Originally published in Culture: The Word on Cheese
Originally published in Culture: The Word on Cheese
I first meet eccentric Icelandic curd connoisseur Eirny Sigurdardottir on an intensely blustery afternoon in early November at her cosy and cheerful cheese shop Búrið, located in a small shopping center just off of Laugaveger, a main drag in downtown Reykjavik. Before I enter the shop, a check of the horizon, where dormant volcano Mt. Esja looms over the city, reminds me that this is no run-of-the-mill American strip mall.
While a native Icelander, Eirny spent her formative years in England and Edinburgh, as evidenced by her lilting Scottish burble, punctuated every so often with a colorful UK colloquialism. She comes by her love of stinky cheeses honestly. “My English stepfather always had a piece of cheese after dinner, mostly Stilton or Cheddar,” she says. “That’s a habit I still like to keep to this day.”
While living in Edinburgh, she ran a catering company and taught students about cheese at the School of Food and Wine. “I got a reputation for always serving my customers the best cheeses,” she says. But after 17 years abroad, Eirny returned to her native Iceland and, in 2008, opened Búrið.
I have come here at her invitation to attend her regular Friday mini-market, a gathering of a handful of regional farmers and producers. Along with tasting a selection of free range pork, smoked lamb, and grass fed beef, she has predicted that on this day “we will be in a Raclette mood.”
An unseasonably intense, yet typically fickle, Icelandic storm, however – winds so fierce that salt from the sea is flung violently throughout the city, finding its way into eyes, hair, mouths, and onto shop windows, where it sticks and lingers for days, a reminder of the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, when black volcanic ash blanketed the city – has prevented the producers from making the drive into Reykjavik, and so the market has been cancelled.
By way of apology, Eirny showers me with an assortment of Icelandic cheeses to take back to my hotel and taste: Isbui, a washed-rind cow’s milk cheese, a black rind Gouda, and a deep-veined Danish-style blue. To go with this, she gathers up a selection of her own homemade jams – tart fig, sweet pepper, a delicate pale pink rhubarb, and a rich Merlot, and then tasks me with picking up three white-mold, soft ripened Icelandic cheeses – Stori Dimon, Gulloster, and Kastali – at a nearby supermarket. My assignment: when we next meet over a late dinner at popular Reykjavik restaurant Grillmarkaðurinn (Grillmarket), we will discuss my cheese tasting notes and Eirny will attempt “to explain [to me] the strange thing that is the Icelandic cheese industry.”
A Cooperative Monopoly
Iceland is home to roughly 300,000 people, yet the tiny dairy-mad population manages to consume more cheese, butter, and milk per capita than most other Western cheese-loving nations, including the United States. And the lion’s share of that product comes from one company: MS Iceland Dairies, which holds a whopping 97 percent of the country’s dairy market share. A cooperative monopoly, MS Iceland is owned by the nation’s 700-odd dairy farmers, who each hand over a predetermined annual quota of their milk to the company to be turned into consumer product.
To a large extent, MS Iceland has had a hand in shaping the cheese tastes of the nation. In the 1950s the outfit, which Eirny calls “an amazing marketing company” looked to the U.S. and plastic fermentation methods for its cheese making model, and set about convincing the nation to eat the resulting relatively bland cheeses with nearly every meal. And it worked – a mild gouda-type cheese, known as “family cheese,” remains the company’s biggest seller.
Until the 1980s, many foreign cheeses were banned from importation, and so a taste for relatively mild cheese became the norm – odd when you consider that the typical Icelander’s Viking ancestors once subsisted on the likes of pungent fermented shark.
Once the ban on foreign cheese was lifted, people gradually became less suspicious of more complex cheeses – think Brie, various blues, and cheddars. A recent MS Iceland re-branding campaign is both a response to evolving tastes and an effort to help foster an interest in a wider world of cheese. Case in point: “Ljotur,” which means “the Ugly One,” a aptly-named pungent blue that has such an off-putting appearance that, according to MS Iceland market executive Guðný Steinsdóttir, people are often afraid to taste it during in-store demonstrations.
