Eat Like a Viking: Ancient Gruel Was Tastier Than it Sounds!
Gruel. Indecipherable grey mush slopped on a plate? Not necessarily! Viking food was simple but that was just the beginning. Porridge and gruel made from whole or cracked grains were popular meals for Viking families. Although there was a plain, simple gruel of grains mixed with water, milk, and butter, access to other ingredients could quickly add flavor, texture, and turn a simple gruel into a hearty, tasty meal. Gruel and porridge came in both sweet and savory varieties and during celebrations, meat, fruits, nuts, honey, and/or spices were often used to enhance the dish. These were the staple foods of the Viking Age . A careful reading of ancient Norse sagas and Viking archaeological evidence suggests Viking food was a little more complicated than just plain gruel.
Viking Food Revisited Through Norse Sagas And Archaeology
The Vikings generally only ate two meals a day. The first, dagmál (day-meal), filled Norse bellies in the morning approximately two hours after the day's work had begun and the second, náttmál (night meal) concluded the workday. The times when these meals were eaten depended on the time of year and hours of daylight, but they were generally about 12 hours apart.
Unfortunately, the Vikings didn’t write cookbooks and there are no known recipes surviving from the Viking Age. But reconstructing the Viking diet and some of their cooking methods has been possible by studying the Eddas and Sagas stories and legends, which sometimes mention food in passing and tell us that women were the ones in charge of cooking. In fact, a character in the Brennu-Njáls Saga even asserts “it is not for men to get mixed up in the preparation of food.” When details from the Norse literature are combined with the results of archaeological midden excavations and pollen analyses from bogs and lake bottoms, the picture of the Viking Age diet becomes much clearer.
Vikings Spiced Up Their Food
Despite the notoriously cold weather of the Nordic lands, the Vikings had access to a variety of foods. What they could not grow or obtain through gathering or animal husbandry, was gained through trade or pillaging . In the Middle Ages, Vikings used many foreign spices .
For this gruel recipe, we use grain, hazelnuts, apples, honey, and cream. All of these ingredients were available to the Vikings in one way or another, as you’ll see.
For example, barley was the most commonly grown grain in Sweden and Denmark. Oats were also common, alongside barley, in Norway. The Icelanders had some barley and oat cultivation until around 1150 AD, when the climate became less favorable. Viking Age wheat has also been found in archaeological excavations at Jorvík, Birka, Oseberg, and Dublin. Burnt grains have even survived until archaeologists discovered them a millennium later. While most of the barley probably went toward the production of ale or beer, it was also used for other dishes, such as gruel and bread. Oats were considered animal fodder in some areas, such as Denmark, however they were used in porridge and bread in other places, such as Sweden and Norway.
Viking food, like this gruel, was a lot tastier than it may sound! ( M.Casariego / Adobe Stock )
A hand mill was necessary to grind the grain for use in gruel or bread. Since it was a laborious task to turn the heavy stone mill, Vikings generally had thralls (slaves) do it. Sometimes lower-class women were also enlisted to grind the grain.
Hazelnuts were the only nut found wild in Scandinavia and they were popular. Later on, walnuts, almonds, and chestnuts were imported from other cultures the Vikings interacted with. Apples were gathered, and along with berries and plums, they were one of the main fruits available locally. In the Viking Age, fruits were often preserved by drying them out. But by the Middle Ages, Scandinavians began to use honey and sometimes sugar to conserve fruits as well. Honey was cultivated in southern Scandinavia and export to other areas where bees couldn’t survive.
Dairy farming was also an important part of life in northern Sweden, Finland, and Norway. Cows were preferred over goats, though both were available. It was only in the Middle Ages when the importance of dairy was surpassed by cereals. Nonetheless, milk, butter, cheese, and cream all remained significant parts of Viking food preparation.
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To begin the process of heating water or milk to make gruel, the liquid would be placed in a suspended animal hide, clay pot, or soapstone pot and heated stones would be placed into the liquid. Then the grains and other ingredients could be cooked as the vessel was turned, or the mixture was stirred to prevent burning. I think you’ll agree that our method using a stove top is much easier!
The FULL RECIPE to make your own Viking gruel is available, HERE, in the April, 2019 AO Magazine Issue.
Top image: Viking woman prepares food on a cauldron. Source: Evdoha / Adobe Stock