Archive for May, 2009

Recipe – Barbecued Lamb, Rhubarb and Panna Cotta

Sunday, May 17th, 2009


Today I made one of my favourite meals, top bragging food.  It’s actually a really simple meal, but appears a virtuoso performance.  It does require a little bit of preparation and forethought, so is better at the weekend.  Typical for North Yorkshire, however, I was barbecuing outside in the drizzle while everyone else was dry and warm inside.


Barbecued leg of lamb


2kg       Leg of lamb – the highest quality you can find and on the bone

200ml   Olive oil

75ml     Lemon juice

Large bunch of fresh mint, chopped finely

Salt and pepper or Steenbergs Perfect Salt Seasoning


1.       The evening before the barbecue, mix the marinade and coat the leg of lamb with the marinade. Keep in a fridge overnight, basting before going to bed and several times during the following day.


2.       Prepare the barbecue. Take the marinaded lamb from the fridge, and place on a plate, leaving behind the marinade for basting later. Season the lamb with salt and pepper or Steenbergs Perfect Salt Seasoning and leave for a further 30 minutes.


3.       Barbecue the lamb for 1½ to 2 hours (depending on how cooked you want it), basting every 30 minutes with the marinade. Check that it is cooked to your desired level.


4.       Serve with yoghurt and mint sauce, new potatoes and a classic green salad.


Yoghurt and mint sauce


300ml   Plain Greek-style yoghurt

2          Garlic cloves, finely chopped and crushed

A good bunch of fresh mint, finely chopped

Salt and pepper, or try Green Tea Salt


Mix all the ingredients together.  Play with the seasoning until it’s just right.


Stewed rhubarb and panna cotta


Stewed rhubarb


400g     Rhubarb

4tbsp    Granulated cane sugar

1tbsp    Dark muscovado sugar

1 glass Orange juice

2 glass  Red wine

1 glass Port

2          Cinnamon sticks

1tsp      Steenbergs vanilla extract


Chop up the rhubarb into small 2 – 3 cm lengths.  Put everything together into a heavy pan with the lid on.  Bring to the boil and simmer for 3 – 5 minutes and then leave to cool.


The panna cotta


400ml   Double cream

300ml   Milk (full fat)

8tbsp    Caster sugar

2          Steenbergs vanilla pods

4tsp      Powdered gelatine


1.       Split open the vanilla pods and scrape out the seeds.  Chop the split vanilla pods in half.  Normally, I suggest that you go for a Madagascan vanilla pod but today I used some delicious pods from the Congo on the border with Uganda – these had the classic rich, creaminess of vanilla with overtones of tobacco.


2.       Put the seeds and vanilla pods into a pan, together with the double cream and sugar.  Bring to the boil and gently simmer for 5 minutes.  Take out the vanilla beans and leave to cool.  While the vanilla-cream is simmering, add the cold water to a small pan and sprinkle the gelatine on top of the water and leave for 5 minutes.  While the vanilla-cream is cooling, warm the gelatine until clear.  Now mix the gelatine into the vanilla-cream.  Pour into ramekins, cover and chill for about 3 hours.


I made the stewed rhubarb and panna cotta the day before after I had started marinading the leg of lamb.

Being fair and responsible

Saturday, May 16th, 2009

At Steenbergs Organic, we have been committed to being an ethical business since we started in 2003, becoming Fairtrade for tea in 2004 (both as a trader and as a licensee). It is really important to us that we strike a good balance between our business, the environment and people’s welfare. As well as organic, being fair and responsible are at the heart of everything we do. 

UK‘s first Fairtrade spices

From the beginning, we have worked closely with our suppliers in the developing world to build fair trading relationships based on long term arrangements and fair, stable prices. In parallel to this, we worked with The Fairtrade Foundation in the UK and FLO-Cert GmbH in Germany to develop standards for Fairtrade spices. 

In May 2005, FLO-Cert GmbH approved the standards for Fairtrade spices, as well as draft standards for Fairtrade herbs. At the same, 3 businesses were approved as the original traders for these new Fairtrade spices – Steenbergs was one of them and the only one from the UK. In mid-2005, Steenbergs launched the first Fairtrade-certified spice products with our organic Fairtrade black pepper, as well as the other Fairtrade organic spices. Even after 4 years, Fairtrade spices, and herbs, are still very definitely in their infancy.

