Foreign tourists visiting in August say that crayfish parties are the closest a Swede gets to really letting loose. Nowhere is the crayfish so ardently worshipped as in Sweden and August and September offer opportunities to sample the delicacy in the U.S..
Prepare your own kräftskiva. For a checklist, see A checklist to preparing your own crayfish party
Part of the reason for the worship of the crayfish is purely gastronomic. In flavor, the rare Swedish crayfish surpasses its relatives in other countries. But it is above all in Sweden that the eating of crayfish has expanded into a ritual meal surrounded by all manner of accessories, preferably with an authentic full moon thrown in.
No one visiting Sweden in August can fail to notice how shop windows display variations on the theme of crayfish. Crayfish-decorated bibs, paper plates, napkins and funny little caps, not to mention big paper lanterns with full-moon faces on them. There are special crayfish knives in the store window, bookstores sell lyrics to crayfish songs, you’ll find special dishes, bowls, glassware and schnapps decanters, all painted with the same shellfish, and, of course, the grocery stores have deep-frozen, or sometimes fresh (i.e., live), crayfish on offer.
The custom is not old and was created not from sentiments of nature romanticism, but by the bureaucracy that, a hundred years ago, prohibited the catching of crayfish but for a couple of months every fall. At one time, the lakes of Sweden teemed with this black gold, which was exported to the high-class restaurants of Paris, London and Berlin, but over-fishing threatened at one point to annihilate them. Thus regulations on the fishing emerged. When the crayfish-eating Swedes had to go without the delicacy right up until late summer, their return to the table became a cause for celebration, and so the crayfish party was born.
The first crayfish parties were held by the middle class during the latter part of the 1800's. In the beginning of the 1920's crayfish accessories such as funny hats, moon-shaped paper lanterns, special plates, tablecloths, and schnapps songs appeared.
But in 1907, crayfish enthusiasts were struck by a new disaster: crayfish plague, a lethal parasitic mold that has all but eliminated crayfish from most of Sweden’s fishing waters. The tradition was rescued, however, through the import of crayfish, first from Turkey, then from Spain and today from the U.S., making Sweden the world’s biggest crayfish importer. The restriction forbidding frozen crayfish to be eaten prior to the second Thursday in August has been removed. Today the supply of Swedish crayfish is so minute that the former rules for a crayfish premiere have been abandoned. However, if one does trap fresh Swedish crayfish, the premiere regulations still apply, and the crayfish must be at least 10 cm (just under 4 inches) in length from head to toe to be considered legal bounty.
Written by professor Jan-Öjvind Swahn, Lund
Eating crayfish the Swedish way is not easy, but the experience of a crayfish party can very well modify the myth of Swedish uptightness. Our tip: Search out a native Swede in your neighborhood. If you do dare to set up your own party, without previous experience, know that the bib, the special napkins, the little crayfish caps, big paper lanterns over and around the table and, of course, plenty of singing are a must!
For an easy how to, when to, why to, turn to www.trapperarne.com where you can order crayfish traps and a variety of accessories and learn more about the tradition (run by Arne Koch, a latter day immigrant from Sweden, who brought his love of crayfish to his new home in America).
Frozen crayfish, cooked the Swedish way, with plenty of salt and dill (the crustacean is in Sweden eaten cold), are also available in this country at select Scandinavian stores and via the Internet.
The other major Swedish food festival in August is surströmming (fermented Baltic herring) which has its premiere the third Thursday of the month. Surströmming is served together with finely-diced onion (red and white), new boiled potatoes - preferably the yellow almond-shaped sort, and flatbread, both soft and hard. Beginners like to make a klämma (a type of sandwich roll) which is composed of a layer os sliced boiled potatoes, a layer of finely-diced onions, and finally a layer of fermented Baltic herring rolled-up in a piece of softly-buttered flatbread. Wash this down with beer. The aroma of fermented herring itself, is not worse than that of a well-ripened cheese, and many ardent surströmming lovers insist on being present when the can is opened and the odor leaks out! Opinions differ on the surströmming and its odor, however, turn to
The preservation of fish in olden days for an additional explanation.