Dine like a Viking
Chef James Bushell shares his love of Viking cuisine and three recipes you can make at home
CHRISTY OLSEN FIELD
The Norwegian American
Ever wondered how the Vikings actually ate? Do visions of horns filled with beer and lots of meat come to mind?
“Viking food is so delicious! Hollywood has not done it any favors because they make it look like barbarians eating disgusting things,” said James Bushell. “The Vikings were one of the most advanced cultures in Europe at the time, and they ate nutritious, delicious food.”
Bushell is a Viking food enthusiast, lecturer, and chef who prepares authentic Viking feasts in the Greater Seattle area.
I had the distinct honor of speaking with Bushell by phone to learn more about his fascinating work in researching and recreating Viking Age dishes in the modern-day kitchen.
Throughout our conversation, I realized echoes of Viking cuisine are evident in traditional Norwegian dishes today. And as it turns out, Viking cuisine can actually be made with simple ingredients found at the grocery store, with utterly delicious results.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Christy Olsen Field: How did you get interested in Viking cuisine?
James Bushell: Most people become interested in Viking food through the archeology side, but I came to it through the food side. I used to be a chef, and I am very interested in history. I am a member of the Society of Creative Anachronism, and we do feasts on medieval Italy, France, and other historical periods. No one was doing Viking food at the time, and I was curious. It is a challenge to recreate the food, since no recipes were written down and few food descriptions were written down.
COF: How do you conduct your research?
JB: Early Scandinavian food is a challenge to recreate, because very little was written down in the Viking Age. Today, we rely on archeological evidence: What people had, what they used for tools, and the social context for how those tools were used.
I do my research online by reading reports from different archaeological digs. New information is available all the time: Archeological digs take place in the summer, and then they publish reports on data in the winter. I read through the reports (most of which are available online), and then reach out to the researchers. People are really nice and write back, because they are as passionate about this as I am. Most reports are written in Swedish, because that’s where most of the funding comes from.
I am friends on Facebook with some of the researchers, and then I’m in a couple Viking groups that are doing research in Norway, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, and the York region in the United Kingdom.
The Vikings didn’t write much down, unfortunately. Some things were written in runes, but those were collected and stored in a library in Copenhagen, Denmark, which burned down in the 1700s. There is some written evidence in England and Iran, but they weren’t complimentary. The sagas in Iceland were written down about 200 years after the Viking Age, but they are quite detailed.
Pigs ate almost all of the food scraps, so there are fewer food scraps and bones to actually show us what people ate. If you throw a leek in your backyard, it will decompose quickly and there will be no evidence it was there. Researchers are doing latrine digs, and conducting research on items that have already been dug up.
COF: How did you become a Viking chef?
JB: I’ve done weddings, funerals, other Scandinavian events, and then feasts with the Society of Creative Anachronism. I come up with recipes and techniques. By the time you make it for 100–200 people, you find out pretty quickly if people like it. If it’s good food, people will like it. Good food is timeless. With my background as a chef, I have a pretty good sense how things will taste.
COF: Can you tell me what is on a sample menu?
JB: The Vikings were a fairly wealthy society, and they had no reason not to eat good food. It’s a lot like how people eat now: high in protein and fiber, low in refined sugars. The majority of their calories came from dairy and fish.
The most common, everyday thing that people ate was grøt, a porridge that could be simmered in a pot over an open fire. It would be a base of barley or rye, with protein added in, such as fish or smoked meats. A quintessential Viking meal would be barley porridge cooked in skyr whey [skyr is a cultured dairy product like Greek yogurt, but less sour] with cod. It tastes kind of like a clam chowder. With onions and fresh dill, it tastes amazing!
When it comes to feasts, the Vikings focused on items with a high social value, like beef or dairy. These were expensive, and therefore used as a way to get people to like you better by feeding them high social value items.
Meat, such as pork, lamb, or beef, was cooked fresh, or preserved through light smoking by hanging it from the rafters over the fire. It dries and becomes way too smoky. But if you simmer it for three to six hours, it plumps back up and the broth becomes so good. The resulting dish becomes like a really good beef brisket.
As for grains, barley and rye were cultivated for use, and then they had to decide to use the grain to make porridge or bread, or use it to make beer. Pollen counts found at the archaeological digs show that they had nodgrass, but it’s not certain if they ate it or it just grew around them.
