Celebrating the Kräftskiva: a Swedish Crayfish Party Tradition

Swedish Crayfish Party

A few weeks ago, before the season began its visible transition from summer to fall, I took part in one of the most charming of Scandinavian celebrations, the kräftskiva, or Swedish crayfish party. A tradition every August in Sweden, it’s one that I’ve tried to embrace here in Seattle over the past several years. This year, in addition to hosting my own, I had the opportunity to be a guest at a very special kräftskiva hosted by Old Ballard Liquor Company.

As the summer sun glowed golden over Ballard, a neighborhood rich with Scandinavian history, I crossed the old railroad tracks, past the main streets, and made my way into a shipyard where relics of the old neighborhood were displayed as if it were a museum. Lights and signs from shuttered Ballard bars and restaurants (including one of my favorites, the old Copper Gate) brought back memories of old times. An old newspaper vending box displaying a 2009 issue made me do a double take (the headline announced the demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer print edition, an event that as a journalist I remember vividly). The sun cast a radiant tint over everything, and if one had entered the scene after putting back a few shots of aquavit, one might wonder if they were really seeing things for what they were.

Tumble Swede Swedish Crayfish Party

Swedish Crayfish Party

With live music, lanterns, and plenty of aquavit flowing at Pacific Fishermen Shipyard, we made fast friends with our fellow diners and dug into the meal. With crustacean juice and the wild-fennel-and-beer poaching liquid dripping from our lips, we shared tips for how to break into the crayfish and extract as much of the meat and goodness as possible.

My neighbor, nostalgic for a time when she had lived in Sweden, focused on the crayfish, savoring the eat-with-your-hands meal and her own personal aquavit carafe frozen in a thick sleeve of ice. Less sure of the crayfish, the woman across from me made a meal primarily out of the mini onion and mushroom cheese pies (it’s typical to serve Västerbotten cheese pie at such dinners, as crayfish themselves are hardly enough to fill one up and soak up all the aquavit consumed). Rounded out with new potatoes tossed with butter and dill, rye crispbread to slather with butter, and an elderberry ice cream topped with stone fruit compote, the meal was distinctly Nordic—with a Pacific Northwest touch.

Tumble Swede Swedish Crayfish Party

As the sun set, I couldn’t help but think about the Friday-night revelers that would be gathering along the strips of bars and restaurants in the heart of Ballard. They would be oblivious to this quirky, cultural tradition taking place on just the other side of the old railroad tracks. With a full stomach and happy with the warm glow of celebration and community, I knew just where I would rather be.

Swedish Crayfish Party

Darra Goldstein’s Mussels in Aquavit in The Norwegian American

Mussels in Aquavit

Mussels always take me back to that summer in Oslo, the first time I visited the country where my dad was born. Norway had been a place with almost a mythical quality, someplace alive and real in my mind but also distant and seeming quite idyllic. Arriving by air that summer, a quarter of my life having heard about Norway but never traveling there, I felt a deep sense of home, one that has morphed over the years into a place of longing. There, on the waterfront at Aker Brygge, my husband and I ate steamed mussels with fries, commonly known as moules-frites, while the midday sun forced us to squint and the marine air wound its way through our hair. Something that I had previously associated with an August spent in Normandy years before, due to those signs advertising it outside of beachside cafes, had now become a thing of Norway to me. So now, these little shellfish prompt memories of that special time.

This summer I made a recipe for mussels steamed in aquavit with horseradish from the lovely cookbook Fire and Ice: Classic Nordic Cooking by Darra Goldstein. Released last fall by Ten Speed Press, the book has quickly become one of my favorites in my collection, one that’s as gorgeous to look through as satisfying to cook from (all the recipes I’ve tried are delicious). I interviewed Goldstein for The Norwegian American recently, and she agreed to share her recipe for these mussels with readers. I hope you’ll click on over to the paper’s website to check out the recipe along with my latest story.

