Sweden is a country of contrasts. Very dark in winter, light all night long in summer; few every day outings in restaurants or with friends, but enormous national feasts; equality of all people at all levels, yet very formal traditions still prevailing; wine monopoly and a vast majority who make their liquor at home…
One of Sweden’s peculiarities is its august parties. August is the month when we all know that darkness lies around the corner and summer is coming to its end. That is maybe why the Swedes tend to party so much during those last light days. Two traditions prevail in august: “surströmming” or fermented herring and “kräftor” or cray fishing.
On the third Thursday of August, all the Northerners eat fermented and salted herring. It is a special kind of herring that has been lightly salted and canned in saltwater. When I opened my first can of “surströmming”, the odour was so terrible that I nearly fainted.
My grandmother who came from Northern Sweden loved this herring. When she later on in life ended up living in Egypt she was quite surprised to find that a similar kind of herring existed there, called “fisich” in Arabic. Its smell is just as bad and the Egyptians mostly eat it outdoors.
In Sweden we also eat it outdoors for the same reasons.
Each year we’re invited to friends on an island to eat “surströmming”. To get to the island and especially back in the middle of the night is hazardous in itself. We first drive for quite a while, and then our friend comes and fetches us with a small boat. We’re all dressed up in warm clothes and with masses of mosquito repellent. It’s mosquito time in Sweden.
If one is not a fan of this kind of herring, one gets drunk on the aquavit very fast. Our friend has learned a lesson after some broken bones and near drowning after some of his parties. So nowadays we’re served Swedish meatballs and other stomach filling plates with the drink before the orgies start.
We later sit at a long table and the ritual can begin. Everybody gets a glass of aquavit and beer to be able to swallow the coming herring. Actually one is supposed to make a sandwich with the fish. It smells so badly in the room when the cans are opened that one is tempted to start with the aquavit immediately. Then one takes a roll of Northern Swedish flat bread. It also funnily enough looks like the Egyptian homemade bread (or more commonly called pita bread in Europe). In it you put pieces of the “surströmming” and slices of potatoes (it has also to be a special kind of potato) and onions. You then eat a piece before singing. A true Swede never drinks aquavit without singing special songs that accompany the drinking and eating. The songs should have rimes and the texts usually evolve around drinking and sex. Some are very poetic, some are quite dirty, some are really funny, and some are long and complicated. But there are a few more common ones that most Swedes remember.
The whole evening circles around drinking, singing and trying to swallow some of the herring.
Afterwards the wives drive home awfully drunk husbands and cold children.
It is at times like these that one is reminded of the not so far away Vikings and, for the sophisticated Arabs, barbaric Swedes.
Cray fishing involves more effort and is more of a family affair, even if the cray-fishing parties tend to get as “wet” as the herring parties at least among all the males.
Most Swedes have a little hut or a bigger house or a boat or something far away from civilisation. Swedes love their small country huts. We are basically farm people and the city polish is really but a polish, we love to be close to nature and wilderness. That is why we take loans or borrow money to be able to buy a country place and spend some time in the freedom of space.
We’re very unlike the Mediterraneans who love to socialize. We get mad if there happens to be another person swimming in “our” lake. The worst however is if another dares to fish crayfishes in “our” lake! That is heresy for a true Swede.
The timing is also regulated. We are not allowed to fish in our lake before the 8th of August and if we would dare to overrule that decision we’d have the entire neighbourhood against us!
We are also only allowed to put in the cages in certain parts of the lake and not elsewhere. However, before putting in the cages, we always take out our fishing nets and fish for the fishes that will be bates for the crayfishes. That means that you have to take out the boat and spend some evenings catching fishes. The kids love it! Then you have to buy (quite expensively) at least 10 cages (grandpas are always outdated…).
Last year we did all that.
At dusk we put out the cages. Our first dispute was where the cages should be put in the lake, far out, close to the rocks etc. The next dispute was over who would get up at 5 in the morning with the kids to pick them up before they’d find their way out of the cages. I won!
After all this, we got ONE crayfish. A very expensive one I would say.
The kids were of course disappointed and for all the guests we had invited, we had to buy the very expensive crayfishes. Never mind.
Then to the decorations. No crayfish party worthy of its name can be successful without the decorations.
Paper lamps, resembling the Chinese ones, with candles in the middle, paper hats, crayfish napkins and tablecloth and special plates if possible decorated with crayfishes.
Then there is the party. Wise after years of drunk husbands during these parties, I usually start with spaghettis to fill up their stomachs. Then to the main course.
The crayfishes are always served cold in Sweden, nicely laid up on a flat plate with lots of dill or in their cooking juice in a bowl (the “schools” differ somewhat from family to family). I always serve them in a plate without the juice. To accompany the crayfishes, we eat toasted bread with a special hard and tasty cheese. As with the herrings, there is lots of aquavit, beer and singing.
The aquavit has its own place as well. There are different sorts of aquavit. At least three different sorts have to be placed on the table. We have an old recipe dating from one of our ancestors that we usually serve with great satisfaction.
To our foreign guests I usually warn them that two, maximum three aquavits are OK. Beyond that nobody can be responsible of their behaviour.
I remember a party in Cairo in one of the Nordic embassies where they served aquavit. Round tables were set up in the garden. By the end of the evening when the servants were taking away the napkins a whole group of very happy ambassadors were found laughing their heads off under one of the tables…
So have fun and don’t forget to “skål” (cheers)!
August 2002, written by Anne Edelstam