Better Breakfasts: A Love Letter to Skyr

billowy clouds of skyrEven though I am, sadly, growing more lactose intolerant by the day, I love dairy products dearly — perhaps more than ever. Luckily, there are some that I can still consume without too much unpleasant consequence (including kefir, certain aged cheeses, butter, and some yogurts) and I am deeply thankful that one of my most beloved of all — a glorious Nordic product with a nutritional profile that sounds like the stuff of myth — is still within my safe zone. [Cultured dairy products in general are easier for the lactose intolerant to stomach, because the bacteria digest some of the milk sugars for you. And strained cultured dairy products are even easier still, since much of the remaining sugars are strained away along with the watery whey.]

I first discovered skyr ten years ago, on a summer trip to Iceland to visit some friends. When my friend Eyjolfur brought me to a local Krónan supermarket, I was as thrilled as I always am on a first visit to a supermarket in a new country. (Hint: pretty darn thrilled.) Salty black licorice coated in chocolate: wild! Jugs of whey: Who knew you could buy that? But what really caught my eye was an entire refrigerated wall full of colorful tubs of endless flavors of what appeared to be yogurt. “Not yogurt,” said Eyjo. “Better than yogurt.”

Better than yogurt?! This, I had to try. I’d actually never been the hugest yogurt fan until I’d moved to Italy the year before, but discovering that yogurt was not necessarily a watery, gelatinous, preservative-filled substance tasting of chemicals and sugar was quite a revelation. Italian brands such as Mukki and Parmalat already knocked any U.S. brand on its ass, but I fell quickly and deeply in love with Müller, an incredibly rich, creamy German brand with flavors that sounded (and tasted) like a dessert list: coconut, banana, pineapple, lemon, coffee, walnut, hazelnut, chocolate chip, and my favorite, “crema Chantilly” (whipped-cream flavor!). And all with very short and easily comprehensible ingredient lists. No gelatin or other weird fillers. No artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. And so my obsession with European yogurt began. It was also in Italy that I first tasted mind-bogglingly thick, smooth Greek yogurt (and on a trip to Greece I was fortunate enough to try the real deal).

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When Eyjo and I got back to his place and set up our Icelandic breakfast, I sampled the blueberry-strawberry skyr that we’d bought and found that he was right: This stuff relegated all those others (wonderful though they are and remain) to the second tier of fermented dairyland. Skyr was even thicker, creamier, richer, and more velvety than full-fat Greek yogurt, and without yogurt’s characteristic strong sour tang. Plus it had more protein than even a strained yogurt like Greek yogurt. And yet — via some sort of Viking black magic — it was entirely fat free. How was this possible??

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As Eyjo informed me, skyr is not really a yogurt at all, though it has been marketed as one since it was introduced to the UK and the US. Yogurt is made by fermenting whole, low-fat, or skim milk with bacterial cultures. Greek yogurt is made by then straining the liquid whey and concentrating the milk solids, resulting in a thicker texture, less sugar, and more protein. While many yogurts are generally well-tolerated by those cursed with lactose intolerance since the bacteria digest most of the lactose (milk sugar) as part of the natural fermentation process, any strained yogurt is even easier to digest since much of the remaining lactose gets strained away as well.

Skyr, meanwhile, also starts with milk fermented by bacterial cultures (different cultures than those used to make yogurt, however), but it is made from skim milk that has already had the cream separated out (to make butter). Rennet is also added to this fermented milk so that it coagulates, and the liquid whey is then strained away, leaving only the milk solids. This makes skyr, technically, a fermented soft cheese.

skyr.is skyr

First available here in 2005, skyr is still slowly making its debut in the U.S. My favorite brand, Skyr.is, is the only one currently sold in this country that’s actually made in Iceland. Though only available in four flavors here (plain, vanilla, blueberry, and strawberry) and only in Whole Foods markets in select regions, it is authentic, made with milk from grass-fed Icelandic cows.

