Archive for April, 2009

Pepper – black gold

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

Pepper is the king of spices – it has had far reaching effects on trade, voyages of discovery, cultures and cuisines over the centuries.  To me, it embodies the wonder of spices – a distinctive, full-bodied flavour with an almost incredible influence on history.


 Pepper and world history


 Coming originally from the Wayanad plateau of Kerala in Southern India, pepper was probably the earliest spice known to man.  It swiftly became an item of luxury and a store of enormous value that was often used in payment of taxes or as currency.


 Pepper was the Roman spice of choice (they preferred long pepper rather than the black pepper we tend to use) and was even used in ransom demands for the City of Rome.During the Middle Ages, pepper was the most important commodity traded between India and Europe.  Venice was founded off the pepper trade, dominating the overland spice routes to the Orient.


 However, from about 1470 onwards, the Turks began to stop the overland trade routes east of the Mediterranean.  So Portuguese, Italian and Spanish explorers sailed west or south to reach the Orient.  As by-products, America was discovered, as was allspice (Jamaican pepper) and chilli pepper.


 In Britain, peppercorns rents (literally rent payable in pepper) were introduced, becoming a real burden to many people.


When the wrecked Royal Navy ship, the Mary Rose, was raised from the sea bed in the early 1980s, nearly every sailor who went down with her in 1545 was found to have a little bag of peppercorns in his possession.  In 1973, Prince Charles visited Launceston to receive his feudal dues as Duke of Cornwall.  This included a pound of pepper as rent for the land on which Launceston Town and Guild Hall sits, and forms part of the tribute arising out of the grant of the town’s freedom by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, during the reign of King Henry III of England (1216 – 1272).When I worked as an accountant, I did some work for The York Waterworks and their head office was in an old building called Lendal Tower in York.  The annual rental for Lendal Tower is 1 peppercorn payable to the City of York; this 500-year lease was taken out in 1677, so still has many years to run.


On behalf of Portugal, Vasco da Gama won the race to find the sea route to India and the Spice islands via the Cape of Good Hope.  As a result, the Portuguese dominated the spice trade until the 18th century when Britain and the Netherlands took over, and then shared the trade in pepper and other spices, especially nutmeg and mace.


Pepper remains big business.  485,000 acres are given over to pepper growing, producing 325,000 tonnes of pepper every year.  The global export market is worth US$345 million every year.


What exactly is pepper?



Pepper is the dried berry of the pepper vine, Piper nigrum.  There are other peppers such as long pepper, cubeb pepper and pink pepper, but these come from different plants.  

Vine pepper growing in Kerala, India

Vine pepper growing in Kerala, India

The pepper vine is a perennial climbing plant with smooth, woody stems and leathery leaves.  It grows a little bit like ivy (without being parasitic) up a host tree or pole.  The berries grow in long catkin-like clusters of bright green berries, ripening to yellow-orange and followed by bright red berries or fruits.  There are over 100 different varieties of pepper vine – Steenbergs organic pepper mainly comes from Krimunda, Panniyoor and Tellicherry Special Bold vines.

Pepper grows only in rich soil in a moist tropical climate with a pH of 4.5 to 6.0 ideal.  Propagation is normally by cuttings, although our organic pepper vines grow from wild-sown seeds.The vines do not produce a worthwhile crop until their 7th year, but they continue to bear a good crop for at least 15 years.  Each spike produces 30 -70 pepper berries; one vine produces around 3kg of fresh berries every year, yielding around 1kg of black pepper.  Every pepper spike is hand-picked by skilled pickers using tripod-like ladders.

What are the different types of pepper?

Green pepper is the youngest pepper berry.  Whole berries are picked by hand during September/October in India (2 – 3 months before picking berries for black pepper).  These immature berries are soaked in brine to preserve their green colour then air-dried.  They are hot and fiery, retaining many of the characteristics of fresh unripe berries picked straight from the vine; green pepper is the Beaujolais Nouveau of the spice industry – bright, simple and lacking some depth.

