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World Cheese Culture: Iceland

icelandic goats

In this blog series, Molly will be (virtually) traveling around the globe to explore the way cheeses are enjoyed and incorporated into different cuisines. Some of these cheeses and methods might seem familiar, while others might be completely new to you. Last week, we talked about the Netherlands and the rich history of the cheese markets there. Jess was the winner of a free issue of culture – read on to find out how you can win a copy, too! Get more stamps on your cheese passport and join us for a historical and cultural adventure!


Although its population tops out at just over 300,000 people, Iceland consumes more cheese, butter, and milk than other cheese-loving Western nations, including the United States. Both the history and consumption of cheese in Iceland is somewhat strange, but the industry has made huge strides in the past three decades.

M.S. Iceland Dairies, a cooperative monopoly, holds about 97 percent of the country’s dairy market share. This means that the 700 or so dairy farmers in the country own a part of this company and, in exchange, they have to hand over a predetermined quota of milk to be made into products for consumers each year. Until the 1980s, a strict ban existed on cheese imported from other countries, which meant that the only option in the dairy case was a cheese resembling a mild, plasticky gouda still referred to as “bread cheese” or “school cheese.” Once the country lifted the ban, Icelanders discovered a world of cheese to which they previously did not have access. 

With more cheese available to eat, Icelandic cheese connoisseurs soon realized their country was rich in opportunities for creating unique cheese. As Eirny Sigurdardóttir, owner of Búrið in Reykjavik, says, “For such a small country, we have an amazing quality of raw materials to work with, especially the milk from our cows.”

Photo of Icelandic sheep being herded by shepherds on ponyback

Icelandic sheep are valued for the high butterfat content in their milk.

These cows, often known as “Viking” cows, can be traced to the settlement of the country in the ninth century, which is also true for the Icelandic sheep and goats in the country. No new livestock have been introduced to the country in centuries. This kind of isolation gives the milk from these animals a different composition as well as a noticeably sweeter flavor.

Some of you may be familiar with skyr, a snack with yogurt-like qualities – it’s definitely one of my favorite breakfasts! However, I was surprised to learn that it is not yogurt, but actually a soft cheese made with skim milk that has been fermented with skyr cultures. Originally made with sheep’s milk, skyr produced today comes from cow’s milk. Its delectable, thick consistency is the result of an intense filtering process rather than the added fats and stabilizers that most yogurts have. Skyr is fat-free and packed with protein and calcium. Icelanders use it for breakfast, snacks, dipping sauce, and (perhaps the most interesting use of cheese I’ve ever heard of) for wrestling in at nightclubs. Thanks to Serious Eats, you can even take a virtual tour of a skyr factory here.

Bowl of Icelandic skyr cheese garnished with peach slices

Despite its appearance, skyr is a cheese, not a yogurt.

The cheese culture of Iceland goes well beyond skyr, however, thanks to the high quality ingredients and unique flavors available to farmers. At Búrið, Sigurdardóttir cultivates a collection of Icelandic cheeses that showcases the country’s best. Ísbúi is a washed-rind cow’s milk cheese that smells pungent but has a mild, earthy flavor. Widely sought goat’s milk brie has a slightly sweet taste with a tang. Triple-cream, green-veined Stóri Dímon is a soft-ripened, rich, and creamy cow’s milk cheese that goes down like butter. Unfortunately, most of these cheeses are still only available in Iceland, but that’s just one more excuse to visit the Land of Fire and Ice!

Have you traveled to Iceland or sampled any of these cheeses? Which cheeses sound most appealing to you? Tell us about it in the comments below for a chance to win a copy of our summer issue! Comments must be posted by 11:59 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, July 29, 2014, to be eligible to win. So comment today and stay tuned for next week’s post!

Photo Credit: Featured image of baby goats courtesy of Búrið | Images of Icelandic sheep and skyr courtesy of the Iceland Visitors Bureau

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