Uncovering the secrets of Skyre in Iceland

Liana’s penultimate destination takes her to Iceland to uncover the secrets of skyr and take on the challenge of making her very own lab-made skyr.

I arrived in Iceland on May 14 and spent the first few days planning my visits to local farms. I met with Professor Snædís Huld Björnsdóttir at the University of Iceland, whom I emailed two years ago when I started this project. She connected me with Thoralinn Sveinsson, who’s been in the skyr business for over 40 years. He shared his deep knowledge of all things skyr, including some quirky cultural anecdotes. For example, in the winter, skyr production used to slow down because there was less milk available. So families would put pieces of raw meat out on a rock in their backyard for gnomes to feast on. It was said that the gnomes would come and consume the meat, and if the gnomes were happy with the meal, they would bless the skyr for the following season when you fermented it under that same rock. Interestingly, it may have been some of these raw meat microbes that were inoculating next year’s skyr starter.

Thoralinn also gave me some of his 10-year-old skyr starter so I could attempt to make skyr. I tried to make the skyr in the lab three times using the hot water bath and a massive glass flask since it was the only food-grade glassware I could find. Maintaining the right temperature in such a big volume, especially with a water bath that takes a few hours to warm up, was not working out. On my first attempt, I used a water bath to pasteurize the milk. It took five hours to reach 80°C, so l left it overnight. The following day I came back, and almost all the water had evaporated. Eventually, it got to 90°C so that I could pasteurize the milk. I then let it cool down to 42°C before adding the starter. Every time I sampled the process, I gently stirred the solution, thinking that it would be more homogeneous for sampling purposes. I stayed in the lab until 11 p.m., but the skyr just wasn’t setting. I later learned that any stirring destroys the protein lattices and disrupts the microbes. It’s something that a fresh, vigorous starter might be able to handle, but these microbes have been sitting in the freezer for 10 years, and they already needed more gentle conditions to revive them.

The next day, I went to a farmer’s market to pick up a sample of the famous fermented shark that is produced by leaving the shark meat buried underground for three months.

Following that, Professor Björnsdóttir graciously drove me to a farm three hours away where they make skyr. She had to get back in time for work the next day, so I spent the night near the farm, and the skyr expert, Thorgimur, picked me up at 5 a.m. the next morning to start the process. The cows are milked in the morning and the evening, and the milk is kept at 4°C until the following day when they split the fat from the milk. The milk is then pasteurized and cooled down enough so we can add the starter. Traditional skyr is made with fully skimmed milk and no rennet, fully relying on the acid from the microbes to coagulate the milk. After a few hours at a steady temperature, we can see that it’s started to coagulate. When it's done fermenting after around five hours, it is stirred and put into large bags to strain overnight. It was amazing to see the whole process and get tips on improving my skyr-making protocol.
For my next attempt at skyr making, I decided a metal vessel was needed to maintain the temperature the microbes needed. I found a hot plate and was able to borrow a food-grade pot from someone in another lab, who makes lunch with it in the breakroom sometimes. My next attempt at making skyr finally worked, and I managed to take samples throughout most of the process. It looked, smelled, and tasted delicious, so now I know the process, I’ll definitely make more in the future. During my time in Iceland, I was hoping to visit more farms and markets, but unfortunately, most of the producers I contacted were either using industrial starters or industrial methods like adding rennet. As demand increases, small-scale producers have very little margin for error if they are to survive the farming season. Passing down unpredictable starters for many generations is not feasible, especially in recent years, where COVID-19 made it difficult for small farms to stay afloat. As I talk to more fermenters from different countries, I discovered that this trend is not isolated to Iceland or Ireland. Small farmers are forced to either sell their milk to a large company, who will either use starter cultures or will use industrial starter to have predictable outcomes for every batch. While fermentation safety is on the rise, it’s important to remember that many of these “wild” microbes – the ones that were coming from meat into the annual skyr starter – have some important functional diversity.