For black pepper, the berries are picked whilst still green but almost ripe during December through to February in India; the farmers are looking to pick when 1 or 2 berries in the pepper spikes are turning from green to orange.  After harvesting, the immature green berries are stripped from the stems mechanically and then lightly fermented by drying in the sun, spread out on large concrete yards.  During drying which takes about 7 days, the berry shrivels, taking on the classic wrinkled look and turns a black or dark brown colour; it takes 1 – 2 days to turn from green to brown and the remainder to dry out.

Pepper pickers with pepper drying on concrete drying yard

Pepper pickers with pepper drying on concrete drying yard

White peppercorns are allowed to ripen more fully on the vine, being picked around March in Southern India when the spikes are fully ripened and a colourful orange-red.  After drying, the outer shell is removed in a constantly flowing stream of cool water until the black outer shell loosens (this process is called “retting”), yielding a clean, white corn through rubbing or trampling the dampened peppercorns.  White pepper has a more intense heat than black pepper with a deeper richer flavour.

Red peppercorns are fully mature pepper berries and are rare, as you need to keep the berries on the vine longer and they reduce the yield from pepper vine in the following year.  They are picked in April/May.  The flavour is quite fruity and less intensely peppery than green, black or white pepper; I actually don’t really like the flavour as it seems too sweet and fruity for me, but that is probably just a case of being used to black peppercorns and being conditioned to expect a particular aroma and flavour.

Ungraded pepper is the lowest quality, coming from more than one estate and a mix of pepper species and berry qualities.  Using the Indian system of classification, the basic graded pepper is Malabar Garbled 1 (MG1; size less than 4mm), with the higher grades Tellicherry Garbled Extra Bold (TGEB; size 4.25mm) and Tellicherry Garbled Special Extra Bold (TGSEB; size 4.75mm).

Is organic really any different?

When quality brings no extra money and margins are preciously thin, pepper growers cannot take any chances – the longer the berries stay on the vine, the greater the risk that they will be eaten by birds or the crop will be lost in a storm.  So pepper berries are treated to grow faster, yield more and are picked as early as possible – just like intensively farmed tomatoes.

We sell a relatively large quantity (by volume) of our pepper into the food manufacturing industry and I have never once in the last 4 years (we started in 2003 and only really began selling bulk in 2004) been queried about the organoleptic qualities of the pepper (i.e. aroma, flavour, colour) by a single buyer.  Quality to the food industry means price and low microbial levels on the peppercorns rather than aroma or flavour, i.e. quality actually equates to money and risk aversion and not flavour.

However, at Steenbergs, we do care about the type and flavour of Steenbergs organic pepper, so we carefully select and grade the pepper that we purchase.MG1 is already a step up from other peppers, with peppercorns that are larger and more consistent in flavour that you will typically find in supermarkets.  The Tellicherry grades are even better than the small ones for the same reason that vine-ripened tomatoes, fresh from the garden in August taste better than shelf-ripened tomatoes from the supermarket in January.

Going back to the tomato analogy, a tomato vine produces something that looks like a tomato fairly quickly, but it is only in the final weeks of ripening that the true deep-red tomato colour and its rich, sweet flavour fully develops.  Peppercorns are the same – immature fast-growing pepper is still nice, but it is the slower-growing specialist varieties of pepper that have then been given that extra ripening time on the vine that makes the trip from India to Britain really worthwhile.

We think that the best black pepper comes from Kerala in Southern India, where the best Tellicherry grades are grown.  Indian pepper has a fruity aroma and a clean bite.

Indonesian lampong pepper (from Southern Sumatra) is highly favoured in America where they like its higher level of piperine and lower level of essential oil – I think this harks back to the history of the spice trade where American pepper originally came from Sumatra and was imported into Salem, Massachusetts.  Lampong pepper is more pungent than aromatic, with smaller berries that are grey-black in colour.

