Written by Alison Allfrey
August is a poignant time in Sweden. As elsewhere the nights begin to draw in, the scent of the evening air turns heavier and more reflective, the sceptre of autumn beckons and with it, the promise of another long winter. So each remaining summer evening becomes ever more precious, more sacred. And what is more sacred than the Swedish August ritual of crayfish parties?
Throughout August and early September, it’s time to don a party hat, get prepared for strong shots of aquavit and relish the delicate taste of these much sought after crustaceans. With summer holidays now over for many Swedes, long lazy days in the archipelago a fading memory, crayfish parties are the essential pick-me-up before autumn takes hold.
A little bit of history
Crayfish have been eaten in Sweden by the lucky few since the 1500s and across society more broadly since the early 1900s. Fishing restrictions have made catching your own ever more challenging – Lake Vättern is a focal point, but with a mere three weekends of fishing allowed for the party prize in 2020.
Hence many will consume crayfish imported from China or the US, but the Swedish ones remain the most sought after, with signalkräfta or flodkräfta which are found in lakes and rivers most likely to be consumed around Stockholm, whilst those on the West Coast may indulge in the seawater havskräfta variety.
Parties vary in size and scale, perhaps more this year than ever before, but you can expect to eat the crayfish accompanied by freshly baked bread and delicious Västerbottenost cheese, all washed down with aquavit in quantities dependent on your daring and stamina.
This may be to the hearty accompaniment of Helan Går, one of Sweden’s best-loved drinking songs, the words of which focus on nothing more complicated than consuming the shot as quickly and completely as possible!
Actually eating the crayfish is a messy affair, the main decision being whether to use complicated utensils to tease the succulent meat out of its shell, or to take a down-to-earth approach and grapple with it using your hands. It’s a fantastic ice-breaker and the whole crayfish experience is very relaxed, jolly and inclusive. Don’t feel embarrassed by the whole endeavour!
‘Like many delicacies, the crayfish looked beautiful in their defiant orangeness, and were certainly food for the curious and dogged, rather than the hungry, as the process of getting into them was similar to that of disembowelling a recalcitrant crab, with little to show for the endeavour but some measure of swelling in the chest as the pride of the proceedings shone through.
There was also the adjacent and the warming phenomenon of shots of aquavit bringing a glow to the cheek, an ease to the tongue and a slight giddiness to the head. Crayfish and caraway spirit – what could be better?’
(excerpt from So Sweden – Living Differently by Alison Allfrey)
Gifts of nature
As so often in this watery country, the crayfish moment seems to encapsulate the Swedes’ love of all things waterborne, as well as their devoted adherence to ritual and long-established celebration. This is a wonderfully old-fashioned and simple ability to revel in the gifts of nature, to come together with friends and to salute what is resolutely Swedish.
In our new, post-Covid normal where life is so much more pared down than before, where we have been forced to look inwards rather than outwards and have often liked what we’ve found, what could be better?
About the Author
Alison Allfrey is a British writer, linguist and communications consultant who lived in Stockholm from 2012 to 2015. She published So Sweden – Living Differently, a memoir of her time in Sweden and inspiration for ex-pats living there in October 2019, available on Amazon as below. She has also had articles published about Sweden in The Local, Nordic Style Magazine, Sverige Magasinet and fika-online.com. Alison lives with her family near Winchester in the UK. She is an avid traveller and loves exploring other cultures.