History of Crayfish in Europe

Boris Grahn
Executive Chef


Crayfish go way back in history.

Aristotle in ancient Greece knew about them roughly year 300 B.C. Crayfish were believed to have magic power. Thus ash from crayfish burned alive and a solution made from crayfish and alcohol was used against bites of snakes and stings of scorpions, sudden high fever or bites by dogs with rabies.

Romans with poor sight were advised to carry an eye taken from a live crayfish. Cooked crayfish were supposed to help against atrophy. In addition to this "medical" use, the taste of cooked crayfish has been known for a long time. The inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia are known for having had big crayfish parties. Assyrians and Babylonians were so fond of crayfish they named a constellation CRAB.

Crayfish were eaten in Central Europe at least as early as in the 13th century. The catholic monks were the first to start eating them. They were especially handy during fast as they were thought of as fish and thus permitted.

In Bavaria at the Tegernsee monastery an annual consumption record of 31,200 crayfish has been reported at the end of the 15th / beginning of the 16th century. In some areas crayfish eating got so popular that some city ordinances prohibited giving servants crayfish more often than once a week.

Before the 16th century crayfish in the Scandinavian countries were not thought of as food or even eatable. Early in the 16th century, however, the kings of Denmark and Sweden seem to have adopted crayfish as a culinary dish. Thus in 1504 crayfish were ordered from Lübeck, Germany for Queen Christine of Denmark and from about this time are also the first reports of crayfish for the Swedish kings.

The earliest reports about crayfish in Finland are from the middle of the 16th century. In 1556 the Swedish king Gustaf Wasa studied possibilities of growing crayfish in the waters of Åland (Large island between Finland and Sweden).

At that time there must have been lots of crayfish in the waters of southern Finland. Duke Johan kept court in Turku (a city in the southwestern part of Finland) and seems to have gotten all the crayfish he needed from Finland. Several manors in Finland were ordered to deliver crayfish to His Royal Highness.

The crayfish eating tradition took some 2 centuries to step down from royal families even to the level of burghers. Countrymen were still very much suspicious of the odd creature, even though very much involved in catching them.

In the middle of the 19th century crayfish eating suddenly boomed. It started - where else - in Paris, France. The Paris burghers suddenly started loving crayfish and this "fashion" soon spread all over Europe - including Scandinavia.

The waters near Paris were soon emptied of crayfish and the delicate creatures had to be brought in from larger and larger distances. Germans soon established the required logistics and Berlin was the center of crayfish trade.

In the 1880's the Germans started buying crayfish even from Russia and regular deliveries from Finland started in 1886. Also St. Petersburg consumed lots of crayfish in the late 19th century. From the village Säkylä only, six horse carriages full of crayfish are reported to have been sent by rail to St. Petersburg daily during the crayfish season.
Finnish crayfish exports peaked from 1890 to 1910 with 10 ... 15 million crayfish exported annually. ( Now the annual catch is around 5 million and we import crayfish )

There is just one natural species of crayfish in Scandinavia; Astacus astacus, also called noble crayfish because it tops the culinary scale of all crayfish in the world.

Bacterium astaciperda wiped out most of European crayfish. It was "imported" from Mississippi either with imported crayfish or in water tanks of ships to river Po in Italy in 1860. The pest reached France in 1876, Germany in 1878 and by 1880 the continent was infected including Russia. It reached Finland in 1893 and Sweden in 1907 and despite huge efforts finally also Norway in 1971.

Trappers had to find constantly new waters and moving the traps to new waters at the same time unfortunately helped in getting the infection further and further.

Pacifastacus leniusculus species is practically 100% resistant to the infection and was imported and has been cultivated in Sweden and Finland for many years now. A large part of all Swedish crayfish is now Pacifastacus leniusculus. Not yet as much in Finland. In Sweden they are called Signal Crayfish, here Dot Crayfish. Both names refer to the white dot at the root of the "thumb" of the crayfish pincer.

The dish KRÄFTOR refers to cooked crayfish the Scandinavian way. Actually the letter A should have two dots on it. It is simply the Swedish word for crayfish. Cooked crayfish would be KOKTA KRÄFTOR, but as there is only one "allowed" way of preparing them, the "cooked" is often left out.

In Finland traditionally only crayfish minimum 10 centimeters long from nose to tail (abt. 4 inches) are served. Swedes are content with 1 cm shorter ones. In Sweden crayfish are sold by

weight as elsewhere in the world. Finns, however, still stick to selling them a piece ( and they cost you an arm and a leg ).

You can see thee cooking procedure at my site:

For many people a crayfish party is simply an excuse for some HD Boozing, which is a pity. Real enthusiasts, like yours truly, prefer the crayfish to drinking.

© Oy Decapoda Ab
Boris Grahn
Executive Chef

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