In the gorgeous little seaside villa of Fjallbacka, nestled like a hand into the glove of the deep, mysterious Bohuslan Coast in West Sweden, you may be surprised to learn that you can go on a wild safari. But you won’t need a rifle, and you won’t be tracking anything resembling the Big Five. Instead you will be jumping on a four-ton fishing boat and diving headlong into crashing waves to hunt crayfish submerged nearly 300 feet below the sea’s surface, a place so cold and so dark that only the tastiest of creatures hide out there.
If you aren’t familiar, crayfish are like attractive ocean-dwelling cousins of American crawfish. Once a toss-back for fishermen seeking tuna, cod, and mackerel, the crayfish has emerged as one of the most important staples in the Swedish kitchen. Swedish crayfish by regulation must be tossed back unless they are nearly 4x the size of equivalent crayfish in other countries. Thus, they are known as some of the world’s best and can fetch a price as high – and sometimes higher than – lobster. And the price is well warranted, as the succulent meat is tender and even sweeter than that of its more famous red-shelled alternative.
A good place to start a crayfish safari is with a good guide. For that, Ingemar Granqvist, an electrical engineer turned sustainable seafood fishermen, is an excellent choice. Ingemar expertly hauled the Capital Cooking crew on his boat, the Mira, to one of his secret spots to demonstrate the art of pulling tens of thousands of pounds of these tasty crustaceans from the ocean floor each year.
Lest you think such an endeavor is easy, it is not. Ingemar drops between 500-1000 basket-like traps in scores of locations spread around the ocean in order to get 80-100 pounds of crayfish a day, a number that is possible only if important conditions are met: the water temperature must be cold during the high season; the winds must stay low so that the sea does not become too treacherous to traverse (high winds sometimes prevent Ingemar from fishing for a month at a time); and Ingemar’s high-tech GPS technology must ferret out the deepest spots where the crayfish live. If all of these conditions are met, then Ingemar must weekly replace the freshly salted herring he uses as bait. There is no fooling crayfish into stepping into a trap with rotten herring, because their expert sniffers compensate for their nearly blind eyes.
And none of this speaks to the danger in what otherwise appears a pedestrian process of dropping baskets to the ocean floor. If Ingemar’s foot gets tangled just once in the anchor-weighted rope during its descent, he will have a matter of seconds to either cut the line or himself be dragged under. One mistake could be fatal.
The Swedes’ desire for crayfish, however, is insatiable and justifies the effort. After expertly navigating the Mira through rough waters, Ingemar demonstrated the entire process for Capital Cooking. It was to see ingenuity at work, but the treat at the end was even better.
During our two-hour visit, Ingemar caught fifteen pounds of crayfish and took us back to his bright red boathouse situated on one of the hundreds of small, smooth rock islands that dot the Bohuslan coastline and give it the rugged beauty that keeps Swedes, Norwegians, Germans, and Danes (not to mention movie stars like the late Ingrid Bergman) flocking to it.
Once there, Ingemar revealed a strikingly simple cooking process: grab a bucket of water directly from the sea, toss it and a little extra salt into a kettle pot, and boil the live crayfish, which only an hour before had been sauntering on the ocean floor.
Their meat is so naturally delicious that nothing more is needed. Think lobster, but much sweeter and more tender. The magnificent result speaks for itself and is best washed down with a shot or two of Swedish aquavit!
Special thank you to Emelie Persson and her family for joining us!