The waiter looked at me suspiciously. His eyebrows lifted. His lips pursed. He tried to look as if he was not looking around for a bouncer or another mode of heavy sedation
“That’s what the Americans call them,” I explained.
He walked behind me and put on my bib. He seemed to tie it a little tightly.
“Yabbies! That’s what Australians call them,” I said croakily, respiratory failure partially averted. “What do the Finns call them?”
He adopted a very scholarly tone and face. “Jokirapu,sir.
“And the Swedes refer to them as Kraftskiva. Marine biologists, I believe, know them as astatus astacus. Astacology is the science of mudbags.”
I asked for a menu. But he gave me a song sheet.
The Finns take their crayfish very seriously. For many, the country’s annual crayfish parties are the culinary and social highlight of the year.
They mark the end of the never sun-setting summer and the beginning of the lengthy perpetually dark “Cold Snap”.
Eating crayfish and singing to them and about them is an old Finnish tradition. The Finns can’t get enough of their crustaceous freshwater finger-food which they flavour with dill, lemon juice and thick crème fraiche. Finns are very fond of crayfish. They unite the country socially. They rave about them.
“ Your lyrics, sir,” said the head waiter, presenting me with my official restaurant crayfish songbook. In the course of a crayfish party in Finland you are expected to get through at least ten crayfish tribute songs. And at least twenty napkins.
In the crayfish season , many Helsinki restaurants like “Sipuli” and “Kulosaanen Casino”, throw crayfish-themed parties and offer special menus. The best crayfish restaurant in Helsinki by far is the Royal Ravintolat-run “NJK” (“Nylandska Jaktklubben” or, yacht club). Flags from boats from all over the world decorate the walls of the stylish old three-storey white clapboard villa, which dates to 1900.
“The NJK” is one of the oldest yacht clubs in Finland. Established in 1861 when Finland was still part of Russia as a grand duchy belonging to Czar Alexander 11, it moved in 1885 to the small island of Blekholmen, five minutes walk from the main ferry terminal to Estonia and ten minutes from the centre of Helsinki or, as the Finns call their capital, Helsingfors.
You arrive by a wooden launch. The trip from the mainland takes less than a minute. The 2,300 member club has a large collection of club burgees, a very valuable collection of sailing trophies and much art work. From your table you watch the high society moor their sleek status symbols. Over seven hundred yachts are registered at the restaurant. Swedish is the official language of the island.
But the club is most famous for its crayfish and its crayfish singsongs and sing-alongs.
“One man boils all our crayfish. He is called Eero Matilainen,” NJK sous chef Eero Suhonen told me in a way that suggested that Mr Matilainen has a lot on his hands during the summer months.
“In August and September we get through over 30,000 crayfish. But the whole thing is about having a good time. If you don’t have fun it’s largely you’re your fault,” he smiled.
Only the crayfish don’t enjoy the Finnish crayfish season. Only in death does the freshwater little lobster look-a-like lose its enviable ability to replace lost body parts. Even its eyes.
The restaurant area was quiet. The only sounds were claw-sucking and sounds associated with dismemberment. The head waiter Mr Streng, the ”Bitradande restauirantgchef”, gave me a quick crayfish dissection masterclass. The technique doesn’t change the world over. Nor do the inedible bits.
“Basically, all you do is pinch the tail and bend its spine and break its back and start sucking,” he said helpfully, offering me a flute of champagne to help prime my palate.
Finnish cookery is far more than meatballs, blueberries, buttermilk, blood sausages reindeer and even more meatballs and blood sausages.
The city may have a 100km long shoreline with thirty shark species in the waters, 300 islands, bird-rich wetlands , a 26-street “Design District”, many museums (including a Power Station Museum), a cable factory that is a tourist attraction, fourteen and counting ice stadiums, twenty-six beaches and over 300 kms of urban jogging tracks and recreational trails.
But there is only one place to be seen with crayfish segments down your front and that is “The NJK”. Menus are between $33-$42.
Finns don’t just get a kick out of rallying or middle distance running. They also like to eat. And make a noise. Everyone is a “hydrogeologist”. In other words, someone who studies crayfish. Every table is its own crayfish fan club.
“The singing kicks in when the drink does, “ said Eero, disappearing back into kitchen.
I read the songbook. But I couldn’t make head nor tail of crayfish classics like “Skulder” or evergreens like “Pienet Konjakit” or “Tycker Du Some Jag” and “Yhteinen Janojuoma”.
I couldn’t make much sense either of “Nar Vi Mjolkat I Var Stava” with its melody: Kors Pa Idas Grav ( Imbelupet”). I couldn’t think of what tune would go with “ Ryppy Kun Mennty Ion”. There seemed to be one song celebrating “brannwin”, the Scandinavian version of vodka.
Seeing my confusion, a waitress kindly came up and tried to translate.
The wedding guests were now singing “What shall we do with the drunken sailor”. Followed by “For he is a jolly good fellow“ although I wasn’t sure to whom they were referring. The bride’s father, the chef or a crayfish.
There was a cough. It was the maitre d’ who handed me another songbook with a few translations and recommended Song Number Twelve, “Om Jag hade Branvin”.
“It is commonly song to the tune of “If I was a rich man”, sir.”.
On the table next to mine a lady snorted with laughter and momentarily an exoskeleton appeared out of her nose. On another table a man was using two crayfish to impersonate a reindeer. Another man was conducting with crayfish legs.
It was time to leave. I had reached by scatological threshold. I had gorged myself on crayfish.
And sung myself hoarse.