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

Norwegian Baking Class in Seattle, January 24

Norwegian Heart Waffles Horizontal

In a few hours the clock will strike midnight and Christmas Eve will be upon us. There are a few more gifts to wrap–plus my husband and I just decided a few hours ago to host Christmas dinner at our house–but all is calm, all is bright. Before setting into planning mode, I wanted to take a little time to share an announcement with you.

On January 24, I’m teaching another baking class at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, and this time the menu features heart-shaped waffles (vaffler), prince cake (fyrstekake), and sandbakkels. If you’re in the Seattle area, I hope you’ll consider joining me as we kick off the museum’s 5-part series on coffee treats from each of the Nordic countries!

Vaffler, fyrstekake, and sandbakkels are three of my all-time favorite Norwegian treats, and I have special connections to and memories of each. My grandmother taught me to make the sandbakkels and vaffler, and I grew up eating fyrstekake frequently. It will be a delicious day.

You can learn more about the series on the Nordic Heritage Museum’s website, and you can register for any or all of the classes online here. This might be just the last-minute Christmas gift for someone in the Seattle area who loves Nordic food!

Sandbakkels

Fyrstekake Slice on Plate with Crumbs

Syttende Mai: Seattle, 1980s

Syttende Mai with Grandparents 1980s

Old Ballard was about as Scandinavian as you could get. Though far from the Nordic countries, the little neighborhood north of downtown Seattle had drawn immigrants by the thousands over the years. It used to be as easy to find lefse as it was a burger. And if you needed gjetost, pølse, or any other type of Scandinavian food–not to mention housewares or souveniers with Norwegian flags or “Uffda” printed on them, you didn’t have to look far.

The neighborhood has changed a lot over the years, but I still distinctly remember what it used to be like before the massive changes of the past decade. With Syttende Mai coming up tomorrow, I’ve been digging up old photos and memorabilia and thought I’d share some here today.

Syttende Mai 1980s Mementos

Syttende Mai 1980s Mementos

From a handful of family photos taken during the celebrations in the 1980s to old Syttende Mai issues of the Ballard News-Tribune, this box is filled with nostalgia for me. The photo up at the top of the post is my favorite. On the left are Grandpa Lauritz and Grandma Agny, who had arrived in Seattle from Norway right around Syttende Mai in 1956. Next to them are Grandma Adeline–my only surviving grandparent–and Grandpa Lowell. That little girl in front is me. If you’ve spent time in Ballard throughout the years, you’ll recognize the old Bergen Place behind us, prior to its redesign a decade ago.

Syttende Mai 1980s Mementos

Syttende Mai 1980s Mementos

Syttende Mai 1980s MementosBoth sets of my grandparents lived in Ballard when I was growing up, and driving down to meet them at the parade was an annual event. I’m so glad my parents saved these old issues of the Ballard News-Tribune; at some point along the line, a photographer had captured photos of me and they were published for a couple of years (on the chair in the lower left of the May 15, 1985 cover, and holding a flag in the May 14, 1986 issue).

Today’s Ballard might be known more for its condos, restaurants, and nightlife than its Scandinavian roots, but Syttende Mai is still one of its biggest events of the year with events at the Nordic Heritage Museum and Leif Erikson Lodge during the day, leading up to a parade through the streets of Ballard in the evening (the 17th of May Committee says more than 20,000 people came out for the parade last year). I’ll be there tomorrow, hopefully adding more photos to the collection–photos that I’ll someday look back upon with the same sort of nostalgia as I do with these.

What are some of your Syttende Mai memories–in Ballard, Norway, or elsewhere? I’d love to hear about them!

An Evening with Noma’s René Redzepi

Rain on Tent

Raindrops pattered on the clear canopy above us, illuminated by the street lamps and Christmas light-wrapped trees in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square. The 150 or so of us had braved the cold, wet November evening to dine outdoors with René Redzepi, chef and co-owner of Copenhagen’s Noma–the renowned restaurant that has been named the best restaurant in the world three times in recent years. As we cuddled with the wool blankets provided at each seat, the guest of honor exclaimed his sense of surprise and honor: This never would happen in Denmark, he said.

With a multi-course meal by James Beard Award-winning chef Matthew Dillon of Seattle’s Bar Sajor, Sitka & Spruce, and The Corson Building and Noma-alumnus Blaine Wetzel, now chef of Willows Inn on Lummi Island north of Seattle, the event garnered extreme interest. Tickets–sold through Book Larder–were gone in just a few hours.

