Skyr – one of the cornerstones of the Icelandic diet

When Iceland is mentioned, it is often accompanied by a discussion on unspoiled nature, clean air and its special cuisine. One of the characteristics of Icelandic cuisine is skyr. Skyr making has a long history in Iceland. It is made using a special processing of milk, and it is likely that it came to Iceland with the first settlers, as skyr is mentioned in the Icelandic Sagas such as Egil’s Saga, Grettis Saga and Ljósvetninga Saga, to name but a few. This deeply rooted Icelandic tradition is believed to have remained unchanged from first settlement until the middle of the last century.

Storage methods of food in special conditions

The weather conditions in Iceland are unique, as the country is an island that is located in the North Atlantic Ocean, and its geographical situation is therefore not ideal for growing a wide variety of food crops. The Icelandic summer is short and the winters often hard and difficult. The making of skyr took place, for the most part, during the summer, particularly when weaning ewes and lambs were separated and ewe milk was used; the cost of sheep farming was a lot less than cattle farming and therefore available to most. The food storage methods had to take into account these special circumstances, and where salt was scarce, whey was used for the storage of food, which made the food sour and skyr was no exception.

The making of skyr was women’s work

Skyr was made on all Icelandic farms and was used to augment other foods. It can therefore be said that skyr has been the foundation food of the Icelandic nation since time immemorial. Skyr making was seen as women’s work, and it is considered that this is one of the reasons that documentation about skyr is scarce. However, it is clear that people realised early on that hygiene was very important in making skyr and that to achieve the characteristic taste and distinctive texture, the curd from old skyr was used, so-called skyr bacteria. The that we know today is based on these age-old traditions and contains Icelandic skyr bacteria, which has been preserved through the years.

The Icelandic skyr is a legacy from Icelandic women

The processing methods and the knowledge of how to make skyr has been handed down through generations of women, who preserved the knowledge and production methods. It can therefore be said that Icelandic skyr is a legacy from past generations of Icelandic women, women, who with ingenuity, sensible observation and diligence, made skyr the choice food that it has been and at the same time made an important contribution to the preservation of bravery and resilience of the Icelanders in past centuries.

Centuries old processing methods

When skyr making began in Icelandic dairies from 1920–1930, Icelandic housewives were brought in to teach dairy scientists the art of creating skyr, and it is likely that the methods developed in recent times have been for the most part similar to the procedures used during the Icelandic middle ages. In 1960, Hólmfríður Pétursdóttir, housewife, wrote a detailed account of Icelandic skyr making and stated that people have always been conscious of the wholesomeness of skyr. Skyr and its consumption has been an important factor in people’s subsistence and one of the cornerstones of the Icelandic diet since the land was settled.

Árni Daníel Júlíusson, Landbúnaðarsaga Íslands 1st edition.
Hallgerður Gísladóttir, Íslensk matarhefð.
Hólmfríður Pétursdóttir, Íslenzkt skyr.
Jónas Jónasson, Íslenzkir þjóðhættir.