For the Western Hemisphere, August brings summer’s final heat wave. Temperatures sore, humidity sticks, and a pesky thought lingers in the muggy air; cooler days are coming. In Sweden, instead of mourning the idea of another lost summer, August and September are dedicated to celebrating its final days—all with the help of a fiery red crustacean—the crayfish.
The tradition goes as so: on the first Wednesday in August, Swedes gather their closest friends and family, preferably by the lake or coast, adorn their table with bright lanterns, tie on a colorful bib, pour the schnapps and indulge in freshly caught, dill-seasoned crayfish. This is a crayfish party. And though the celebrations begin in early August, the season extends into September. So, prepare to leave your humility at home, pack your party attitude, as well as your best lake house attire, and prepare to make a dozen new friends at a traditional crayfish party, or kräftskivor, with the Swedes.
The History of Crayfish Season
As with any time-old tradition, crayfish season is a product of the shellfish’s role in Swedish history. Dating back to the 1500s, the petite lobster-like crayfish, also called crawfish or crawdads, were an aristocratic favorite—only the wealthiest would eat the crayfish straight from their shells, while the middle class stuffed the tail’s meat into sausages and patties, unsure how to prepare the shellfish hailing from muddy waters. As time went on, crayfish became nationally recognized as a delicacy; so much so, that even raising the prices for crayfish would no longer deter the cravings; therefore, in the early 1900s, the government implemented seasonal fishing regulations on crayfish.
This is when August and September were deemed as Sweden’s crayfish months and thus locals began celebrating the opportunity to indulge in these crustaceans for a limited period. Though crayfish parties began in Gothenburg and along Sweden’s west coast of Bohuslän—which is where the majority of crayfish are caught—the traditions spread throughout Sweden into its neighboring Nordic countries. More than a century later, the tradition of the crayfish party is still alive, even though crayfish restrictions have been lifted, allowing a unique sort of traditional holiday that occurs over multiple weeks, rather than on a dedicated day.
What to Expect
The typical crayfish party has evolved since its early beginnings, but for the traditional Swede and longtime celebrater, a kräftskivor is not a bona fide party unless it adheres to some original customs. In order to visualize the party, you need to envision your environs. Picture a Swedish summer home, or sommarstuga. This is a kind of lake house, finished in a classic red paint, surrounded by the lush landscape of Swedish-summer-green, and an unfinished dock jutting into the lake. A banquet-style table is arranged on the dock, decorated with an eccentric tablecloth and animated paper lanterns, while each table setting receives a quirky party hat and frivolous bib.
Friends, family, and friends of friends (maybe even your coworkers!) show up in the late afternoon to celebrate into the evening. As the fading summer sun still maintains daylight until 10 p.m., the accompanying schnapps slide down easy, leaving you in a warm daze where you don’t quite know the time of day, you just know you’re happy.
Just as fatuous decorations are as much a part of the kräftskiva culture, traditional songs and games are too. After a few shots of schnapps, a fellow party-goer will most likely break out in whimsical song, the lyrics frequently reflecting the state of the singer; slightly drunk. After the feast, the remaining hours of daylight are spent playing Kubb, a Swedish lawn game resembling the likes of bowling.
What to Do
Though some guests may prefer to show up to a table lined with heaping bowls of freshly boiled crayfish, there’s also the opportunity to catch your own, on a crayfish safari. Particularly useful for tourists without a local connection, various tour operators have created journeys to catch your own crayfish with a local fisherman. Depending on the safari, you can bring your catch back to your rental or prepare it fresh on board, like with Värdskap i Väst. Additionally, for tourists who may not have an invite to a local sommarstuga, there’s also The Edible Country; the “do it yourself, fine dining” company arranges a local crayfish experience for visitors, with all the accessories of a traditional kräftskiva.
Must-Try Crayfish Dishes
Along with saltwater crayfish pulled from the North Sea, freshwater crayfish are also served at a kräftskiva. Regardless of their origin, crayfish are prepared in the same way; boiled in a brine of salt, beer and crown dill. The crayfish is then chilled and served with shell-on; all part of the kräftskiva festivity. Whether you use your seafood cracker and fork, or simply rely on your hands, you’ll soon realize that the bibs serve an actual purpose; things get messy quickly. The whole afternoon is a chaotic, nonetheless, fun, affair, with shells cracking and guests slurping the juices of crayfish meat out of the shell (which is perfectly acceptable, and even encouraged).
In addition to the heaping bowls of crustaceans, popular accompaniments include warm bread, salad and Västerbotten, a firm, aged cow’s milk cheese. Depending on the feast you attend, other dishes may include boiled potatoes and cheese or mushroom pies. To wash it all down, the Swedes don’t mess around—shots, such as akvavit or vodka, and local beer flow throughout the feast and late into the evening.
- Gothenburg and the entire Bohuslän coast are the most festive cities at this time of year since it is where the crayfish party originated. Still, the majority of Sweden celebrates these shellfish, so if you find yourself in a different part of the country, be sure to ask a local where you can join a traditional feast.
- When you’re outside at the lake, mosquitos tend to come out as daylight transitions to night, so don’t forget the bug spray!
- Cracking the crayfish can be time consuming. Since they are served chilled, some locals recommend removing the meat from all the shells at once.
- Useful Swedish phrases to get you through a crayfish party include: Skål! (cheers), tack (thank you), äta (eat).
- If you’re planning on partaking in a crayfish safari prior to hosting your own crayfish party, it may be best to plan in advance: safaris aren’t cheap, and rentals for sommarstuga (summer houses) fill up quickly.
- If you’re not able to experience a proper crayfish party and are not interested in a do-it-yourself option, restaurants offer their rendition on the tradition. Since crayfish is in high demand during these summer months, some restaurants may substitute for imported crayfish varieties; make sure you do your research and ask a local to ensure you’re getting the real Swedish deal.
- If you aren’t able to visit during crayfish season, Swedish supermarkets stock crayfish throughout the year. Even though a local will tell you the frozen crayfish isn’t as delicious as its fresh counterpart, it’s worth trying on your next trip.