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Milk: Does a Viking Good?

By Beth Rogers

For more adventures in weird “Viking” food, this month we’re delving deeper into the history of Viking Age and medieval Scandinavia and their culture of milk-drinking.

Viking Melk (now owned by Nestlé) is a brand of condensed milk that entered public awareness way back in 1891. The Norwegian name Viking Melk was chosen as a result of the widespread nationalist feeling in the late 1800s. By the time Viking Melk was created, Norwegian Romantic Nationalism (Norwegian: Nasjonalromantikken)  was in full swing. This was a period in Norway between which began around 1840 with art and literature that emphasized the aesthetics of Norwegian nature and a specifically Norwegian national identity as the country uncoupled itself from decades of union with first Denmark and then Sweden.

The creation of long-awaited unsweetened condensed milk (also called evaporated milk), by a Norwegian scientist, no less, fit right into this wave of longing for uniquely Norwegian cultural items. Fridtjof Nansen brought Viking Melk  during his famous Fram expedition to the North Pole in 1893-1895.

The label displays its Nordic origins with simple, immediately recognizable artwork: a Viking longship with characteristic dragon figurehead at the prow, striped square sail and round shields hung on the sides as it sails through busy waves and cloudy skies. “Naturally Protein-filled” announces text at the bottom of most cans.

Attempts to condense milk started as early as the early 19th century, where Emperor Napoleon also took an interest in the project as it would provide his soldiers with nutritious food.

Doctor Olav Johan Olsen (later Sopp), a Norwegian mycologist, was particularly keen in researching this process. He was eventually able to evaporate milk under vacuum at a relatively low boiling point. This removed some of the milk’s water content without negatively affecting the nutritional value and quality of the milk. The product thus became more transport-friendly and had greater durability.

Dr. Sopp produced hermetically unsweetened condensed milk for the first time in the spring of 1889. This was a world event because no one had been able to solve the problem earlier. Sweetened condensed milk had been on the market since the 1850s.

Grain, some salty preserved protein, beer and perhaps a little bonus of butter, cheese or salt for flavoring kept soldiers going across the globe from Antiquity up to the early modern period of the 1800s. Where Roman soldiers carried hard bread among their rations, so, too, did soldiers in the American Civil War (1861 – 1865) lug around squares of tooth-cracking hardtack.  Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley, hosts of the food history podcast Gastropod, cover military food advances in detail in the episode “Marching on our Stomachs: The Science and History of Feeding the Troops

Viking Melk, circa 1950 – photo by Mekonnen Wolday / Kommandør Chr. Christensens Hvalfangsmuseum / Sandefjordmuseene (HS.03948)

Norway may be particularly proud of the invention of Viking Melk and its value to society as a way to store milk long past when it would have become undrinkable, but all cultures of Northern Europe owe their survival to dairy products as both a food in itself (primarily through cheese and butter) and a preservation technique (“souring” meat by soaking it in lactic acid).

Jenny Jochens Women in Old Norse Society (1995) tells us dairy farming was very important in northern Sweden, Finland, and Norway. In all these countries, cows were the primary milk animal, but sheep and goats were also used. During the Middle Ages, bread and other cereal food types only slowly replaced milk products as the staple food of the general population, and in some parts of Scandinavia milk products have remained the most important foodstuff up through the nineteenth century. In areas that are very far to the north, such as Iceland, it is difficult to grow grain in large quantities at all.

In the medieval period, milk was not usually consumed, but rather used to create other dairy foods which could be stored for later, such as butter, buttermilk, whey, skyr, curds, and cheese (which was usually heavily salted to help preserve it). Fresh milk was a raw material that had to be treated, coagulated into a yogurt-like product called skyr, which could be stored for months, or made into fresh cheese. The whey produced as a by-product from cheesemaking was drunk as a beverage (considered particularly bubbly and refreshing during the warmer months) and used year-round to preserve meats. In fact, medieval Icelanders consumed so much lactic acid as a result of their milk-based diet and pickling meat in it that their teeth were found to be highly damaged by all they consumed during their lifetime.

Good quality butter or cheese was a valuable thing: They were accepted by both lay and ecclesiastical authorities as rent payments or tithes. Large stores were accumulated, like gold, by wealthy landowners. By the time of the Reformation (1536 – 1627), the bishopric at Hólar in northern Iceland possessed a mountain of heavily-salted butter from tithes weighing twenty-five tons.