Redzepi Signing Books

Inside Dillon’s London Plane, just across the square from Bar Sajor, we sipped sparkling rosé while waiting in line to meet Redzepi and have him sign our copies of his just-released book, the three-volume A Work in Progress. We then headed out into the cold to find our seats, tagged by a fruit, vegetable, shell, or plant that had been assigned to us at the beginning of the event. (I’m still trying to figure out the name of my branch of burgundy-colored, woody buds.)

Redzepi Dinner Table Setting

Redzepi Event Dinner Table

Redzepi Dinner Centerpiece

Dinner started with a series of small bites, heavily influenced by the abundant seafood of the Pacific Northwest. Smoked mussels on the half shell and oysters garnished with fermented cabbage were nestled among the mossy centerpieces running along each of the two long tables. Puget Sound silver smelt rested on kelp. Slices of green alder-smoked sockeye as rich as candy were doled out–one per salivating palate. Other starters included smoked yogurt on rye bread with peppers in cider vinegar, pickled quince wrapped in air-cured pork leg, and crispy sunchoke tubers and “trumpets of death” mushrooms.

Redzepi Dinner

Oyster

Salmon

Quince

As we dined and sipped wine pairings provided by Syncline, Redzepi read from his book, which chronicles the Noma experience through a volume consisting of the author’s journal entries, a book of snapshots from the restaurant’s day-to-day operations, and a cookbook full of recipes (some of which he says are actually approachable to home cooks, unlike most of the recipes in his previous book, Noma: Time & Place in Nordic Cuisine).

Redzepi Introduction

Rene Redzepi Speaking

We ate fat slices of Dillon’s fluffy, chewy bread, accompanied by a trio of spreads: duck fat and rosemary, cultured goat butter, and sea urchin. Then up next came the first of three platters of main courses: raw Roosevelt elk with burnt celery root, cabbage baked in hay and horseradish.

The black cod from Neah Bay with salt-roasted pear and walnut oil, garnished with wisps of fresh dill, was one of my highlights of the evening. The freshness of the barely-ripe pears cut through the oiliness of the rich and flavorful black cod, and the walnut oil and dill rounded out the flavors just right. We then moved on to the leg of lamb served with slow-cooked root vegetables, preserved king boletes, and honeycomb.

Black Cod Lamb and Root Vegetables As is often the case with long dinners, dessert might seem optional for a satisfied and exhausted palate, but the little bites of flax seed caramels, buckwheat cookies, petit basque, and candy cap mushroom financiers were just right. Served with warm hazelnut milk and a black walnut liqueur, they warmed us up enough to head out from the cozy tent and into the evening.

Redzepi Event Desserts

As I’ve slowly worked on this post over the course of a couple of weeks, I’ve returned to a bit of the feeling of happiness and warmth of the evening each time I’ve sat down to organize the photos or write. What I haven’t mentioned as of yet is my enthusiasm for Nordic cuisine and how much fun I’ve been having watching from afar what chefs like Redzepi are doing. It’s exciting to see how the foods of both old Scandinavian and New Nordic cuisine are originating from the same traditions, readily-available ingredients, and cultures, making aspects of each similar yet so wildly different from each other. It’s a dream of mine to eat at Noma when I have a chance to travel to Copenhagen some day, but in the meantime it was so special to attend this dinner and meet René Redzepi (that’s me with the chef in the photo below). A big thank you to my husband for treating me to such a wonderful evening for my birthday!

Daytona with Rene Redzepi

Salad with Tomatoes, Radishes, Dill, and Danish Blue Cheese

Danish Blue Cheese Salad Vertical

To paint with light–that is what photographers do.

That idea, a way to reshape the way I look at the world, is the one nugget that’s stayed with me all these years since I was first studying photography.

Fast forward from the late 1990s to the present, I’ve been switching from film to digital this year as I relearn the art of SLR photography. Although technology has evolved, film has become a niche, and time has clouded much of what I learned back then, one thing is still the same: the science of light and the way it wraps around an object, enveloping it with its invisible yet transformative qualities.

Radishes and Salad

Armed with a new DSLR camera and taking workshops here and there, my eyes are being reopened to the beauty of the world around me–in particular, the beauty of food.

Just take a look at a bunch of radishes, their magenta skin glowing and contrasting with the green leaves. Exact opposites on the color wheel. Nature. Art.

Radishes on Plate Vertical

When food is this pretty in its raw, whole form, it deserves to retain its dignity when integrated into a dish.

