To succeed in chamber music, first learn to cook

To succeed in chamber music, first learn to cook


norman lebrecht

March 02, 2018

From our string quartet diarist, Anthea Kreston:


I am eating breakfast in Brussels, where I am in the middle of a three day visit to teach our master groups and hear auditions for next season. What luxury – at the Queen Elizabeth Chapel (where the Queen Elizabeth competitions are held) – Beethoven, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Schoenberg, all played by dedicated, passionate musicians in their 20’s, and all with careers in their own right, with recording contracts, multiple managers, and International competition wins under their belts. As I teach, the two-story glass wall of the concert hall shows a forest of swaying trees, and I keep a lookout for a herd of deer, who often meander through this living landscape.

Yesterday’s auditions were impressive – not only in the variety of ensemble (string trio, piano quartet, piano trio and string quartet), but in the long road these young musicians have travelled to get this far. The pre-screened submitted auditions, which arrived months ago, the years of lessons, the travel from many different countries. Every single moment of their futures depends on these 30 minutes – what happens here changes everything for their futures. If I, myself, hadn’t made it into the Quartet program at Aspen when I was their age, and sat at lunch at a particular table, I wouldn’t have met Jason, had this family and life.

In the board-room lunch after the auditions, each member of the six-person jury argued for or against each of the groups. Were they balanced, were they creative – do they have relentless drive and a vision of their futures? Do they have the time to dedicate to this – can they give up all else for this? Was there magic?

We have to be selective – only one or two can be accepted, because we already have a studio filled with groups who will stay, continuing to the next phase of their careers. We accept them at the beginning – while still students, teach them, show them how to teach themselves, and watch and help as they spread their wings and begin to fly.

My last days in Israel were fantastic, and I was finally able to eat some unbelievable foods – from street foods at the Carmel Market to late-night banquets in covered courtyards. I was wrapped in the sauces, loved the tender and crisp. I will attempt to recreate a dish here that you can cook at home. Bear in mind that I don’t measure – but give it a try!

Cauliflower, Israeli Couscous and Pomegranate Thing

Israeli Couscous
Veg or Chicken Stock
Cauliflower – dinner-plate amount (2-3 smaller heads or one huge one)

Get some onions going in a large pan, and start a big pot of water also. While the onions are getting good, chop your cauliflower, stem and leaves too, and plop them in the water. Get a healthy amount of stock warmed. Throw the couscous into the onions after they are crisp/translucent, and brown the couscous. Now your cauliflower is probably done – just needs a minute – and put in colander to steam dry. Throw your hot stock over the couscous and onions, and let cook. Take your cauliflower and brown a bit in another pan – I put both butter and oil in there. That was good. Now open your spice cupboard and get creative. I didn’t have things like sumac or zatar but if you do, now is your moment. I put in a big handful of sesame seeds, some curry, nutmeg, and Herbs de Provence (here called Kräuter des Provence). You might need to add some liquid in there. While this is all happening, get your pomegranate – I have a super way to get those seeds out without crushing them. “Scalp” the top, peeling the skin off to reveal the seeds. Then score along the lines of the sections – you can see where they are now. Pull apart those sections so now it is kindof like an unpeeled, irregular orange. Turn a section, seed-down, in your hand, and thwump the skin vigorously with the handle of your knife. The seeds will dislodge and fall into your hands. Mostly.
Now combine all of the hot ingredients, and serve with a handful of pomegranate seeds on top. Viola.

Optional yoghurt:
You should have started this last night, but if you do it now, you will use it tomorrow on everything. It is addictive.
Line a colander with coffee filters and dump all of your yoghurt in there. Let it drain for at least 2 hours, and up to 24. Then add whatever you want – plain, pepper, cucumber, curry, regular spices, then a little swivel of good olive oil on top. This is great on top of the cauliflower thing, or on warmed bread, or carrots, or just on your finger like my 6 year old ate it.


  • Phil says:

    Love the “Viola.”

  • Doug says:

    “Marcel Tabuteau: How Do You Expect to Play the Oboe If You Can’t Peel a Mushroom?”

    By Laila Storch. Fabulous book published by Indiana University Press in 2008.

  • Rob B says:

    Please correct credit;

    I assume this was written by Anthea Kreston, not by Mr Lebrecht.

