Cultured dairy products have existed for as long as humans have milked animals, which is to say, a very long time. Before the days of refrigeration, fresh milk was preserved through a wide range of fermentation processes, each of which protected the milk from spoiling while also gathering beneficial bacteria from the surrounding atmosphere. These yogurt-like products vary from region to region: kefir in Russia; viili in Sweden and Finland; filmjölk in the Nordic countries; skyr in Iceland.
That last variety has quickly gained popularity on these shores thanks to Siggi Hilmarsson, founder of siggi’s yogurt. Living in New York and feeling homesick for his native Iceland, Siggi wanted to make the dairy ferment known as skyr that he had grown up eating. With every batch, he came closer to replicating the thick and tangy yogurt. Eventually he succeeded, launching a strained yogurt made with milk from small dairy farmers in upstate New York.
Americans tend to have a sweet tooth, but siggi’s is tart with minimal sweetening. Did you worry that Americans wouldn’t like your product?
I didn’t think about it too much at the time, which gave this business a slow start. After moving to the U.S. in 2002, I had a very hard time consuming the flavored yogurts with sugar ratios close to that of soda. The initial reaction to my moderately sweetened yogurt was mixed, where some people enjoyed it immediately, others were too used to consuming 25g of sugar in their yogurt to be converted. Our yogurt has somewhere between 9-11g of sugar, which is dramatically lower.
You refer to your product as “Icelandic-style skyr.” How is skyr traditionally eaten in Iceland?
In the last few decades there have been two distinct ways to think about it: The younger generation tends to view skyr as more of a health food, i.e. a healthy breakfast or snack, a post-workout kind of thing, because of the high protein and low fat. The older generation, like my father, view it more as dessert, and eat it with cream and some berries or brown sugar (we call that rjómaskyr). A third way, not as popular today, is to mix the skyr 50/50 with oatmeal, a dish called hræringur.
Yogurt-style products are made all over the world, each of which varies greatly in flavor and culture, based on the living bacteria in the area. The live cultures in your skyr include some common to American yogurt (B. lactis and L. acidophilus), as well as two I’ve never seen listed in a cultured dairy product before: L. delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus and L. delbrueckii subsp.lctis. Are the two “delbrueckii” native to Iceland?
You’re right, there’s almost an infinite number of cultures in the world and, in combination with temperature and set time, they impact what flavor, texture and body the yogurt takes. Those two are not unique to Iceland but common to many yogurt-making cultures. I have experimented with a variety of cultures and combinations of cultures that are available both here in the U.S. and Europe to reach a profile that I felt best “got” how I perceived the traditional Icelandic-style skyr, and this is the combination I wound up with. As a side note, in the 18th- and 19th-century and even earlier, Icelandic people actually got their starters by placing milk outside the farm in several small cups overnight, capturing a wide variety of bacteria and yeast from the air. They would then pick the cup that had “cultured up” best and use that cup’s content as a basis for their starter. So back then people intuitively understood the process but didn’t know what actual culture they were using.
How did you select the farms from which you source your milk?
We’ve always wanted to buy from and support local family-owned farms. For us that means New York State farms, since that’s our home market and where the business started. We currently source all our milk from family farms around the Finger Lakes area, and we based our factory nearby. As we’ve expanded, we’ve kept our source in New York, although there are great farms around other parts of the country.
To wrap up, how do you take your skyr?
I go in cycles, but I always come back to the simple stuff: plain skyr with fresh blueberries and walnuts. For the more adventurous, try mixing plain siggi’s into your egg salad instead of mayonnaise.
Siggi’s Curried Egg Salad
8 to 9 pastured eggs
1/3 cup siggi’s plain skyr
2 teaspoons curry powder
1/2 small onion, chopped
1/2 medium apple, chopped
1/3 cup pecans, toasted and chopped
1 bunch chives, minced
Salt and pepper to taste