Tilli suussa, kruunu päässä
sinut pöytää kannetaan.
Paahtoleivän päälle sulle
This is a song we sing to crayfish in Finland that translates roughly to: “dill in the mouth, crown on the head. We’ll carry you to the table, on toasted bread—and give you a schnapps bath.”
Noon on July 21st marks the beginning of the annual crayfish season in Finland. Until September, Finns across the country will host epic feasts of these delicious “red devils”—as many as 10 million crayfish are caught each year according to the Natural Resources Institute in Finland. And since the critters can go for up to 10 euros apiece, we typically eat them at home-style boils where we sing songs and drink schnapps late into the night, then blame the next day’s equally epic hangovers on the amount of dill we used to season the crayfish.
The tradition is said to have spread in Finland through the Swedish-speaking population. Whether or not that is true, today it's essential to Nordic culture and as Finnish as rye bread. I was perhaps three weeks old when I participated in my first crayfish party, sitting in my mother's arms, and since then it has been a part of my annual celebrations.
A Finnish crayfish party is the only celebration that gathers Finns around a table without being linked to a holiday or special occasion. During these months, my Instagram feed is filled with crayfish-selfies, or “crayfies," from various parties across Finland.
Here is how you survive one, schnapps and all.
This year, I was invited to a special crayfish party in the Finnish countryside by a group of tech students that identified themselves only as "the Pacman." (Each year, the student union of the Helsinki University of Technology picks a name for themselves). As tech students, or teekkari in Finnish, they have a reputation for innovative ways to intoxicate themselves. Their crayfish parties are members-only and +1s are prohibited. Naturally, I accepted the invitation.
We arrived in Joutsa, a two-hour drive from Helsinki, to a beautiful lakeside cabin. These cabins are quite common in Finland since the country has well over 100,000 lakes. Upon arrival, I was introduced to a spear (and the proper technique to use it in case of a bear attack). It somehow managed to make me feel less safe. Then, it was straight to work: some went mushroom picking while the others started to prepare the crayfish, which were waiting in a sumppu, or chest, submerged in the lake next to the pier. These were good-sized members of signal crayfish, a species that has largely invaded Finland's lakes.
The preparation of crayfish is pretty straightforward: you put them in boiling water with plenty of coarse sea salt, a bit of sugar, and sprigs of dill. Some add beer as well. Once the water returns to a boil, the crayfish cook for 10 minutes. Then, to chill them quickly, you may cool down the entire pot in the lake.
But, like the song says, the dill is paramount. I cannot stress this enough: without dill there is no crayfish party. The inevitable hangover the next day is traditionally blamed on the large quantity of dill consumed during the dinner. So once the crayfish cool, it's crucial to remove the boiled dill and replace it with fresh. One musn't be a dill-ettante about dill.
The Pacman group has been coming together to eat crayfish for nearly 10 years now, so each task is carefully delegated with everyone playing a role. While the crayfish is marinating, we proceed with smoking two big filets of salmon atop a wood smoker that fills the air with beautiful aromas.
At last, dinner starts with a creamy mushroom soup served in a cup. It's the beginning of autumn and the temperature outside is not particularly warm, which is why the soup not only tastes good but feels like a giant hug. The mushroom pickers were able to successfully locate a few individuals of delicious, meaty herkkutatti, also known as cep, which were served as a simple porcini carpaccio layered with balsamic vinaigrette, rucola, and parmesan cheese.
With the first course out of the way, the drinking commenced. Crayfish parties are infamous for the heavy use of schnapps—there's a quasi-rule of "snapsi per saksi," basically meaning one shot of schnapps per scissor, or claw. So you eat ten crayfish, times two, well...you do the math. There is also a strong tradition of drinking songs that people sing during the dinner, which usually starts with someone clinking the glass with the crayfish knife. Then someone at the table tells a prolonged story which through a vague pons asinorum transforms into a drinking song. The themes are often humorous, some naughty, and others downright pornographic.
Eating the crayfish is not easy. In Finland, we use a special knife is used to open up the beast. There are parts of the crayfish flying all over the dinner table and noises of slurping and sucking are abundant. It begins with detaching the scissors, snapping the tips off and sucking the juices out of the claw. Then you open the claw to extract the meat. You continue by removing the tail, all the while sucking and slurping. Toasted bread, spread with tomalley—the greasy, yellow crayfish “butter” scooped from inside the shell—is normally used as a vehicle for the crayfish meat. During a dinner, one would probably accumulate two toastfuls.
As the second main course, the smoked salmon with potatoes provides a much-needed subsistence to soak up all the schnapps. It's the 100th anniversary of Finland so the drink-of-choice is a special edition of Finland's national booze Koskenkorva flavored with cumin (Finland is one of the world's largest producers of cumin). And for a "light" dessert, some traditional leipäjuusto, a squeaky fresh cheese made from cow's beestings.
The dinner table is set just next to the lake on a small peninsula-like piece of land, with the dead calm water and sunset collaborating to put on a show. It’s quiet until someone clinks the glass and starts to sing again. The voice carries across the lake with a power of a thousand Pac-men.
When the dinner is over, after multiple schnapps, it's time for the sauna. There is literally nothing more Finnish than to end a night (and potentially prevent a hangover) with some painfully hot, nude mingling. The songs and stories continued until the wee hours. The taste of dill in my mouth haunted me for days.