Saturday, 29 August 2015

Bread (food for thought)

Some foods have more of a sensuous shimmer attached to them than others, and to my mind bread has always been one of those foods. Good bread is something that I find it hard to live without, and sadly it seems to be one of the hardest things get hold of too. Supermarket bread, at least in Sweden, is almost universally terribly disappointing and dull bread is probably one of the main reasons I hate hotel breakfasts (except in England, as the English breakfast cleverly bypasses bread and gives you things like black pudding instead!). If you live in a big city, or in a country like France where they value their bread, you go to your favourite baker to buy bread. But what do you do in the middle of nowhere in Sweden?

When I was little I loved staying with my grandparents and I learnt a lot of my basic cooking skills from my grandma, who incidentally also made almost all the bread that they ate. And indeed when living in the Swedish countryside, learning how to make good bread is certainly the easiest and arguably most rewarding way of getting access to really good bread. I have spent many hours in the last ten years or so making bread. Trial and error, combined with a healthy portion of the scientific theory of bread chemistry has been my method. And as of the last few years I have arrived at a method that seems to deliver the result I am looking for. So many factors come into play here; what flour you use, which proportions, the raising agent, the amount of salt, how you knead/prove/form the loaf, how hot the oven is... but most importantly what it boils down to is the kind of experience that you (sadly) can't learn from a book. The feel for when things seem right. I find that in a world when so much knowledge is available on tap, as it were, right there on the web, experience should be valued higher than ever. Experience require perseverance, dedication, patience, an inquisitive mind and probably some talent - the same things that are central to learning to master a musical instrument, as it happens. And to get started all you need is four simple ingredients: flour, salt, water and time which together transform quite magically into bread.

Of course the word bread carries a wider notion - that of food and sustenance in general - give us today our daily bread. And arguably it is a bit superficial to complain about the quality of bread in Swedish supermarkets when there are plenty of people who either have no choice at all, or frankly have no bread on the table in the wider sense. Well, one thing we could get a lot better at in our privileged part of the world is to value what we have, and stop taking our food for granted. And we need to consider more how our food consumption affects people in poorer countries, including its effects on climate change and other environmental and socio-economical aspects. We could also make sure that we don't bite off more than we can chew in the literal sense, as food wastage keeps increasing. And there are various Fair Trade schemes we can support to make sure the people who grow the exotic foods that we import are safe and get paid properly for their hard work. And then there is the political challenge...

And while on that note, we here in the Western World also need to remind our politicians that man does not live by bread alone...!

Monday, 17 August 2015


The life of the concert pianist is rarely as busy as when the concert diary looks empty; those weeks are spent locked up in our practise studios learning new repertoire or polishing up old pieces. This is where I find myself right now. As usual I have a wide range of music to work on - from standard works to more obscure music well outside the "canon" of international standard repertoire. In my first concert of the new season, on 5th of September, I have the tremendous pleasure and honour to give the world premiere performance of a brand new piece of Swedish piano music during the Stockholm Piano Festival in the Stockholm Concert Hall. The complete antithesis to playing a Beethoven sonata or a Chopin ballade - simply something nobody has ever heard before!

The piece in question is called Chaconne and was commissioned by me from Swedish composer Anders Nilsson. Anders has written two works for solo piano before, and me and my colleagues widely recognize those as some of the best music written for piano in Sweden in the last few decades. Those works were both composed more than 20 years ago, and despite their success we have had to wait a long time for another piano work from Anders' pen... until NOW! Personally I can hardly wait to present this new piece to the public, and I have just come far enough in the learning process to finally hear it properly myself, and just as I suspected we are faced with some powerful and beautiful music. So, be there on the 5th September!

Working on music by a living composer is something to get excited by in its own right, at least for someone like me who spend a lot of my time playing music by people who have been dead for hundreds of years. The interaction with the composer definitely adds another dimension to the creative process, and then there is the rather more mundane fact that if something is unclear in the score you can simply send a text message to the composer asking "should I be repeating the e-flat on the third beat of bar 104?" or "do you really mean f-natrual in the left hand in bar 146?". Would that we could send a text message to Beethoven now and again...!