MS Iceland has also played a part in making skyr into a popular convenience food. Perhaps the most iconic Icelandic dairy product, skyr is mentioned in the Viking sagas from the year 1000. Low in fat and high in protein, it has the consistency of a Greek yogurt, but it’s technically a cheese.
And until recently, eating it straight out of the container was not an option. “It was inedible in the old days,” Eirny recalls. “It was a solid mass, and when I was a kid you had to mix in cream and sugar, and, if you were really lucky, blueberries.”
Now you can pick up a little tub of fruit-flavored MS Iceland skyr from any supermarket; many Icelanders eat it for a quick lunch. Skyr also shows up in a number of imaginative ways in restaurants around town, particularly in desserts and cheesecakes. My two favorite skyr-based dishes of the ones I sampled were a creamy spruce skyr ice cream which I had as part of an Icelandic tasting menu at upscale Reykjavik restaurant Fiskfelagid (Fish Company), and a selection of flavored skyr mayonnaise dipping sauces – chili, truffle tarragon, cilantro, basil, honey mustard – at the touristy, but well worth a visit, Icelandic Fish & Chips.
MS Iceland cooperative member farmers are free to do what they like with their surplus milk, but thanks in part to strict industry regulations it’s tough for a small producer to find the financial means to make and sell their own product. In fact, as of this writing, two of the five existing independent dairy producers in Iceland have ceased operations.
The three independents producers include Bio Bu, Iceland’s only organic dairy; Fjoshornid (Cow Shed Corner), in eastern Iceland, where in the summer visitors can purchase yogurt, feta cheese, beef, and what Eirny calls “the best skyr in Iceland;” and Erpsstadir Farm, 90 minutes north of Reykjavik.
Erpsstadir Farm’s cheesemaker and farmer Þorgrímur Einar Guðbjartsson explains that “small independent producers are challenged by the very strict regulations we have in Iceland. For example, we are not allowed to produce and sell unpasteurized milk products. This makes it very difficult for some of the small producers to make cheese because they cannot afford to buy a pasteurizer. … [It’s] quite sad.”
Þorgrímur has managed to buck the trend thanks in part to the variety and quality of his products. Along with ice cream, skyr, and cream, he makes a number of cheeses (which Eirny stocks when available), including Frændi, a Camembert-style cow’s milk cheese; Kumenoster, his best-selling cheese, a Gouda-style semi-firm cheese that has a subtly sweet quality when young, thanks to the addition of wild cumin; and Galti, one of Eirny’s favorite Icelandic cheeses.
“It’s a small bloomy-rind based on the French Chaorce,” she says. “It is gorgeously runny on the outside with a dense chalky center. The flavors are buttery mushroom, white pepper, and a slightly lemony yoghurt tang. Yum.”
Þorgrímur also produces what is arguably one of the most quirky candies ever made: Skyr Konfect. Purposefully shaped like a cow udder, it’s worth overcoming whatever reticence you may have about biting into a candy shaped like a teat to taste the white-chocolate-covered sweet, cheesecake-like skyr. “Skyr Konfekt reflects our desire to combine a traditional product, skyr,with something new,” Þorgrímur says. “We think the result is surprising and delightful!”
Another business booster: Þorgrímur welcomes visitors to his farm in the summer. “We have many, many visitors at Erpsstaðir during our short summer. Our farm is on the main route to the West Fjords, so if people haven’t already found out about us at shops or restaurants in Reykjavik, they will surely see us during their travels.”
Once at the farm, visitors can buy ice cream, cheeses, skyr, cream or Skyr Konfekt,check out the robotic milking machine in the viewing room, or take a guided tour around the farm.
