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An Ode to the Crayfish

Nowhere is the crayfish so ardently worshipped as in Sweden. Part of the reason is purely gastronomic. In flavor, the rare Swedish crayfish surpasses its relatives in other countries.

But it is above all in Sweden that the eating of crayfish has expanded into a ritual meal surrounded by all manner of accessories, preferably with an authentic full moon thrown in.
No one visiting Sweden in August can fail to notice how shop windows display variations on the theme of crayfish. Crayfish-decorated bibs, paper plates, napkins and funny little caps, not to mention big paper lanterns with full-moon faces on them. There are special crayfish knives in the store window, bookstores sell lyrics to crayfish songs, you’ll find special dishes, bowls, glassware and schnapps decanters, all painted with the same shellfish, and, of course, the grocery stores have deep-frozen, or sometimes fresh (i.e., live), crayfish on offer.

The custom is not old and was created not from sentiments of nature romanticism, but by the bureaucracy that, a hundred years ago, prohibited the catching of crayfish but for a couple of months every fall. At one time, the lakes of Sweden teemed with this black gold, which was exported to the high-class restaurants of Paris, London and Berlin, but over-fishing threatened at one point to annihilate them. Thus regulations on the fishing emerged. When the crayfish-eating Swedes had to go without the delicacy right up until late summer, their return to the table became a cause for celebration, and so the crayfish party was born.
But in 1907, crayfish enthusiasts were struck by a new disaster: crayfish plague, a lethal parasitic mold that has all but eliminated crayfish from most of Sweden’s fishing waters. The tradition was rescued, however, through the import of crayfish, first from Turkey, then from Spain and today from the U.S., making Sweden the world’s biggest crayfish importer.

Eating crayfish the Swedish way is not easy, but the experience of a crayfish party can very well modify the myth of Swedish uptightness. Our tip: Search out a native Swede in your neighborhood. If you do dare to set up your own party, without previous experience, know that the bib, the special napkins, the little crayfish caps, big paper lanterns over and around the table and, of course, plenty of singing are a must! Frozen crayfish, cooked the Swedish way, with plenty of salt and dill (the crustacean is in Sweden eaten cold), are available in this country at select Scandinavian stores and via the Internet. Try www.scandiafood.com in the East or www.swedishdeli.com in the Midwest.

—Professor Jan-Öjvind Swahn, Lund University

Spice up your snaps!
Next to every crayfish party you attend will also introduce you to the very distinct Swedish tradition of singing while drinking snaps, a nubbe or as it was originally spelled, a schnapps. Schnapps is quite simply spiced vodka so while enjoying that part of the party we advice you to drink responsibly. It is often more important to sing and sing loudly than actually drink a lot of the schnapps, which is served ice cold and straight up in shot glasses, nubbeglas. To help with the singing we are preparing a book of bilingual songs for the Swedish table to be published in the fall of 2008. As for the schnapps, well, here are a few ways to prepare yourself and learn of your knack for or limits when it comes to that part of the tradition.

Few activities offer the novice the opportunity to master them immediately—spicing your own snaps is definitely one of them.

It’s this simple: Take a dill stem. Place it in a bottle of vodka in the morning; drink it in the evening. Few will recognize the taste at first and most people will be thrilled. Leave the dill in the bottle and you have a piece of art!

Of the more popular and common Swedish spiced aquavits, many include the taste of wormwood, St. John’s wort or aniseed. Having tested Swedish snaps in a variety of American “focus groups” throughout the years, the editors have come to the conclusion that these tastes, much like the Swedish herring, are a bit too exotic for the typical American palate.

Your very own spiced snaps can be as strong or as mild as you choose it to be, and it’s easy to do. All you need is some vodka and ingredients common in most households.

Snaps for the crayfish party

Place in a glass jar:

2 tbsp. aniseed
1 tbsp. fennel seed
1/2 tbsp. caraway seed

Pour 6 oz. of vodka or similar un-spiced alcohol into the jar. Seal the jar and leave it for a week; then filter the liquid and dilute with more vodka until the right taste balance has been reached. Serve very cold with Swedish crayfish.

Dill snaps

Place a stem of dill into a bottle of vodka or similar spirit. Do not leave the dill in the bottle for more than two days, however, and do not save this snaps for more than a week, as it lose its freshness quickly.

Chive and pepper schnapps

Place three or four chive straws and four whole black peppercorns in half a bottle of vodka and let it rest for one day.

Christmas snaps

Place into a glass bottle:
1 tbs. sugar
1 cinnamon stick
8 whole cloves
8 cardamom pods

Add half a bottle of vodka and shake until the sugar is dissolved. Let it rest for 24 hours. Wash an orange and peel off three inches of the rind; add this to the bottle. Let it rest for another 24 hours, filter and chill.

Gingerbread cookie snaps
1 1/4 tbsp. sugar
A piece of bitter orange peel
8 cardamom seeds
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 tsp. ginger
Pour ingredients into a glass bottle with half a bottle of vodka. Shake the jar until the sugar is dissolved. Let it rest for two days; remove the ginger, cinnamon stick and cardamom.

Sage and lime snaps
Wash the lime, peel off the rind in a spiral and place it with four sage leaves into half a bottle of vodka; let is rest until the next day.

Lemon snaps
Wash the lemon and peel off the outer layer of rind with a potato peeler. Squeeze the lemon rind into one bottle of vodka, and let it rest for a few hours or overnight. Remove the lemon rind when the snaps has reached the desired taste.

To make your lemon snaps smoother and reduce its bite, add a vanilla pod and 1 tbsp. of sugar with the lemon; let it rest for two days and then taste it. If it needs more time with the vanilla pod, leave it for another day or two.

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