Culinary Ambassadors: Kräftskiva, Summer Crayfish Parties in Sweden
Serious Eats' Culinary Ambassadors check in from time to time with reports on food fare in their homeland or countries of residence. Here's the latest! (Find out more about CA or join here!) —The Mgmt.
August just came and passed. In Sweden, August means end of vacations (the minimum four week ones that almost everyone takes), darker nights and....kräftskiva, or crayfish parties. This is more than a meal. This is more than a party. It's an important tradition signifying the start of crayfish season. And it's fun.
If tradition is to be taken to its edge, the crayfish at the party should be freshly caught, which is possible in many lakes and rivers in Sweden. You use special cages, which are bated and left at the bottom of the lake, to be fetched early early the morning after. If you're lucky, they'll be filled with red delicacies. If you want to take the easy way out, which most Swedes do nowadays, you buy them in the store, either fresh or frozen. Fresh is preferred, of course, just as the Swedish crayfish are preferred to the imported. They're boiled for 10 minutes in salted water or beer and plenty of dill, and once cold placed on large trays decorated with branches of dill to become the centerpiece of the party. They're served with their shells, to be deshelled by each eater at the table.
Eating a crayfish is an art form perfected over years, with different theories on how to get the most out of them, and which parts to eat and which to leave. The most basic version is to only eat the claws and the tail, but most Swedes regard this as a complete waste. Another method is to suck the juice from the stomach of the crayfish before picking it apart, and also eat the "crayfish butter", a yellow creamy substance found in the head of the animal. Following that are different advanced versions of eating unidentifiable parts of the little animals, which to me are quite unknown. What everyone does know is that the further into the party you get, the less advanced are the crayfish eating skills...
Eating crayfish is rarely just eating crayfish; it's about having a crayfish party. To be called a crayfish party, a few things should be included other than crayfish. First, we have the funny hats. Don't ask me why, but crayfish parties must include funny hats. Also, they often include decorative lanterns in different shapes that give off colored light, as the parties are often held outdoors due to their messiness (and Swedes' urge to make the most of every even slightly warmish day). And then, most importantly, we have the snaps, spiced brännvin. This is consumed while special "snaps songs" are sung to every toast.
As you might understand, crayfish parties are risky business, with the combination of relatively carb-free seafood packaged in childproof shells, and lots of alcohol. To ensure the party does not end with everyone on the floor by midnight (but stay standing at least a few more hours), the crayfish are usually accompanied by several fatty and starchy sides, with the most common being the Västerbotten pie, a pie made of a strong cheese from the northern parts of Sweden. Also, crisp bread and cheeses as well as salads are often served.
If you get the chance to attend, do so. It will be an experience, and it's the place where you're most likely to see a drunk Swede and hear a Swede sing. You will surely wake up the day after with a hangover and hands with a slight lingering smell of seafood, but also with memories of great food and a great party.
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