If you read my blog regularly, pay attention and have a good memory, you’ll know that I’m not big on traditions. I observe on or two, but there are few I can’t live without. One that I like (and one of the few Swedish ones at that) is the annual crayfish party.
I say party, because it is usually a large affair in Sweden, with 20 to 30 people sitting down to dinner. I’m not sure of the origins of the Swedish crayfish party and, quite frankly, I don’t really care. What it usually entails is dressing in silly hats and paper bibs adorned with pictures of crayfish, eating said crayfish, boiled in salted water and dill, drinking copious amounts of beer and Swedish spiced snaps and singing lots of songs (the Swedes like to sing songs when they drink). The songs and bibs are not really my thing (stiff British upper-lip and all that), but I love the crayfish and snaps.
This year, as always, we were invited to a crayfish party. Then it was cancelled. So I decided: we would have our own, exclusive, family-only crayfish party; without hats, bibs and songs.
Last Saturday was the day. On Friday I went to my local food hall and bought a large bucket of fresh-boiled Swedish crayfish. There’s a roaring trade every August in frozen Turkish crayfish; cheaper than the fresh Swedish variety, but without exception soft-fleshed, flaccid and tasteless compared to the local version. It’s only once a year, is my reasoning, so why no splash out, so to speak.
There’s a ritual around a crayfish party, even without the bibs, songs and 24 extra guests; a ritual that our party of six observed to the letter. First you lift a crayfish to your mouth and noisily suck out the salty, dill flavoured cooking liquid from its belly; then you rip off the claws, crack them and extract the juicy, soft meat; this is followed by a not-too-easy extraction of the more chewy tail, encased Fort-Knox-like in an iron-hard shell. Both are chased by a hefty glug of snaps, spiced with all manner of musty dill, caraway, bitter orange and aniseed flavours, and a good draw of ice-cold beer; last comes the optional addition of spicy Västerbotten cheese, crispbread and dill-cut sour cream, for those seeking a third dimension to the fish-alcohol pairing.
It’s a meal that is at the same time social, tactile, salty, fresh, bitter, sweet, spicy, rich and downright exquisite; a meal that can take hours to consume; a meal that is as much about social interaction and small talk, as it is about wonderful flavours.
We had a memorable dinner: just the family, huddled under a purple-bruised, half-lit, August evening sky, warmed by heat lamps and blankets, cracking crayfish and discussing the passing summer. Exactly how a crayfish party should be.
Wherever you are, if you can find some live freshwater crayfish, this is what you should do, in honour of one of the greatest Swedish traditions:
- 20 live freshwater crayfish
- 2,5 litres water
- 1dl sea salt
- 7 sugar cubes
- 1 large bunch dill flowers
- 330ml dark beer
Boil the water, salt and dill in a large saucepan and add the crayfish
Bring back to a rolling boil and cook, with the lid on for 8 minutes
After five minutes add the sugar and the beer
Remove from the heat and cool down quickly by placing the saucepan in a sink full of ice cold water
Let the crayfish stand in the dill water in the fridge overnight
Eat with crispbread, hard cheese (like Emmental), sour cream with dill and beer and spiced aquavit