The height of decadence for Icelanders is skyr with blueberries that you picked yourself. Right before serving, “you pour a healthy portion of liquid cream over it. … It is the absolute best dessert.”
That’s according to Einar Sigurosson, the chair of Icelandic Provisions, which produces skyr (pronounced “skeer”), a cultured dairy product that is much like Greek yogurt. If you want to go really traditional, have it with lifrarpylsa, a liver sausage made similarly to haggis, which the Vikings brought to Iceland in the ninth century when they first set foot there.
Skyr, also a contribution from the Vikings, is old, old stuff, and for hundreds of years it was a mainstay of the Icelandic diet. Interestingly, it did not survive in the Scandinavian countries where it originated.
Sigurdsson mentioned that the oldest samples of skyr are from around the 12th century, preserved at the National Museum of Iceland. “I think they’re past their due date, but they’re there,” he said. Iceland didn’t have much in the way of trees, but it was a recipient of driftwood— thanks to currents from northern Siberia—from which wooden utensils were used to make skyr.
The medieval times were hard in Iceland, and food preservation was a constant concern. There were methods like drying and smoking, and then there was whey. People made skyr, but they were primarily after the whey byproduct, which could preserve meat in barrels for up to a year after the fall slaughter, said Sigurdsson. “We say there are two things that kept us alive during those very difficult Middle Ages—the wool from the sheep and the skyr. We owe a lot to the sheep and to the cows.”
Skyr is such an important part of life that, as some might remember, the Icelandic parliament building was pelted with it last year over the Panama Papers scandal. And it’s been around for so long that it’s even made its way into a proverb, “Their sletta skyrinu sem eiga thad,” meaning “You can toss skyr around if you have enough of it.” It means throwing your weight about and overplaying your hand, explained Sigurdsson.
In the 1930s, when skyr production went from single-household production for daily needs to small-scale industrial production on farming cooperatives, women were hired to make skyr, as it had always been their responsibility. “It requires a high level of cleanliness,” said Sigurosson. “I think some of my male colleagues … we [men] were as messy then as we are now. [Farmers] brought in women to show them how to do it and how to teach them cleanliness.” The difference between Greek yogurt and skyr is the bacteria cultures, and these varied from farm to farm. The cooperatives simply taste tested for the best culture.
Icelandic Provisions’ own skyr has a slight, pleasant tanginess and a remarkable silky texture, due to the 1.5 percent cream content. If Sigurosson had his way, there would be more cream. “There is nothing in food that you cannot improve with cream,” he said.
Where their skyr really shines is in the lightly sweetened varieties, some with a Nordic twist.
For example, cloudberries—an expensive ingredient sourced from Norway—are paired with peach; lingonberries with strawberries; and bilberries with blueberries. The lower sugar content of skyr—about a third less than most flavored Greek yogurts—means the flavors of the fruits really come through. The vanilla variety, flecked with ground vanilla seeds, is complex. And then there’s the coconut variety with shredded dried coconut throughout—well worth seeking out for coconut lovers. Coconuts may seem a bit far removed from the Nordic landscape. And yet, whether by trade or travel or both, coconuts made their way onto Icelandic shores, for the national museum does have a 500-year-old chalice, set with stones made with a coconut shell.
Icelandic Provisions skyr comes in 5.3-ounce cups. Each retails for about $1.69 to $1.99.
Pönnukökur (Icelandic Pancakes)
14 pancakes in a 10-inch skillet
- 5 eggs
- 1 1/4 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 1/2 cups milk
- Butter, ghee, or coconut oil
Beat the eggs, milk, and salt together in a bowl until frothy. Slowly add the flour, whisking to incorporate until a smooth batter forms. Set aside.
Heat a nonstick or well-seasoned cast iron skillet over medium heat. Once the pan is hot, add a little butter to coat the bottom of the pan. Pour in just enough batter to coat the pan (about 1/3 cup if using a 10-inch skillet) and pick up the pan, tilting it to all sides so that the batter evenly coats the bottom of the pan in a thin layer.
Once the pancake has set and the bottom is golden brown (30 seconds to a minute), use a spatula or knife to carefully flip the pancake. Cook the other side for an additional 30 seconds to brown, then tilt the pancake out of the pan and onto a plate.
Repeat, using more butter as needed, with the remaining batter.
To serve, spread a heaping spoonful of Icelandic Provisions skyr on one half of the pancake. Fold the pancake in half over the filling, and then in half again. Enjoy!
Recipe adapted from “The Nordic Cookbook” by Magnus Nilsson