By Beth Rogers
For more exploration in weird “Viking” food, this month we’re taking a look at the modern cultural phenomena of “superfoods” and the latest Nordic sensation on the market – dried fish! It’s new! It’s exciting! It’s been around for thousands of years!
Saga Bites, their website tells us, are dried fish snacks that come in two flavors: Leif the Lucky (their original, unflavored offering) and Erik the Red, featuring a spice mix recipe obtained “from an old sorcerer living in the Icelandic highlands.” I was deeply intrigued by this bit, after my adventures uncovering the mysteries of Viking Salt, but multiple phone calls and e-mails to find out more about this spice wizard over a period of two weeks went unanswered.
Dried fish is a common Nordic snack. It begins with a white fish, usually cod or haddock, dried on wooden racks in the open air. Drying food this way is the world’s oldest known preservation method, and dried fish has a storage life of several years. The method is cheap and effective in suitable climates – it’s best not to do in the hot sun, for obvious reasons – and easy to do yourself with little expertise. The result is a mildly fishy, crispy slice or chunk of fish, depending on how it is cut. To add some creaminess and keep us all from choking, it is usually eaten with butter. (Grain was hard to grow in some areas of northern Europe, such as Iceland and Greenland, so buttered, hard fish was as close as we could come to the daily bread of Europe.)
“Eat Like a Real Viking – Healthy Fish Snacks” a banner near the top of the Saga Bites page proclaims, and in case anyone missed what we were talking about, there’s a horned helmet at the center. (This is, of course, one of the most common myths about what a Viking warrior looked like.)
So what were those real Vikings eating, anyway? Archaeological research tells us more. First, the North Atlantic area grew and expanded its domestic animal use throughout the early Viking Age, where cattle were a status item for rich farmers and other members of society throughout northern Europe because of the resources and time needed to feed and care for them. Keeping cattle was particularly hard in resource-poor Iceland. The high-maintenance needs of cattle made them a status symbol of elites in the Viking Age and medieval period, like the Norwegian chieftain’s farm at Aker, where thousands and thousands of animal bones were found, 50% of which were cattle. The 2014 article “Viking Age Foodways at the Hrísbrú Farmstead” explains that attempts to replicate what was “high status” in their original countries caused problems for the settlers of Iceland, however:
In Iceland, sheep could find food free range for most of the year, whereas cattle had to be kept indoors during winter months and provisioned with hay. The hay was collected during the summer from wetland meadows and homefields and stored for the winter. Raising cattle rather than sheep would have been more costly, requiring more labour, access to productive hayfields, and infrastructure for hay storage. Subsequent to the settlement of Iceland, households seeking to optimize their subsistence production would have preferred sheep-herding.
Both Iceland and Greenland imported the domestic animals and livestock practices of their Scandinavian forebears during the settlement periods of the 9th and 10th centuries, but in the early years as they were becoming accustomed to the environment, terrain and climate of the new colonies and allowing their flocks to grow, wild resources such as seabirds, fish and seals were used to add to their less than impressive food stores.
For the rest of the North Atlantic, sheep and goats began to dominate farm life due to the increasing difficulty in caring for large numbers of cattle and also pigs, who tended to destroy whole forests from the roots up. These animals damaged the environment both physically by overgrazing and in the amount of hay, feed and space required by cattle, although in some areas like the Faroe Islands, traditions and a taste for pork might have kept piggery going despite its drawbacks even today. In the early Commonwealth Period of Iceland, large herds of sheep and goats had become the norm. Finally, in the later Medieval Period, most of the coastal North Atlantic had begun to focus on fisheries for trade and sustenance, while inland regions had replaced many of their food-producing goats with food- and wool-producing sheep, a practice which continues to the modern day. In the 1800s, there was a bonafide fishing boom in the North Atlantic which culminated in the honest-to-goodness Cod Wars, a series of confrontations between Iceland and Great Britain over fishing rights which ended in the Third Cod War in 1976. (No, I am not making this up, even though it sounds like a story Rose would tell on Golden Girls. Iceland totally won, you guys.)
Obviously, fish was an important part of the diet throughout the history of northern Europe. Even when traveling, when these traders and raiders would fara í Viking (go Viking) in search of goods fairly acquired (or maybe not), their diet was much the same. However, considering that any travel within the Norse World would only involve a few days out on the open sea, and also considering the challenge of preparing fish onboard, it seems more probable that travelers by sea would bring food supplies with them on the boat. Dried fish allowed them to do that with ease. Historical sources imply that diet onboard often consisted of porridge, stockfish, bread, butter, occasionally dried meat, water and beer. In short, a real Viking eats whatever holds still long enough for him to eat it and whatever is portable and plenty enough to keep on a short jaunt to burn down an English monastery.
And yet, somehow, in the modern era of the Nordic diet and fur-laden, candlelit rooms bursting with hygge, the script has been flipped. The Icelandic Food Stories blog rhapsodizes similarly about harðfiskur as the folks at Saga Bites do: “I dare to say (and all Icelanders will agree with me),” The author writes, “that none of these come even close to the pure and clean taste of the Icelandic harðfiskur, which is caught in clean ocean waters and is dried in the North-Atlantic sea breeze.” I don’t disagree that it’s delicious; when I want a piece in my house I have to fend off both cats and my husband. But more than a nod to its deliciousness, the wording points to the author’s longing, a reality that is hoped for, with words like pure and clean. Created in nature’s oceans and processed minimally by nothing more than the air.
As lovely as this imagery is, the ocean is choking under a great deal of garbage and other pollution, and huge public campaigns have been waged in the past few years to raise awareness, especially in the case of reducing single-use plastic. The Vikings weren’t quite so healthy as we might hope, either. Conditions for Viking Age people both at home and onboard ship before modern ideas of hygiene also led most of those fierce Viking Age people to have parasites.
Saga Bites and other similarly marketed products are fine ideas. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of a long-standing cultural tradition. But lack of awareness can cause problems. There is an entire, fascinating historical context for any given food or drink that encompasses its social, cultural and economic value and uses. For me, that’s much more valuable and useful than a wish for purity or a product that will enhance your health more than any other (those so-called superfoods).
By all means, enjoy your dried fish snacks and think about the thousands of years of history and culture around dried foods from every culture of the globe – not just the Vikings! And remember that the spice wizard remains at large. If anyone sees him, tell him I’d love to learn more about his flavor magic.
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
Top Image: Dried fish at Gullbringusysla, Iceland – photo by Johan Wieland / Flickr