Crayfish marks Swedes’ taste for summer

Crayfish ready for the party

 

By Martina Söderlund

As the summer comes to an end and days are getting shorter, Swedes celebrate a very special occasion that has developed into a national tradition over the last 100 years. It’s crayfish party season, or “kräftskive säsong”.

The tradition of eating crayfish goes back to the 16th century, when they were mainlyeaten by the aristocracy. In the 1800s lakes in Sweden were full of crayfish. High-class restaurant in Europe imported and served the exclusive delicacy that later became widely popular in all levels of society, but by the early 1900s some species of crayfish were close to being extinct. In order to protect thecrayfish population, restrictions on crayfishing were introduced, with theseason limited to August and September. The beginning of the crayfish fishing season, “kräft premiären”, always fell on the first Wednesday in August, and up until 1994 fishing of crayfish was restricted to after this day. Crayfish thus became a much sought-after delicacy, and that is why Swedish crayfish parties are still traditionally held inAugust. 

The crayfish party, or “kräftskiva”, is nowadays a merry feast with friends and family, ideally held outside in the evening. The festivitiesinclude eating, drinking and singing, all marking the end of summer.

The main dish consists of whole crayfish cooked in a brine made of salted water, fresh dill and sometimes beer and other spices. Decorations are a big part of the atmosphere and include colorful tablecloths, lanterns (often showing a smiling man in the moon), and candle lights, and guests typically wear comical paper hats and bibs.

The party gets pretty messy as guests crack, pull, twist and dig with their hands and fingers to get the delicate meat out from the crayfish, and it’s totallyacceptable to suck all the juices out of the shell. People probably don’t want to show up too hungry, as the food is fairly light. Along with the crayfish is crispbread or toast with butter, strong hard cheese like the famous “Västerbotten ost”, and sometimes fresh shrimps. For drinks, cold beer together with plenty of snaps is typically consumed, accompanied by traditional drinking songs. The parties can often get pretty loud and rowdy – some attributethis to the slurpy eating habits, some to the alcohol, others simply to the singing and happy decorations that all add up to a cheerful atmosphere.

The word “kräftskiva” was introduced in Sweden in the 1930s. The word “skiva” is said to have something to do with the word “bordsskiva" (table-top) and the fact that you get your food from the table yourself rather than getting it served at your seat. To meet the huge demand, 2,500 tons of crayfish are imported to Sweden each year, mostly from China, Turkey and the US. NativeSwedish crayfish arehowever always deemed tastiest and most delicate - although very expensive. Prices vary from 90 SEK per kilo for imported to up to 400 SEK per kilo for Swedish crayfish.