Iceland: Behind the Scenes Tour of a Skyr Factory
Note: SE national managing editor Erin recently traveled through Iceland thanks to the Inspired by Iceland campaign. She came back inspired to tell you all about her eating adventures. —The Mgmt.
Skyr is right up there with volcanoes and Björk as being one of the most Icelandic things I knew about before visiting Iceland. Wonderfully thick and creamy, skyr tastes somewhere between tart Greek yogurt, crème fraîche, and soft-serve. And Icelanders have been eating it forever; there are even medieval literary records of skyr being eaten in the Sagas as early as the 11th century. So, despite its recent boom in the yogurt market, skyr ain't just a new fad.
And this brings us to an important point: skyr is not yogurt. So please don't call it yogurt*, especially around an Icelander. That's like comparing ribeye to ground beef (at least to an Icelander). That being said, any yogurt fiend—and I include myself in this community—should know about skyr, which has become the new Greek yogurt. It's technically a soft cheese made with skim milk that's been fermented with a skyr culture—one similar to a yogurt culture, but, again, different—that's then ultra-filtered, as you'll see in the slideshow, giving it a supremely thick texture.
*Also, don't call an Icelandic horse a pony, despite its smaller size!
While many yogurts are thickened with fats and stabilizers, skyr gets its luxuriously thick texture through intense filtration. So intense, it takes a whole three liters of milk to produce just one liter of skyr; it usually takes about one liter of milk to produce one liter of traditional yogurt. Much of the whey liquid is pushed out, leaving behind that incredible thickness.
While it has that fatty-feeling texture, skyr is non-fat and packed with protein, calcium, and other good-for-you features. No wonder Icelanders are so proud of their yogurt-like-but-not-yogurt-wunderfood. They eat it all the time, too—for breakfast, as a snack, in drink form (called "drykkur"), as a dipping sauce ("skyr-nnaise"), or with sweet toppings for dessert. They've also been known to sling it at the house of parliament during protests and wrestle in skyr at nightclubs.
On a recent trip to Iceland, we were lucky enough to visit a skyr factory run by MS Iceland Dairies (Mjólkursamsalan), by far the largest dairy company in Iceland. And Iceland sure loves their dairy; according to recent statistical evidence, the country consumes more cheese and milk per capita than any other country (and is just barely behind Switzerland in the butter category). MS Iceland Dairies is a coop-run business that sources milk from over 700 family-run dairy farms all over Iceland. Last year the company processed a total of 120 million liters of milk for skyr production. And since this is Iceland, with all of its natural energy resources (thanks, volcanoes!), it's produced using only carbon-free hydroelectric and geothermal energy.
Vice president of sales Jón Axel Pétursson and export manager Agnar Friðriksson took the time to chat with us about the skyr business. "We see huge growth potential in America," said Pétursson, who estimates they'll export 1.5 million cups of skyr to the U.S. in 2012.
Since shipping costs are so high, only select Whole Foods in the northeast and along the west coast carry skyr for now, but they're working on growing the market significantly this year. But don't confuse the real-deal Icelandic skyr with the Siggi's brand, an American-made, skyr-inspired product from an Icelandic dude named Siggi who moved to New York. It's not quite the same as it's not made from—and this makes all the difference according to Jón and Agnar—the same milk from those special Viking cows merrily grazing on Icelandic grass.
Let's see how that Viking mjolk (Icelandic for "milk") becomes skyr!