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TRADITION

Crayfish: the messiest party of the year

Gobbling crayfish is a 500 year old tradition in Sweden but the annual August crayfish parties can be a minefield for a first-timer. Contributor Elizabeth Dacey-Fondelius advises on how to slurp like a native.

Crayfish: the messiest party of the year
Henrik Trygg/imagebank.sweden.se;Fredrik Sandberg/Scanpix;Patrik Neckman/Flickr

So you’ve been invited to a kräftskiva. Now what? Kräftskivor – or crayfish parties – are arguably Sweden’s most festive annual excuse for a party.

It’s an August craze and perhaps the messiest party you have been to since you were six years old and left birthdays with cake smeared around your chops.

While there are multiple variations of how to celebrate the crayfish season, there is invariably one ingredient in every single party: the crayfish.

The rest of the party’s ingredients include ample aquavit or snaps, crisp bread, ample aquavit or snaps, cheese, paper lanterns, funny hats – and ample aquavit or snaps.

And everything and anything crayfish-related belongs to the fun. If it’s used on the day, Swedish shops will sell it with a crayfish printed on it. Decorations, lanterns, tablecloths, glasses, plates – indeed, complete serving sets – will all be adorned with the little red crustacean.

Up until 1993 the sale of crayfish was restricted to after August 8th. But with Christmas beginning in October (in retail terms at least) nothing is sacred, and crayfish are now on sale year round.

In addition to crayfish commanding their own seasonal display in every store, they also have a history, a mythology and a modern PR campaign.

The history

Eating crawfish – and they have many dialectal names in English – goes back to the time of King Erik XIV in the 16th century. His highness was known to have farmed the crusty crawlers in his moat at Kalmar Castle. The native species in Sweden, flodkräfor, are generally referred to as the noble crayfish.

It was the end of the 19th century when the current tradition of eating crawdaddies whole, cold and basking in the dill weed water they were boiled in began. That was an age when it became popular to send off the summer sitting on verandas or out in the garden while quietly cracking a shell.

The party came soon after. The Swedish name for the party, kräftskiva, first entered the language in the 1930s.

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for the little mudbugs. Swedish flodkräftor were threatened in 1907 when the crayfish were first afflicted by crayfish plague. It seemed like the noble Swedish crayfish would soon become extinct.

The American cousin, the signal crayfish, was introduced in a belief that they were resistant to the plague and could replace the dwindling Swedish noble variety.

According to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (Naturvårdsverket), recent research, has shown that the introduction of the Yankee cousin was a big mistake. It’s now known that once the plague has killed off the local lake’s population, the plague eradicates itself. With the resistant variety, the plague lingers on and slowly spreads.

The mythology and PR

A few years ago the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency sponsored a PR campaign to debunk the misconceptions of the little yabbies’ fate in an attempt to come to their rescue. Their web site (in Swedish) busts the myths many people have about fresh water mini-lobster.

Its focus seems devoted to discouraging people from stocking waters with the non-native variety. The research shows that true demise of the noble variety is inevitable if the signal crayfish continues to proliferate either naturally or with help from hungry Swedes eager for free fodder for the kräftskiva.

Which brings us back to the invitation and what you need to know when invited.

The festivities

The kräftskiva is a truly fun party to attend or throw. Guests often come equipped (often at the host’s request – like a pot luck dinner) with their own supply of spoondogs and their own booze.

The host need only supply the crayfish-bedecked paraphernalia, the crisp bread, the cheese and the ubiquitous sauna. So if you are lacking an invitation it’s time to send some out yourself.

Whether you’re going or throwing, don’t start the party hungry. It takes about 5 minutes to dig out the eqivalent of about a meatball’s worth of meat.

In that time you will be required to pause, hold up your snaps glass, fake your way through the song and throw back a shot. You don’t want to have an empty stomach. (For the same reason, don’t go drunk.)

Don’t be embarrassed to ask for instructions in the dissemination of the little mudbug. There are a number of approaches which usually begin with ripping off the head, breaking back the legs and slurping the underbelly. The operation concludes with cracking open the claws for the delicate pink-white flesh inside.

Passing the test

If you want to impress Swedes in attendance, there are a few measures which will be used to determine your performance.

