From Iceland — The Islanders: The Cheese Queen Of Iceland

The Islanders: The Cheese Queen Of Iceland

Published July 4, 2023

The Islanders: The Cheese Queen Of Iceland
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Eirný Sigurðardóttir asserts her dominion on home turf

Eirný Sigurðardóttir is fondly known as the Iceland Cheese Queen. Believe it or not, she’s built a career out of cheese! Eirný is obsessed with milk, knows all the Icelandic artisanal producers by name, brought Icelandic skyr to the pages of “Oxford Companion to Cheese,” teaches cheese classes and even travels for cheese. She’s lived all over the world, but returned home, because Iceland needed a queen to reign over its cultured dairy.

When I was five or six months old, my family lived in a basement in Kópavogur. My mum was not happy. She saw a job advertised in Tanzania for a Danish company doing retail development. She told my father she’d divorce him if he didn’t apply for the job. A couple of months later, we moved to Africa. I was raised in Tanzania, Kenya and Nigeria. I came home to Iceland for a couple of years for school, and then we left again when I was 16. I went to Scotland, and I lived in Edinburgh for 17 years.

I had a bar for nearly seven years in the middle of Edinburgh, as well as a catering company. I taught at the Edinburgh School of Food and Wine and ran a wholesale company dealing in imported marinated olives, which we sold at farmers’ markets. 

Cheese, please

When we lived in Africa, my parents got divorced. My mother married my stepfather, who is English. He would order boxes of cheese from the UK to be sent to us in Kenya and then Nigeria a couple of times a year. For us kids, every time we got one of these big boxes — Stilton, Cheddar, Wensleydale, Lancashire — it was like Christmas. Early on, I became very enamoured with cheese. 

“Early on, I became very enamoured with cheese.”

Everywhere I worked, cheese was very important — the restaurant industry always had amazing cheese boards. I worked in French restaurants, so we had amazing cheeses from France. In my catering, I became famous for my cheese boards. My life became very cheese orientated. 

Embracing the title

When I came home to Iceland, I spent the first couple of months acclimating because I really felt like an outsider. Iceland changed so much. I spoke Icelandic like a teenager. I sounded Icelandic but felt like an idiot because I didn’t know half of the grown-up words. Obviously, I checked out where I could buy cheese in Iceland, and found a cheese shop up in Höfði called Ostabúðin, which was run at the time by MS Iceland Dairies. My first job in Iceland was taking over that shop from a woman named Dómhildur, who had been the manager for 28 years. 

The shop closed after a while, so I opened my own cheese shop. I imported artisan cheeses from the UK and tried to find products made in Iceland, which was difficult. I had the shop for 10 years — five years in Nóatún and then Grandi for another five years. In those ten years, we started a production kitchen making jams, chutneys, condiments and pâtés. I also founded the largest farmers market in Iceland. In 2019, I had to close the shop.

It took a while before I got the title of ‘Cheese Queen’ and there’s a reason. If you search cheese queens, there are a few across the globe. But there’s only one in Iceland. Nobody does what I do. I studied dairy culture and history, consulted for the Dairy Association over the years and taught their staff. Every time you go into a supermarket and buy a pack of cheese, there’s a little text on the front in Icelandic. I wrote that. I’m in every household, pretty much.

Icelandic cheese

We have the greatest milk in the world. The Icelandic cow is a heritage settlement breed. It’s been isolated and landlocked on this island since the 870s when people moved here. The actual Icelandic milk composition is unique. There are links to Icelandic milk and why there’s such low type two diabetes in Iceland. We are a small country, but our Dairy Association is doing things that usually ten times larger companies are doing in other countries with a ten times larger marketplace. 

“Every time you go into a supermarket and buy a pack of cheese, there’s a little text on the front in Icelandic. I wrote that. I’m in every household, pretty much.”

I can keep on going on about Icelandic dairy culture, but the bottom line is: We have amazing milk. We have amazing cattle. We have good cheese makers. We make good solid, well-made cheeses. Could we mature more? Yes. Does it need to improve? Yes. Currently, the Dairy Association is maturing large blocks that are going straight to the restaurant sector. It’s not going directly to the consumer and that is still a problem. There are seven artisanal producers in Iceland now. When I opened my shop, there was not one.

It’s not yoghurt!

There are three things you need to know about skyr. If it’s not made with Icelandic milk, whether cow, sheep or goat, then it’s not skyr. Why? These are settlement breeds. Any other milk on the planet will not be the same product. Secondly, it’s cheese. It’s fresh lactic cheese. Yes, it has lactic bacteria like yoghurt, but it also has a family of yeasts, and that’s the classification of cheese. Thirdly, you need to drain the whey from the curd. It’s like saying an orange and an apple. They’re both fruits, but God, they’re different. It’s the same case with skyr and yoghurt.

Savouring cheese

Cheese is a feeling. It’s one of the greatest foods in the world. It’s one of the foodstuffs that stayed untouched — Arctic cheese making hasn’t changed for centuries. 

It’s important to remember that cheese is seasonal. This is what we’ve forgotten. Now you can buy mangoes all year round, the same with cheese. 

People try to eat fresh goat’s cheese in December — then it’s made with dried milk powder. I don’t want fresh goat cheese in December. It’s cold outside. I want to eat a cheese that’s been made specifically with spring-summer milk, like a blue. I want to get excited when the first Mont d’Or comes on the market in March/April. I eat cheese seasonally. I eat cheese that is of the time and my mood.

The excitement for cheese sparks me still. When I travel this autumn, I can’t wait for cheese. I never get bored. If anything, it becomes more complex. 

Follow Eirný on Instagram for some cheese-fuelled adventures: @icelandcheesequeen

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