Skyr (pronounced “skeer”), an Icelandic cheese product now sold in the US, is one of Iceland’s most popular foods. On our 24-hour layover in Iceland we made a quick trip to Burid, Iceland’s premier cheese shop, where we spent time with owner Eirny. (If you visit Iceland, she offers some amazing cheese-making classes.)
She was a wealth of knowledge, gave us the scoop on skyr and raw cheese and stocked us up with her favorite penicillin-rich blue cheeses.
The Skinny on Skyr
Skyr was a popular Viking food, a tradition held onto by Icelanders since 900 AD, I was told. Skyr is as unique in today’s nutritional world as Iceland is beautiful. While skyr may taste like a yogurt, it is more technically a cheese. But even as a cheese it is unique because it is loaded with whey – the protein most cheeses lack but that is abundant in mothers’ milk.
The making of yogurt is a simple and natural process of lacto-fermenting milk using a coagulant like, for example, lemon. The yogurt is basically the curd, cultured casein protein which is much easier to digest than the non-cultured form of casein as it appears in milk. That is why cheese is generally easier to digest that milk.
In the making of yogurt, after the casein curdles, the liquid whey protein (an almost clear liquid) that remains is generally drained off the curd and often discarded.
But the Vikings would have no part in that. They added rennet – typically used to make cheese – to the skyr, allowing for the culturing of both the whey and the casein. In the cheese world, it is rare to have both casein and whey in the same product. The result is a super high-protein meal rich in both curds and whey (casein and whey proteins) – pretty cool stuff.
Why Skyr Might Just Be Your Dairy Cheat
Oh yes, skyr is only made with skim milk, making it low fat – a popular claim to fame in the US. The bacteria cultures in the whey and casein feed mostly on the lactose, the sugars naturally present in milk. This process naturally lowers the sugar content in skyr. If you are lactose intolerant, trying to avoid sugar, don’t do well with fats and/or bloat on regular milk, skyr might be just the dairy product worth trying.
Traditionally, families would preserve the skyr culture and pass it down the way old-world bakers do with sourdough cultures. Nowadays, traditional cultures of Streptococcus salivarius subsp. thermophilus and Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus are added to boost its healthy skyr-ness.
By The Whey
If you have weak digestion, are bothered by dairy products and are looking for a “cheat cheese,” consider other cheeses made purely out of whey. While there are not many (casein is used to make 98% of cheeses), whey is a much easier protein to digest. Remember, mothers’ milk is primarily whey protein, so it is a protein humans know how to digest.
Authentic Italian Ricotta, Mozzarella and Provolone are the three most popular whey cheeses on the market. But here is the catch: in America, milk is often added to the whey to make these cheeses. To find the real deal, you may need to go to the European section of your grocery store and search for an Italian-made brand (you may also end up spending a little more money). It’s always a good idea to check the label, but most of these whey cheeses made in Italy only use the pure whey with no added milk – whey to go, right!
Norway’s Contribution to the Whey Cheese Movement
Norway’s Geitost cheese is a famous whey cheese that is almost unavailable in the US anyway. Of course my research assistant, Ginger (my wife), insisted we drive to one of the few towns on the planet that still makes raw unpasteurized geitost whey cheese, a little place called Undredal. This tiny barely-a-town was only accessible by boat until 1982 – we are talking extremely remote, hidden in the Norwegian Fjords.
The Ayurvedic Connection
Interestingly, drinking milk straight and cold is largely an American habit! Traditionally, drinking milk straight was not common in any of the dairy-eating traditional cultures because it went sour so quickly. To make the most of their precious dairy they would preserve it by quickly separating the fat to make butter or clarified butter (similar to the Indian ghee), and then make most of their yogurt and cheeses out of the skim milk. This practice is very much Ayurvedic in spirit.
In India, cheeses like yogurt, curd or paneer would only last a day or two and were thus easy to digest and not overly heating for the body. These cheeses were suitable for consumption in a tropical climate. Conversely, hard cheeses made famous in Europe were concocted to stay preserved over a long winter and were thus heating to the body and somewhat harder to digest than India’s simple milk cheeses.
Remember folks, Ayurveda is a universal study of nature, and while cold climate cheeses are not Indian, this doesn’t mean they cannot be Ayurvedic. Understanding Ayurveda means that we understand the properties of all foods in the context of season and region, and cheeses are certainly a fascinating branch of that study.