Friday, February 5, 2016

Skyr - the basics II

Skyr – traditionally icelandic since the age of settlement

„The outstanding part of skyr in the traditional icelandic diet is widely proven, firstly mentioned in the icelandic and the norwegian Middle Ages,“ said Eva Kraus. (Undir borðum - Zur Funktionalisierung von Nahrung und Mahlzeiten in den Isländersagas, 2013).

So it’s might true that vikings took their recipes for skyr to Iceland in the Age of Settlement, since they came from Norway.

Ancient barrels for skyr and whey in Glaumbær museum village

For a long time, skyr was a basic food in Iceland. But it was always „everyday diet“, not delicacies. Skyr is not something you would serve a respected guest, if not inevitable.

You can find many references to skyr in sagas:

E.g. in the Egils Saga, in which Egil Skallagrímsson (ca. 910-990) was away on business for his king.

On the evening they came to a farm, where they „only“ got them skyr for supper. Egill got really mad about it and insisted on getting something better. Therefore they made him roast and brought him strong beer. When he was really drunk, he puked on his host. So hard that his vomit lands up in his host’s mouth and nose. This scene was really dramatic and expressive, even for a saga.

Scared about Egill’s notorious irascibility, people from the farm brought him even more strong beer, wishing he would fall asleep. But their hopes didn’t come true. On the next day, the host lost his beard and one eye. Just because he dared to serve Egill skyr...

Another example is the Grettis Saga, based on Grettir Ásmundarson, in which skyr is clearly mentioned.

After Grettir has returned to Iceland from his first voyage to Norway (he had been banished for murder), he visits several old friends, among them Auðunn Ásgeirsson with whom Grettir used to quarrel a lot when they were younger, with Auðunn the older and stronger of the boys. However, Auðunn has grown up to be one of the strongest but also most peaceful and level-headed men in the district.

Grettir tries to impress Auðunn and takes his best horse, his most valuable saddle, his most splendid clothes and his best weapons along to visit Auðunn at his homestead Víðidal. Auðunn, however, isn't interested in further competition with Grettir and prefers to go about his work. Grettir then trips Auðunn so he falls over and the bag of skyr he was into the house bursts open. Finally, Auðunn throws the bag of skyr into Grettir's arms, and as the bag is open, his splendid clothes get covered in skyr -- which enrages Grettir further and starts of a wild fistfight. By now, Grettir is stronger than Auðunn, and it takes Barði, a neighbour and distant relative, to pull Grettir off Auðunn and leave Víðidal with him.

(Because of this scene in the Grettis saga, it's still an especially great offense in Iceland to throw skyr at somebody, which is why protesters during the 2008 financial crisis pelted the parliament with the stuff.)

The Ljósvetninga Saga, the saga about the inhabitants of the region around Lake Ljósavatn, about the Ljótsvetningar and their quarrel with the people from Mǫðruvellir valley, and about their leader and goðe (Norse priest) Þorgeirr Þorkelsson who threw his wooden idols into the waterfall nearby after Iceland unanimously adopted Christianity around the year 1000 AD, which is why the waterfall is known as Goðafoss, "waterfall of the gods", also mentions skyr.

The context is the murder of the Sturlungar Snorri Sturluson and some of his sons by his former son-in-law Gissur Þorvaldsson in his home in Reykholt. Gissur Þorvaldsson acts under order from the Norwegian king Håkon IV.

Gissur afterwards tries to mend his relationship with the Sturlungar by marrying his son to a Sturlungar daughter, but has no sustainable success with this. A group of Sturlungar finally came to Gissur's house, burned it down and murdered his entire family -- only Gissur himself survived because he hid in a barrel of skyr in his storage room for hours until the enemy had retreated.

For his faithful service, King Håkon in 1258 made Gissur Þorvaldsson jarl (earl).

As far as we can tell, in the time when the sagas were written (between 1150 AD and 1350 AD) milk, skyr and cheese were the main staples of Icelandic food, beside meat and fish, which is why we find skyr, whey and cheese mentioned in the sages time and again. in the saga times itself, food was probably even more plentiful as the settlers brought crops and animals from the continent which did not survive in Iceland in the long term.

In the old time, every Icelander had their own 'askur', a covered wooden bowl that they ate from.

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