Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Musical activities

So after four weeks of holiday the time has come to resume musical activity. I have always found it fascinating how refreshing a break from playing can be. Suddenly you seem to hear things with new ears, as it were, and once you start practising again so many ideas seem to spring up. And I seem to be lucky enough not to experience any tangible difficulty in getting those fingers back on form when I resume playing...

My first concert of the new season will be playing Schumann's Kreisleriana in France next week, but I shall come back to that in a later post. Before resuming pianistic activity proper I allowed myself a soft start involving the other two instruments which I occasionally pick up: the organ and the bass guitar!

The remarkable mess of pipes, windchests, action parts, bellows and electronics that makes up the organ, has a very special place in my heart. In fact it used to be my main instrument from the age of ten until just before I moved from home at about eighteen. The main reason I worked hard on my piano playing in those years was that my organ teachers made it clear to me that the piano was crucial to developing a good technique on the organ. When it was time to apply for music college I went for piano for this very reason and the idea was that I was going to go back to study the organ after a year. Well, that never happened, and I suspect that deep inside I already knew that I was going to become a pianist, although I had been advised against it given the difficulty of making a living in the profession. Either way, the organ remains a source of endless fascination to me and I really enjoy coming back to it now and then.

The organ console (organ speak for cockpit) pictured above is that of the organ in the village church in Sköldinge, 5 kilometers from where I grew up, and only a few kilometers from where I now live. This is where I had my first organ lessons and where I spent countless hours practising about 25 years ago. My poor dad had to drive me there and then sit and read a book for a few hours while I played my scales and stuff. The instrument has 25 stops and is unusually ambitious for a countryside church, and it was a fine tool indeed to have at your disposal when learning to play. The other day I played a couple of small pieces by Bach (on the anniversary of his death, as it happens) there in a little lunchtime recital. Very nostalgic of course.

I never listened to anything other than classical music as a child, and as a matter of fact in early interviews I maintained that I considered pop and rock music "naught but noise"! The truth is I realise now that I had no idea about any other style of music, so could not have known what I thought of it. Luckily that changed and rather suddenly too. When I was about thirteen years old I was introduced (by a viola player!) to the music of English rock band Queen. As so often in my case, this launched an obsessive fascination with their music, which has not entirely passed to this day. I found (and find) Queen's music a remarkable concoction of instinctive musicality, clever ideas, wit, sentimentality, and raw energy, and I quickly developed a great respect for the four musicians that make (or made) up the band. At about the same time as I discovered Queen, my music teacher in school, Bosse Sundahl, stuck a bass guitar in my hands. Over the next few years I taught myself to play bass pretty decently, if I may say so, largely by emulating Queen's bass player John Deacon.

This leads me to my other, slightly more light-hearted, musical activity of the last few days; for the last two summers my father-in-law has organized a barn dance in his barn, and for this occasion I have joined my various in-laws to provide some music for the dancing. This sounds nothing out of the ordinary perhaps, but in Sweden the particular kind of dance music that we play (dansbandsmusik) is highly stigmatized for being some of the blandest and most sentimental music known to man. We solve this by aiming for the blandest, most sentimental and most ridiculous songs in this repertoire, so as to really make a statement! And we call ourselves Svågerz Orkester - svåger is Swedish for brother-in-law - and we look thus:

Think you can tell a good time was had...!

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Honey... and cabbage!

Yesterday we harvested the first honey this year. To our great relief we found that the bees of our new colony turn out to be really rather peaceful, particularly compared to the horribly hostile ones we had last year. (Pity they didn't survive the winter, but to be perfectly honest, no-one is going to miss them!) Either way, even aside from the potential risk of getting stung by bees, honey harvesting is quite a messy business, not to mention sticky!

First you have to lift frames full of honey out of the hive, starting well above shoulder height as can be seen in the picture above. Each frame, if mainly capped, weighs about 2 kilos or so, and they have lots of confused bees hanging on to them which need to be brushed off too. And as soon as you have taken the frames that have enough honey to be worth extracting you need to take these away to somewhere bee-free rather quickly before the clever little ones find the honey and all fly there in order to take it back.

Once this is done you have a few hours of rather sticky work - uncapping and extracting the honey - to look forward to. But as long as you are prepared that everything, and I really mean everything will get very sticky, it is quite a fun process. Here is a picture of me uncapping a frame of honey.

The bees put a seal on each honeycomb cell once they are happy with the water content in the honey. If the honey contains too much water it will ferment, so they fan the honey by flapping their wings above the cell until enough water evaporates. Fascinating little insects, aren't they? Naturally for the same reason, as a beekeeper you are looking to extract mainly capped honey, and the 17 frames that we selected yesterday were all basically completely capped. And at the end of the day, when you are looking at 36.5 kilos of beautiful golden, quite literally mellifluous honey, all the hard work seems like nothing.