A 2005 Cornell University study found that it is primarily people whose ancestors came from places where dairy herds could be raised safely and economically, such as in Europe, who have developed the ability to digest milk. Similarly, a 2007 study found that lactase persistence genes (which give humans the ability to digest the milk protein, lactase, after infancy) were rare until the advent of dairying early in the Neolithic Period about 12,000 years ago. The ability to digest milk then increased rapidly, particularly among Germanic and Celtic tribes, due to natural selection.

This extra boost of high-protein nutrition probably impacted the Norse people positively and contributed to the pop culture image of the Viking raiders as “big and strong” men. However, Else Rosedahl’s The Vikings (1987) adds a note of realism to our daydreams of strapping Vikings with arms like tree trunks who could cleave a man in two with a swing of an axe: “The examination of skeletons from different localities in Scandinavia reveals that the average height of the Vikings was a little less than that of today: men were about 5 ft 7-3/4 in. tall and women 5 ft 2-1/2 in. The most extensive recent anthropological study was carried out in Denmark, but the situation must have been similar elsewhere. Skeletons of people as tall as 6 ft 1/2 in. have been found, and those in richly furnished Viking graves – belonging to high- ranking people – were on average considerably taller than those in the more ordinary graves, undoubtedly because of better living conditions.”

It still required present-day abundance of food and modern comforts to create the tall, blonde Nordic people we may imagine today, watching actors like Alexander Skarsgård (6’3”) and Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson (Game of Thrones’ The Mountain, 6’9”) lumbering across screens looking ready to break a body in half. Though it is worth noting that the Nordic countries still have some of the highest rates of milk consumption per capita in the world today, with Finland and Sweden at #1 and #2, respectively. Denmark sits at #8, Norway is at #13. Iceland lags behind even the UK and Australia at #25. (Get it together, lceland!)

Historically, most populations of the world did not need to eat large quantities of dairy as the Germanic peoples did, and had access to a wealth of other foods like grain for daily bread, fruits, wine, and olive oil in the places like the Mediterranean. These populations, who depended more on farming and less on animal husbandry, did not develop lactase persistence.

Today, 65% of the world or more is lactose intolerant and this along with other concerns such as the treatment of animals and the global climate change has paved the way for alternative milks made from everything from nuts to soybeans or oats. Dairy farmers are scrambling to keep their product relevant in a changing market.

The same communities who were concerned about the iodization of table salt and the possible introduction of harmful additives to foods are also concerned about antibiotics or hormones given to dairy cows finding their way into the milk we drink. In the 1950s, about 5% of milk tested positive for antibiotics, the most common of which was penicillin. Since then, dairy producers are expected to follow the proper procedure to isolate a sick cow from the milking stock until the drugs have left the animal’s system, and even more recently, the use of growth hormones for dairy cows is being phased out. Once again, criticism has fallen heavily on the modern food industry and its processing regulations, which move the food product further from its “natural” state. There are also some studies that have gained attention for supposedly showing that milk causes cancer, but this 2014 study of lactose intolerant people in Sweden showed a link between lactose intolerance and decreased cancer risk; beyond that, the link is unclear. (It’s not all bad news – another 2014 study also pointed out that milk drinking can activate certain genes in the gut which boost our metabolism, causing us to burn more fat.) In general, there are both positive and negative elements to milk drinking, and everyone must decide what is best for themselves.

Where once the creation of unsweetened condensed milk in a can like Viking Melk was heralded as a great scientific and nutritional achievement, it is now a symbol of more meddling with the “natural way of things” that many people now reject, either avoiding dairy entirely or becoming part of the raw milk movement, which advocates drinking untreated, unpasteurized milk straight from the cow to the refrigerator.

No matter if you choose cow milk, soy milk or no milk at all, remember that there are many ways to be healthy, and you don’t have to drink milk to be as big and strong as a Viking (although history shows us that it helps!)

Beth Rogers is a PhD student at the University of Iceland, where she works on the cultural significance of dairy products in the Middle Ages. You can follow her on Twitter @BLRFoodHistory

Click here to read more from Beth Rogers

Top Image: Photo by Andreas Levers / Flickr

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