Icelandic cuisine offers many unique choices for visitors to this island nation, including svið (singed sheep’s head), hangikjöt (smoked lamb), and hardfiskur (dried fish pieces).
Seaweed and various berries make a regular appearance on plates, and no intrepid tourist can return home without trying a nibble of the pungent hákarl (fermented shark). But perhaps the most beloved dish of all isn’t fancy or unusual. The food that most represents the soul of Iceland is a simple cup of skyr.
Icelanders are wild about skyr—pronounced “skeer,” not “sky.” They eat it for breakfast, grab one for a quick snack, or incorporate it into decadent desserts. It can even take part in political protests.
In 1972, a man by the name of Helgi Hóseasson wanted for the church to annul his baptismal covenant. The church refused, so Helgi took up his weapon of choice—tubs of skyr—and showered a procession of parliament members, the president, and the bishop of the Reykjavik Cathedral to demonstrate his displeasure. May 2016 saw a repeat performance of this food as a protest tool. The crowds gathered outside the Alþingi pelted the building with containers of skyr to express their discontent with the news that Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson’s name had appeared in the Panama Papers as a holder of a hidden offshore bank account.
The Vikings brought skyr to Iceland over 1,100 years ago. This fermented dairy product was once popular throughout Scandinavia, but in Iceland, it has become one of the nation’s most treasured foods and cultural icons. The writers of the Icelandic sagas mentioned it in their myths, and the country’s National Museum holds an ancient jar with residue from a batch thought to be more than 1,000 years old. The Reykjavik Maritime Museum also displays large wooden barrels that were used to store skyr for treacherous ocean journeys.
Initially, however, the skyr itself wasn’t the important part of fermenting milk—it was the whey the Vikings were after. The acidic liquid was used to preserve meat, but the creamy, filling skyr soon became the star of the process. Though first made with raw sheep’s milk, almost all (if not all) of the skyr found on shelves today is of the cow’s-milk variety. Also reflecting olden times when people churned the fat out of milk for butter, most producers use skim or lower-fat milk, rather than whole milk, which makes skyr naturally low in fat.
Though skyr resembles yogurt, it’s actually a fresh, acid-set cheese, like quark or fromage blanc. The difference between the two dairy products comes down to bacteria. The label “yogurt” applies to products made with either Streptococcus thermophilus or the Lactobacillus delbrueckii subspecies bulgaricus, whereas skyr is made with a wider variety than just these two bacteria. The other difference is in the straining. Yogurt is ready to eat right after fermentation is complete, but to finish a batch of skyr requires straining it through a cloth or using a centrifuge to separate out the whey and concentrate the protein. This straining is what makes for such a thick result, similar to Greek yogurt, which is strained regular yogurt. Skyr is also virtually fat-free, low-calorie, and high in protein.
Wake Up Reykjavik leads two popular culinary tours of Reykjavik that introduce visitors to this national treasure. The Reykjavik Food Walk, a four-hour stroll through this small city that is surprisingly full of big flavor, gives participants a taste of skyr, both a fruit-flavored version as well as the traditionally tart plain flavor. “It’s perhaps the most Icelandic food you’ll try today,” company co-founder Daniel says as he passes out small while tubs to his tour group.
The group’s beer tour highlights the city’s growing microbrewing world. The current standout sample is Skyrgosi from Gæðingur Brewery. Available at MicroBar, this Gose style beer gets its pucker from skyr. “It was supposed to be sour and very Icelandic,” brewer Árni Hafstað says. “To make it sour, one needs to get a sour bacteria culture from something, so I picked skyr.” This beer is also brewed collaboratively by Evil Twin and Two Roads Brewing in the United States, where it is sold under the name Geysir Gose, to reflect the brew’s Icelandic heritage.
Another American company bringing a piece of Iceland to the United States is Icelandic Provisions. Icelandic Provisions has partnered with MS, the Icelandic company that produces Skyr.is, to bring this protein-rich treat to the United States. Molly Peterson, director of communications at Icelandic Provisions, explains that because it is the only skyr in the US market that uses an heirloom Icelandic culture, it “tastes like ‘home’ to every Icelander we talk to.”
Whether it’s called cheese or yogurt, served plain or with fruit, skyr holds a special place in Icelanders’ hearts. From its role in the Sagas, to representing Icelandic national pride at protests, to introducing beer lovers to the pleasantly sour flavor it imparts; however it makes it appearance, skyr has the distinction of being one of Iceland’s most Icelandic food of all.
by Pamela Hunt
Photos: Pamela Hunt and courtesy of Icelandic Provisions and WakeUp Reykjavik