Swedish crayfish parties
Crayfish parties are one of the highlights of the Swedish calendar. Every August Swedes go crazy putting on silly hats, lighting moon shaped paper lanterns, eating lots of fresh water crayfish, drinking beer and snaps and singing increasingly silly songs.
A crayfish party, called kräftskiva (the plural is kräftskivor), is a big event enjoyed by people of all ages. It should be held outside under the light of paper lanterns, but often rain or pesky mosquitoes lead people to abandon the idyllic setting for indoor comfort. I've always been too scared of the paper lanterns catching fire so that I normally use the lanterns as decoration and use ordinary candles instead.
Up until 1994 it was forbidden to fish for crayfish until the first Wednesday in August, whereupon lots of Swedes would celebrate the "crayfish première" by throwing a party. Since these days most crayfish are imported from Turkey or China, the law has been abolished, but many people still celebrate on this date although there are many Swedes who hold crayfish parties from the 1st August onwards, or even earlier.
Such is the fondness for crayfish parties that young Swedes will often choose to celebrate their birthdays with a crayfish party. Oh, and it is the only Swedish festival that doesn't involve herring!
Freshwater crayfish were once common in Swedish lakes and streams and were eaten all year round. At the beginning of the 1900s a crayfish plague struck, virtually wiping out crayfish. As a result there are very few Swedish crayfish left and so most Swedes buy frozen ready-cooked imported crayfish.
In Sweden virtually every supermarket stocks frozen crayfish and packs of accessories. In the UK, you can pick up frozen crayfish from IKEA or you can order frozen crayfish online. One box normally contains 1 kg (2 lb) of crayfish when drained and is enough for 2-3 people.
Once you've bought your crayfish all you need to do is to defrost them, then drain off the brine: it really is that simple. Be warned that, although the instructions on the box say that they will take about 24 hours to defrost, I find that you need to allow about 36 hours if you have a lot of boxes.
Swedish crayfish v. Imported crayfish
I did once splash out on some Swedish crayfish, much to the amazement of envious Swedes who saw me. I thought that they were bigger and tastier than their imported cousins although I have been told that most people can't tell the difference on a blind test. Nonetheless, it was a one-off event, well beyond a teacher’s normal budget!
How many crayfish do you need for a party?
Photo: Tanja Svensson
You need a lot of crayfish for a good party! Swedes would normally allow about 0.5 kg (1 lb) per person. In the UK, where some guests may be suspicious of crayfish, I allow about 300 g (12 oz) per person.
Many Swedes serve a mixture of crayfish and prawns (shrimps) or langoustines in their shells, especially if they are serving Swedish crayfish. This is because Swedish crayfish are so expensive if bought and those who go fishing for their own crayfish find it difficult to catch enough for a big party!
Cooking your own
If you are ever lucky enough to have the opportunity to cook your own freshwater crayfish click here to see how to cook them.
In the 1500s only the nobility in Sweden would eat crayfish, but this began to change by the 1800s. It was in the 1920s that the crayfish parties started to take their current form with conical paper hats, moon-shaped paper lanterns, special plates, bibs and snaps songs began to appear and are now considered absolutely essential. Don't worry: most place have lots of accessories alongside the boxes of frozen crayfish.
Why do Swedes wear silly hats?
The tradition of wearing silly hats arose because originally eating crayfish was something only done by the upper classes. When the middle class in Sweden started to copy them and have crayfish parties they took to wearing silly hats to poke fun at the upper class and their posh hats.
Paper table covers
As eating crayfish can be messy they are best eaten outdoors. Nonetheless, it is wise to have a backup plan for eating indoors in case of poor weather. (Sometimes Swedes are forced to retreat indoors because of mosquitoes as well.)
Traditionally the table is covered with paper. In Sweden there is a large choice of paper table covers designed especially for crayfish parties, but in the UK the choice is very limited so instead of using paper I use some cheap cloth from IKEA, called Gullan Frukt, which is decorated with crayfish and is 1.5 m wide. If you can persuade someone to hem it for you, it makes a good attractive table cloth which is ideal for a crayfish party. Expect spills so wash it the next day but because it is highly patterned the stains don't really notice!
Supposedly you should use a special sharp pointed knife with a red handle to eat crayfish. There is a hole in the blade which is used for breaking the pincers off. Swedes are, of course, great lovers of traditions so the knives must always have red handles! I find I don't bother with the knife. Bad boy.
