Epicurious: Coming Out of Their Shells—Sweden’s Crayfish Fests

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Dateline: Sweden

By Sofia Perez

[Published by Epicurious.com, August 3, 2006]

Even the most reserved people need to unleash their inner silliness from time to time, and for Swedes, one of those rare moments occurs during the annual crayfish celebrations that take place all over the country throughout August. Traditionally, family and friends host outdoor bashes where they eat tons of crayfish while wearing goofy party hats and singing songs dedicated to the freshwater crustacean. Some celebrations are also held in the U.S., including the annual crayfish week at Marcus Samuelsson’s restaurant Aquavit (August 10-14 this year).

Johan Svensson, an alum of Aquavit and now executive chef at Samuelsson’s Riingo restaurant in New York, grew up in a tiny village on an island in Sweden’s Lake Vänern. For him, the festivals brought some much-needed excitement into an otherwise tranquil childhood. The parties offered him and his three brothers the chance to eat with their fingers, make slurping noises, and get a little messy. “You didn’t have to be a good boy at the table that day,” he recalls.

The celebration’s roots date back to the late 19th century. Overfishing of crayfish began to threaten the species’ survival so the Swedish government instituted bans, forbidding their harvest except during a short period in late summer and early fall. As a result, people began holding crayfish parties in August to celebrate the start of the new season.

The gatherings are typically held outdoors. “Since we usually have eight months of winter,” says Svensson, “during those four warmer months we spend every minute we can outside.” The scene is set with candles and lots of colored paper lanterns, which often depict the man in the moon or symbolize the soon-to-be-scarce sun. Everyone wears bibs and hats festooned with large, kitschy images of the unsightly but tasty shellfish, which also grace napkins, plates, and tablecloths. In addition to the crayfish, which is usually boiled or poached in saltwater and dill, the menu includes Toast Skagen (a mixture of shrimp, red onion, lemon juice, roe, and mayonnaise, spread on bread that has been sautéed in butter), and Västerbotten (a tangy, full-bodied cow’s-milk cheese) served on knäckebröd, a crisp rye bread.

No Swedish crayfish festival would be complete without lots of free-flowing beer and aquavit, which could be what loosens people up enough to sing the traditional songs. To hear Svensson tell it, though, it may be a chicken-and-egg question: “The Swedes are a very shy people. They can’t just enjoy sitting down to drink—they have to have a reason to drink and the songs give them a reason.” Either way, as far as reasons go, why not drink to crayfish?

(Aquavit: 65 E. 55th St., New York, 212-307-7311; Riingo: 205 E. 45th St., New York, 212-867-4200)