The popular History Channel saga Vikings, inspired by Ragnar Lothbrok, a mythological Norse raider, depicts looting, torture and epic adventures. But I wanted to know —what did these medieval Norsemen eat? How did they celebrate two centuries of successfully sacking Europe’s coastal settlements?
There certainly aren’t any cookbooks to consult. And Viking women, who had more rights than many of their peers (they could own property and divorce their husbands, for example), didn’t waste time chiseling out recipes.
So I went to the Lofoten Islands in Norway, where, in 1983, archaeologists excavated a 272-foot longhouse, the biggest on Viking record. Today, this village, which existed between 500 and 900 A.D., has been turned into a living history museum with life-size replicas of a Viking ship, a blacksmith’s forge, and the powerful chief’s longhouse — complete with intricate carved lacework and the heads of mythical beasts.
The Lofotr Viking Museum offers visitors the chance to row the lightweight Viking ship, throw axes, and partake in a Viking feast. The feast is a nightly ritual that bears at least some authenticity, since those same archaeologists painstakingly scoured the village’s latrines and middens for evidence of the Viking diet.
The drive to the museum from our port in Stramsund took 45 minutes, during which our guide, an Italian lawyer dressed like a Viking, informed us that many of the myths we’ve long believed about these seafaring conquerors are just that — myths.
For example, Vikings never wore horned helmets. You can blame Wagner and the comic strip Hagar the Horrible for that misconception. They also practiced excellent hygiene, buried their dead in boats, used urine to insure long-burning fires, and brandished more scythes and hoes than swords. We learned that Vikings, when not plundering European ports, kept small farms on which they raised cattle, goats, pigs, sheep, and such crops as wheat and barley.
So while farming is not quite as romantic and swashbuckling as Ragnar’s History Channel adventures, it certainly improved the quality of our Viking feast. After being led into the three-room longhouse and seated at long, skinny tables, members of the powerful Viking family welcomed us, told stories, led us in circle dances around the fire, and encouraged us to cheer the nightly sacrifice to the gods: a winter tradition of imploring the light to once again reappear.
With that minutiae out of the way, our Viking hosts presented us with the answer to my earlier question. Vikings, who by all reports were well-fed, celebrated the coming of the sun with lamb, wild boar, carrots, turnips, barley bread, and, of course, mead.
The only downside was the absence of forks, which weren’t invented until the fourth century.
The Viking Feast can be booked through Hurtigruten, whose 11 ships regularly deliver mail and supplies along the 1,490-mile Norwegian coast from Bergen to Kirkeness.