Fish was also a really important part of their diet, because they lived by the ocean and waterways, hence the name Viking [vik means inlet or bay in Norwegian]. People are lazy by nature, so it’s way easier to gather fish than it is to grow grain. The fish they caught included cod and herring, and they also ate seal or whale.
The Vikings also ate vegetables, like brassicas and turnips. In my cooking, I usually get kale and cabbage, and cut them up and cook them in a caraway butter, to mimic the brassicas. We aren’t sure if they cultivated rutabaga, or if that came later.
Fruits included sweet cherries, plums, and apples, depending on the latitude where they lived. Berries are also common, but I am not sure if the berries were eaten fresh or dried. They used honey as one of their only sweeteners (dried cherries were another sweetener), but there is no evidence that they raised bees, so they likely had to go out and gather it.
Viking food is delicious, but its popularity didn’t spread much from northern Europe. You need a more tasty culture for people to adopt it. Viking cuisine didn’t spread in the Middle East, but they brought back some ingredients and inspiration from the Middle East.
COF: Anything else you want the readers of The Norwegian American to know?
JB: Food traditions hold people together. The further back in history you go, the more compact local becomes. Local is wherever you can be tomorrow. In the Viking days, that’s about 20 miles, unless you’re going along waterways. The vast majority of people back then didn’t leave the 20-mile radius from where they were born. Food traditions make people more tribal, and people think they make it the best, from meat to bread to beer and more.
The entire Viking Age is so fascinating. We know so little about it, but we are finding out new things all the time. I hope people give Viking cuisine a try!
Bushell has graciously shared three of his Viking cuisine recipes for the readers of The Norwegian American, with ingredients you can buy at your local grocery store and prepare in your own kitchen with no special equipment.
Viking Cherry Gröt
Gröt, or porridges, were a staple of the Viking diet and probably eaten on a daily basis. There are countless combinations and regional variations of both sweet and savory varieties of gröt. This is a healthy Viking Age dessert option, made with ingredients available in the winter. The cherries of the time were sweet cherries. It is super simple to make and is fantastic for breakfast or a healthy dessert.
1 cup dried sweet cherries
1 quart (4 cups) black cherry juice, water, or whey from making skyr. (I like a 1-to-1 ratio of cherry juice and whey if possible, but just cherry juice works well too)
1 cup pearl barley (can substitute steel-cut oats for gluten-free option)
Pinch of salt
4 tbsps. butter
1/2 cup crushed hazelnuts
1 cup plain skyr (can substitute Greek yogurt or chevre)
Honey to drizzle
- Add the cherry juice and dried cherries to a pot. Bring to a boil over medium heat (this is important so the cherries have time to plump).
- Add pinch of salt, butter, and barley/oats. Stir until it returns to a boil.
- Reduce heat to low, put a lid on it, do other things for 45 minutes.
- After the 45 minutes, give it a stir. Serve topped with skyr, hazelnuts, and a drizzle of honey.
Serves 4 for breakfast, 8 as a side dish.
Gröt with Bacon and Cabbage
8 oz. bacon
1 large leek
4 cups water
1 cup pearl barley
1/2 head cabbage
1/2 tsp. dry mustard
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
Salt to taste
1 cup plain skyr or sour cream to garnish
- Dice bacon. Halve the leek lengthwise and wash away the grit and dirt. Slice thinly into half-moons, whites and greens.
- In a 5-quart pot, add bacon and leek, and cook until the leek is wilted and bacon has rendered its fat.
- While that is cooking, dice cabbage and set aside.
- Add 4 cups of water to the pot with the leeks and bacon. Add dry mustard and coriander.
- Bring to a boil and then add barley and cabbage. Stir. Bring back to a boil, cover, and reduce to low and let simmer for 45 minutes. Stir, salt to taste, and serve.
- Garnish with skyr, sour cream, and green onions if desired.
Grilled Fish with Leek Butter
2 pounds fish fillets of your choice, such as cod
8 tbsps. (1 stick) butter, plus a little extra
4 oz. leeks
Fresh dill for garnish
- Halve the leeks lengthwise, and wash away the grit and dirt. Slice thinly into half-moons.
- Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Add leeks and cook until the liquid has evaporated and the leeks are golden. Add salt to taste.
- Salt and then grill the fish in butter in a skillet over medium heat until cooked through. Time will vary depending on your choice of fish.
- Top with the leek butter and garnish with some chopped fresh dill.
For more recipes and to contact James Bushell, visit his website at vikingcuisine.com.
What are your thoughts on Viking cuisine? I’d love to hear from you! Write to me at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in the April 9, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.