Finally, a use for the rennet on the shelf
For those with ingredients like rennet on hand, skyr can even be made at home: heat some skim milk to 90-95° C and leave for 30-40 minutes, then cool to 40-43° C. Add some fresh skyr and cheese rennet to a cooled skim milk or water mixture. Pour this new mix into the warm skimmed milk and keep at a temperature of 40-43° C for several hours, at which point you separate the curd and the whey that have formed, and hey presto – you have skyr. For amateur skyr-chefs, 22 pounds of skimmed milk at the beginning will give you about 4.4 pounds of skyr in the end. Or you could just pop round to the store and buy some.
The sidekick to heroes and villains
There are records of skyr being prepared and eaten as early as the 11th century in the Sagas. The Saga of Grettir the Strong recounts a fight Grettir has with Auðunn, who throws a bag of skyr at Grettir. The strong man “thought this a greater insult than if Auðunn had given him a bad wound.”
A more graphic skyr story appears in Egil’s Saga. Our hero Egill spends an evening eating skyr and drinking with his enemy Ármóður. When he tires of his adversary, Egill gracefully thrusts him up against a wall and “spewed up a great torrent of vomit which gushed all over Ármóð’s face, filling his eyes and nostrils and mouth and pouring down his chest.”
Whether this was the skyr or the ale is not specified, but Egill does break into verse later in the chapter, extolling the virtues of his vomit.
One of the biggest fans of skyr in Iceland is known for his addiction. His name, “Skyrgámur,” means “Skyr Gobbler” and he is the eighth of 13 Icelandic “Santa Clauses” to visit children in the days leading up to Christmas. Skyrgámur will eat any skyr that is in the house and, with the super-powers befitting a Santa, can even open any locked container of skyr.
Skyr has found its uses into the 20th century. The last death sentence ever handed down by the Icelandic courts was in 1914 to a woman who was convicted of killing her brother by feeding him poisoned skyr.
In 1972, Helgi Hóseasson famously threw skyr at the bishop of Iceland and MPs to protest the fact that he could not have his baptism annulled. This method of protest was used again a few months ago against those involved in the Kárahnjúkar dam project during a meeting at Hotel Nordica.
Of course the primary reason for skyr’s enduring popularity is the taste. Manufacturers have exploited this and the two main producers of skyr for the Icelandic market, MS and Norðumjólk, have created a variety of flavours beyond traditional fruit varieties, including cappuccino, banana split, and even aloe vera (apparently it is as good for your insides as it is for softening your skin). Skyr drykkur swept into the market this year – it’s a more liquid version of skyr, still heavily loaded with sugar (or aspartame) and created for those on-the-go. You can buy skyr desserts, which is actually cream and cream cheese with a bit of skyr added to allow the consumer to feel virtuous. And 10-11 recently introduced skyr bars at some of their locations. A variety of skyr flavours and toppings are available to create your very own skyr sundae – genius.
Still, maybe the best way to enjoy this treat is the traditional way: plain skyr with sugar and milk added on top to taste and possibly spiced up with some fresh fruit or jam.
If you’re reading this over a tub of apricot-vanilla and despairing that you’re about to leave this beautiful island without its perfect dairy products, fear not. Skyr is finally being exported abroad. Residents of the US will be the first lucky ones to be able to taste this product off Iceland’s shores, but those in the UK and Denmark might very well be following soon.
There’s an old Icelandic proverb “Þeir sletta skyrinu sem eiga það” (literally “they throw around the skyr who own it”), which means that those who can afford to waste usually do so. Skyr has been a valuable commodity over the years; we residents need to make the most of living in the country that invented it. And for visitors – dig in! Those who can afford to buy skyr should do so.