There are a couple of American-made, skyr-inspired products on the market as well, which are more widely available: Siggi’s (made in New York by an Icelandic immigrant named Siggi) and a newcomer called Smári (made in California by an Icelandic immigrant named…you guessed it…Smári). I’ve tried both, and while I think Siggi’s tastes like a very good strained yogurt, to me it’s not quite the same as either the skyr that I tried in Iceland or the imported skyr. It has a thinner consistency, slightly lower protein content, and a more sour taste — closer to Greek yogurt.

Smari skyr

I found Smári to be much closer to Icelandic skyr in terms of texture and nutritional profile, though it’s still tarter — and more yogurt-like overall — in terms of both taste and texture. It does offer the additional benefits of being organic, however, and made with milk from grass-fed cows. I’m not sure that the U.S.-based skyr makers use rennet as there’s no mention of it on their websites — I wonder if perhaps that’s why they don’t resemble the Icelandic skyr as much as you’d expect? Or it could be due to different bacterial cultures.

All this is not to say that I no longer love Greek yogurt (Fage is my favorite brand) or regular yogurt. I still have love for them all, and sometimes prefer them. But skyr is still not as well known in this country as it should be, especially for those looking for the most protein bang for their caloric buck. And in a super thick and creamy texture, to boot. Skyr is so thick and creamy, in fact, that sometimes it’s a bit hard to eat an entire 6-ounce container of it. (But I have a fantastic solution for that, which I shall reveal soon in an upcoming post! Stay tuned.)

For the purposes of this comparison chart, I’m only comparing plain skyr and yogurts with nothing added, because that’s how I prefer to buy them, and add my own fruit or other flavorings. Skyr.is is, sadly, only available in plain, vanilla, strawberry, and blueberry in the U.S. (in Iceland the flavor varieties are breathtaking and seemingly endless), Smári offers the same flavor options, and Siggi’s is available in many unusual flavors, including: grapefruit, orange & ginger, pineapple, and peach.

NUTRITION STATS COMPARISON (per 6 oz/170 g)

Calories

Fat

Protein

Sugars

Calcium

Organic

Grass-Fed

Skyr.is Plain 110 0 g 22 g 6 g 20%

Y

Smári Pure 100 0 g 20 g 6 g 20%

Y

Y

Siggi’s Plain* 90 0 g 17 g 4.5 g 23%

Y

Fage 0% Greek Yogurt – Plain 100 0 g 18 g 7 g 20%
Stonyfield Organic Plain Nonfat Yogurt 80 0 g 8 g 12 g 25%

Y

Y

Dannon All-Natural Plain Nonfat Yogurt 80 0 g 9 g 12 g 30%
*NOTE: Siggi’s is sold in 150-g (5.3-oz) containers, at 80 calories for plain; I scaled Siggi’s data up for comparison purposes, as all the other brands are sold in 170-g (6-oz) portions.

Some of my favorite ways to enjoy either skyr are:

  • with a handful of fresh blueberries and a dollop of lemon curd
  • topped with fresh raspberries, blackberries, or sliced strawberries
  • with a generous spoonful of blueberry-vanilla-chia jam (recipe coming soon!) and sprinkled with Ezekiel 4:9 cereal (which closely resembles Grape Nuts in appearance and flavor, though it’s  more nutritious)
  • in place of sour cream or yogurt in toppings and recipes (it’s particularly wonderful in baked goods, keeping them rich and moist without adding any fat)
  • in a smoothie (e.g., with kefir, bananas, and cocoa powder)
  • drizzled with olive oil and za’atar and eaten with pita bread and some of my homemade kibbeh
  • mixed with chopped mint leaves, Persian cucumbers, and a little salt
  • stirred together with a dollop of spicy Indian mixed pickle

Have you tried skyr yet? How do you like to eat it?

A Moveable Feast

This afternoon I joined a guided walk through Forest Hills Cemetery led by Anthony Sammarco, a local historian and author of more than forty books on the history of Boston.  This garden cemetery is one of the most beautiful in the country, aside from holding great personal significance for me (my paternal grandparents are buried here), and I was excited by the idea of a food-themed walking tour, replete with tastings! It was a beautiful, brisk, fall day as Mr. Sammarco led our small group through the turning leaves.

