What can Iceland’s past teach us about the future of its food?

History books tell us that no man set foot on Icelandic soil until the 9th century. Irish monks did sail north sporadically on their bull hide currachs, but little is known about that. Iceland was therefore Europe’s last land to be settled. Did the first settlers see a lush and bountiful island or a land of ice? Of course it must have been a mix of all this, but at least it looked inhabitable enough for those Norwegian refugees – our ancestors – to found a new community at the very edge of the civilized world, seeking wives in Ireland and England. A multinational society right from the start. Today we realize that our ancestors, who endured a small ice age, volcanic eruptions, glacial outburst floods and stormy weather, adapted to nature’s conditions in order to survive. They caught fish, scattered seaweed on fields to improve the soil and burned algae as a substitute for the much-needed salt. In order to preserve the land, they made their cattle take turns grazing at home and out in the wild, they grew barley and other types of grain. They preserved meat in whey to survive the coldest parts of winter and consumed their Skyr in various ways – Sustainability was their key to survival, as food ships certainly did not come in once a week.

As the Icelandic proverb Lífið er saltfiskur (“life is salted cod”) and Halldór Laxness’ novel Independent People remind us, salted cod and sheep helped the nation survive these harsh living conditions. Iceland was a cornucopia, a very fragile one, but a cornucopia nonetheless. We must return to applying all the great knowledge we have learned from Mother Nature through the centuries in order to survive. But this we cannot do merely fueled by nostalgia. Instead, let’s eat local because it reduces our carbon footprint; Iet’s not only preserve traditions, but update them; – let’s not throw them overboard. Today there is scientific research regarding everything; ships and planes arrive here daily bringing a wide variety of food. We are a rich consumer society, but this society is built upon our ancient traditions and we have the privilege of having this knowledge close at hand: our grandmothers remember everything and are willing to pass it on. In the words of Vandana Shiva: Grandmothers are granaries of memories. Let us cherish them.iceland-food-skyr-traditional-ark-of-taste-icelandic-goat

Ark of Taste

There are many Icelandic products already on the Slow Food Ark of Taste, and more on the way, thanks to Iceland’s rich variety of unique foods that are worth preserving, and of value to future. These include Icelandic farm animal breeds, which have remained relatively isolated since the age of settlement (the Icelandic goat, sheep and leadersheep, dairy cattle and the settlement chicken). Also important are seafood products that have been specially stored or processed (dried fish, sun-dried saltfish, the European plaice, flaky sea salt dried with geothermal energy, fermented shark), farm products (Traditional Icelandic Skyr, Rúllupylsa (rolled lamb flank), Magáll (smoked lamb flank), traditional smoked lamb, rutabaga and what people foraged from nature (sea rocket, scurvy grass, angelica, Icelandic moss, guillemot eggs). All of these foods have unique qualities that are worth drawing attention to. Breads have not been mentioned here, but they too will eventually be on the Ark of Taste. For a long time, bread was not baked in Iceland as there was not much firewood to heat an oven, therefore, other types of bread-stuffs were served instead, such as hot-spring bread and flatbread, which represent self-preservation (and sustainability) in Iceland. The purpose here is not to look back to the distant past for the sake of nostalgia; instead, it is to make people aware of the value that consists in preserving these traditions and bringing them into the present—traditions that have developed over time and have been adapted to the difficult conditions in the country. Today, Traditional Icelandic Skyr and the Icelandic goat are recognized as Slow Food Presidia. This recognition of the value of our cultural heritage also confirms that the Slow Food values concerning good food, which is clean, and fair for the producer as well as the consumer, are important to our future.

Not so long ago, Skyr was only available at local dairy shops, where it was weighed and packed in parchment. Or it was simply made at home, especially in the countryside. When dairy shops disappeared in the 70s, skyr became available at the local grocery and then at supermarkets in plastic tubs. Fewer and fewer homes made their own skyr as it was easier to pick it up at the store. Today you can find “Icelandic skyr” in most supermarkets around the world, but what kind of skyr are we talking about?”

Did You Know That Skyr is Actually Cheese?

Once collected, milk spoils quickly, and the most efficient way to store it is to turn it into cheese. In earlier times cheese (made with natural skyr cultures) was not allowed to firm up entirely. Instead, a certain amount of liquid was left, which was made into a thick, sour skyr—a type of fresh cheese. Why it was done this way is not clear, but there are some theories. Farther south, on the continent, cows and their keepers spent the whole summer roaming mountain pastures, and  in the dairy huts where cheese was made. In Iceland, however the summers are much shorter, so perhaps there was not time to let the cheese mature. Perhaps they just found skyr more filling than normal cheese? Perhaps skyr was easier to preserve. Or there may have been any combination of these reasons. This type of cheese wasn’t entirely unheard of elsewhere in Europe, whether it went under the name quark, faisselle or fromage blanc.

The Icelandic settlers brought the tradition with them from Norway, and skyr has remained a key component in Icelandic gastronomy ever since. What we do not know, however, is what skyr was like during those early days— it is not unlikely that every household had their own take on skyr.


The Industrialization of Skyr

It is relatively easy to make skyr at home, so it is no surprise that it has been made at home for centuries. Skyr is an acid-set cheese where skyr from a previous batch is used to curdle the next. The whey created from the process was used to preserve meat instead of salt (this type of preservation created a class of Icelandic foods called surmatur or “sour food”, which are rarely eaten today except at special festivals in the late winter season of Thorri). Salt was not widely available and the sheep manure (as opposed to wood!) used in the smoking process was in short supply so there were few possibilities to preserve food through winter – sour food in whey was the most common with frying fish and meat.

