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Fjord Tours Articles / 13 Aug 2020

Medieval Viking Feasts

A feast is a huge celebratory dinner with everything served in abundance. The Vikings were famed for their glutinous indulgence of food and habit of eagerly drinking beer or mead wine with every meal.

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Photo: Sara Johannessen

What is a feast?

Vikings held feasts for a variety of reasons, seasonal feasts such as Winter Nights and Jul, harvest festivals such as Mabon, religious rituals, and for more personal reasons such as a wedding or a celebration of a successful raiding voyage.

A Viking feast depended on the wealth of the host, but all Vikings ate well at feast time. They certainly ate more and a better variety of food than the daily meal afforded. Roasted and boiled meats, rich stews, platters of buttered root vegetables, sharp, welcome greens, and sweet fruits and nuts meant a rich feast and full bellies.

While major feasts might last 12 days, minor feasts and celebrations would last a few. The winter solstice brought Jul, from December 20 to 31st, from which we draw some of our Christmas traditions; the spring equinox brought Ostara, a renewal festival, welcoming fertility back to the land. The summer solstice brought the midsummer festival, a time when most foreign trades took place and Vikings went off on fishing and raiding expeditions. August and September brought harvest celebrations at the time when most foods were at their peak to eat and preserve for winter. Most weddings took place in autumn.

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Photo: Annie Spratt/ Unsplash.com

What is Mead wine?

Mead, or “honey wine,” is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey. It’s one of the oldest alcoholic beverages ever made, and it was consumed as far back as 4,000 years. Not only a favorite of the Vikings, but mead was also common across ancient cultures around the world.

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Photo: Georg Hansen

Were Vikings farmers?

When they were not out at sea on long-haul raiding missions Vikings farmed crops, grew vegetable gardens, and reared livestock. They were pretty self-sustainable, topping up what they produced on their farms with hunting and fishing.

Viking farms were generally small but large enough to keep the extended family well-fed in good harvest years. In summer and fall, Vikings ate well as these were the seasons of plentiful, fresh food. It was important to preserve and store foods for winter and spring when fresh foods were gone. Fish, fowl, and meat were dried, salted, or smoked. Vegetables and fruits were dried and stored for winter. Grains were ground and the flour made into bread, which was preserved and stored as well. Even though fresh foods were hard to come by in winter and spring, archeological studies reveal that Vikings didn’t suffer from vitamin or mineral deficiencies.

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Photo: Georg Hansen

Barley and rye were the grains that grew best in the northern climate, along with oats. From these grains, Vikings made beer, bread, stews, and porridge. The flatbread was the daily bread of the Vikings. A simple dough was made from ground oats or barley, water was added and then the dough flattened out on a griddle and baked over the fire.

Vikings consumed a variety of vegetables including cabbage, onions, garlic, leeks, turnips, peas, and beans. These garden crops were sowed in spring and harvested in late summer and fall. Women and children gathered wild plants and herbs, mostly greens. These wild vegetables included nettles, docks, cresses, and lambs-quarters. Vikings also grew some herbs such as dill, parsley, mustard, horseradish, and thyme.

Scandinavians raised cows, horses, oxen, goats, pigs, sheep, chickens, and ducks. They ate beef, goat, pork, mutton, lamb, chicken and duck, and occasionally horsemeat. The chickens and ducks produced eggs, so the Vikings ate their eggs as well as eggs gathered from wild seabirds. Because most Vikings lived on the coast, they ate all kinds of fish, both ocean-going and freshwater fish. In fact, fish was probably a good 25 percent of their diet.

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Photo: Fjord Norge. Foto Ruben Soltvedt

Most Viking cows lived long enough to raise a calf and were then slaughtered for meat. Some cows, however, lived to about 10 years old, showing that they were milk cows. While Vikings enjoyed drinking milk, whey, and buttermilk, they also used the milk to make other dairy products including cheese, skyr, a soft, yogurt-like cheese, curds, and butter. Sour whey was used to preserve cooked meats in the winter.

The Viking Age was not a time in which to worry about the fat content of the food. The Vikings needed all the energy that they could get in the form of fat – especially in winter. Meat, fish, vegetables, cereals, and milk products were all an important part of their diet. Sweet food was consumed in the form of berries, fruit, and honey. In England, the Vikings were often described as gluttonous. They ate and drank too much according to the English people.

Today our food culture is influenced by globalization and products from all over the world can be bought all year round. In the Viking period, however, the housekeeping needed to be planned and adapted to the different seasons. The typical Viking was self-sufficient, a farmer with domestic animals and crops in the field. There were also people who did not produce all their food and needed to buy as well. The blacksmith or fisherman could satisfy his food requirements by buying or exchanging products at the local market.

Want to go traveling and experience the Vikings and how they lived?

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Photo: Max/Unsplash