At the tail end of summer between the months of August and September, Swedish society deems it perfectly acceptable for adults to don matching paper hats and bibs with colorful crayfish motifs, down alcoholic schnapps and aquavit, sing indecipherable folk songs, and nosily suck out the brine-filled heads of langoustines and freshwater crayfish.
The best way to truly enjoy this quintessentially Swedish experience is by being invited into the cozy home of a local for a kräftskiva – a crayfish party. Crayfish (or crawfish) parties honor these red, bite-sized crustaceans in style.
Once accessible to only upper class citizens and aristocracy in the 16th century, imports of crayfish from China and Turkey have significantly driven down the price over centuries, making them more accessible to and affordable for the masses. By the mid-1800s to 1900s, crayfish parties spread across the classes as a way of celebrating the end of summer before heading towards the cold, harsh, darkness of winter.
I remember my first time.
Our friend Tomas had invited my husband and I to his lush green backyard where old wooden tables were strewn together, covered with white linens, well-worn from use. Cozy wool blankets, some frayed with age, lined those wooden benches. Mismatching plates were laid out, topped with white paper napkins. The warm glow from lanterns and candles flickered against red wine bottles, mini whisky bottles, and sparkling water. Loaves of freshly baked walnut, olive, and tomato bread lay next to blocks of moldy cheeses on wooden serving slabs. A makeshift tarp made from boat sails was tied to trees and propped up with wooden sticks to cover us.
Next to our plates were photocopied sheets of old Swedish drinking songs. Once assembled, the crowd collectively belted out a song to start us off. Old and new friends alike dug into bowls of steamed crayfish, hungrily cracking those red shells. We pulled from them tiny orange-and-white striped pieces of flesh and sucked their salty juices. I was enamored with the simple, unpretentiousness of the ritual.
While cracking into shells, I also learned that shellfish caught off the waters of Sweden’s rocky west coast archipelagoes are in a league of their own.Even Stockholmers agree, West Sweden has the very best seafood in the entire region. Its proximity to the cold, clean waters of the North Atlantic means shellfish grow and mature better, retaining richer and more flavorful flesh.
I headed out west at the first opportunity to taste for myself.
That opportunity came in the form of a special culinary academy held once every year in Sweden. It takes a handful of locals, chefs, and writers around a specific region of the country to learn about its gastronomic culture and food history in depth. By its end, I would emerge a semi-expert on locally-sourced ingredients, regional cuisines, and would fully understand deep-seated traditions that drove that particular region’s food culture.
This time around, it would take me and the culinary crew right to the source along West Sweden’s Bohuslän Coast to harvest fresh langoustines and crayfish, all to culminate in learning how to properly host our own kraftskiva at former 19th century mill-turned-hotel, Norrqvarn in Lyrestad.
I arrive to the postcard-perfect fishing village Smögen around noontime. Unlike iconic Falu Red cottages known to dot the Swedish countryside, white cottages with orange ochre-colored roofs line Smögen’s rocky shores. Small fishing boats slowly glide in and out of its harbour.
Local fisherman Martin Olofsson meets us at the docks next to his fishing trawler, a trusty and beloved boat well-worn and battered with use. He has been harvesting langoustines from these waters for close to two decades every single day, casting traps into the depths and returning the next day to assess what those traps offer up.
We hop aboard his fishing trawler, battling choppy waves as we head out to sea. The trawler bobs dramatically from side to side in stomach-churning fashion as we pull up wooden traps from the depths and empty their langoustine bounty before casting them back into the ocean, a task we repeat for several hours.
Martin steams a few langoustines right on board for a taste test so I would know just how different freshly-cooked langoustines from Sweden’s west coast taste. They are exquisite. Pulling apart the light peach-colored shells to reach the juicy flesh is just the anticipatory precursor I need for our party the next day.
In the morning, with coolers full of langoustines, we head towards Lyrestad where we will fish for freshwater river crayfish within the Göta Canal. The canal was dug and built in the early 19th century to connect both coasts of Sweden (via Gothenburg and Stockholm) for transportation purposes. Instead of having to sail around Sweden’s southern coast for weeks to get to both coasts, the 120-mile long canal with its 58 locks drastically shortens the journey to a few days. Travel efficiency aside, its waters are packed with freshwater crayfish.
Local historian and fisherman Kjell Karlsson meets us with a wheelbarrow full of metal traps. Setting them about 10 to 12 feet apart along various points in the canal, we wait and see if we will catch any crayfish. Several hours later, the dark indigo-colored crustaceans I pull up look nothing like the bright red versions I’d seen served at Tomas’ party.
Handing over coolers of fresh langoustines and buckets of river crayfish to Emelie, Norrqvarn’s resident chef, she washes the shellfish and shows me the proper way to cook them – in hot water infused with freshly picked sprigs of crown dill. Within seconds, those indigo-gray shells start turning a deep rich reddish-orange color I’ve come to associate with crayfish parties as she pours piping hot water over them to marinate in dill.
Out on the wooden jetty along the banks of the Göta Canal, we begin to set up in that familiar pattern I now know well. Long narrow wooden tables and benches pulled together, and paper plates with crayfish motifs replace Tomas’ mix-and-match porcelain dishes. We decorate with colorful sun faces and paper lanterns as the late season sun begins to dip for the evening.
We lay out our other dishes: artisan crisp bread sourced from local bakers who have been keeping the 1,000+ year old Nordic craft of making crisp bread alive, local Swedish cheese aged to crystallized crumbly perfection, home-baked Västerbottensost cheese pie known for with its uniquely sharp taste, and some schnapps and aquavit from an organic microbrewery and distillery to toast our folk drinking songs.
The company is different but the festive mood is the very same.
Going in, I knew that this party was going to require a whole lot of time planning and waiting for those little crustaceans to bite. I also knew that all that effort and time would culminate in barely-there bite-sized pieces of flesh we would have to battle out of hard shells.
But sitting here at Norrqvarn, my own freshly-caught crustaceans spread before me, the long quest to learn about this culinary tradition was totally worth it. It makes me fully appreciate the loving work Tomas put into planning that cozy party for his friends and the ritual of the kräftskiva, in general. Because when we don comical, yet essential, paper bibs and hats in unison, strangers become friends and even the most reserved of Swedes are pried out of their shells.
Words and photography by Lola Akinmade Åkerström