Vikings ate a variety of food, but Scandinavia was too cold for crops. Therefore, they needed to trade for more food.
Daily dietetic habits
Vikings had two meals a day.
The first meal was known as the “dagmál” or “day meal”, which was taken about two hours after Vikings began to do their daily work (seven or eight o’clock in the morning). The second meal was known as the “náttmál” or “night-meal”, which was taken when Vikings finished their daily work (seven or eight o’clock in the afternoon). The time of dagmál and náttmál varied by seasons, and it largely depended on the sunshine duration. Vikings’ food also included potherb, fruits and preys, which were often exported.
The Vikings lived in Scandinavia and overseas colonies usually ate beef, mutton (including lamb meat and goat meat) and pork, sometimes horse meat too. When archaeologists carry out their field work, whether eating horse meat or not is an important evidence to distinguish between Christians and pagans. Cattle were the most important livestock for Vikings. In a Viking-Age farm, a cattle shed could accommodate 80-100 cattle. In Denmark, half of the cows were butchered before they turned three and a half years old, so as to make sure the most cows would had calves, produced enough milk and beef in their lifetime (that was quite economical and practical, wasn’t it?). Archaeologists also discovered that some cows lived as long as ten years, which meant these cows were raised only for milk.
At that time, the cattle from western Jutland were famous for the high-quality beef. Local peasants raised such cattle specifically for trade (commodity cattle). When these cattle turned four or five, the peasants would walk them around the peninsula for two weeks and then sold them. After taking the slimmed-down cattle, the buyers would raise and fatten them in the marshland, and butchered them three weeks later. In this way, to a certain degree the beef trade met the needs for meat and nutrition intake in Viking cities.
Meat was a seasonal product, as the most activities of butchery took place after the grazing season ended. At this time of year, peasants must carefully calculate their hay reserves, and then had a careful estimation about how many livestock would survive the winter. Only the strongest and the most fertile livestock would be kept, and the rest would be butchered for sale. Usually, cattle and sheep were slaughtered in October, while pigs were butchered in November or December.
Vikings did not attach so much importance to meat as modern Americans. In their eyes, the production of milk and dairy products was the most important. In the Viking society, the number of cattle also reflected their owners’ financial situation. If a peasant failed to make his cattle survive the winter, he would suffer economic losses. Therefore, peasants considered selling meat the worst choice (it is pretty much the same as raising chickens. A chicken raiser will surely try to make his chickens lay more eggs for sale instead of slaughtering them for the chicken meat; Viking peasants believed that what was really valuable was the sustainable production value of cattle and the calves, not the beef), and it was tantamount to admit his failure in front of others. This idea might lead to the opinion in Viking society that meat was only a kind of food and not so valuable.
Let’s talk about pigs then. Vikings raised pigs for pork. They often raised them in the woods, and fed them with acorns and papermulberry fruits (“nuisance-free” pigs, aren’t them?). Especially in southern Scandinavia, pigs could be raised in woods for a whole year. Raising pigs was actually very economic, as wasted food could be fully utilized and accordingly converted to meat. Pigs were also the fatstock highly valued by inhabitants of Viking cities and settlements. They reared pigs in pens, and fed them with leftovers. This practice was very popular in Scandinavia, and was especially common in large farms and early cities. In Iceland, cattle-raising was the main industry there and also the main source of food for local inhabitants. Before the 12th century, cattle were the main livestock. But in the 12th century, as a result of climatic deterioration, it became extremely difficult to raise livestock. This also had a direct impact on the dietary structure of local inhabitants.
In general, the consumptions of beef and pork were roughly equal in the agricultural areas of the Viking world. Meanwhile in urban areas and temple (monastery) areas, the consumption of beef accounted for 60% of the total meat consumption, while those of pork and mutton respectively accounted for 20%.