Skyr as Biological Cultural Heritage: An Ethnographic and Biological Study of Living Microbes, Resilience and Diversity

Project title: Skyr as biological cultural heritage

Partners: University of Iceland

Research Fund: Rannís Icelandic Research Fund

Initial year: 2024

Service Category:

milk spring


Viggó Marteinsson

Research Group Leader

The project investigates curd as biological cultural heritage. The project focuses on the long-term cooperation of the different species involved in making curd.

The project approaches this collaboration from the interdisciplinary perspective of ethnography and biology to investigate how it has shaped actions, memory and knowledge throughout time. The goal of the project is to deepen the understanding of the diversity and resilience of biological cultural heritage by examining the complexity and transformation of traditional curds and using that understanding to nurture this complexity.

Live scurvy bacteria are an excellent example of the symbiosis between microbes and humans in everyday life. Biological and cultural selection of curds over time has contributed to a diverse microflora in traditional curds. Phytobacteria are therefore an important part of Iceland's biological diversity.

The project investigates this diversity, among other things, by recreating different types of traditional curds from previous centuries up to the twentieth, based on sensory memories from different data. By combining sensory ethnography with questionnaires, interviews, curd culture, reconstruction and sequencing, the project will investigate and nurture the historical complexity of curd in terms of taste, smell and texture, as well as the contemporary reception of this biological and cultural complexity.

This project investigates the Icelandic dairy product skyr as biocultural heritage. Combining ethnology and biology, it focuses on long-term relationships (social and biological) between multiple species at the heart of skyr-making and studies how they have shaped practices, memory, and knowledge over time.

The aim is to deepen understanding of questions of diversity and resilience posed by biocultural heritage through examining the variation and transformation of skyr, and to use that understanding to contribute to its continued resilience. The live cultures of skyr provide an excellent case of symbiosis between microbial cultures and human cultures. The natural and cultural selection of the skim microbiome over time fostered great microbial diversity. As a result, whey microbes constitute a unique part of ecological diversity in Iceland. The project will study this diversity and recreate in pilot form several traditional varieties of heritage skyr that correspond in taste and texture to historical varieties from the 20th and previous centuries, based on sensory memories gathered from various sources. Combining sensory ethnography with sensory evaluation, and ethnological questionnaires, interviews, and focus groups with biological cultivation, metabolic reconstruction, and metagenome sequencing, the project aims both to study and to safeguard the historical diversity (cultural in a double sense) of the sensory spectrum too skyr as well as its contemporary reception.