When I start working on a certain piece of music my brain often make more or less random connexions between that and other works that I have previously played. And this time it occurred to me what extraordinary music has been created within the chaconne genre (and the related passacaglia). Here are some of my personal favourites, please feel free to add yours in the comments!

Händel (with or without Halvorsen) - Passacaglia
Bach (with or without the help of Busoni) - Chaconne from 2nd violin Partita
Beethoven - 32 variations
Franck - Chorale no.2
Brahms - 4th Symphony, 4th movement
Liszt - Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen
Shostakovich - Passacaglia from 1st violin Concerto
de Frumerie - Chaconne for piano

and as of recently...
Anders Nilsson - Chaconne!

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Back home - rampant garden

So some 5.410 kilometers later we were back from our little road trip - along with a healthy amount of wine and cheese at that! The rolling hills of the Tarn countryside, with its small farms and pretty villages sometimes seem to me like a journey into a peaceful past, and over the last 13 years or so I have grown very fond of it indeed. A lot of the time when visiting a beautiful place like that I find myself thinking: "why then do I not live here?!". Luckily though, I then come back home and without exception I go: "Oh, I know why!"- and then I feel extremely priviledged and lucky...

If you go away for a week or two at the beginning of August, you will invariably come home to find that your vegetable garden has gone a bit wild; you will have masses of weeds to pull out, and courgettes turned into marrows the size of tree-trunks! And on that note I thought I would introduce you to my new vegetable garden, as I think I promised in an earlier post. 

I have spent a lot of time gardening every summer since I moved in together with Karna back at my parents-in-law's farm, half a kilometer from where we now live. The soil in our part of the world is heavy to say the least - heavy clay, that is what we have. It is nicely nutritious and to say that it retains water well would be something of an understatement! The main problem it poses is that in wet weather it turns into a dense sludge which suffocates the roots of all plants and causes them to rot. Then, when it dries out it practically turns into cement. So it requires some hard work in order to be able to plant seeds and grow things in it. Normally this is solved by plowing the land in late autumn and then leave the lumps of clay to freeze into small fragments during winter. You can then cultivate in spring, and with some luck grow things quite successfully. The main problem with this system to my mind, is that it stops you from for example keeping cabbages in winter (because the whole patch needs to be plowed) and it also means having to wait for a long time in spring until things have dried out sufficiently to start cultivating, thereby delaying sowing and planting sometimes towards the end of May.

So when it came to creating a vegetable garden here at our own place, I had to think of a way around some of these problems. I decided that framed raised beds inspired by how the Victorians in England used to grow vegetables might be the way forward. The moment I started mentioning this to people I was immediately warned that it would require some unbelievably hard work to set up. It did! By the beginning of June this year I started to feel I might have moved half the county 50 centimeters all by hand. So was it going to be worth all the hard work? 

The patch of land that we decided was going to be ideally suited for the purpose was all meadow initially, so the first step was to put the pigs there for a few months last autumn to get rid of all the grass and clover and stuff - above as well as below ground. During winter we then dug up some tree-roots and once things dried up a bit in spring (which turned out to be quite late this year) I borrowed my father-in-law's tractor and cultivator and gave it a thorough cultivation. After that the hard work begun; I raked the topsoil into ten beds - eight ones sized 1 x 9 meters for annual vegetables and two smaller ones for asparagus and garlic. We then mixed in lots of mulch-rich soil and manure, along with some coarse sand and a load of rotting silage. The idea is to encourage a lot of biological activity in the beds as that both generates heat and eventually improves the soil quality. I also added some homemade bio-char. Finally a thorough (ask my back!) mixing of all these ingredients, and sides make from oak planks where put around the beds. (We did not have enough oak to go around, so in the end only three beds were provided with sides. As soon as I find time to saw more oak planks we will add more sides.)

As all this work took a lot longer than planned. We ended up planting and sowing a lot later than normal - well into June - and on top of that we have had cold and rainy summer. Despite all this things grow like mad, so we must have done something right! The picture above shows what the garden looked like mid July, and below is what it looks like now. 

