Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Raw Barley of Research: The Viking Diet

This is the first in a series of three posts about Viking foods, the patterns of Viking food-culture, and the connection between food and spirituality in the Viking diet. This series began as research for my upcoming novel “In the Company of Stones,” an historical fantasy set in 780's Denmark.

No fantasy-land bread-cheese-stew for my characters.  I want to feed them the real thing.

First off, Vikings were not the size of houses, like this guy.

Or like this local Viking. Dude, could ya lose the horned helmet? Puh-leeze?

Vikings this size aren't heroes, they're targets. This pair are the results of the American diet, heavy on High-Fructose Corn Syrup, refined carbs, and fatty meats.

REAL Vikings tended to be a lean, rangy lot. Why?  The Authentic Viking Diet! Contrary to movie images of bloodthirsty Vikings gnawing on the severed limbs of their victims, or Dark Age Vikings munching gravel by the side of the road, real Norse-folk ate a surprisingly varied diet of healthy foods.

What the Norse had in abundance was fish, and lots of it. They ate shellfish, perch, pike, whitefish, common garfish, roach, rudd, bream, shrimp, haddock, flatfish, ling and  mackerel, smelt, eel, salmon, cod and herring. Wild game included deer, elk, bear, boar, squirrel, reindeer and hare; wild birds and their eggs; fish and marine mammals including whales.  The Norse also kept domestic chicken, geese, and ducks for meat and eggs, as well as livestock including cattle, sheep, goats and pigs.

 (Image courtesy of the professional Vikings at

Even though they lacked canning and refrigeration, the Norse had many options for preserving perishable foods. Methods used included drying fish, baking grains into flat-bread and storing the rounds in the rafters; smoking meats and fish and hanging them in the rafters as well; conversion of milk into cheeses, soured butter, and skyr, a yogurt-like soft cheese. (Rumor has it that skyr is available at Whole Foods, although I've yet to find it.) Vikings also pickled boiled meats in crocks of 'spoiled' or soured whey, in which the lactic acid in the whey would prevent further bacterial spoilage.

What would it be like to eat meat pickled in sour whey all winter? How glad would you be for spring to arrive? (I imagine Viking women throwing their husbands out to go hunt fresh game as soon as the snows stopped.)

Although the Norse didn't eat Western Hemisphere foods such as potatoes, corn and tomatoes, their diet was quite complex. Grains were largely barley, rye, and oats, as wheat did not do well in the short northern growing season. For vegetable proteins, they ate beans and peas, hazelnuts and imported walnuts. Pot-herbs included loose-leaf cabbage, endives, docks, cresses, nettles and lambs-quarters; root vegetables including onions, parsnips, turnips and scrawny white carrots; flavoring herbs such as dill, mustard, parsley, thyme and horseradish; wild fruits such as apples, pears, cherries, sloe-berries, cloud-berries, lingonberries, and wild strawberries. The staple drink was ale made with malted barley, sometimes flavored with sweet myrtle. They also drank apple and pear cider, honey-mead, and imported wines.

With far-flung trade routes extending to Byzantium, Vikings imported spices such as cumin, coriander, pepper, saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cloves, grains of paradise, ginger, cardamom, aniseed, and bay leaves.

The Norse husfreyja (housewife) had all the best stone and iron-age tools to cook her family's meals.

 (Repro utensils photo courtesy of
Liquids were poured into a suspended animal-skin sack and then heated by dropping hot stones in with the liquids. Foods were baked by heating small stones in the open cooking fire and then rolling them into stone ovens to heat the interior. The most common method of cooking food was boiling it in iron cauldrons hung over the fire. Iron spits were also used to roast meats, and flat iron pans were used to bake breads in the fire.

Despite the limitations of a cool climate and Iron Age technology, the archaeological evidence shows the Norse consumed enough nutrients to be tall, straight – and one presumes, handsome.

 (Image courtesy of the Saga Exhibit, Pearlan, Reykjavik, Iceland)

Research as led me to conclude the Viking diet was far healthier than our own. Our Norse ancestors ate lean proteins like fish or grass-fed cattle. Their carbs came from whole, unrefined grains. Sugars were unheard of, with the exception of wild raw honey.  Raising or catching your own food also takes a tremendous amount of calories – some estimates of the calories needed for labor at a Viking homestead run up to 10,000 calories a day.  It would have been difficult for a working Viking to 'bulk up.'

So were Vikings giant, muscle-bound men as depicted in fantasy literature? No. Were they lean, mean fighting machines? Mmmm – maybe. Lean and combative? Yes.

Mean? No. But that's a tale for a later post.

For a more exhaustive breakdown of Viking foods by location, see:


  1. *laughs out loud at the image of Vikings eating gravel*

    What fun! I liked this a lot, especially all the good information.


  2. Very impressive! and yes, fun and funny as well as educational... Love the pictures, and yes, good to set the record straight about their size. Although, I wonder if they still looked tall to the small Celts and Picts...I await the next installment. And---I love the background. Totally.

  3. Wonderful post! And lots of information! I think I would have liked the Vikings' diet! Thanks for posting!

  4. Wonderful description and research of the Viking diet - can't wait to read more...

  5. While I appreciate what you are doing I feel I should point out that saying the vikings were tall and lean is just as erroneous as saying they were all hulking brutes. Like any culture they had a wide variety of body types, though it is true that they learned toward taller on average. Still you would have had both lean, rangy vikings and burlier, heavier vikings. While diet is an important factor, so is genetics. At the risk of making this sound like a personal defense several men in my family, myself included are naturally bigger and broader than most. This not to say we are fat, we are just large and strong. I am six foot have a 36' waist and 52' chest. My uncles are similarly proportioned only taller. My father the smallest and leanest of us all still has very broad shoulders compared to other men his height and weight. Some people are just constructed of stouter stuff.

    Also you cannot explain it away with simple diet for in history we see many examples of large men (both muscular or otherwise) despite their more varied and natural diet. "Bulking up" does not necessitate a great deal of processed sugars, but can happen through simple testosterone and protein (and a genetic propensity doesn't hurt).

    Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of digging into the everyday of this fascinating culture I just think that we can't let assumptions or presuppositions cloud the facts.

  6. The reason the vikings not eating potatoes, its simple, the potato its originally from america, specially from south america so until the spanish conquerors came back with potatoes from the aztecs nobody in europe had seen a potato before thats at least like 5 centuries later than the viking era

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