Autumn – like every season in Sweden – is a time of festivals and rituals, some of which have their origins in the pagan past. The days are mild and mellow, and gentle sunshine filters through the trees, burnishing each yellowing leaf to a coppery sheen. Flocks of crows and pigeons lift from the rooftops, and wheel in a cerulean sky which at sunset is streaked with orange-pink flags. Apart from the little brown sparrows and blue tits, all other birds have migrated south to warmer climes.
In early October the trees are still decked in their brilliant autumn finery – vibrant shades of red, yellow and amber, and the air is redolent with the scent of fallen leaves and bonfires. The parks are dappled in gold, scattered by energetic joggers and romping children, and skittish winds that sweep in from the Baltic Sea.
The sharpness in the air is a harbinger of harsher times to come, when all will be covered in snow, and the lakes frozen to mirrors of ice. Sometimes the lake waters are still warmer than the air, creating thick mist which submerges the city and brings traffic to a careful crawl. Some mornings temperatures plunge below zero, and, if the nights are cloudless, the roofs gleam with silvery frost.
Now is the time to resume our winter comforts: hot water bottles, and sweet milky drinks with spicy pastries. The central heating in the complex gradually increases, taking the chill off the air, and we light candles as the evenings draw in, creating a warm cosy glow.
Every year at the Engelska Kyrkan the bounty of autumn is celebrated with a Harvest Festival. The church is decorated with bright autumn sprigs and filled with the comforting scent of warm wax and polished wood. The parishioners bring home-made offerings: bottled preserves and jams, home-baked breads and cakes, and the fruits of their orchards and vegetable gardens. These are “auctioned” by Pastor Nick after the service, in aid of a needy cause.
Apples hang heavy on the trees, and these are taken to the local press to make saft (juice), or are made into Äppelmos (sweet apple purée) at home, to serve with yoghurt or pork. We bake apple pies and drink cider, sometimes warmed and mixed with spices. There is also an abundance of persimmons in the markets in October, plump sweet fruits from Spain, and fruits of the Swedish forests: chanterelle mushrooms, chestnuts and berries. It is indeed the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” (John Keats: Ode to Autumn.)
Best of all are the annual Chocolate, and Beer & Whiskey Festivals, held in the vast Stockholms- mässan (exhibition centre) south of the city. This year’s Chocolate Festival seemed even better than the last, which in turn was better than its predecessor, formerly housed in the great Nordiska Museet. There is an impressive array of hand-made chocolates, evidently a burgeoning business here in Sweden. Once again there are several chocolate fountains, including licorice- and orange-flavoured chocolate in which, for five or ten crowns, visitors dip marshmallows. There is every imaginable shape and size of sweet delicacy, with flavours that defy the norm, and chocolate sculptures that win prizes in the competition.
Hallowe’en has crossed the Atlantic and infiltrated the youth culture here in Sweden. Like elsewhere in the world, it is largely fueled by commercial enterprise – particularly that of the ubiquitous godis (sweets) stores, whose wares appear in the shape of orange and black jellied spiders, teeth and skulls. The sale of macabre paraphernalia is advertised well in advance of the event, and every fruit and veg market displays large orange pumpkins. Pumpkin soup and pies are made with the contents, and the hollow gourds, illuminated with a candle, are placed on porches and balconies. Children came to the door, and, garbed as ghosts and witches, they piped in high voices, “Trick or treat!” (in Swedish.) All I had to hand were a few chocolate bars, and these I gave to my eager young visitors, perspicaciously equipped with bags for their loot.
Another fun day enjoyed throughout Sweden is Kaneelbullardag (Cinnamon Bun Day), on the 4th of October. Added to the autumn aromas of fallen leaves is that of spicy baking – cinnamon, and the secret ingredient – cardamom! My friend Jessica shows me how to make cinnamon buns, crumbling yeast and stirring it into the flour with warm water. The supermarkets sell these buns in abundance, and for days the air is filled with the rich scent of cinnamon.
Before it becomes too dark and cold in the evenings, it is occasionally pleasant to walk to the nearby IKEA for supper. The cafeteria there serves traditional Swedish fare, but I eschew the customary meatballs with mashed potatoes and lingonberry sauce in favour of a succulent chicken breast and veg. As with many public places in Sweden, where the family is of paramount importance, this popular emporium has a children’s corner, well-equipped with a play station, plastic utensils, and disposable paper bibs.
One day we went for a walk on the largest island in the city, Södermalm. To the east of Slussen stands the beautiful Katarina Kyrka, which was built between 1656 and 1695. It was subsequently rebuilt twice, having been destroyed by fires. The second time was during the 1990’s.
One afternoon we took the bus to the Berwaldhallen for a concert of Fauré’s hauntingly lovely choral music. The Swedish Radio Choir was accompanied by the illustrious Uppsala Chamber Orchestra, the gentle strains of which fill this large hall, renowned for its excellent acoustics. My companion was my Russian friend Lidia, an erudite lover of all things cultural, who gave me an English translation of Pushkin’s poetry, including his poem, Autumn.
Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine (Op. 11) is set for mixed chorus and piano or organ, and was composed when he was only nineteen years old, in 1864-5. He won first prize with this work when he graduated from the École Niedermeyer de Paris, and it was first performed the following year, in1866, accompanied by strings and an organ. The text, Verbe égal au Très-Haut, is a paraphrase by Jean Racine (Hymnes traduites du Bréviaire romain, 1688) of the pseudo-Ambrosian hymn for Tuesday matins, Consors paterni luminis, and translated from the Latin into French.
Word of God, one with the Most High,
in Whom alone we have our hope,
Eternal Day of heaven and earth,
We break the silence of the peaceful night;
Saviour Divine, cast your eyes upon us!
