The fresh cheese product skyr [pronounced scihr] is authentic Icelandic cuisine, and has been traditionally made in Iceland since the settlement. Originally it was made at home, but is nowadays produced in dairy factories. The skyr “tradition“ has survived all sorts of changes in society, and has probably never been as popular as today.
Skyr’s popularity in modern times is not least because it is made of skimmed cow’s milk and therefore is very low in fat and high in protein. Nowadays you can get skyr with no added sugar. It is classified as fresh cheese and is eaten with a spoon, like the cheese quark. Skyr can taste a bit sour, especially the old, thick type of skyr, but nowadays it looks and tastes more like sweetened yoghurt. Chefs have realized that skyr is very special for Icelandic cuisine and the food culture, so desserts made of skyr can be found in some restaurants.
Skyr was probably common in Northern Europe, especially Scandinavia, during the 9th and 10th centuries and earlier. In the old days, people drank or ate some kind of skyr – sometimes just plain skyr, sometimes skyr mixed with water. Icelanders didn’t have a great deal of cow’s milk during the Middle Ages so they had to be very practical when using milk. Skyr gradually became a national dish. People had meals consisting of dairy products every day, and it was very economical to make skyr because then you got two products, skyr on the one hand and sour liquid whey on the other. Back then, skyr differed from farm to farm because everyone made it the way they wanted to.
Skyr is popular nowadays for making boosts and shakes of all kinds together with frozen berries and some juice.
Nowadays, most other countries have lost the tradition of making skyr. However, it is still possible to meet people, for example in the UK, who remember curdling milk. And it is possible to find words in other languages that are similar to skyr, for instance the Danish cheese skørost which can be translated as skyr-cheese.
Some nations have cheeses similar to skyr. The Germans have a sour cheese named quark. Quark is produced in many central and eastern parts of Europe, and is known as tvarog in Russia and topfen in Austria. In the Middle East and the Balkan peninsula, a popular yoghurt is similar to skyr. This yoghurt is produced in a similar way to skyr, namely by filtering through cloth. In Arabic this product is called labneh.
Popular since settlement
Skyr has formed part of the daily meal of Icelanders since the time of the settlement. A practical way of using it was to mix it with porridge to eke it out and eat this with dried fish and some butter. In the old days, people drank whey with it or mixed the whey with some water or milk. Whey was also used to store meat in barrels during the long winter months.
During the 20th century, people sometimes ate a mixture of skyr and porridge but a more popular way of eating it was to put a dollop of thick skyr into a bowl, sprinkle sugar over it, pour milk or perhaps cream into the bowl, and eat it with a spoon. If bilberries or crowberries were to hand, they were sometimes put into the bowl to add extra flavour.
Skyr is popular nowadays for making boosts and shakes of all kinds together with frozen berries and some juice. Many different sorts of skyr and skyr drinks are available from various producers, and all kinds of flavours exist.
Skyr plays a part in Gretti(r)‘s saga – the story of outlaw Grettir Ásmundarson.
Skyr plays a role in the Saga manuscripts, which are part of Iceland’s national heritage. In Gretti(r)’s saga – the story of the violent outlaw Grettir Ásmundarson – Grettir rode to the northern part of Iceland and participated in a ball game, but he lost to Auðunn who
was considered the strongest man in the north of the island and was well liked among most people. Grettir was unhappy with the outcome, so a few days later he went to Auðunn’s farm, but Auðunn was out on the moor fetching food.
When Auðunn came home, he left the horses, took the skyr and went into the farmhouse, which was dark so he couldn’t see anything. But Grettir had been waiting inside. He put his foot into Auðunn’s path so he tripped and landed on the floor with the skyr beneath him. Auðunn asked what Grettir wanted.
”I want to fight you,” Grettir said.
”I will first take care of my food,” Auðunn said, took the skyr from the floor and threw it into Grettir’s arms.
Grettir became covered with skyr, and was both embarrassed and irate. To him, this was more of a disgrace than if they had fought and he had lost, so he started a fight. Auðunn was losing when one of his friends intervened and told Grettir to let Auðunn go.
Chapter from Traditional Icelandic Food: A Gastronomic Guide to Iceland by Guðrún Helga Sigurðardóttir.
Photos: courtesy of MS Iceland Dairies