A Culinary Tour
Two days after our first meeting at Búrið, I meet Eirny at Grillmarket, ostensibly to taste an off-menu cheese plate and alcohol pairing. But things begin with a plate of rustic rye bread, butter, and coarse Icelandic black sea salt. The daffodil-yellow Icelandic butter is so colored thanks to the high levels of beta carotene in the grass ingested by the free-roaming Viking cows. It is ever-so-slightly sweet, and I imagine that I can taste a hint of the fresh Icelandic grass. Grillmarket chef/owner Hrefna Rósa Sætran says, “I love the Icelandic butter. That is probably the dairy product I use most [in my cooking]. As well as serving it pure with bread, we clarify it and use it for frying.”
As we work our way through the menu – paper-thin beef carpaccio with yuzu, a bright green salty dried fish, Asian-influenced crispy duck salad, achingly fresh grilled red fish with snow crab, tender Icelandic lamb – Eirny and I discuss the cheeses she gave me to try. Of the three soft white-mould cheeses that I bought at a grocery store, the nutty Stori Dimon is my favorite, while the Isbui, an MS Iceland cheese made in the north of Iceland and based on the Danish Danbo cheese, is my favorite from Búrið. Eirny concurs, citing its slightly springy texture and meaty, herbaceous flavor.
“For such a small country,” Eirny says, “we really have an amazing quality of raw materials to work with, especially the milk from our Viking cow.”
Our cheese plate arrives, and thanks to Eirny I am already familiar with two of the offerings – the Isbui and the Danish-style blue. There is also a creamy MS brie called Dalabrie from Búðardalur, accompanied with Búrið apple and rosemary jelly, pickled apricots, and a fig, apple, and balsamic jam. At this point, my memory becomes a bit hazy, as our server continues to pour generous amounts of 30-year port, Sauterne, and Bjork, an Icelandic birch liqueur, to accompany our cheese feast. While this particular cheese pairing incarnation is not on the Grillmarket menu, Chef Hrefna says that an Eirny-curated cheese board of some kind is always available.
Indeed, most of the finer restaurants around Reykjavik offer some version of an Icelandic cheese platter or appetizer of deep-fried Camembert-style cheese, which I had with a raspberry dipping sauce over lunch at Scandinavian Restaurant, followed by a soul-warming, creamy traditional seafood stew.
But eating out day after day in Iceland is an expensive endeavor, and luckily there are a handful of shops where you can get everything you’ll need to either cook up an authentic Icelandic meal at your guesthouse or make a perfect picnic to take into the country. At Fru Lauga, owner Arnar Bjarnarson stocks fresh produce and meats from all around the country. “We focus on small, quality products from farmers like skyr, cream, organic milk, a bit of cheese, and quite a bit of ice cream, and leave out the mass produced, often sweetened and colored products,” he says. And if you want to take a bit of Iceland home with you, Arnar suggests picking up some local honey, tea, or dried fish at his shop.
Across town, at Ostabúðin, chef Jóhann Jónsson stocks a fabulous selection of his own house-cured smoked meats – goose breast, goose liver, lamb, pates – as well as hard-to-find (in Iceland) specialty gourmet products. You can either opt for a stocked picnic basket, or make your way to the back of the shop into the tiny cafe, as Eirny and I did, for an affordable lunch of whatever is fresh that day. On our visit, chef Johann was offering fish in a carrot and cumin broth. After lunch, we browse the shelves, and Eirny gazes starry-eyed at the selection of O & Co olive oils, tapenades and treats. ‘Sometimes in here I get shop envy,” she confides. “But I do love my Búrið.”
Of course having Eirny as my guide through the world of Icelandic cheese has made my experience infinitely richer than it would have been otherwise. Fortunately, over the summer, visitors to Reykjavik will be able to benefit from her expertise as well, as part of her Búrið Cheese School, when she will be offering twice-weekly 90-minute classes on Icelandic cheeses. As well as learning about the history of cheese and skyr in Iceland, guests will get to taste an assortment of cheeses and other goodies during this lunchtime class.
“I’m very excited about it!” she enthuses. “It’s basically a history of my little country, how we’ve progressed, and how, in this harsh landscape – we’ve survived!”