Wine Pairings for Scandinavian Food?

White Wine Simple

When you think about Scandinavian food, what are the first things that come to mine? Salmon, dill, almond, cardamom, berries, mushrooms, potatoes, pickled herring, apples–and that’s just a starting place. The food of Scandinavia is guided by tradition as well as geography and the seasons, resulting in a variety of regional cuisines with no shortage of seafood, game, cakes, cookies, dairy, and produce that varies widely throughout the year. As rich as Scandinavian cuisine can be, it’s not typically one of the top ones for wine pairings. After all, what kind of wine would really go well with pickled herring?

Food and Wine Pairing Session

At a wine pairing session this weekend at the International Food Bloggers Conference in Seattle, I decided to get to the bottom of wine pairings for Scandinavian food. I asked chef John Sarich, culinary director at Chateau Ste. Michelle, what he’d pair with Scandinavian food. Riesling, Riesling, Riesling, he repeated as I listed some of the hallmark flavors in many dishes–salmon, dill, horseradish, potatoes. And then I stumped him with pickled herring. Sure enough, my suspicions were right: Don’t even try, stick with aquavit and beer. But I’m intrigued by the Riesling pairing. Much Riesling is too sweet for my palate so I rarely consider it. But as I’ve been mulling over the flavors of both the food and this particular wine (especially the drier ones), I think he’s onto something.

What about you? What do you like to pair–wine or otherwise–with your favorite Scandinavian foods?

Full disclosure: Although I paid my way to the conference, there were plenty of free things handed our way, including a cookbook from Sarich and a discount on the conference for people blogging about it. Just thought you should know.

Seattle’s Copper Gate Closes its Doors

Copper Gate Neon

One week ago tonight, on an evening just as sunny–even brighter, in fact–than this, I walked through the open door of the Copper Gate shortly after it opened and took a seat at the bar for closing night.

With a menu featuring gravlax, pickled herring, fiskekaker, and pannekaker, along with a number of aquavit selections, the bar in Ballard–a Seattle neighborhood known for its Scandinavian influence–had been a hangout for Scandinavian-Americans and neighborhood locals for years.

A few weeks ago the owners announced that they had sold the Copper Gate and it would be closing on June 30. Originally opening in 1946, the Copper Gate underwent a makeover when the new owners reopened it in 2006. Risqué art and decor hinted at the establishment’s past and accompanied rosemaling touches and a bar taking the shape of a Viking ship.

Copper Gate Viking Ship Bar

Copper Gate Sign

The evening was just getting going and I had the choice of any number of seats, but already the offerings were limited. They were out of some of the food. The case of aquavit was down to the last few bottles. What was left was left. A call came in from a patron requesting the recipe for the stor agurk cocktail.

Bars and restaurants come and go, but this closure hit pretty deep for a lot of locals and those with a soft spot in their hearts for Scandinavian food. Though the city’s Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish roots run deep, traces of its heritage have been fading in recent years as Scandinavian shops and restaurants have closed. The Copper Gate was one of the last places to get this type of cuisine, and certainly the last of its kind.

At the risk of sounding too sappy, the closure saddened me as the bar held a certain amount of significance to me. It was in one of those green-colored booths where my husband and I took our seats four years ago almost to the day to raise glasses of aquavit in memory of my grandmother Agny, who had passed away just days before.

We’d stop in, wearing a suit and dress, for a drink after attending an opera and always enjoyed perusing the menu that managed to resonate both with its Scandinavian patrons and those entirely unfamiliar with the Norwegian and Swedish cuisine.

I drove by the Copper Day the day after it closed and saw the doors open, workers already disassembling the interior and getting it ready for the new business. No one has said for sure yet what’s replacing it, although there have been rumors of a sports-themed bar. In any case, the Copper Gate as we know it is gone.

Copper Gate Diptych

Copper Gate Booths Copper Gate Outdoor Sign

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