Skyr-making died out in Norway and the other Nordic countries but continued in Iceland, most likely because of how isolated and poor the island was at the time. What made skyr unique was that it was made from skim milk and carried much of the milk’s protein, and the heritage skyr cultures have been preserved through the ages by uninterrupted skyr making. Milk from cows, goats and sheep was used, depending on what was available on the farm. At the turn of the 20th century, however, agriculture underwent huge changes and cow’s milk became dominant. The nation has always consistently consumed skyr, but when the supply of manufactured skyr increased, so did consumption. Growth has been steady ever since. This industrialization, which arose because of, among other factors, high demand, changed the production of skyr. Cloth Straining, as was the practice for years, was far too slow for mass production and was abandoned in favor of centrifugation and ultra-filtration. Bacteria can be difficult to control and is sometimes unpredictable, which doesn’t lend itself to the industrial process, so the milk is now pasteurized and the cultures (freeze-dried yogurt cultures) and rennet are added later. There’s no need now for starter skyr (a bit of skyr from the previous batch), as cultures are now made new with every batch and coagulation takes place inside the containers.

Changes In Production

As the number of dairy farms in the country has dwindled, dairy production has been consolidated into just a few companies, taking with it the once ubiquitous production of skyr. MS Iceland Dairies is by far the largest with all MS skyr produced in the southern town of Selfoss under several names, including KEA, which was for years made in northern Iceland. KEA‘s proud claim is that their skyr cultures have been in continuous use since 1932, so plain skyr from KEA is probably still “good old skyr”. Other skyr products (like skyr.is and Isey, MS trade mark) are made with yogurt cultures (sometimes called skyr cultures or lactic acid bacteria) and undergo ultra-filtration instead of straining in cloth bags.

In recent years, a few small manufacturers have carved out a niche for themselves using the traditional methods. Erpsstaéir creamery produces “country skyr,” which follows traditional production methods precisely. At Eftsidalur dairy farm, skyr is packaged in parchment just as it was in the old days. Whey is bottled and sold, and real cream is used in their ice cream, as it is at Erpsstaéir. Bióbu manufactures organic strained skyr but does not use a starter from the previous batch to create the next. One of the newest additions is Skyrgerdin in Hveragerdi, which is housed in one of the country’s oldest skyr factories. There you can buy authentic skyr and learn a little about its history at the same time. Skyr-making at home is still practiced in a few areas in the country like Egilsstaéabu farm, whose skyr is sold at Fjosahornid, a local shop by the farm. Then the dairies in the Western Fjords, Arna, has found a niche with a lactose free but traditionally made skyr.


Fame & Fortune Overseas

A little over ten years ago, MS partnered with dairy producers in a few neighboring countries to manufacture skyr in exchange for royalty payments on sales. The reason was that the EU market was closed to Icelandic agricultural products excluded from the EFTA agreement. MS first partnered with the Danish dairy company Thiese Mejeri and Q-meireri in Norway. MS skyr is now available in the UK and exported to Finland and Switzerland. In the US, Siggi’s skyr (made with yogurt cultures) has become wildly popular at WholeFoods health food stores. MS has also launched a partnership in the US to produce Icelandic Provisions skyr. It is difficult to find any reliable statistics on the size of the overseas market, since direct imports account for so little, but it is thought that the yearly revenue from exports could be around €70 million (The Guardian), while Iceland’s popularity among tourists seems to have also played a part in boosting sales.

“Good Old Skyr”

In 2011, Matis, Iceland’s institute for food and biotech R&D released a report entitled “The Distinct Qualities of Traditional Skyr” by Þóra Valsdottir and Þórarinn E. Sveinsson, which states that traditional skyr does in fact possess certain distinct qualities, especially with regard to the food’s microbiome. This study was used by the local Slow Food chapter to apply for skyr’s inclusion in the “presidia” of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. This declaration not only recognizes the unique qualities of traditional skyr on an international level, but also recognizes that traditional skyr has been subject to unfair competition. A detailed description of traditional skyr has been created as a collaboration among producers, Matis and specialists from Slow Food. This description is similar to those used to apply for protected status in Brussels to certify the authenticity of certain agricultural products and foodstuffs like PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) for products like Prosciutto di Parma, Champagne and Gorgonzola cheese. Skyr was inducted into the Slow Food Presdia in the summer of 2015 and is the first Iceland product to be named as such. One way to safeguard this heritage is to protect the name “traditional Icelandic skyr”, which is the good old skyr we know. And that’s that!


Dominique Plédel Jónsson

This article is made up of extracts from the magazine “Fæða/Food” published by I bodi Natturunnar in September 2017


Slow Food believes in the importance of preserving the planet’s traditional foods and methods. The biodiversity of the Nordic countries will be on display at Terra Madre Nordic, an event that will be held from 27 to 29 April at the Meat Packing District in Copenhagen. Come and take part, and discover the variety that the north has to offer!

One response to “What can Iceland’s past teach us about the future of its food?

  1. From the point of view of Iceland, Britain’s departure from the European Union offers an opportunity to further increase the levels of co-operation between the two countries. While Iceland and Britain have had their quarrels in the past as so many other countries, for example over things like fish and banking, they also have a long history of mutually beneficial cooperation especially regarding trade.

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