Published July 2, 2015
The Erpsstaðir creamery has been building up a steady reputation for artisan ice cream and a range of other small-batch dairy products. The farm is located in middle of a small valley in the west of Iceland. Together, the west of Iceland and the Westfjords kind of resemble a giant moose punching westwards—Erpsstaðir would be right on the moose’s shoulder. The fastest way there, coming from Reykjavík, is to take the Brattabrekka side road, which connects Dalasýsla and Borgarfjörður.
Bringing your own dinner to the table
The Erpsstaðir creamery and the adjacent farm are managed by Þorgrímur Einar Guðbjartsson and his wife Helga Elínborg Guðmundsdóttir. It’s a small operation, with only about 60 dairy cows and a petting zoo’s worth of horses, sheep, rabbits, cats, dogs, and pigs to complement the cattle. When we arrived, we saw rabbits scatter underneath the plastic hay bales. Inside we came just in time to see the calves get fed.
The cowshed was neatly organized and clean but we were hit by the familiar smell of three distinct cow excretions, only the whitest of which is commonly considered bankable.
Erpsstaðir are about as self-sustained as it gets, using a private source of geothermal water to heat up the milk for the calves before feeding them. The farm is small and produces about 1100 litres a day, a portion of which goes towards an ambitious and independent production of a wide range of dairy products.
I wonder if it isn’t rare to see farmers launching an advanced dairy product operation like this, as almost all milk produced in Iceland is sent to the dairy conglomerate Mjólkursamsalan (MS) which operates a de facto monopoly in Iceland.
Þorgrímur is not overly concerned with the reach of big business or government.
“Dairy is an obsession for me,” he says. “It’s been predominantly a private enterprise as I feel you shouldn’t always have to wait for the government to step in. I saw that the valley needed some more entertainment and rest stops for people traveling through and people were always asking the county to start something. You don’t need to always wait for others to bring dinner to the table. And as I am educated as a dairy technician, this seemed like the most natural way to go. Had I been an electrician, I probably would have started something to do with that.”
In the loving arms of robots
For a city slicker like myself it was a bit of a jolt to see just how automated dairy farms had become, watching cows line up before the milking robot, jostling to have that dairy-craving Optimus Prime pull at their nipples.
The creamery and the small kiosk are located in a separate section of the cowshed. If you’re imagining some rustic farmstead then think again. Rickety wooden structures and ramshackle charm went out of fashion with cholera. Aside from the computerized milking equipment for the cows, the creamery itself is tightly organized and sterilized. People complain that we haven’t caught up with the Space Age future predicted in the 20th century but when a small independent creamery looks like it could host Sigourney Weaver prying a facehugger off one of her crewmembers, I think we’ve arrived.
Þorgrímur gestures proudly towards what he called his “shit robot,” an automated manure-collecting machine which hovered in and out of view on the cattle floor: “It’s all mechanized now with the voluntary milking system, although the last dairy farmer to milk cows manually actually stopped only four months ago,” he says. “As recently as sixty years ago the majority of all milking in Iceland would have been done manually. We were over thirty years behind milk farmers in America, where the first-generation commercial milking machines had become the norm in the 1920s.”
Pine-on-pine cabin and live births
Þorgrímur and Helga also offer accommodations for interested visitors, which we decided to check out. We stayed in a proper Icelandic summer cabin: it looked like a wooden bomb had gone off in there, with every nook and cranny covered with pine. The showers had low water pressure, the board games on the table had pieces missing Icelandic teen romance novels from the 80s stocked the shelves, the TV reception was unstable, and the view was beautiful, over the rolling hills dotted with newly-planted pine trees soon to join their cabin brothers and sisters—in other words, “perfection.” And of course no Icelandic cabin is complete without a hot tub to lie in and drink and watch snowballs melt in the water.
Does he get many tourists visiting during the high season? Þorgrímur says they are surprisingly busy during the summer months. “We get tourists going up north or south taking this detour just to drop by the creamery for half an hour,” he says. “We only started this in 2009 and already then someone from Lonely Planet came and did a write-up and I see the tourists holding a copy and asking for the ‘best ice cream in Iceland.’”
Þorgrímur says he got into ice cream because it’s simple enough to make and everyone loves it. “We’re directing this at children and families who can come and visit the farm, and during the summer,” he says, “we’ll have the same families coming to visit more than once.”
I can see why families would be attracted to Erpsstaðir. Aside from the seeing the calves get fed and the mischievous adventures of the shit robot, we were lucky enough to catch a live birth. The cow had been in labour for an excessive amount of time and Þorgrímur had to assist with the birth using obstetrical chains and a German BDSM dungeon’s worth of lubricant. The calf arrived soon after, safe and sound, as the cow went to work cleaning up everyone involved. My mother had an easier time getting me to move from home and I left claw marks on the doorframes.
The mouth frenzy ice cream
Erpsstaðir are best known for their ice cream but they also produce caraway cheese, skyr, and a white chocolate and skyr konfekt. The packaging for the skyr praline was produced in collaboration with local designers, and the Reykjavík Grapevine gave it top honours in our 2012 Product Awards.
The milk and cream for the ice cream is obviously sourced from Erpsstaðir, the egg yolks come from Nesbú, and Þorgrímur says he strives to use local, seasonal flavours whenever possible, such as rhubarb, dandelion honey, and blueberries from the Westfjords. They are not distributing the products widely and so far the best bet is to access the ice cream directly from the farm.
“I have been selling some portion of our products to speciality store Frú Lauga in Reykjavík but it’s not on a steady basis. During the winter months I am not that focused on the production line. I try to make some cheese to have for the summer but this is a side business for me. I have been lucky in that all of my dairy experiments have gone really well—everything sells out,” Þorgrímur explains.
The Erpsstaðir ice cream really is something else. The Icelandic name he has given it is “Kjaftæði,” which is a wonderful play on words. “Kjaftæði,” the most common Icelandic word for “nonsense,” literally translates as “mouth frenzy.”
We got to try butterscotch, vanilla, and coconut during our visit. The vanilla was a great showcase for the quality of the basic building blocks they’re working with—it has this freshness to it where you can literally catch a faint whiff of udders and barnyards. But the coconut one was an aptly named mouth frenzy, so creamy it made coconut cream taste like skim milk. Thick and delicious with pronounced coconut flavours and flakes of shredded coconut.
As an added reminder of how the dairy products of Mjólkursamsalan pale in comparison, the ice cream is sold in what look like recycled skyr.is tins.
Incidentally, it was Mjólkursamsalan who feigned outrage when Danish milk producer Arla co-opted Icelandic culture to market their own brand of skyr. Neither company makes anything that an Icelandic grandmother would recognise as the skyr from her youth. Both products are a thin, sugary yogurt-like product.
You have not tried real skyr until you have had it from a real small-batch producer like Erpsstaðir. The bacteria culture is different, the acidity is both milder and more pronounced, and the texture is between yogurt and cottage cheese (betraying its designation as a cheese, not a yogurt). Don’t miss out on the real skyr experience.
Northern Lights galore
That night at the cabin, we caught the most vivid and sprawling display of northern lights I have seen in my life, and I have seen more than a few. So we lay there in the hot tub after a nice meal of rosemary lamb and German sourdough bread, nursing an unholy combination of Hawaiian pale ale and Icelandic orange soda Appelsín until we got too pruned up to function. Just then the TV decided to kick in and the state TV channel was showing ‘Back to the Future III’. So we sat down and watched it over an unholy amount of Kjaftæði ice cream.
This is all anyone should ever need.
Visit them at Rjómabúið, Erpsstaðir, 371 Búðardalur. Learn more on their website.