probably make use of much of the same structure – thanks for the inspiration!

    I am curious about why you would use sour cream rather than skyr for the recipe as you’d have made it recently given the whey?

    1. Irish food will be a very similar journey…and the same journey during the 9th and 10th centuries. Also look for some English or even Roman accounts of the early Irish. If a call there are a couple of brief descriptions from those perspectives. Not necessarily the least biased, but a little something.

      I went with the sour cream for a few reasons. This dish would have no fat content without it and to be functional for the time it would need that nutritional balance and caloric increase. As a spring recipe, souring cream would be readily available, it combines into a hot gröt better than skyr.

      Skyr makes an excellent topping to this. Adds a little more sour, creaminess, and protein boost. I add skyr to almost all of my gröt, both sweet and savory recipes. Would probably be common add on and would be available in pretty large quantities during the spring.

  4. I love your approach of researching first not what is known about cooking but what is known about the life style and building your base to avoid the what is known trap.

    Your article was fascinating and a fresh way to look at cooking. Once you had done some of your approach have you found yourself now comparing what you found to what is known and seeing any large differences?

    1. The most important thing that I learned is that very little is actually known. After a year I started looking at books and web resources etc and comparing what I had found and what was being presented. I generally go with a rating system: Probable, Plausible, Possible, Probably not, and ALIENS!
      The early Scandinavian food community is growing and there is a lot of opportunity to discuss, learn new thing, question long held theories, and just get less wrong. My more non-mainstream theories are that bulb onion may have arrived before leeks, fresh meat was simmered and seared, hulled barley was mainly grown for beer and malt syrup, pit cooking was used mainly for marine mammals. This last one I am going to have a hard time testing. Also starting to come around to there being some form of bee keeping.
      Trying to build more interest. More interest makes for more grants and more grants makes for more research for me to consume.

      1. Have you reached out to Melissa Of Dalmatia who is exhibiting here regarding bees? They seem to have an interest in this topic and may have some resources which would help your research on that piece.

        1. I had not, but have now. Beekeeping is one of those areas that, to put it in Dunning Kruger terms, I am digging my way out of the valley of despair about. I have had a number of conversations dismissing it as there is no physical evidence, but then there is the social pressure of having honey that argues that there would be a demand that seems to outweigh the difficulty. Many techniques would not really leave much evidence after 1000 years if nobody wrote it down. Green Man Honey out of the UK is doing some work on this that I think is very valid.

  5. This is an awesome article, I just skimmed it but I really want to sit and read it in its entirety when I have more time! (I am on a sauce kick these days, focusing on France and England 14th & 15th centuries ATM) Food research! Yay! 😉
    PS I love the phrase ‘constantly less wrong’ – I have to write that on my wall of quotes! ;P

  6. excellent article! I grew up on a number of those foods, and have brewed traditional Norse style ale. See Nordland, Odd 1969 “Brewing and Beer Traditions in Norway: the social anthropological background of the brewing industry”. Oslo/Bergen/Tromso/: Universitetsforlaget. Prof. Nordland goes into early and regional brewing techniques, ingredients, colklore, etc., and IMHO this is the definitive work on Norse ale brewing.

    1. Thank you for the comments. Brewing is an in the future or, better yet, using the expertise of others sort of thing for me. Will definitely read that. I have talked with a few people that do recreations, mostly to understand the process and how it effects food production, storage, and the like. Also sampled some ales that have varied in the degree of success. For a more recent book I highly recommend Mika Laitinen’s Viking Age Brew: The Craft of Brewing Sahti Farmhouse Ale. He cares about brewing way more than I do, has some amazing skills, and makes a really enjoyable Sahti.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *