There are some iconic things in life that everybody needs to do once before they die. You know – things like swimming with wild dolphins. Seeing your favourite painting in real life. Getting lost in Venice. Drinking wine in the country where the grape was grown. Keeping a pet. And attending a Swedish crayfish party. As at the middle of August, I was still missing the dolphins, the pet and the crayfish party. And although the lovely folks at Malmö Tourism were not able to help out in the dolphin or pet department, they certainly were able to help out in the crayfish party department when they recently invited me, Mr Cooksister, Su-Lin and Denise to visit Malmö. We had arrived in the mid-afternoon and had spent a few hours walking around and acquainting ourselves with Malmö and the wonderfulMalmö festival (more on that in a later post) and having resisted the many and varied temptations of fried food on offer at the stalls (!), by evening we were hungry and ready for our crayfish party!
Crayfish parties are a traditional Nordic summertime eating and drinking celebration, originating in Sweden where they are called kräftskiva. The parties are generally held during August, because until recently crayfish harvesting in Sweden was legally limited to the late summer months. Although the first day of the harvest, the “kräftpremiär” in early August, used to be a date of great celebration, it now has no legal significance but the tradition of August crayfish feasts lives on. The closest any of us had been to a crayfish party was what we had seen in IKEA catalogues, so we were both excited and curious by the time the cab pulled up in Södervidinge at the home of Anna of Malmö Tourism and her husband Torbjörn. We were also joined by Sara from Skåne Tourism and her husband Patrick, Anna’s two dogs: a Jack Russell with eyes to melt your heart, and a Rottweiller that entirely undid his breed’s reputation of being vicious – he seemed content to lick you to death if you’d let him ;).
Once all the introductions were done, Anna told us a little about the Swedish crayfish party traditions. Traditionally, the meal is enjoyed outdoors, but bad weather (and mosquitoes!) often drive the party indoors, so Anna had wisely cut to the chase and seated us in their gorgeous summerhouse full of limewashed wood and candles – hello, the IKEA catalogue! It is apparently also customary to have colourful tablecloths of paper plates on which the Swedish flag colours and a cartoon crayfish feature prominently (check); paper lanterns (check) and comical paper hats featuring the man in the moon (check – modelled by Denise!). Bibs are also sensible, but we decided to draw the style-conscious line there!
A very important part of the evening’s proceedings is the alcohol consumption – which is traditionally fairly erm, robust (!) – adding to the generally lively atmosphere of such parties. To help out those who are shy in coming forward, the clever Swedes have also included the tradition of singing drinking songs, called Dryckesvisor, at regular intervals, followed by a shot of aqvavit for all. A particularly popular number is “Helan går” which I first sang at the fab Swedish Christmas lunch I attended last December. On offer to drink at Anna’s house were Beerssons IPA (an American style pale-ale) and Cacao Porter (a chocolate stout) – both from the Malmö Brewery. For the less adventurous there was also white wine, and for the drinking songs and toasts there were local Skåne aqvavit, spiced with caraway, aniseed and fennel; as well as a homemade blackcurrant aqvavit made by Torbjörn’s mother, tasting for all the world like a vodka-spiked glass of Ribena! Dangerously delicious.
So what was on the menu? There was wonderful sourdough bread and of course Swedish crispbread; there was a cheeseboard containing a number of Swedish cheese including my favourite strongly-flavoured Västerbotten cheese (eating cheese with seafood is traditional, as I learnt on my previous trips to Sweden!); absolutley beautiful quiches homemade by Anna (one plain cheese and one absolutely bursting with chanterelle mushrooms); ahuge bowl of crayfish; and a salad (just to provide some light relief!). The crayfish, we learnt, are not what I grew up calling crayfish (which are actually Cape Rock Lobsters) but small freshwater crayfish native to Sweden. It is possible to buy them cheap, imported from Turkey or China, but the proper Swedish ones have a little yellow dot on where the joint of their big claw is – as ours did. The crayfish are boiled in (very) salt water along with some sugar and fresh dill stalks – preferably “crown dill” harvested after the plant has flowered – before being served cold and eaten with your fingers. The level of rowdiness goes up as you go along because the tenacity required to get to the spiky, stubborn crayfish’s sweet flesh often requires a few drink breaks before you actually get to consume any food! And a couple of short hours later, we were surrounded by half-empty aqvavit bottles and a pile of discarded crayfish shells: crayfish carnage!
Despite the fact that none of us could remotely describe ourselves as hungry by this stage, we soldiered merrily on through dessert – a bowl of gorgeous fresh berries (in season and available in abundance all over Sweden) topped with excellent Ottos & Glassfabriken blueberry ice-cream. With coffee, Anna brought out two more treats: boxes of excellent chocolate truffles from Malmo Chokladfabrik; and a bottle of Spirit of Hven Swedish whisky, made on the Island of Ven. Never heard of Swedish whisky? Me neither – but this was delicous – smooth and caramelly – and I loved the bottle.
All too soon our taxi arrived to take us back to Malmö – although none of us wanted to leave. As Anna explained earlier, most Swedes these days go to a restaurant or some organised party for their crayfish parties, so it is a rare privilege for us to have been invited into a Swedish home to enjoy this most Swedish of meals. I want to say a huge thank you to Anna and Torbjörn for welcoming us into their home and to Sara and Patrick (and the dogs!) for making us feel so welcome and being so enthusiastic in teaching us about Swedish foodie culture and traditions. Sitting in their summerhouse with the most astonishing rainstorm pelting down on the roof, we felt very much at home and amongst friends in out little candlelit room. Tack så mycket!
Although it isn’t possible for Anna to invite every visitor to Malmö into her home for a meal, it is possible for anyone to join a family in Malmö for am authentic Swedish meal: A Slice of Swedish Hospitality is an initiative for visitors to the region to join a local host/family for a meal. Time your visit right and you might be lucky enough to get a crayfish party. But at any time of the year, prepare yourself to be surprised by the incredibly high quality of local Swedish ingredients, and the open friendliness (and quirkiness!) of the Swedish people.
DISCLOSURE: I was invited to visit Malmö by Malmö Tourism and Visit Sweden, who paid for all flights, accommodation and meals.
And while we’re chatting, don’t forget to submit your entry to my annual barbecue event, Braai, the Beloved Country, by 23 September! Participants also stand to win one of two copies of Braai Masters of the Cape Winelands (will ship worldwide) – so get the fire going right now! Details of how to enter can be found here.