That’s one of the things I love about this Danish blue cheese salad. Isn’t it pretty? On a bed of curly lettuce, thinly-sliced cucumbers and radishes nestle together with sliced cherry tomatoes, a trace of shaved onion, fresh dill, and crumbled blue cheese. It’s so simple there’s almost nothing to it. The dressing–oil and vinegar accented with a little mustard, salt, and sugar–highlights the salad’s flavors without drawing attention to itself.

Crisp, fresh, summery. No one ingredient dominant, except perhaps the blue cheese with its pungent pop of flavor. Just right.

Of course, presentation is important–ingredients this beautiful want to be dressed up, allowed to shine.

Danish Blue Cheese Salad Horizontal

In some regards, photography has been reminding me about how lucky we are to have access to so much good food. Quality, whole ingredients–radishes, tomatoes, artichokes, you name it–possess a special beauty that their canned and frozen counterparts lack. As I’ve been studying photography and applying what I’m learning to my own work, I’ve been reflecting on the luxury that living in Seattle provides; as I mentioned the other day, the city has a multitude of farmers markets, some of which operate year-round, and it’s no problem to find grocery stores stocking quality, whole, organic items. Eating well is easy.

Circling back to the idea of painting with light, consider that the next time you sit down to eat something fresh. Look at the reflections and shadows, the range of colors and textures, and how they all work together to create something beautiful. See if taking the visual nature of food into account doesn’t somehow elevate its taste. It sure does for me.

Lettuce and Salad Closeup

Salad with Tomatoes, Radishes, Dill, and Danish Blue Cheese
Adapting a recipe from Scandinavian Feasts by Beatrice Ojakangas, I added dill and tomatoes, giving it an extra special summery touch. I resisted the urge to swap the canola oil and white wine vinegar with more special versions; I’m glad I did, as the resulting salad is just right. 

1 head curly green lettuce
1 small bunch radishes
1 2-inch length of cucumber
1/2 sweet onion
1/2 pint cherry tomatoes
1 small bunch fresh dill
1/4 cup crumbled Danish blue cheese (or other blue cheese of your choice; I used Stilton)
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/8 teaspoon dry mustard
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons canola oil
Freshly-ground black pepper (optional)

Prepare the salad ingredients and place them in individual prep bowls: Wash and dry the lettuce then tear roughly into pieces; thinly slice radishes, cucumbers, and onion with a mandoline; cut tomatoes in half; and roughly chop dill.

To make the dressing, combine vinegar, mustard, salt, and sugar in a small bowl. Slowly pour the oil into the vinegar while whisking, allowing the ingredients to combine.

Assemble the salads by dividing the lettuce between six plates and topping with radish and cucumber slices. Place a little sliced onion on the top of each salad, then arrange tomato halves around. Scatter blue cheese and dill over each salad. Just before serving, spoon the dressing over each salad. Top with a little freshly-ground black pepper if desired.

Serves 6.

Picking Strawberries at Biringer Farm

Strawberry Pickers

Summer in the Pacific Northwest is one of the most pleasant, enjoyable combinations of time and place that I can imagine. Neither chilly nor too hot, the days are typically sunny and just warm enough to allow for flip flops and tank tops, sundresses and shorts. Upon first sight of the summer sun, people flock to the many lakes to sprawl out on the grass, take a stroll, or get out on boats. With my love of food, summer to me means a chance to embrace the bounty of summer produce with its refreshing, sweet vegetables and luscious, jewel-toned fruit.

This past week I had a chance to go berry picking up at Biringer Farm in Arlington, about 50 miles north of Seattle. Catching strawberry season just in time, I joined a number of people who made their way slowly along the rows of bushes, pushing leaves aside with their hands in search for perfectly-ripened berries. Over the course of an hour or so, I relaxed and enjoyed the summer sun as I collected a flat’s worth of berries to take home. They’re in my freezer now, waiting for me to decide what to make. I’m thinking of a strawberry-rhubarb pie, but am also considering distinctly Scandinavian options. If you have any ideas, leave a comment–I’d love to hear from you!

Biringer Farm Entrance

Tractor at Biringer Farm

Strawberries in Field

Strawberry Picking Diptych

Tractor in Strawberry Field

Picking Strawberries

Biringer Farm Equipment

Biringer Farms Strawberry Fields Diptych

Strawberry Flat

All photos are by Daytona Strong; some appeared in a post on her other blog, The Flying Salmon, at Wanderlust & Lipstick.

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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