A highlight on the Swedish calendar, the ‘kräftskiva’ (crayfish party) – an annual seafood fest with lots of side dishes, drinks and joyous songs – is a summertime celebration dear to Swedes of all ages. Its history stretches back to as early as the 16th century, when it became popular with the royals. In the 17th century, Swedes started eating crayfish on a broader scale.
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. A quiche made from this cheese is another kräftskiva staple.
To drink, expect beer and ‘snaps’ –flavoured shots of aquavit. The ceremonial downing of these is accompanied by song. ‘Helan Går’ is the most famous kräftskiva tune.
Moving with the times, this traditional celebration has evolved. Today it also includes vegetarian and vegan options, such as artichoke (which is eaten in a similar way as a crayfish), tofu in brine and tomato quiche. In line with the Swedish culinary scene’s increased focus on sustainability, organic produce and locally sourced ingredients take centre stage.
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.