Sarawak pepper from Malaysia has a milder aroma than Indonesian berries, but is hot and biting.  Brazilian pepper has a low piperine content and is rather bland.  Vietnamese pepper is light in colour, mild and uninteresting in flavour – but it is very cheap!

Isn’t pepper organic anyway?

Like all agricultural crops, pepper vines are susceptible to pest and diseases, ranging from the destructive fungal disease – quick wilt disease – through to nematode infestations that attack the root systems or pollu beetle attack, to name just a few.  Chemical treatments for these include Bordeaux mixture, carbofuran and methyl bromide.

Post-harvest treatment is, also, common to provide broad spectrum control of disease and insects and target possible fungal growth and aflatoxins.  Treatment is typically fumigation and ethylene oxide prior to shipment and then heat treatment on arrival.  Irradiation (if ever) is rarely used from British spices.

The use of synthetic fertilisers is common, especially among the intensive, high-yield pepper growers in Brazil, Indonesia and Vietnam.

I have calculated that 17% of the farmgate cost of farming normal pepper relates to chemical inputs – this excludes any post-harvest treatments.

Summer weather?

Monday, April 27th, 2009

The weather in North Yorkshire has a beautiful irony.  After 3 or 4 weeks of almost perfectly glorious sunny weather, school decides that Monday (today) would be the best day to start summer clothing (i.e. our children have to wear T-shirts, shorts and summer dresses to school) and to have the first after-school cricket nets.  So it is cold, overcast and the rain has set in.

Recipe – Gluten Free Chocolate Cake – Make a coeliac happy

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

350g dairy-free, gluten free chocolate
310g margarine
2tsp Steenbergs organic cinnamon powder
600ml boiling water
400g Fairtrade caster sugar
3 large free range eggs
400g gluten free plain flour
3tsp gluten free baking powder
200g dairy-free, gluten free chocolate
100g margarine
300g icing sugar, sieved
75ml cold weak coffee (add ½tsp instant coffee to 75ml boiling water)
100ml soya cream 

Preheat oven to 170oC.

First make the cake – break the chocolate into pieces and then put into a bowl over a pan of boiling water.  When melted add the margarine. Fairtrade cinnamon and boiling water.  You can do this carefully in the microwave.  Stir until smooth and well mixed.  Now stir in the caster sugar and eggs.  

Fold in the flours, the baking powder and bicarbonate of soda.
  Enjoy it and make a coeliac happy.

Spoon the chocolate cake mixture into a prepared 24.5cm round cake tin, which has been greased and lined with baking paper.  Bake in the oven for 45-50 minutes or until just firm.  Leave the cake to cool down a little bit and then remove it to a wire rack to cool, completely.

To make the icing, break the 200g of chocolate and heat with the chocolate and margarine as before.  Stir in the icing sugar, coffee mix and soya cream and beat until smooth and well blended.  Spread it all over the cake and leave to set (it sets pretty quickly).

Steenbergs newsletter

Friday, April 24th, 2009

Spring offers from Steenbergs – the organic and Fairtrade specialists

May brings special offers on post and packaging, barbeque seasonings and ideas for credit crunch cooking.

Steenbergs online shop is no longer only organic spices and seasonings – we’ve a whole range of organic bakery ingredients, bath products including shampoo and soap, and vitamins and supplements, as well as organic chutneys, sauces, jams and marmalade – you can even buy your own instant organic herb garden – just buy the voucher and send it off and a whole herb garden will appear!

Free post and packing on all UK orders over £10.00

From now until mid-May Steenbergs is offering free post and packing on all UK orders over £10.00. So if you haven’t looked at all the other things we now offer – now’s the time – from the delicious organic chutneys, mustards, jams and sauces to organic baking ingredients to organic bakery accessories to vitamins and supplements.

