Running a household in the Viking era

by Trine Theut

The everyday life of the Viking family, every day, year in and year out, was a struggle to maintain life: to provide for a roof over everyone’s head, to stay warm and to prepare food. During much of the year it was easy to get the food; but it takes a long time to prepare it, and one must think ahead and gather, dry it and put it away for the long winter.

What did they eat?

We don’t know exactly which meals were prepared during the Viking era; but we know a lot about the raw material they used and what type of utensils were used during the preparation of the food. Many utensils; pots, knives and the like have been preserved from that time; and on closer analysis of clay pots, shards of pottery, ashes from hearths and layers of earth in the houses it is possible to find the remains of the food and supplies they had. In addition some of the finds of human remains in bogs have been so well preserved that their stomachs and intestines could be examined and in this way determine what their last meal consisted of. We also know, to a degree, what plants and wild animals there were in Denmark during the Viking era, and we can figure that most of these were a part of the diet, as long as one could get hold of it.

Raw materials

The most important of cultivated crops was grain. Barley, wheat, rye and buckwheat were amongst the cultivated crops. The Viking era’s grains didn’t look just like they do today, there was more straw and less kernel then.

Grains grew well then as now here in Denmark and since it is a food that makes an excellent winter supply it easy to guess that the Vikings used grain/flour in most of their meals – either as bread and porridge or as an addition to soups and meats.

Vegetable gardens were to be found also. One could grow peas, horse beans, onions, angelica, hops, parsnips and carrots. Eggs, milk, meats and fatty stuffs for everyday food preparation were obtained from the livestock, which was similar to today, though they were a bit smaller then. Meat from livestock was not a daily part of the diet then, so fish, game and birds eggs were a welcome change of pace to the day in day out courses of porridge.

During the Viking era a large part of the country was covered by oak trees or thickets, afterwards with more and more beech mixed in. This made it a matter of course to gather acorns and bog for food preparation. Seeds, nuts and berries from other trees and bushes were also gathered for the household. After a long winter with dried and stored food one probably longed for fresh vegetables, so one wonders if new leaves weren’t on the menu? In the fields and meadows it is possible to gather roots fresh chutes, and spires. If one is familiar with the various characteristics of the plants it is possible to a vitamin rich addition to the diet; but to what degree the Vikings exploited this possibility, we don’t know.

Tools and kitchen utensils

The fireplace, the hearth, with the kettle made of iron or clay was the most important equipment in the Viking family’s household. It was here one cooked the meal from the raw material the family had at its disposition that day, most likely the same as the day before, and the day before that, and the day before….

In addition some places had a pit beside the fireplace where one could fry over the hot ashes that were scraped out of the hearth. Spits of iron were in use; however most evidence shows that most everyday food was cooked.

Water or soup could be boiled with the help of handsized fire-heated stones – cooking stones – that were put into the liquid gave up their heat and were then picked up and put back into the fire again. After a few uses cooking stones began to break up and they had to be disposed of. These fire-exposed stones have been found in abundance at Viking homes, in the fireplaces and in large outdoor fry pits.

Note! Cooking stones must NOT be made of flint – they will explode in the fire!

Clay pots have been used in many sizes and shapes both for the preservation and preparation of food.

In addition, there are spoons and ladles of wood or bone, and knives of iron. Forks were used only in the form of large cooking forks used for fishing out pieces of meat from the kettle.

Large shards of pottery were used to move glowing ash and hot stones or for baking flatbread.

A huge and difficult job was to grind grain in the rotating grinder, which had in the course of the Iron Age replaced the push grinder. Both strength and patience were necessary to grind the grain into flour.

The use of a kettle over an open fire

When the fire was lit the container was placed in it with the handle away from the heat. Clay is a poor conductor of heat and it was often necessary to turn the container and stir the contents in order to disperse the heat evenly. Note that the heating of the pot doesn’t occur from the bottom of the pot as we are used to but from the side, so it is on the cooking container’s sides where one risks burning the food!

Let the wooden spoon rest in the jar (away from the fire) while the food simmers, but remember: never leave it at the edge of the cooking container, it can’t be there. The cooking container must be at least half full, otherwise it will crack because of the difference in heat between the top and the bottom. If there is to be salt in the food it must be added just prior to serving. If salt is allowed to cook with the food it will crystallize in the clay and make it porous and weak.

Fire-warmed cooking stones (for warm water, tea or soup) must be set very carefully in the liquid with a wet wooden spoon or a shard of pottery.

You cannot see if the stone is hot so you should always have a bowl of cold water around in case of an accidental burn!

Make your own Viking food!

Porridge (4-6 servings)

Measurements are given in cups. One cup=1 ½ dl or about 90 g flour.

