What is a Kräftskiva, or a crayfish party?
Kräftskiva is a holiday that is strongly associated with Swedish identity.
It is a centuries-old tradition to fish and eat freshwater crayfish. The month of August is the beginning of the time of Crayfish. In many homes, preparations are being made for a party where the crayfish is at the center.
Many customs that exist today have been taken from the continent. Inspiration for crayfish eating took place as early as the 17th century. It was the higher ranks who embraced the crabs. The first time that crayfish is written about is when King Erik XIV demands that the bailiff of Nyköpingshus procure as many crayfish as possible for his sister Anna’s wedding. The year is 1562. The king was already growing crayfish in the water-filled moats around Kalmar Castle.
Royal marine delicious are becoming popular among the folk
After crayfish became popular and consumption increased, fishing was restricted by law. The authorities introduced a ban on crayfish fishing between 1 November and 8 August. In 1982 the time for crayfish fishing was changed to the first Wednesday in August and in 1994 the ban on crayfish fishing was completely removed. The tradition of a crayfish premiere has grown strong over the years and many have their crayfish party during the month of August.
Crayfish in the center of the table
Common features of a crayfish record are funny hats, lanterns, crayfish decorations, song booklets and of course lots of food and drink. In addition to the crayfish, which of course takes center stage, we like to fill the tables with pies, baguettes, crackers, seasoned cheese, aioli, salad bowls and finger foods. The party usually lasts well into the wee hours with lots of happy laughter, beautiful songs and good conversation. Crayfish season is a holiday that is strongly associated with Swedish identity.
A highlight on the Swedish calendar, the ‘kräftskiva’ (crayfish party) – an annual sea food fest with lots of side dishes, drinks and joyous songs – is a summertime celebration dear to Swedes of all ages.
The Kräftskiva season kicks off at the beginning of August and usually runs well into September. These days, no specific date is set, although traditionally the crayfish party season began on the first Wednesday of August, reflecting the historic ban on crayfish fishing between November and August 7. Most crayfish parties take place outdoors, making the most out of the last summer days.
Introducing the crayfish – and where to get them
The crayfish could be described as a mini lobster and it tastes similar, with deliciously succulent meat. Swedish ones are particularly sought-after. Freshwater varieties (‘signalkräfta’ and ‘flodkräfta’) thrive in lakes and rivers across Sweden, while the longer-bodied langoustine found in the sea (‘havskräfta’) are caught and eaten on the west coast, so there are slightly regional differences.
Crayfish are nocturnal and caught at night in netted pots baited with small fish. A fishing licence is required, and even if you hold one there are restrictions. From January 2020, for example, fishing for the signal breed in lake Vättern is only allowed on three weekends, reduced from five. But fret not – Swedish crayfish are available in supermarkets and at fishmongers. To meet the huge demand and prevent crayfish depletion in Swedish waters, the shellfish is imported from China, Turkey and the US – territories in which the delicacy is also eaten on a wider scale.
Cooked in water, salt and sugar, often laced with ale and always with plenty of crown dill, the crayfish turns from black to red when cooked. Eaten cold and piled high on large platters, they make for a visual feast.
The Swedish crayfish party – more than the sum of its parts
The tradition of Kräftskiva has been part of Swedish culture for some 100 years, and it’s not all about bright red crayfish. It brings people together and can take many shapes, from cosy family gatherings to more hedonistic parties, lasting well into the night. It’s common that guests contribute with side dishes, like a salad, a pie or freshly baked bread. In Sweden we call this communal custom ‘knytkalas’, or ‘knytis’.
So what are the essential ingredients of this August feast, aside from the star ingredient itself? Creamed chanterelle on toast is a favourite, so too is freshly baked bread, topped with butter and slices of ‘Västerbottenost’ – a delicious cheese made in the Västerbotten province on the northeast coast.
To drink, expect beer and ‘snaps’ –flavoured shots of aquavit. The ceremonial downing of these are accompanied by song. “Helan Går” is the most famous kräftskiva tune.
Lyrics to the song ”Helan går”
Helan går, sjung hopp fadderallan lallan lej
Helan går, sjung hopp fadderallan lej
Och den som inte helan tar,
han heller inte halvan får
Helan går! (drick snapsen)
Sjung hopp fadderallan lallan lej!
August is the time to travel to Sweden and experience the Swedish Crayfish Party. And the weather in cold Sweden is the warmest of the year in the month of August.
Tips for first-timers
The crayfish party is a custom with certain quirks. Novelty paper hats are worn, and tables are typically adorned with crayfish-themed décor.
As for the consuming of the delicious crustacean, turn it belly up and suck the brine – slurping is almost mandatory; no need to be polite. Next, wring off the tail and extract the most sought-after part of the crayfish meat using a crayfish knife, then lift the back shield to reveal the delicious “crayfish butter” – a yellowish, butter-like paste found behind the head. The claws are best cracked with a crayfish knife, and the succulent meat can be teased out with a designated, pronged tool – though you’ll manage fine with a fork or your bare hands.
Make sure you have napkins and a finger bowl of lemony water by your side. A bib is not a bad idea either.
A Kräftskiva is a wonderful, but somewhat messy affair – a party you’ll never forget.
So, lovers of crayfish – August – in Sweden – is a 100% guarantee of unforgettable impressions and taste pleasures.