Swedes have been eating crayfish for a long time. It's said that monks in the medival Sweden ate large amounts of crayfish, especially during periods of dietary restrictions - the flesh is meaty but was still considered a type of fish. Apparently, the crayfish were eaten warm (similar to how they are eaten in the Southern U.S.) until sometime near the end of the 1800's when they began to be prepared and served as they are today - cold and in a seasoned brine.
Crayfish eventually became so popular that restrictions had to be made to ensure that they didn't disappear. The 8th of August was determined to be the date from which crayfish fishing could be allowed. And, despite lifting restrictions in 1993, August is still the time for crayfish parties in Sweden.
One more note of interest (?) before getting to the cooking. Native crayfish, (Astacus astacus),
nearly disappeared in the early 1900's due to its susceptability to a north American fungus-like organism (Aphanomyces astaci
) that probably came to Sweden when someone released north American crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus)
into Swedish waters. North American crayfish are not bothered by the fungus but do carry it. Subsequently, North American crayfish were properly introduced to Swedish waters beginning in 1969 in order to replenish crayfish stocks, regardless of type. It turns out that several rivers and lakes were spared from the fungus and one can these days purchase native Swedish crayfish for twice the price of north American (750 kronor/kilo as opposed to 370, or over 50 bucks per pound vs. 25!).
I was at the market today in Stockholm looking to purchase some freshly boiled crayfish when I spotted a store-owner filling a pot with live crayfish. Finding live crayfish in Stockholm without actually fishing them yourself is truly a rarity as they are always sold pre-boiled. However, after several minutes of discussion (they were shocked to hear from someone wanting to purchase living crayfish), I walked away with nearly 5 pounds of live crayfish. As our crayfish party is planned for tomorrow evening, there wasn't much to do but rush home, boil them and let them soak in their brine overnight.
At home, ingredients were assembled:
Salt, sugar, cheap Swedish lager, nearly two pounds of dill umbels and the frisky crayfish.
These came spotless from the store but it's still a good idea to give them a little wash.
A simple stock is made by combining the salt, about half of the dill and 5 quarts of water and bring to a rapid boil.
Then, it's time to come to grips with what being at the top of the food chain really means and boiling the little creatures. After about 6 minutes:
(I tried to make for an easier passage by boiling in small batches - about 6 at a time - and taking them directly from the refridgerator.)
After boiling, it's time to strain the stock, discard the boiled dill and add the beer and the sugar to the still-hot liquid. Layer the boiled crayfish with the remaining, non-boiled umbels:
And add the stock/beer/sugar mixture to cover:
These went directly into the refridgerator and will remain there until the party tomorrow night.
I did, however, sneak a taste! The still-hot crayfish I tasted was wonderful. The boiling liquid is very salty, slightly sweet and tastes strongly of dill (think dill pickles more than the taste of dill fronds). Just enough of it remains on the shell to season the tail and clay meat while extracting it to provide perfect seasoning.
I hope to be able to provide pictures and a description of tomorrow's party later.