  • doremi says:

    Completely uninteresting topic:a cooking recipee in the middle of a musical audition….

    • Jim says:

      One of the great things about Anthea’s posts is the revelation that real life goes on around the day job (I just called international quartet player a day job!) In fact, your own musical inspirations depend on having a life. If some people get the idea that a balanced life creates a balanced musician then they will have learned something useful.

      • Marg says:

        Well said Jim! Reading Anthea’s weekly diary over a long period of time now has helped me understand better what life is like for these brillian musicians that drop into our big name concert halls and opera houses – the incredibly hard work but also the everyday-ness of it all. I love reading her weekly post over breakfast every Saturday morning – one of my week’s highlights. And I feel I have learned so much that enhances my own (amateur) playing and concert listening. Thank you Anthea!

  • Ravish von Tatoonove says:

    What’s next–digestion? ablutions? Visits to the coiffeur, manicurist and beauty salon?

  • Esfir Ross says:

    Not kosher-butter and oil-so it’s not Israeli dish. Cauliflower doesn’t go well with sour pomegranate. Fancy recipe tasty only on paper. Respect and learn basic of Jewish cooking and don’t embarrass with your poor cooking experience.

  • Neil van der Linden says:

    What is Israeli couscous? Won’t any couscous, originally a Moroccan staplefood, go?
    Or was the reference to Israeli the reason why this text on cooking got attention from Slippedisc at all?

    • Anthea kreston says:

      Dear Neil,

      This kind of couscous can be called several things – it is sold as Jerusalem Couscous, Pearl Couscous, Israeli Couscous. It is the bigger, ball variety, not the small grains. It was developed in Israel in then 50’s when rice was scarce. Sometimes it is in the shape of rice, too. It is a little squishy and bouncy to the teeth and holds sauce very well – good for either cold or hot dishes.

      Thanks for asking for clarification,

      • Neil van der Linden says:

        Ah thanks for clarification. So could it be replaced by what in Dutch is named ‘parelgort’, which Google translates as pearl barley? In the Dutch Moroccan kitchen parelgort often takes the place of couscous, and I must say it often has nicer ‘bite’.
        I am sure the recipe would taste very well with this ‘parelgort’.
        And sorry for initially erroneously misjudging the ingredient, tying it to the debate on cultural appropriation of North-African and Middle-East fod, to which I must add that the best falafel I ever had was from a Yemeni-Israeli street food tent in West-Jerusalem.

        • Anthea Kreston says:

          Hi Neil,

          As a vegetarian, I am always on the hunt for delicious grains. I love pearl barley, which has even more of a personality than the couscois. I cook meat for my family, but I always have to judge by smell and sight. They usually like it, but sometimes I get vigorous thumbs-downs. I am not a good expert or advanced cook, but I love cooking when I am home because I eat on the road a lot, and I miss shopping and cooking….

          • Neil van der Linden says:

            I am a pragmatic vegetarian. Seeing the ingredients, I could imagine adding fresh coriander, ground cumin, country side (so the rural tasting) olive oil and even roasted pineseeds. And perhaps some cooked lentils. Then nobody will remember that we humans do eat chicken and other meat.

        • Esfir Ross says:

          Don’t substitude pearl barley for couscus. Barley takes long time to cook-couscus need to drop in boiling water and it get swell, also bulgur get cooked this way.

          • Neil van der Linden says:

            But I think that is exactly the idea. Couscous can be quite dry. I have the idea that the more juicy pearl barley is what is intended.
            By the way real couscous afficionados loathe the idea of just soaking couscous. It should be steamed. Which I never do.

  • Anthea Kreston says:

    Great ideas! My sister has this great recipe – cold salad made of firm lentils, cilantro, pomegranate and lemon. It’s a hit at every party….

    • Fritz says:

      Obviously all this goes together: cooking, music, travelling, leaning back for a moment, family life … there is no such thing as a one-ingrediant life, whatever. So don’t complain when Anthea is kind of digressing into the kitchen in a profound music blog. I’m quite happy with the title 8and the contents) , and as I’m unfortunately not an active musician, to enjoy chamber music as one of my key elements for life, it may be sufficient to equally enjoy good meals rather than preparing them?… though I do cook, but certainly not a level to regularly share.