A life without skyr is a life half lived. As a writer for the Grapevine in 2008, while doing research for the “definitive guide to mjólk,” I discovered Iceland’s most delectable culinary secret. With few dietary options as a vegetarian in the country (has anyone invented vegan svið yet?), the thick, delicious yogurt became my go-to breakfast, lunch and dinner. Since flying back to the States, I became growingly wistful for that creamy, protein-packed treat. Would I ever be able to enjoy it again? Fortunately, a brilliant Icelandic entrepreneur, Sigurður ‘Siggi’ Hilmarsson, brought the confection across the pond and made the Nordic staple ubiquitous in the States.
Siggi had a similar yearning for his homeland’s delicacy when he moved to the US to attend business school. He grew disillusioned by the sugar-laden American-style yogurts and decided to take matters into his own hands. Hilmarsson created his own signature batch, dubbed as Siggi’s Skyr, in his cramped Tribeca apartment in 2004. In the years since, the product attracted a loyal following and has become made widely available at Whole Foods and many other natural/health food stores throughout the United States. Hilmarsson describes the process of coming up with his own distinctive flavour as arduous. “I went through endless batches at first… many that failed or that were sub-optimal! I was finally satisfied with the flavour and began selling the skyr about a year and a half after I started experimenting.”
Siggi’s comes in a plethora of flavours including grapefruit, acai, pomegranate-passionfruit, blueberry, orange ginger and vanilla. Peach and strawberry are reportedly coming soon.
The overwhelming success of Siggi’s Skyr surprised Siggi. “From the beginning, the reception to our product was much more positive than I anticipated— people are becoming more and more aware of how food is made, paying attention to the ingredients, and caring about where their food comes from. There is also increasing interest in yogurt and different kinds of dairy products in the US. This combined with the move towards eating less sugar and more protein; I think people just understood that there was a market for a healthy product like ours.” Hilmarsson attributes much of his success of his product with the access Whole Foods provided. “Whole Foods was definitely a feat, it really helped us to get on the map in a lot of places where we didn’t have exposure. Right now, we are in more than 1500 stores all over the U.S., and we are lucky to be growing that number every day,” he says.
Siggi’s Skyr is now produced at Evan’s Farmhouse Creamery in upstate New York, in my own hometown of Norwich. “It was important for our farms to fit the certain criteria we were looking for—hormone-free cows that are given access to pasture. These are local, family farms that support humane animal treatment—no factory farming.”
While Hilmarsson still misses the taste of Icelandic milk, he hopes to continue to spread the healthy side of Iceland’s cuisine across the States. “I think the values of Iceland—at least in regards to diet and nutrition—can have an impact on American culture in this move towards more healthful eating, incorporating a lot of the classic Icelandic diet such as fish, healthy dairy and in general, minimally processed foods.”