A tough looking Icelandic man walks into a restaurant and orders a glass of milk and a steak… It could be the first line of a bad joke, if I was telling it in another country it would be, but in Iceland it is a semi-regular occurrence. After witnessing this a few times I conducted a casual survey to see if milk with steak was a local, or countrywide custom. The result was evenly split between: “What? No, I’ve never seen that!” and “Yeah, that’s pretty common. I’ve seen it in [insert town name here].” My conclusion; the further from the capital, the more likely adult men in Iceland will drink milk with dinner.
In every other country I’ve lived (seven so far) milk is for children, teenagers or breakfast, but cultural curiosities are what make travel an adventure so I accepted it and moved on. Until, in winter, I was invited to dinner and asked if I wanted a salad. Salad in winter, what a treat, of course I wanted salad!
I was presented with a bowl of whipped cream, chocolate bits and raisins (sometimes it comes with grapes). For anyone who was raised in a country that can grow any vegetable or fruit on the planet; cream, chocolate and raisins do not make a salad; when frozen, it makes ice-cream.
Milk at dinner, cream as salad, dairy was clearly a big part of the Icelandic diet, yet, from what I’d seen the countryside was not conducive to dairy farms and, since arriving, I’d only seen one small herd.
Statistics claim each person in Iceland consumes on average 180 litres of dairy products a year. I can’t have dairy, which means someone out there is consuming 360L a year to cover my portion - I suspect it is my old boss, who lives on a diet of milk, skyr, and sugar. This dependency on dairy makes perfect sense in a country that has historically had periods of low food production, poverty and starvation; after all it is quick and easy sustenance.
Records state that in Iceland’s settlement years, vegetation was luxuriant from natural conservation. Iceland’s low sparse forests proved perfect for grazing, and dry cattle and sheep could fend for themselves in an average winter. The natural environment has since changed; an affect of man, animal and climate. Grazing grounds are less luxuriant, old low forests non-existent, and herds need to be housed over winter. During the first settlement goats and cows were the most common dairy providers, with the preference shifting to sheep, and today cows are back in favour; leaving sheep for meat and wool, and goats close to extinction. In part this can be attributed to how much less effort it is to milk a cow.
Brought here in the 9th century the Icelandic cow has remained the only dairy breed in the country. They all have rounded bellies and udders brushing the ground between stout legs, xylophone ribs sticking out as if gravity has pulled all their flesh down, and hornless faces musing over life, as all cows do.
But, their colour range is unique and with over 100 variations, seeing a paddock of Icelandic cattle grazing is like seeing the entire brown colour palette come to life. Icelandic farmers have a skill at breeding for colour, a skill also demonstrated in their horses and sheep.
The Icelandic cow has richer milk but a lower yield than modern breeds, because of this, farmers in the late 90s voted on whether to crossbreed for yield increase; they chose protection of the breed instead. However, there are whispers the industry has since seen some sneaky embryo inseminations. As one farmer said, “some of them look suspiciously Jersey.” I hope this rumour is unfounded and the ‘Jersey-look’ is just a new colour variation. It would be a pity to think this toughened heritage breed, having survived centuries of the Icelandic environment, was put at risk for a few extra litres of milk.
And what of the Icelandic man who walked into the restaurant and ordered a steak with a glass of milk? Well, he ate, drank and left; a moustache of the white-stuff clinging to his top lip.
Text: Emanda Percival