The reason for the eight beds is to allow for crop rotation. The first year you add lots of manure to the soil and grow courgettes, pumpkins, corn, cucumbers and cabbages. The next year you use the same pair of beds to grow carrots, beetroots, lettuces and onions. The following year potatoes and finally a fourth summer of beans, peas and broad beans which fix nitrogen from the air into the soil. As far as handling the winter is concerned, obviously we don't know how that is going to turn out yet, but the hope is that the raised beds will stay drier because of being raised and that some light digging will be enough to make the soil malleable in spring. Fingers crossed! 

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Pianos and fine wine

We are coming to the end of yet another week of intense pianistic activity at Music at Ambialet, the piano summer school run by my dear friend and former teacher Paul Roberts. I have had the pleasure of being part of this operation for many years now, and I have always felt honoured to be invited to teach alongside Paul in this lovely inspiring atmosphere that he manages to create. There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of summer courses for young pianists all over the world, but almost all of them are exclusively for young pianists at conservatoire level or similar. Music at Ambialet offers something different in that we have an advanced class of mainly young music students alongside an intermediate class of people all ages from all over the world. This eclectic mix clearly creates a really different and most stimulating environment and many participants keep coming back year after year. In my case I have been coming here for so long - first as a participant in the late 90s, then as a helper (I used to run the bar!) and finally invited as Paul's co-teacher - that it has started to feel like family and almost a home away from home.

The main difference for me this year is that I have my car here (and as of a couple of nights ago Karna has joined us too) and so I thought that as I am in the south of France with a car it would be a shame to miss the opportunity to buy some nice wine. The summer course has changed venues a few times over the years and as of last year it takes place on a small farm in a very remote corner of the Tarn region. The place is owned by Michel Berger, a French wine merchant who lives in Belgium during the year. Good news for me in my search of some good wine, as Michel was able to point me in the direction of a very interesting winemaker. So yesterday I punched an address into my GPS and drove off past the striking medieval town of Albi and another half-an-hour into the countryside beyond, and eventually ended up at a small vineyard called Domaines Plageoles. The surrounding area is littered with vineyards with small shops for dégustation et vente and the hills are covered with wine as far as the eye can see.

Domaines Plageoles turned out to be a very exciting winemaker indeed, with a special focus on old grapes of the Gaillac region with exotic names such as Ondenc and Prunelard. I spent 25 minutes tasting some absolutely wonderful wine and came out of there with a dozen of bottles as well as feeling immensely proud of having dealt with it all in French!

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Road trip

As I write this I find myself in the South of France, in a tiny place called Albignac deep down in a beautiful lush green valley, where I am teaching and playing at the piano summer school that my old friend and once-upon-a-time teacher Paul Roberts runs here. A bunch of pianists - half of them young conservatoire students, half of them amateurs all ages - have come from all over the world to play to Paul and myself and when we don't play pianos we get waited upon and served lovely French food prepared from local produce by Paul's family and friends, who have come to be dear friends of mine over the more than ten years that I have been coming here. Hardly surprising then that I have come to count this as one of the highlights of my year!

In previous years I have always travelled here by plane, but this year I decided it would be fun to drive, so that's what I spent the last three days doing. I left home in the drizzling rain on Thursday morning and drove southwards, stopping in Malmö to pick up my friend Henrik who lives in Hamburg. Together we carried on through Denmark and waited for a slightly undesirable hour and a half for the ferry at Rødby, followed by a horrendously rough 45 crossing accompanied by horrendous fast-food on the boat. In the end we came to Hamburg where I stayed over night. 

I left on Friday morning on an investigation of the Autobahn system that was to take me to Luxembourg. On my way I fitted in a short stop in Cologne complete with a bratwurst and a visit to the magnificent cathedral. Aided by my trusted friend, the iPhone GPS who bravely struggled with the foreign street names (some entertainment value there, I can assure you!) I eventually arrived in the remarkable fairytale landscape of Berbourg in Luxembourg where I was served a lovely meal and stayed the night with old friend Anna Dannfelt. 

The final stage of my journey took me through France yesterday, and to the remarkably hilly and stunningly beautiful regions of Aveyron and Tarn, down some of the bendiest roads our trusted Peugeot has ever had to negotiate and come six o'clock last night, I had arrived. Slightly knackered I was too, but after a some cassoulet a drop of wine and a good night's sleep I was ready for some piano action!

Here is the view I woke up to...