We finished the day with another beautiful bit of harvesting: that of the first cabbage (of the brassica oleracea var. capitata elliptica variety, there does not seem to be an English name for it) from our new garden. It was so crisp and sweet that more than half of it ended up being eaten fresh as a snack!

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Deep waters...

I promised I would occasionally be a little opinionated on here, so here goes...!

Today Karna and I found time to do some fishing for the first time this year - really unusually late for us, but we have had a lot on (like creating a vegetable garden!) this spring and early summer, and besides we had put so much fish in the freezer last year that it lasted us until last week. We fish with nets which we put out in the evening and then lift out of the lake in the morning, by which time the nets usually contain a few Perch, or a Pike and, if we are lucky, the odd Perch-Pike (Zander if you are on the other side of the Atlantic!). This method of fishing carries a lot of nostalgic memories for me as we used to fish with nets in the summers of my childhood, spent in the cottage my family used to have near Gryt on the Baltic coast. Pulling the nets out of the water still brings out a child-like sense of excitement in me, as I peer as far into the depths as I can see in order to detect any gleaming, wriggling fish. (Incidentally, digging up potatoes does about the same thing for me!)

The subject of fishing brings us to the uncomfortable but salient fact that sooner or later, if you want to eat the fish, you are going to have to kill it. Obviously this translates to any other animals that you decide you might want to eat too - pigs, reindeer, grasshoppers, oysters - and while I guess this is something that everyone must surely be aware of, it certainly seems to be something that more and more people choose to turn a blind eye to. I have eaten fish and meat my whole life so far, and I would be lying if I said there had not been times when I didn't give this much thought. But lately, now that I keep animals for food and catch my own fish, this moral dilemma has certainly come into focus in a most tangible way.

And let me be straight about this: killing the animal is not an enjoyable action. Not in any way. But on the other hand, I have made the decision for myself that I feel I can put up with this undesirable hurdle and so I include meat and fish in my diet. And in the cases, such as with fish or poultry, where I feel I have the sufficient experience and skill to perform the task, I am prepared to take care of the slaughtering process when needed. In fact I am a lot happier to be involved myself when it comes to killing an animal that I am going to eat, than to buy it from the supermarket where I have very little control of any other part of the process than entering my credit card PIN-code at the checkout.

I firmly believe we all need to eat more vegetables and less meat, and I would perhaps go so far as to suggest that if we feel we have to shut our eyes and ears to the fact that eating meat involves killing animals, then we should not be eating meat at all! It seems that quite a few people I have been talking to lately considers it a lot worse to have to kill a gregarious farm animal that you have known for all its life than a fish that has been swimming in the lake, unseen until the moment you pulled it out of there. To me they are both beautiful creatures and I struggle to see the difference.

Here is the deal that I believe in: if you are going to eat meat and fish, you make sure as far as realistically possible that the animals involved have had the best possible life, that they have had a chance to graze and socialize and behave according to their instinctive preferences. And that the slaughter has been a stress-free and painless process. If there is any doubt, eat vegetables instead, they are delicious!

To be continued, I am sure...

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Preserving summer

Since I moved back to Sweden and out in the country (after nearly 10 years in central London!), the extension of my food obsession that is gardening has grown exponentially. In the last few months we have arranged a large kitchen garden for ourselves here at home with raised beds, in short, my dream garden! I shall introduce the garden and the ideas behind it in full in a future post. 

While we are waiting to harvest things out of the vegetable garden (we already have had some early things out of it, but it is yet to come into full swing), there are plenty of berries to take care of from various bushes and plants. I love preserves; jams, chutneys, cordials, pickles, and I love making them. In fact, when Karna and I first met, Karna's family took to calling me Grandma in recognition of this (they have stopped now!). Either way, I have come to the realisation that few things give me so much pleasure during the dark and cold months of the year than opening a jar of homemade jam or to have a home pickled cornichon with some charcuterie - a little portion of preserved summer! And last night these lovely gooseberries were turned into some rather lovely jam...

Wednesday, 8 July 2015


In my professional life I spend quite a bit of time trying to get people outside Sweden (and within!) to discover Swedish music, old and new. I don't know quite how we have managed to get ourselves in the situation that we are in in relation to our own art music in Sweden, but generally speaking it has such a low profile that most people, including a lot of musicians seem to be almost unaware of its existence! Hopefully this can be rectified relatively easily - by performing the best works more often and to do it extremely well. And if we start playing it at home, chances are that more people will get curious of it abroad too. At least this is how I see it, slightly simplified perhaps, but then I am on holiday at the moment. Which brings me to... Swedish food!

