The catch at summer’s end

As the summer days begin to dwindle and every last possible minute is spent outdoors, Swedes have an internal clock that tells them that the time for a crayfish parties has come.

Invitations to join in the kräftskiva are sent often weeks in advance. Place markers are made to ensure maximum revelry. On the day of the party, the table is set with plates and plenty of napkins and songbooks have been downloaded and printed. Colorful lanterns with sun and man-in-the-moon designs are hung from branches – or rafters if the festivities should be forced indoors.

Then the platters emerge, heaped with crayfish and decorated with sprigs of dill. Everyone puts on a paper cone hat and a bib and the carnage begins.

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How the crayfish became Sweden’s most celebrated crustacean

Crayfish have inhabited Swedish waters since the Stone Age. The earliest mention of eating crayfish in Sweden is in a letter dated 1562 in which King Erik XIV commands his steward to obtain as many crayfish as possible for his sister’s wedding. King Erik also farmed crayfish in the water-filled moats around Kalmar Castle. The crayfish party didn’t come about until the early 1900s. While initially an upper class activity, by 1960 they became a full-fledged national ritual.

Legislation pre-dating the ritualistic eating of crayfish was introduced in 1878, banning crayfish fishing before August 7 at 5 pm, to allow crayfish time to mature. This is how August 8th came to mark the beginning of crayfish season or the “crayfish premier.” Although the ban on fishing crayfish was removed in 1994, old traditions die hard. Most Swedes still wait until after August 8th, both to fish and eat crayfish.

Today crayfish populations are down to less than 5% of what they were in 1900, but the average Swede still eats one pound of crayfish per year. Most of that crayfish, however, comes from abroad. In total, Sweden annually imports more than 2,500 tonnes of crayfish from China, Turkey, Spain and the U.S.

While harder to find and usually expensive, Swedish crayfish make their appearance in most of the country’s market halls. While a license is required to catch them yourself, there are a few ways that non-Swedes can get up close and personal with this national delicacy.

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Crayfish catching in the lakes

Bengt Samuelsson has been fishing crayfish in Lake Boren in the Östergötland region since the 1970s. He was among the first to import the signal crayfish species in 1965. At that time, the numbers of indigenous Noble crayfish were declining and the Swedish government encouraged the introduction of signal crayfish in order to sustain the livelihoods of professional crayfish fisherman – as well as to keep up with demand.

What no one knew at the time was that the signal crayfish carry a fungus so lethal to indigenous crayfish that it has nearly wiped them out. “You can only find Noble crayfish in a few lakes that are closed off from other waterways,” says Bengt. In fact, efforts have been taken to seal off uninfected areas so that the Noble crayfish does not become further infected and to educate the public on how to avoid contaminating these remaining habitats. For now, Noble crayfish are on the “red list” in Sweden, indicating that they are facing extinction and ought not be eaten. Bengt says he actually prefers the signal crayfish anyway, because they grow to larger sizes and therefore yield more meat per kilo.

As crayfish are nocturnal, catching them takes place at night. Typically, a basket with herring or bream inside it for bait is lowered into the water from a rowboat. Sometimes the baskets are brought up and emptied twice during the night. At Torpa Gård, Bengt provides an opportunity for families and groups (it’s even popular as a corporate kick-off) to fish for their own crayfish and then take the crustaceans home with them or eat them on the spot. Another option for travellers combines crayfishing with a scenic bicycle trip along the scenic Göta Canal.

“Last year we had a visit from a German television station, so although it’s a typical thing to do among Swedes, I guess it’s exotic for a tourist.”

When asked if he boils crayfish with dill in the traditional way, Bengt says he uses his own secret recipe – a blend of dill, sugar, salt and dark beer.

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West-coast style

On Sweden’s west coast, saltwater crayfish called Norwegian lobster, or langoustines, are the celebrated fare.

When Captain Ingemar Granqvist lost his job as a machinist in 1990, he decided on a career change. Though he had no experience as a fisherman, he did have a boat – so he decided to try his hand at catching crayfish.

Because I came from another world, I asked a lot of questions,” he recalls. The question that interested Ingemar most was whether small-scale fishing could be profitable. Since saltwater crayfish live in waters that are 35-80 meters deep, the most common method for harvesting them is to troll the bottom while small-scale fishermen like Ingemar use cages. Though the license that small-scale fishermen use allows for only six cages per person, this enables Ingemar to bring in roughly five tonnes of crayfish each year.

“I am living proof that it is possible to make a living doing this,” he says, “but we have to make the consumer more aware, so they know that when they buy from fishing operations like mine, they not only support a way of life and the communities that are built around it, they also support more sustainable fishing techniques.”

Ingmar offers crayfish safaris on his boat, the M/S Mira. In conjunction with several local hotels, visitors can experience a crayfish party or even take part in Ingemar’s Crayfish Academy in the fall. One similar trip, through Väderöarnas Värdhus guesthouse, whisks guests away to an exclusive crayfish parties on a pier, where they can witness the catching and cooking of the shellfish in large cooking pots. Or pay a visit to the equally lovely village of Smögen and organize a trip with Smögens Fisketurer (+46 70 533 65 05).

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How to cook a crayfish

At most kräftskivor, bread, cheese and butter are served alongside the crayfish. If you’re lucky, you’ll also be served a thick slice of pie made of Västerbotten cheese. (This is often the only food of real substance to counteract the powers of the aquavit and beer of which there is a seemingly limitless supply.)

In the old days, freshwater crayfish were not eaten whole and cold, but served as the main ingredient in pies and ragouts. In Kajsa Warg’s cookbook from the 1700s there are recipes on how to cook crayfish cakes, sausages and stews. Saltwater crayfish, however, are best appreciated without seasoning, boiled in saltwater, steamed or grilled.

Cooking Tips

  • Freshly caught crayfish should be kept alive and healthy until boiling.
  • They should be starved for a day so that their bowels are empty.
  • Kill live crayfish by placing them head-first into boiling water.
  • Keep the water constantly boiling to ensure they die on impact.
  • Be careful not to put too many crayfish in the pot at once, or it will cause the water temperature to drop.

Can’t get to Sweden?

The website, Nordstjernan, offers this handy checklist with tips for hosting your own crayfish party.

Eating instructions

Believe it or not, there is even a ritual way to eat crayfish. Impress your hosts or guests by brushing up on the etiquette in this blog post about West Sweden.

Västerbotten pie

This yummy pie which is good with or without crayfish… Here’s one place you can order Västerbotten cheese.

Drinking tips

Don’t forget the snaps! Almost all aquavits pair well with crayfish since they contain traditional crayfish seasoning like caraway and dill seed. O.P. Anderson and Skåne Aquavit are both cumin-spiced, which makes them a perfect pairing with Västerbotten pie. Läckö Slotts Aquavit is spiced with dill – a natural match for crayfish.