10-15 cups of water
Two cups of chopped wheat kernels. Let them soak over night so they won’t be so hard to chew.
Two cups pearl barley
A handful whole grain wheat flour
A handful crushed kernels of nuts
3-4 tablespoons of honey
A healthy portion of apple bits, hippells, pears or….
  1. Put the chopped wheat kernels, wheat flour, pearl barley and crushed nuts in the kettle. Pour 10 cups of water in the kettle and place on the fire.
  2. Stir the porridge evenly and turn the kettle to spread the heat. If the porridge starts to get too thick, pour more water in it.
  3. After about ½ hour add the honey, nuts and fruit. The porridge should now cook until the fruit is wet and the porridge has the desired consistency. It should take 15-30 minutes.
  4. It should be served warm, possibly with some cold cream.

The basic recipe is, per person one cup of kernels and two cups of liquid (water and/or milk). One must count on having to add more liquid because of evaporation when the porridge cooks over an open fire without a cover. Any pressed and crushed kernels can be used, the most coarse should soak overnight otherwise they will have to be cooked too long.

Meat soup (4-6 servings)

Measurements are given in cups. One cup=1 ½ dl or about 90 g flour.

8-12 cups of water
½ kg meat (pork, beef, lamb, chicken, hen etc)
3-5 cups of herb such as the top shoots of stinging nettles, young dandelion leaves, wild chervil, cress, wild marjorum, dill, plantain, angelica, wild onions, caraway greenery, thyme, or whatever the season has to offer.

Remember: You must always be sure that the plants are edible!

  1. Put the meat in the kettle. Pour water over the meat so it is covered and put the kettle on the fire. In order that the heat is spread evenly the kettle must be turned about every 5-10 minutes.
  2. When the water boils it should cook for about one hour. It may be necessary to add more water so the meat is always covered with water.
  3. While the meat is cooking wash and chop the herbs. They will go in the soup when it is ready.
  4. When the meat is tender take it out and slice it to a size fit for a spoon and return it to the soup.
  5. Add salt as desired, then it is ready to be served.
  6. It can be served with flatbread.

If you want a more filling soup you can add soaked wheat kernels, thick flour…or the soup can be smoothed out with pea flour (yellow peas grinded on a stone).

 Fish soup (4 – 6 servings)

Measurements are given in cups. One cup=1 ½ dl or about 90 g flour.

½ kg of trout, salmon, cod or another fish.
10-12 cups of water
One cup of whipped cream
3-5 cups of herb such as the top shoots of stinging nettles, young dandelion leaves, ashweed, wild chervil, cress, wild marjorum, dill, plantain, angelica, wild onions, caraway greenery, parsley, thyme, … or whatever the season has to offer.

Remember: You must always be sure that the plants are edible!

  1. Clean the fish, wash and cut into small pieces.
  2. The slices of fish must be cooked until they are tender. This takes 20-30 minutes.
  3. Put the cooked fish slices on a dish and bone them.
  4. Put the fish back in the soup. Add the whipped cream and chopped herbs.
  5. The soup should now cook for about 20-30 minutes adding salt as desired. Then it is ready to be served. Fish soup can be served with flatbread.

A little dab of butter in the soup tastes good!

It is, of course, not intended for all of the previously mentioned vegetables to be included in the same soup. Be inspired by the many available books on edible plants and use whatever you find in the vicinity. Always be certain that you know the plants and put only edible plants in your basket.

Flatbread/Shardbread (Shortbread)

Measurements are given in cups. One cup=1 ½ dl or about 90 g flour.

 7 Cups of gruttet flour or thick wheat flour.
 3 cups of liquid. Use whey or butter milk
 1 Egg
 A dash of salt (if desired)
  1. Flour, liquid, egg and salt must be kneaded long and thoroughly. If needed add more flour or liquid so the dough is just right.
  2. The dough should be shaped into small balls and then pressed flat and thin.
  3. The bread is baked over a glowing fire on shards of pottery or pans, about 2-3 minutes on each side. The bread should be light brown and sound hollow when you knock on it lightly with a fingernail. For the pottery you can use the shards from an average red burned herbal pot…
Sweeter bread/cakes can be obtained by sweetening the dough with honey.
Toasted stinging nettles give a good spicy taste.
Chopped nuts and cooked acorns in the dough are also good.

If you have butchered a hen you can use the yolks in the dough. The bread is called shard bread because it is baked on a shard of pottery; but if one has a large household it can also be baked on an iron skillet about 10-15 cm over the coals.

Hot, nutritious drinks

A delicious apple drink

Apple bits
Apple leaves
  1. Fill a jar with water, small pieces of apple (with peel) and apple leaves.
  2. The drink should simmer on the fire; when it reaches the boiling point sweeten it with honey.
  3. Serve hot..

The apples can be replaced with pears. Berries are also quite delicious in this drink – try different mixes of fruits as desired.

Herbal drink

Herbal drinks can be made with many different plants. The drink is prepared by putting the leaf or flower in boiling water and letting it cook for a few minutes

Good drinks can be gotten from the young leaves of:

Stinging nettles

… and the flowers of:


Remember: Be sure that the plants you use are edible!

From the book  I LÆRE SOM VIKING   by Trine Theut,.  Illustrations by the author. Published in 1994 by Trine Theut and OP-Forlag, Aps, Denmark.  ISBN 87-7794-248-5English version by Steven Mohn

This post is also available in: Norwegian Bokmål, Danish

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