We started at the grave of Thaddeus Clapp, the hybridizer of the Clapp’s Favorite variety of pear, a cross between the Bartlett and Flemish Beauty (apparently there is a giant pear sculpture in Everett Square in Dorchester, MA commemorating this accomplishment). This variety was unique because it was an early ripening pear, making the fruit available at a time of year when it was previously unobtainable. While Mr. Sammarco spoke we enjoyed some slices of fresh pear.

Our second stop was at the grave of Samuel Downer (1807-1881), who achieved fame for hybridizing the Downer’s Late cherry, which conversely ripened about a week after the regular cherry season, extending the availability of fresh cherries. Here we sampled fresh cherries, cherry juice, and gummy cherry candies.

Next up on the itinerary was the final resting place of Jacob Wirth (d. 1892), restauranteur and one of the first to introduce “ethnic” food from his native Prussia to the Boston area at his beer hall in Stuart Street, founded in 1868 and the second-oldest operating restaurant in the city after the Union Oyster House. At Jake’s gravestone we enjoyed some apple cider, the original idea of beer apparently having been nixed by someone behind the scenes at Forest Hills.

Next we visited the grave of Maria Parloa (1843-1909), one of the most popular cooking teachers and cookbook authors of the 19th Century, and co-founder of the Boston Cooking School. At Maria’s grave, a basket of mini Hershey’s chocolate bars had been set out, in honor of the chocolate cookbook that Maria authored (although it was for the Walter Baker cocoa company, rather than Hershey’s).

We then made a pilgrimage to the gravestone of Ruby Foo (1904-1950), the owner of Ruby Foo’s Den, one of the first resturants to offer Chinese food to Bostonians.  Considering the state of Chinese cuisine in the Boston area today (one word: dismal), I was quite curious about what types of dishes Ruby Foo might have served to her customers in the 30s and 40s.  Crab Rangoon could not possibly have been one of them, since that peculiarly un-Chinese concoction was actually invented at Trader Vic’s in San Francisco in the late 1950s. Mr. Sammarco informed us that Ruby’s restaurant was quite popular with the local Jewish population, not least of all because they were banned from dining in many other local restaurants at the time.  Could this be one of the reasons for the enduring love that many Jewish people still have today for Chinese food? Or is it that Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Day? At this stop we were offered fortune cookies, another American Chinese food invention (this is fodder for an entirely separate post, so I’ll refrain from commenting further).

We then wandered through the beautifully-landscaped grounds to the plot of S. S. Pierce (1807-1881), the proprietor of a fine-foods emporium that once stood in Copley Square (1887-1958). While munching on cookies, Mr. Sammarco described how Pierce imported upscale foods from around the world and had them delivered to well-to-do Back Bay families by horse-drawn livery coach (Today, Back Bay residents like yours truly use “old lady” wheelie carts to haul their groceries from Shaw’s and Trader Joe’s to their brownstones. Not quite as elegant).

Our final stop was at the plot of the Pfaff family, whose once well-known brewery was at Roxbury Crossing. We learned about the Pfaff brewery and the almost two dozen others that used to stand along Stony Brook from Roxbury to Jamaica Plain. The clear water from Stony Brook (now dry) was used to produce German-style lager beers. By this point, Mr. Sammarco’s assistants had somehow managed to sneak some real ale into the tour, and we enjoyed it on the steps of the Egyptian-style Pfaff Mausoleum.

I had a great time on this tour and learned a great deal – Mr. Sammarco is a vast treasure-trove of historical knowledge and clearly has a soft spot in his heart for anything related to food and dining. I wished I could have spoken to him longer and asked him some questions, particularly about the mysterious Ruby Foo.  I guess I’ll have to do some research of my own!

When the tour ended I took the opportunity to visit my grandparents, Eugene and Lena St. Onge, in the newer section of the cemetery. My French-Canadian grandfather was a chef, and my grandmother told me that they met when she and a girlfriend saw him slicing turkey in the window of a restaurant in Cape Cod one day.  He was tall and handsome, and my grandmother’s girlfriend said to her, “I bet you can’t make him!” and she retorted, “I bet you I can!” and the rest, as they say, is history…