There’s lots on offer at Steenbergs as well as our core range of organic, some Fairtrade, spices, herbs, seasonings, chais and blended teas.

This offer will last until Friday 15th May – 7am.

Steenbergs English breakfast loose leaf tea – organic and fairtrade – is back

For the many converts we have for this tea – we apologise for the delay – which was caused due to a sudden upsurge in demand between harvests- we’ve been awaiting one last vital ingredient of our delicious blend – it’s now in stock and blended. So for those of you who need a cup of Steenbergs English breakfast tea to start the day – you no longer need worry and we’ve managed to secure sufficient supplies for forward sales. 

Two other favourites return

Za’atar and organic dukkah – both middle-eastern spice blends have also made a reappearance due to popular demand. Za’atar is a delicious blend of thyme, sumach and toasted sesame seeds and works well on bread, chicken or in a whole variety of dishes, very moreish flavour. Dukkah is a mixture of toasted seeds and spices and also works well on bread with oil but is also good in a whole variety of Middle Eastern dishes including salads and as a crust.

Summer is around the corner – barbecues are back on the menuOn the grounds that we, as in the Brits, are never sure how long our summer is going to last, the first sign of sun quite rightly brings out the bbqs. Steenbergs has a whole range of organic BBQ rubs to help you create delicious BBQ flavours. The rubs also work on grilled or roasting meat – including kebabs cooked in the oven.

Steenbergs also stock a whole range of sauces to inspire any BBQ from Glenroyd’s organic sweet chilli jam to a whole host of organic mustards, chutneys, even organic tomato ketchup and organic mayonnaise.

We’ve even got the recycled aluminium foil to create parcels of steamed vegetables or steamed fish. Add Steenbergs organic Mediterranean rub for a delicious herby flavour or Steenbergs all purpose organic one-derful rub for a more spicy flavour.

Credit crunch cooking and recipes

With the current credit crunch about more people are cooking at home and looking for interesting ways with left overs. There’s always something to do to jazz up a meal – whether it’s stir frying with Steenbergs organic chinese 5 spice or for a spicier version try our organic nasi goreng, with its heat of hot chillies? Noodle soup is always a winner at home and can be a way of using up a left overs as well as cost effective way – Steenbergs organic Chinese 5 spice is frequently used in ours.

Alternatively curries have long been a traditional way of using up left overs. For mild tastes try our organic korma blend of spices and add organic ground almonds and coconut milk. A very traditional curry, and our most popular, is the Steenbergs organic Madras curry works very well. One of our favourite curries at the moment is organic chana masala – a chickpea curry (don’t forget to soak them overnight before cooking!). Sophie is currently a particular fan of Steenbergs organic Sri Lankan masala which works well with some fried onion, coconut milk and fish or vegetables – it’s very easy and quick to create a tasty curry.

Alternatively we have lots of different sauces from organic soy sauce and organic Worcestershire sauce to organic chutneys.

Steenbergs offers a whole range of recipes to help inspire you – if you would like to add your favourite recipe just email with the recipe and we’ll publish it with acknowledgement to you.

Focus – Axel and Sophie Steenberg

Steenbergs was founded in late 2003 to offer quality organic spices, packed with flavour, aroma and provenance. It was founded by Sophie and Axel Steenberg, husband and wife who met each other at Edinburgh University where Axel studied microbiology – very useful with all the microanalysis we undertake with the spices – and Sophie studied environmental and African politics. They moved to Yorkshire 13 years ago. Axel comes originally from Northumberland and Sophie was born in London, brought up in Gloucestershire. They have two small children (well 6 and 7) – both of whom have found themselves tasting all sorts of blends over the years – the flavoured sugars have been most popular, but they have also enjoyed helping make sausages to test out the blends. Axel is chief creater of blends – which is no mean feat as we now offer over 200 of them, Axel also does the majority of imports and liaising with our partners around the world.