Pour on us the fire of your powerful grace,
That all hell may flee at the sound of your voice;
Banish the slumber of a weary soul,
That brings forgetfulness of your laws!
O Christ, look with favour upon your faithful people
Now gathered here to praise you;
Receive their hymns offered to your immortal glory;
May they go forth filled with your gifts.
Fauré’s Pavane, (Op. 50) was originally composed in 1887 for the piano, but his version for orchestra and optional chorus is better known. The rhythm is taken from the slow processional Spanish courtly dance of the same name, and the music ebbs and flows between a series of harmonic and melodic dénouements, conjuring a haunting, Belle Époque elegance. Léonide Massine choreographed the Pavane for a ballet version which was danced by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in1917, and titled Las Meninas or Les Jardins d’Aranjuez. Massine believed that this music echoed the formality and underlying sadness of the Spanish Golden Age, which he in turn saw reflected in Velazquez’s paintings.
Another concert we attended, this time at the Konserthus, included Beethoven’s mighty Ninth Symphony. Having sung this many times in the Symphony Choir of Johannesburg, it was difficult to refrain from singing along. The soloists sang well, along with the moderately-sized Eric Ericsons Kammarkör, ably conducted by Hartmut Haenchen. The challenge with this work, is for the singers to come in “cold” after sitting patiently through the first three lengthy movements, and then to sing impossibly high notes and difficult passages, designed for instruments rather than for human voices.
Towards the end of October we turn our clocks back an hour for “winter time”. This simple act of “day-light saving” seems to intensify the distance between us and our daughters in Cape Town. While only an hour behind, it’s sometimes difficult to bear this time difference in mind, and to contact them at a civilized hour.
Advertisements begin to appear in the papers and on TV for summery destinations in the southern hemisphere during the December holidays, for apart from those who skate and ski, flights and accommodation must be booked for those wishing to avoid the plunging temperatures here in the icy north.
When it becomes too cold to spend time out of doors, the Stockholm Public Library is an interesting place to linger.
Designed by Gunnar Asplund (1885-1940), who’s regarded as the father of modern Swedish architecture, it was completed in 1928. The building is constructed of geometrical forms: the cube surrounding the cylinder. The outer walls are Sienna-red, with the outer façade embellished with a figurative border displaying hieroglyphic-like motifs representing each library subject – 294 images in all.
The design is neoclassical, but also inspired by Roman antiquity. This can be seen in the black stucco reliefs of scenes from Homer’s Iliad in the entrance hall. The idea here, of a dark entrance leading to the circular book hall (rotunda), is one of progressing from darkness (ignorance) into light (learning). To enter the library, visitors first mount the Hemlatrappen (Celestial Staircase) to the tall main entrance doorway which is reminiscent of an Egyptian temple, and further emphasizes the concept of the library as a temple of knowledge. The linoleum floor inside the rotunda has a pattern taken from the Pantheon in Rome.
The children’s section, one floor beneath, has a ceiling painted by Alf Munthe displaying a starry sky, and the far wall features Nils Dardel’s large fresco of “John Blund”, with a sleeping boy, and Saint George and the Dragon – a symbol of Stockholm. There is also a magnificent tapestry in one of the reading rooms, wrought by Hilding Linnqvist (1891-1984) between 1928 and 1931, and titled Svenska Sjömän i Främmande Hamn (Swedish Seamen in Foreign Harbours), depicting exotic scenes from around the world.
I know I am beginning to assimilate, as I can now understand some Swedish jokes, and write down several items on my shopping list in Swedish. I can almost understand history documentaries in German that have Swedish subtitles; the similarities between English and these Germanic languages is sometimes surprising. However, they say that it is only when one can tell a joke, or begin to dream in a foreign language, that one has truly arrived!
1 tbsp ground cardamom (kardemumma) 200 g soft butter (salted)
2 dl milk 1 dl sugar
1 dl cream (grädde) 1-2 tbsp cinnamon (kanel)
50 g fresh yeast (jäst – red packet) 1 tbsp cardamom
1 1/2 dl sugar 1 dl pearl sugar (pärlsocker)
1/2 tsp salt 1 egg
100 g butter (salted)
approx. 11 dl flour
- Crumble the yeast in a large bowl. Melt the butter and then add the milk, cream, sugar and salt. Slowly pour the warm mixture (must not exceed 37°c) over the yeast, making sure the yeast dissolves. Mix in the egg.
- Add half of the flour, mixing continuously – add some more flour while vigorously kneading the dough with a large spoon (or in a mixer). When the dough no longer sticks to the side of the bowl, it is ready. Cover it with a towel and leave it to rise in a warm and draft free area for 45-60 minutes.
- Put the oven on at 200°c. Knead the dough on a flat surface with a little flour. Divide the dough in to 3 pieces. With a rolling pin roll out the dough into a rectangle (30x25cm). 4. Brush the rectangle with the soft butter, sprinkle evenly over some sugar, cinnamon and cardamom. From the bottom up, roll together the rectangle and with a sharp knife cut the roll into 10 equal slices and place each slice in to a paper cupcake wrapper.
- Cover with a towel and allow to rise for about 45 minutes.
- Brush the cinnamon rolls with egg wash and sprinkle with pearl sugar.
- Place in the middle of a preheated oven and bake for 7-10 minutes, or until done.
The cinnamon buns freeze well and are wonderful reheated and enjoyed for a leisurely breakfast. It is important to note is that they taste remarkably better if heated in the oven, rather than the microwave, which tends to leave them slightly soggy.
Scenes from our nearby Järvefeltet nature reserve