I don't think you could say that Swedish cuisine is keeping a particularly low profile these days; Swedish chefs seem to do extremely well all over the world, both in prestigious cooking contests and as award winning restaurateurs, and the romantic notion that we all go into the woods to pick mushrooms  berries and to shoot birds and beasts certainly seem to strike a chord internationally. But not all Swedish food is about things gathered in the wild, and in fact most traditional dishes rely mainly on farm produce as it would have been far to time and energy consuming to go foraging in the old days. 

Today I passed through Katrineholm where my friend Peter runs a great butcher shop called Landet i Centrum, and I bought some really lovely local neck of lamb, which I turned into dillkött (literally meat with dill) for our supper. Dillkött is one of those hearty, yet summery dishes that Swedes remember being served by their grandmothers. It contains a few of the trademarks of traditional Swedish cuisine: the fondness for exotic spices and the combination of sweet and sour tastes, and of course it is served with potatoes. (Food in Sweden used to translate almost exclusively into meat or fish and potatoes as recently as 25 years ago!)

Here is how I make it: 

500g neck of boneless lamb (or veal) + bones (optional)
1 medium onion, quartered
2-3 carrots, cut into chunks
the white part of one leek
5 white peppercorns 
5 pieces of allspice
2 cloves
2 bay leaves
1 sprig of thyme
single cream
copious amounts of dill
75ml caster sugar
75ml water
2 tsp spirit vinegar 

Cut the meat into 2 cm dice and put in a pan (along with the bones if you have them) covered by cold water. Bring to the boil and let simmer for a few seconds. Drain off the water using a colander and rinse the meat under cold running water. Clean the pan and put the meat (and bones) back in along with the onion, carrots, leek, peppercorns, allspice, cloves and bay leaves. Cover with water and put in 1 tsp salt for each liter of water. Bring to the boil once more, skim off any foam that rises to the surface and then let simmer in a covered pan for about an hour or until the meat is tender. In the meantime combine the sugar, water and vinegar with the stalks from the dill in a separate pan and bring to the boil. Check the balance between sweet and sour in this liquid - it should be the same as in a good Chinese sweet and sour sauce. Set aside. 
In a new pan, melt a good dollop of butter and whisk in a tablespoon or two of flour. Let the roux sizzle for a little while without getting browned. Ladle in some of the cooking liquid from the meat and whisk vigorously until you have a smooth and quite thick velouté. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meat and carrots into the velouté and add some cream. Season with salt and by adding a few spoonfuls of the sweet and sour vinegar and sugar solution. Add more cooking liquid if needed. Chop the dill finely and add it to the finished dish just before serving to ensure maximum dill flavour and to prevent the dill from turning grey in the sauce. Serve with new potatoes.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Swedish summer

We Swedes love to make fun of our weather, and particularly in summer. You frequently hear sardonic jokes like "I love Swedish summer, in fact it is my favourite day of the year!", and the weather is a given topic of conversation, much like in England (and probably everywhere else too, I've always imagined!).

Last week I spoke to a friend who had just returned from a few days in Krikwall on the Orkney Islands. Hardly a place known for its dry and sunny weather. I played there myself a few years ago (in March!) and distinctly remember the icy cold winds and the horizontal rain and sleet. The Orkneys are home to some of the oldest archeological sites found in all of Britain, and it has always fascinated me that people chose to come and live in such a hostile climate (where there are no trees, so you don't have any wood to build houses from or to burn if you get cold!) that long ago, when clearly there would have been plenty of space in much cozier places to settle down. Maybe they enjoyed a good challenge?

Certainly, some the dark grey/brown season that we call early and late winter can be quite a challenge in Sweden. At least on the mind. This is probably part of what blows up our expectations of summer, sometimes quite out of proportion. So far this summer has been a lot rainier and colder than a lot of people had hoped for. Gardening-wise this has not been altogether bad news and we have seen more beautiful flowers in the meadows and for a longer time than I can remember ever seeing. Having said that, the greatest benefit of a wet-ish summer is... this!

Yes indeed, the gold of the woods that we call chanterelle mushrooms is starting to appear, which is a very exciting prospect for a mushroom fanatic like myself. I have always claimed that my fondness for mushrooms is ingrained in me genetically as my mother is from Poland. Whether that is true or not, I have always loved picking them, and nearly always loved eating them. These days I am fortunate that my dear wife loves picking mushrooms but is not that keen on eating them, which means lots more for me!

Either way, if the weather has been a bit grey earlier, right now we are experiencing some of the most beautiful summer days imaginable, see the picture above. A good day to have a PARTY, I reckon!