I was standing on the path that wrapped around Reykjavíkurtjörnin, the small lake in the center of Reykjavík, Iceland. With me were five other tourists participating in the Reykjavík Food Walk, a four-hour culinary tour through this small city that is surprisingly full of big flavor.
Our guide, the enthusiastic, fresh-faced Daniel, gathered us around as he opened his backpack. We had already sampled a couple of dishes—the ubiquitous Icelandic lamb stew, a variety of soft cheeses and cured meats, and, the biggest hit of the day so far, rye bread ice cream. With my stomach feeling slightly full already, I wondered what could be next.
“Perhaps the most Icelandic food you’ll try today is this,” Daniel said as he passed out small while tubs. “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 featuring local berries. It can even take part in political protests. In May 2016, a crowd swarmed in front of the Alþingi (Parliament), showing its 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. Rather than throw rotten fruit or eggs to show their anger, the Icelandic people pelted the government building with their souls, in the form of containers of skyr.
The Vikings brought skyr to this island nation more than 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 skyr in their myths, and an ancient jar with residue from a batch thought to be more than 1,000 years old is displayed in the country’s National Museum. Initially, however, the skyr itself wasn’t the goal of the fermentation of the milk—it was the whey the Vikings were after. This acidic liquid was used to preserve meat, but the creamy, filling skyr soon became star of the process. Though first made with raw sheep’s milk, much of the skyr found on shelves today is a cow’s-milk variety. Also reflecting olden times when people churned the fat out of milk for butter, leaving behind a lighter liquid, most producers use skim or lower-fat milk, rather than whole milk, which makes skyr naturally low in fat.
Photo courtesy of Reykjavik Food Walk
I snapped together the handy two-piece plastic spoon that was enclosed under the tub’s plastic lid and peeled back the foil to reveal a white and pink swirl. Daniel explained that the fruit flavors were the most popular—today we were trying strawberry—but some people still prefer the old style, or plain. While everyone was trying the sweet treat, he walked around with a cup of unflavored skyr to sample. A Canadian woman in the group dipped her spoon in first and took a taste. Her grimace said it all—traditional skyr is definitely more sour than the fruit-flavored one. When the plain tub came around to me, I eagerly dug in. I prefer the tang of plain yogurt and found the strawberry skyr a bit sweet. And I wasn’t disappointed with the traditional variety. It was definitely sour and a bit nutty, tasting more like a real food than the saccharine pudding most yogurts resemble, in my opinion. It was also extremely thick, more so than Greek yogurt.
Though skyr is reminiscent of yogurt, it’s actually considered a fresh, acid-set cheese, like quark or fromage blanc. One of the differentiating factors between the two foods is bacteria. The label “yogurt” applies to products made with either Streptococcus thermophilus or Lactobacillus delbrueckii subspecies bulgaricus, whereas skyr is made with a wider variety than just these two bacteria. The other difference is the straining step. Yogurt is good to go 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.
Whether it’s called cheese or yogurt doesn’t change skyr’s place in the hearts of the Icelanders. From cameos in the sagas to the present-day invasion of Whole Foods’ dairy cases, despite some of the exotic foods visitors associate with Iceland (putrefied shark, anyone? smoked puffin?), Daniel was right: The most Icelandic cuisine of them all is a humble dish of skyr.
Pamela Hunt is a freelance writer and editor, curious traveler, and amateur foodie living Burlington, Vermont.