Let’s Talk About Syr - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Let’s Talk About Syr

Let’s Talk About Syr

Published August 26, 2016

Photos by
Art Bicnick

In Iceland you don’t talk about syr! Mention the Ukrainian white cheese, and you’ll be in for a festival of denial. In Iceland there is no such thing as syr, it’s skyr and skyr is unique. It is Icelandic and only Icelandic—no one else has it nor anything like it!

Some might know the Ukrainian white cheese, most do not. All agree that it has no relation to skyr. Those who do know syr can quickly tell you it is an inferior product. Skyr is different, purer, healthier and—what really matters—more Icelandic and therefore unique.

It’s the food of gods, vikings and our forefathers. Passed from one generation to another, still the same as it always was. Don’t you dare think otherwise! At least show the decency not to speak otherwise. Yes, the cultures used in modern skyr are often imported, its manufacturing is nothing like what it used to be and yes, Skyr.is, the biggest brand, is really just a yogurt.

No spoilers!

In Iceland we don’t let facts spoil great stories. So our skyr is as unique as we tell you it is.

Like many things, skyr is a victim of our obsession with Iceland’s place in the world. We have spent decades cultivating an image of an harsh, isolated island in the middle of the Atlantic—that is our brand. A country of workers, doers and go-getters. The purest food, strongest men, most beautiful women, greatest thinkers, avid readers, poets and authors—all skyreaters.

Skyr is less of a food than proof of our exceptionalism. In order to fit a carefully manufactured idea of Iceland it must be Icelandic, and only Icelandic.

A nation of vikings, traditional but yet so modern—a hidden gem. A progressive utopia in the north that somehow consistently manages to be unaffected by the shortcomings of our modern world. A haven for all that can afford it—others can stay out and asylum seekers will be deported.

Despite punching above our weight in many ways, we Icelanders are acutely aware of the fact that we rarely get a seat at the big boys’ table. Unless they disagree with each other or want to wage wars, that is. For those instances Iceland makes a great partner! A peace-loving nation always gagging for a place among a coalition of the willing.

The great white hope

Skyr is less of a food than proof of our exceptionalism. In order to fit a carefully manufactured idea of Iceland it must be Icelandic, and only Icelandic. Skyr can’t be Icelandic and Ukrainian—let alone Russian, German, Lithuanian or French. It can have no relation to the German quark, and must be something entirely different from fromage blanc. While skyr is obviously not the same as other cultures’ other cultures, its creation and history is part of a global continuum. Just like Icelanders, a culture of migrants.

What would people think if skyr were as global as water, bread and cultured dairy? What if the skyr we eat and export today isn’t anything like the skyr of our forefathers? What if the cultures used in its production are just as global and homogeneous as any other mass-produced dairy product?

Unspeakable! Skyr cannot be globalised in origin and production. Skyr is Icelandic and Iceland is a pure, isolated and unique.

So we don’t talk about syr…

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