Iceland, Defrosted has recently been snapped next to the Empire State building in New York City. It’s part of the Books on the Subway campaign, but it reminded me that its not the only connection between the book and this fantastic city.
There is one Icelandic food that I love, though. I adore it. I crave it. It’s skyr. I even found it in New York. Let me explain.
New York was baking hot, seeming to shimmer in the blazing sunlight. The skyscrapers turned from grey to silver as they reflected back the sun’s rays. The sun beat down, sending commuters and hipsters running for shade and air-conditioned shops, and turning the subway system into an underground oven. Typically, the English tennis players had already been knocked out of the early stages of the US Open, citing the heat as the reason why. I was in New York for other reasons, but I couldn’t let the opportunity slip by. I had to take the chance to find Siggi Hilmarsson and his Icelandic skyr. I had read about the guy, and was utterly enthralled by his story. Moreover, I couldn’t resist a tub of cool Icelandic skyr in that sultry heat.
Skyr is an Icelandic dairy product. Although you wouldn’t be wrong to think of it as part of the yoghurt family, it is actually a form of soft cheese and is slightly acidic. It is virtually fat free, which is a bonus. Like most things, it was brought to Iceland by the Vikings, although I’m not sure that they were particularly health conscious. I certainly can’t imagine them counting the calories. Skyr is part of my staple diet when I’m in Iceland – I probably eat more than is strictly good for you, but it is delicious and there is nothing like it in the UK.
Siggi moved to New York from Iceland in 2002 for grad school. In 2004 he found himself all alone in the big city at Christmas, and, for the first time, not going home for the Christmas holidays. Feeling homesick for his friends and family, and for laufabrauð (the thin Icelandic ‘leaf bread’ served at Christmas) and skyr, Siggi asked his mother to send over some recipes so that he could attempt to make his own Icelandic food, especially as skyr was nowhere to be found in New York. Siggi told me that he was missing Iceland and the ability to drive only an hour to find that ‘instant feeling of aloneness’. So, in his adopted city of 8.4 million souls, a lone Siggi made his first batch of skyr.
He didn’t say whether it cured his homesickness or not, but it must have gone well, as Siggi went on to produce further batches from an agricultural college in upstate New York during the spring of 2005. It was rapturously received by New York foodies. So rapturously, in fact, that Siggi was able to start his own company – Icelandic Milk and Skyr Company. He moved production to Norwich, Chenango County, New York, where doe-eyed brown cows eating pristine green grass produced organic milk for Siggi to turn into yummy skyr. By 2008, Siggi had doubled his company’s size (OK, from two to four employees), and was producing skyr for stores up and down the eastern seaboard. Not bad for something started in his own diminutive kitchen. He planned to focus on the North American market, with the next stop being Canada. I remarked that the Icelandic–Canadian connection should make that an easy transition, a ready-made market even. Siggi just chuckled to himself. I asked whether – fingers crossed – he was planning to start producing skyr in the UK, but despite a lot of requests, he wasn’t. I almost shed a tear. He did have some tips for me though. ‘Try the grapefruit one,’ he said. It was his favourite as he didn’t like anything too sweet. His biggest seller was blueberry skyr. My stomach is rumbling now, just thinking of it.
Later, I did try the grapefruit one, bought from one of the best food shops I’ve ever been into. It was in Brooklyn, and although Siggi’s skyr is available across all five New York boroughs, I recommend this store. Outside on the street, it was marked by huge boxes of green and red oversized apples, landslides of heart-shaped strawberries and juicy watermelons. Inside was a tribute to any food you could possibly desire; pastries and aromatic coffee, hot and cold buffets, cold sliced meats and hot spinning chicken, English Ale and exotic fish, olive oils and fresh bread. I found the skyr and sat in the shadow of the Borough Hall to eat it. The grapefruit skyr – Siggi wasn’t kidding around – wasn’t sweet at all, rather tart, if anything. It had a slightly stiffer consistency than its Icelandic relative, allowing the spoon to cut though, and it held its form in a pleasing manner. It was pleasant, but I was not bowled over, if I’m honest. The next day, though, I was back for more. I chose the blueberry one, and it was divine. No disappointment there. It had a purplish tinge from the blueberries, and I was pleased to find that they also lent an extra sweetness to proceedings. I scraped every last bit from the pot. I could see why it was Siggi’s top seller – it was really delicious.
Siggi said that he was continually surprised by the success of his skyr, as he thought it was going to be a niche market, the preserve of speciality food shops and alternative restaurants. Ever modest, he put some of the success down to the media spotlight on obesity and heart-attack risks, and the subsequent craze for health food. But I think that it is more than that. It’s not just the taste either, or that lovely thick creamy consistency. I think Siggi has managed to find a way of putting a little bit of Iceland into pots.
(Excerpt from Iceland, Defrosted)