Grab your paper hat and party with a crustacean

Summer is the time for wolfing down crayfish on the coast in Sweden.

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I’ve spent enough time in Ikea to know that the much-vaunted Scandinavian dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Trapped in a Nordic noir flatpack hell, you’ll find it hard not to sympathise with the region’s famously gloomy inhabitants. It turns out, however, that when they’re not naming storage solutions or writing gruesome crime dramas, they are quite the party animals. Only last week I found myself surrounded by a swarm of Swedes in silly hats who seemed to be enjoying themselves rather more than the crustaceans they were serenading enthusiastically.

My host for the evening, Sadaf Malik, a Stockholm native who opened a Swedish café bar, Fika, in east London in 2008, was in charge of the raucous “snaps songs” – and the pouring of shots to go with them – at Fika’s first crayfish party of the summer.

The tradition started early in the 20th century, when concerns about the crayfish population led to the introduction of a strict fishing season – celebrated every August with an orgy of conspicuous consumption. Though the restrictions are no longer in place, the kräftskiva remains very much a part of Sweden’s summertime. Indeed, Malik claims you can measure your seasonal popularity in broken shells.

I seek help from an expat friend in organising a crayfish party of my own; he puts me in touch with a biologist colleague (and proper Swede) by the name of Claes Bernes, who, to my considerable relief, tells me that – though once upon a time catching the little buggers was “the primary fun” of the whole occasion – these days, it’s more common to buy them frozen. Thanks to the same crayfish plague as damaged British stocks in the 1980s, most of the crayfish consumed in Sweden now are imported from Asia or the US. Even the local population is largely of the Signal variety, a non-native species.

It’s these American Signals, released into British waterways by fish farmers disappointed in their hopes of cracking the Scandinavian market, which have caused such a problem for our smaller, white-clawed crayfish. The Environment Agency theoretically encourages the trapping of these invasive pests, but such is the red tape involved that it’s far easier to buy them from your fishmonger, or online. Allow 500 grams per Brit, but considerably more, Malik says, if you’re catering for greedy Swedes.

Crayfish are usually sold cooked, but if you’re lucky enough to find them live, poach them in dill and dark beer for that authentic Scandi flavour and serve them whole, like langoustines. The rhythmic shelling and slurping are essential parts of the ritual. (NB: Bibs, though not the sexiest of partywear, may come in useful.)

As delicious as your crayfish will undoubtedly be, it is wise also to provide a generous quantity of bread and strong cheese to soak up the second most important thing on the menu: snaps. At Fika, the staff insisted that I should try at least five. In consequence, I’m afraid, I am unable to offer any sensible recommendations on the subject.

Aquavit is easy to source but you may have a bit more trouble tracking down the ideal location for your kräftskiva. This, according to Bernes, should take place on “a balmy evening, in the garden or patio of a stately house near a lake or a bay at the coast, with the full moon being reflected in the water”. Your humble garden or balcony will do: it’ll probably feel like a stately home after a few rounds of snaps.

And where there’s snaps there’s singing – and I don’t mean Abba. The words to Sweden’s best-known drinking song, “Helan Går” (meaning “the whole one goes down”) are easy to find on the internet. I think you can guess the action to accompany that one. Skål!

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars

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