Finger Food

By Sam Elder Gates

His final year: not the best time to switch teachers. And it looked as if he had little in common with the new appointment, an Italian pianist who sounded ancient; there were three of his recordings in the college library – all Beethoven, all on 78rpm. And this was 1970!

But instantly, Benedicci (he used his surname only) came across as enthusiastic and friendly. During their first lesson together, he talked almost constantly, but occasionally his fingers would spin a shimmering melody or unleash a terrifying power. His student sat there, transfixed – here was a poet, a wizard, a demon! Then it occurred to him – this was the very man to teach him Beethoven’s Appassionata. It would make an impressive centrepiece for his diploma recital – could he study it? There was a pause, but the teacher smiled and agreed. 

He worked hard to get the huge, demanding sonata under his fingers, but became nervous about playing for such a formidable musician. His hands would tighten, and at one lesson he suddenly stopped playing. Unexpectedly, Benedicci asked him if he had ever made bread. After an awkward silence, the teacher explained himself:

“In Scotland, I see only soft, white bread with no forza – no strength. In the Appassionata, Beethoven demands everything – from the softest whisper to the wildest storm; you will need stamina! For this, I make my own pane integrale – bread with many seeds and grains. My friend – if you make your own bread, your fingers will become stronger and your Beethoven will sing!”

He found Benedicci’s advice strange and eccentric, but at home over the weekend his mother disagreed. When she was his age, the country was at war, and the only bread available was the National Loaf, made from regulation flour with added vitamins to keep everyone nourished. No one in the house would eat it, so his grannie invented her own version. His mother smiled as she recalled the ingredients: flour, oats, yeast, salt, buttermilk, dried seeds from the garden…

Next morning, looking for a cup of tea after practising his scales, he noticed a collection of ingredients on the kitchen table. He tried to look interested as his mother measured and mixed them together, then formed, stretched and folded the mixture while singing along to Family Favourites on the wireless. Eventually, when the unappetising lump was covered and placed in a bowl on top of the warm stove, he escaped back to the piano.

After lunch he peeked under the cover; the dough had risen – it might make a loaf yet. His mother caught him, smiled and sprinkled some flour on the table.

 “Your turn,” she said, “This is called knocking back. Make two fists and bash its wee face in!” Picking up the pale, rubbery thing, he thumped, kneaded and pulled it until he was told it was time for it to rest, and for him to go back to the piano. Later, he had another go at the dough, until his mother decided it had finally ‘proved’; it was time to put it in the oven.

He became absorbed in his piano practice again, until the smell of fresh bread called him to the kitchen. And there it was: one plump, golden loaf – a small miracle. When it had cooled, he was surprised by its strong, almost sour taste, but when he tried it with some butter he began to savour its complex flavours. He was converted.

Back in Glasgow with his mother’s recipe, he asked his landlady where to find yeast and wholemeal flour, and when he explained why he needed them she offered him the run of the kitchen while she was at work. He fell into a daily pattern of practising, drinking tea and bashing out loaves. Then, in the Grain Store, he found himself drawn to ingredients with intriguing names: molasses, linseed, allspice, dulse… Soon, subtle new tastes and textures found their way into the bread, rolls and buns he made and fed to the other students in his digs. He was improvising – just as his grannie had done. As his fingers and forearms became stronger, the tightness fell away from his hands and he was playing with no sign of nerves. He thanked Benedicci for his advice, but soon, he had to admit to another problem – the Appassionata. He could play the notes, but felt unable to put himself into the music – to feel involved. Benedicci, of course, knew this already, and – after one of his characteristic pauses – put forward an idea:

“Think of the piece as a loaf of bread! Beethoven’s score is a wonderful recipe, but remember you are the one who must create the shape, the texture, the colour of the music. When you perform,” he added in sotto voce, “imagine you are a master baker… a maestro.”

He thought about this. When he started baking, he had relied on his mother’s recipe, but now he was guided more by intuition and a sense of touch. Every loaf he made was different; should every musical performance be different too? Tentatively, he tried playing without the score, trusting his memory to guide him. Thinking carefully about the sound he was creating, he began – slowly – to savour Beethoven’s deep, succulent melodies and sharp, bitter discords. Without the safety net of the printed music, his imagination began to soar… He soon discovered how to use that elusive, magical ingredient his playing had lacked – his personality.

The final year passed quickly, punctuated by spiced Christmas cake, heart-shaped biscuits and hot cross buns. When the date for his diploma recital arrived, he knew, whatever happened, he would soon leave college and say goodbye to Benedicci, his wise and wonderful professore. But this was more of a beginning than an end. He thought of all the pianos he would play, the music he would discover, the new ideas, people and opportunities life would present. And already, his mother had noticed the local baker was looking for an assistant. Just for the summer, of course…