Your gusto will be rated by the volume of your slurping, the stickiness of your fingers and the quantity of shells stacking up – or lined up – on your plate.

And, of course, by the enthusiasm with which you belt out the theme song, Helan går.

Helan går

Sjung hopp faderallan lallan lej

Helan går

Sjung hopp faderallan lej

Och den som inte helan tar

Han heller inte halvan får

Helan går

Sjung hopp faderallan lej

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PARTY

Six snappy facts about Swedish crayfish

Swedes are obsessed with crayfish. In August, when the annual fishing season starts, families up and down the nation hold parties to celebrate. But what's so special about the tasty crustaceans? Feast your eyes on our top trivia.

Six snappy facts about Swedish crayfish
It's crayfish season! Photo: Anna Hållams / imagebank.sweden.se
Have you been invited to a crayfish party (kräftskiva)? If you’re new to Sweden and need an introduction to this annual celebration, it’s basically an excuse for friends and relatives to gorge on vast numbers of the freshwater crustaceans (which look like small lobsters and taste similar) washed down with snaps and some very loud drinking songs.
 
The tradition has been going on in the Nordics for centuries and evolved because the fish used to be a delicacy that could only legally be fished off Swedish shores during the late summer. These days you can buy imported crayfish year-round.
 
So, apart from being tasty, what exactly is so special about the spiky creatures that are worshipped across Sweden? Below are five facts to help you wow your Swedish hosts.
 

Put on your bibs! It’s crayfish time again. Photo: Emma Ivarsson/ imagebank.sweden.se
1. They love the dark
 
Perhaps Swedes have a special bond with one of their favourite foods, because they both spend a lot of time living in dark, cold environments. Crayfish live in cool water and usually spend their days alone, sheltering beneath a rock or plant. They come out to forage for food when it gets dark, tearing apart just about anything they can catch with their large pincers including worms, insects, plants and molluscs.
 
2. Crayfish have blue blood
 
Like some snails, spiders and other crustaceans such as lobsters, crayfish have blue blood. This is because their blood has haemocyanin in it, a pigment which contains copper rather than iron (which is in haemoglobin which makes the blood of most animals and humans red). The animals breathe through feather-like gills.
 

Don’t go too cray-zy. Photo: Anders Ekholm / imagebank.sweden.se
 
3. They love to moult
 
Crayfish need to moult in order to grow. In other words when their shells get too tight, they need to shed them and get larger ones, a bit like children needing new clothes. The animals slide out of their old, hard shells when they get too big and emerge covered in a new soft and flexible shell. This allows them to grow for a brief period, before the shell becomes hard again, to help protect it against larger predators. Moulting occurs six to ten times during the first year of a crayfish’s life.
 
4. Crayfish are part of an enormous family
 
There around 500 different species of crayfish, from tiny creatures that are just 2.5cm long to the largest kind, Astacopsis gouldi, which is found in the rivers of northern Tasmania and can weigh up to five kilograms. Crayfish can be blue, white or red. Red crayfish are most common. Swedish species are usually darken and turn red when boiled. So if your host offers you a blue one, chances are your host has made a rather large mistake with their recipe.
 

DON’T eat a crayfish if it’s blue. Photo: Dirk Rohlfs / Wikipedia
5. You can keep them as pets
 
Not sold on the idea of snacking on a food which has walking legs, sharp pincers and eyes are on movable stalks?  You could try keeping one of these fascinating creatures as a pet instead. All you need is a cold water aquarium with suitable aeration and filtration and some plants and rocks. Pet crayfish can be fed shrimp pellets as well as some types of green vegetables and supermarket-bought fish. But animal experts warn of putting two crayfish in a tank together because they may end up killing one another. Plus, crayfish can end up producing over 100 babies from a single hatch.
 

Don’t eat your pet crayfish though. Photo: Carolina Romare/ imagebank.sweden.se
 
6. Swedes are spending more on crayfish than ever 
In the Middle Ages, crayfish were served as delicacies intended only for royalty. But over the centuries, they’ve reached more and more people. Between the years 2000 and 2019, sales of shellfish increased by as much as 456 percent. Sales in 2019 totalled SEK 794,734, which is SEK 77 per person in Sweden. In 2000, that number was just SEK 142,484. Perhaps with changing times, people are more inclined to spend on luxury crustaceans.