Sophie tends to concentrate more on the human resources and public relations side of the business. The biggest challenge now is to not look at the computer and website every 5 minutes at home! Biggest challenge in 2003 was to get started – there was just so much to do and think of including getting organic certification in our then unit, all with a 1 and 2 year old at home, I think we took the key to our first unit on our daughter’s first birthday. Biggest success – becoming the UK’s first Fairtrade spice company.

Since we began we now employ 7 members of staff (many of whom are part-time) and most of whom have been with us for several years now – with their roles developing along with the growth of the business.

Functions and feedback

We’ve been working with our web designers to improve the look and ease of use for the website in recent months.   These range from interlinking the recipes and products more to helping you move around the site. Watch out for our new blog which will be up and running shortly.

We would love to hear from you about a) what you would like us to improve on the website  b) what products  or product area you would like us to add to the web shop  c) what you would like us to include in future newsletters/ blogs.

We will try and incorporate as many of the ideas as practically possible.

Stockist news

Don’t forget that we keep a list of your local stockist on the web – just tap in your postcode and your nearest stockist should come up. Booths supermarkets also stock us and we have a number of distributors particularly for our popular organic Fairtrade vanilla extract, organic rose water and organic peppermint extract – as well as several stockists in Scotland, Ireland and Finland. Oxfam also continue to stock our organic Fairtrade bagged teas – peace tea (our blended black tea) and green tea.

But why is Steenbergs organic?

Friday, April 24th, 2009

Some of the key questions people (whether customers or friends) ask us are “why go organic?” and “why bother with Fairtrade?”

To be honest – when we started out, it was not something that we thought through in any great detail, rather it was simply an expression of our life philosophy. As people, we simply believe in being decent, fair and reasonable and having respect for people, nature and the environment.

From this simple way of looking at the world, many things follow on.

Steenbergs’ products are as natural as we can get them with the core 95%+ of our products being certified organic. We don’t add manufactured chemicals to our products (from organic spices through to organic teas) as we don’t like using things that either impact the flavour of a product (however slightly) or have an unknown impact on our health (however small). I remember going to the Food Ingredients show in London in 2008. I tried a lemon-flavoured drink at the stall and whatever was in it went straight to my head; I didn’t know where I was and had to be held up to stop myself keeling over. Not a happy experience.

There are downsides to this though – lots of paperwork, our products can cake up as we don’t add free-flow chemicals to the mixes, and our flavours can be more subtle (many chai teas for example have “natural flavourings” in them rather than just the spices). However, we feel that these downsides are worth living with.

It also means that we try to be ethical in everything we do. We pay our staff a reasonable level of pay (more than us currently) and try to buy from certified Fairtrade sources for as many of our products as possible. In fact, we were one of the first Fairtrade businesses for spices in the world, well before any of the more well-known names in spices (such as McCormick/Schwartz, Bart Spices, British Pepper & Spice or Seasoned Pioneers).

Steenbergs brought the first Fairtrade spices into the UK; it was Steenbergs that launched the first Fairtrade spices onto the UK retail and wholesale market; it was Steenbergs that developed the first Fairtrade vanilla extract, developing it for inclusion in Divine and Co-op Fairtrade chocolates. These things cannot be taken away from us and we are rightly proud of these milestones.

Once again, we suffer the extra hassle of being pioneers in the field of Fairtrade spices, because it’s what we believe and is fundamental to the brand values that we are trying to nurture.

Sometimes we question whether it’s worth the effort.

It costs us more to run our business than our competitors – we use green energy, green telecoms, green ISPs etc.

We also spend a lot of time, trouble and heartache following through on our principles, but then it’s our competitors (who are mainly non-organic/conventional in the way they work) that get their Fairtrade and organic products onto the shelves of shops.

But we will continue to stay true to who we are. Why? Because we believe it is the right way to run our business. It may take us longer to get there (wherever there is), but so be it.