Crayfish and Snaps Feast of Sweden
There is in Sweden a beautiful tradition where, each year in mid-August, Swedes feast to their hearts’ content on two of the nation’s most beloved and iconic products: Swedish crawfish and Swedish snaps (“schnapps” in German).
Whether the feast takes place at a grand dinner table in one of Skåne’s stately castles or manor houses, or outdoor atop picnic benches (guests under those circumstances kept warm by heat-lamps), the etiquette is the same. The table will be set with place-settings for each guest, consisting of a dinner plate upon which will be placed a bib, of fine cloth in formal settings, of disposable plastic in casual environs; a salad-sized plate, situated to the upper-left side of the dinner plate (where a bread-and-butter plate would normally be placed), into which crawfish shells should be deposited; a nutcracker placed to the right side of the dinner plate upon a dinner napkin, for use, if necessary, in cracking the claws of the crustaceans; a shellfish fork, placed to the immediate right side of the nutcracker; and a little shot-glass, placed to the upper-right side of the dinner plate, for snaps. Absent from the table-setting will be knives, dinner forks, and water glasses. The event can perhaps be best likened to a Maryland crab-and-beer feast.
Once guests have taken their seats, large communal trays, piled high with steaming-hot, claret-colored crawfish, will be brought to the table and set at its center. Led by the host, guests stand and sing the Swedish national anthem. And once they are again comfortably seated, the host dons his bib and places his dinner napkin onto his lap, signaling the commencement of the feast.
Using communal tongs, guests place the desired “first-round” quantity of crawfish onto their respective plates and begin eating. One by one, crawfish are picked up by the hands, the head-portion separated from the body in a twist-pull movement. Once the head-portion is separated, it is conveyed, open-end-first, to the mouth of the diner, whereupon the contents of the fish’s head are sucked therefrom and eaten. Slurping is acceptable—and expected—but it should be done with as much discretion as possible. The remaining head-portion is then placed onto the designated shell plate. The claws are then removed from the carcass in a twist-pull action; cracked, if necessary, with the nutcracker (otherwise by the diner’s teeth); and their contents are extracted with the aid of the shellfish fork if necessary. As is the case with the head-portion, the shells of the claws are also deposited onto the shell plate. The succulent, flesh-filled tail-portion is twist-pulled away from the rest of the carcass, its relatively soft shell-covering peeled off with the fingers before the flesh is conveyed to the mouth and eaten. The remaining portions of the crustacean are then deposited onto the shell plate. Thereafter, another crawfish is picked up, and the process is repeated, seemingly ad infinitum, during the hours-long feast.
On occasion, throughout the feast, a diner will propose a toast—whether lauding the host, to health, as thanks for a beautiful summer, to a gentle winter, etc.—each diner indulging by emptying his shot-glass of its contents, then, in unison, declaring, “skoll!” which in Swedish means “health!” As fast as glasses are emptied, they are refilled….
Periodically, shell plates will be removed from the table and replaced with fresh ones, or they will be emptied and replaced. Additional trays bearing mounds of piping-hot crawfish will also be brought to the table. At Swedish crawfish and snaps feasts, the exhaustion of the guests always precedes that of the food and drink.
At the end of the feast, bibs are removed, the table of cleared, and fresh napkins and fingerbowls containing warm water with lemon “wheels” floating atop are brought to the table for diners to refresh themselves.
The feast is one of Sweden’s most delightful traditions, and every gentleman should schedule a trip to Scandinavia so as to experience the tradition at least once in his lifetime.