I simply break off the claws and discard them. Yes, there is some meat in them and you can suck the meat out of the claws if you can be bothered, but I can't although enthusiastic sucking with lots of appreciative murmurs of pleasure is considered the polite thing to do.
Back to my way: having broken off the claws I break off the head and then suck the juice out of it. A good bit of slurping is appreciated by Swedes and makes up for the fact that I haven't made any effort with the claws!
The next stage is the best bit: I pick the shell off and pull the meat out of the tail. There are no poisonous parts so everything is safe to eat.
Eating crayfish is a messy business, so provide plenty of paper napkins.
Swedes say that discarded shells should be placed on a plate neatly so that you can see how many crayfish you have eaten. Again, I can't be bothered and so I simply provide large dishes to throw the empty shells and messy bits into.
The crayfish are usually cooked in a broth that includes beer, dill crowns (flower heads) and spices. They are left in the broth overnight to cool and then drained and served cold, garnished with dill crowns. Dill crowns do make a particularly nice garnish and, although they are sold all over Sweden in August, they are hard to buy in the UK, so you really need to grow your own or use sprigs of dill instead.
There is not a lot of eating in crayfish, even allowing a generous 500 g (1 lb) per person. Given the large quantities of snaps that accompany the meal it is important to fill up on something else: cheese is normally the answer.
Traditionally, Swedes serve the crayfish with Västerbottensost (a type of cheese) and knäckebröd (crispbreads), but Västerbottensostpaj (cheese pie) is becoming more common. Sometimes the pie has mushrooms in, normally kantareller (girolles/chanterelles).
I always try to ensure that there is enough food for vegetarians and anyone who doesn't like eating crayfish so I provide plenty of Västerbottensostpaj, bread and salads.
The main course is normally followed by lots of fresh strawberries or a strawberry based dessert. By that stage in the meal the amount of alcohol consumed is likely to mean that anything too fancy won't really be appreciated, so keep it simple!
Snaps and beer
The traditional accompaniment is snaps and beer, not wine. My favourite snaps is Skåne Akvavit. It is mild, smooth and well balanced, being flavoured with caraway and hints of fennel and aniseed. It is produced in Skåne in southern Sweden, where Absolut vodka is also produced. An alternative, if you prefer a stronger flavoured snaps, is O.P.Anderson.
Snaps should be served in special long-stemmed glasses, but shot glasses are fine. IKEA sell some cheap snaps glasses if you prefer to use pukka glasses.
If you would like to try some Swedish beer at your crayfish party, I recommend Nils Oscar lager. It is a pilsner style lager with a light malty flavour, a bittersweet finish and can be ordered online in the UK.
Making your own snaps
Snaps was originally developed to disguise poor quality vodka by masking it with herbs and spices. If you want to see if you can make some snaps to rival Skåne Akvavit or O.P.Anderson click here to read our recipe.
Skål and drinking songs
Every glass of snaps is preceded by toasting your fellow guests, looking everyone in the eye and then saying skål (cheers), before downing the snaps in one.
Every drink is preceded by a song, which usually get sillier as the night proceeds. All Swedes know the words for dozens of drinking songs by heart, but song books are normally included with the party accessories from IKEA. For details of the lyrics to three popular drinking song click here.
It is at a crayfish party that you get an insight into Swedes very strange relationship with alcohol. (Do read Colin Moon's excellent article on alcohol.)
For a small party of just 4-6 people I would provide the following quantities:
• 2 kg (4 lb) cooked crayfish with dill (2 boxes)
• 1 Västerbottensostpaj (it would probably feed 8)
• 1.2 kg (2½ lb) new potatoes with dill
• 250 g (8 oz) French bean salad
• 1 salad with lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes and radishes, but without any dressing
• 250 g cooked baby beetroots
• 1 pot of mayonnaise
• 1 pot of aioli
• 1 strawberry cream cake or strawberry cake with elderflower cream (both will actually enough to feed 12)
• 450 g strawberries, hulled and halved
• 1 bottle of Skåne Akvavit
• 8 bottles of Swedish beer
• 24 paper napkins
• bibs, hats and song books (optional)
Obviously, for a large party you would need to increase the quantities accordingly. However many people you invite I hope you will enjoy your crayfish party: skål!
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