Standards are still being developed and the supply chain improved – initially there was only 1 organic & Fairtrade grower for Fairtrade spices, with 4 general Fairtrade spice producers and 5 Fairtrade vanilla co-operatives.  The range of raw materials hasn’t changed, but the number of suppliers, businesses involved and the tonnage available has grown massively.  

Steenbergs is working with some of our other organic spice growers to help them through the Fairtrade certification process. We continue to work with the Fairtrade movement to develop standards for new products – for example, chillis and herbs. Steenbergs’ range of organic Fairtrade spices now includes organic Fairtrade black pepper, organic Fairtrade cloves, organic Fairtrade ginger, organic Fairtrade turmeric, organic Fairtrade white pepper, organic Fairtrade four colour pepper, organic Fairtrade cardamom seed, organic Fairtrade cinnamon, organic Fairtrade mixed spice, organic Fairtrade nutmeg, organic Fairtrade vanilla and organic Fairtrade cinnamon quills.

At the end of 2006, we launched the Europe’s first organic Fairtrade vanilla extract for food producers, with a retail organic Fairtrade vanilla extract launched in mid 2007.  

Is an ethical policy really necessary?

A lot of our products come from the developing world, e.g. India, Madagascar and Sri Lanka. These farmers may be small enterprises, but they still operate in highly competitive commodity markets for their spices and teas. Although international trade is good for the global economy, it can be really tough for these small businesses and their people. There is no comparable welfare state to provide many of the benefits we take for granted. And trading terms are made difficult by the UK’s relative economic strength compared to India, Madagascar and Sri Lanka; as a result, small changes to prices by us in the UK can be magnified for producers.

Pepper In India, pepper is traditionally grown in smallholdings of 5 hectares. Many growers grow pepper intercropped with coconut, coffee and other spices, so annual production is around 1 tonne of black pepper per family. These small producers face fluctuating pepper prices which have been on a downward trend in recent years – black pepper now is worth less than in 1990. This is a result of pricing pressure, coupled with increased exports from countries like Vietnam, which has grown its share of global trade from 0% to 37% since 1990. Low prices have resulted in lack of investment as growers sell their crop below production cost. In 2005, our internal models estimated the cost of sustainable production for black pepper to be £1,645 when the market price was £1,115 per tonne. Constant pricing pressure is destroying these fragile rural economies, reducing environmental standards, health and education in parts of Kerala and elsewhere.


Tea The tea market may be characterised by big plantations. However, small-scale planters grow around half of the tea in Nilgiri in Southern India, as well as in Sri Lanka and Kenya and are an important feature everywhere. Tea is also dominated by large global brands – PG Tips, Tetley, Typhoo and Lipton – and the top 3 firms hold 60% of the UK market. Further, 90% of the Western tea trade is in the hands of 7 multinationals. Since the late 1970s, tea prices have hardly changed, falling in real terms. Global oversupply of 7.5% of demand, coupled with changes to trade with Russia and Iraq, has resulted in prices in 2006 of approximately £1.00 per kg compared to £0.95 per kg in 1995 in open auction. Only 15% of the retail price actually goes to the plantation with the rest earned in blending, packing and sales & marketing, most of which is done outside of the producer countries.

In spite of the open market prices, many Indian plantations have to sell their tea at below production cost – so where 1kg of tea costs 95p to produce, the UK consumer often pays 65p to buy the same 1kg. Poor economics causes reduced environmental and social welfare standards and, in some cases, plantations in India are just being abandoned. The Ethical Tea Partnership is a good step towards improving welfare on international tea estates, but the policing of workers’ rights remains unenforceable in many areas nor does it seek to address the economic inbalances. However, Fairtrade has a real, day-to-day positive impact (at a grassroots level) on the lives of tea workers at estates like the Stockholm Tea Estate and tea pickers like Sivapackiam in Sri Lanka.

Can we do anything to help? 

We think that our suppliers should make enough money from growing organic spices and tea to be able to improve their standards of living, as well as those of their workers and their families. It’s about being responsible in the way Steenbergs Organic sources its products. We look for suppliers that are organic and provide

·         A safe & clean working environment

·         A living wage to farmers and a minimum wage to workers

·         Dignified housing (including potable water and access to energy)

·         Basic rights for worker protection

·         Access to medical care for workers & their families

·         Access to primary and secondary education  

Steenbergs Organic enters into long-term relationships with its suppliers, paying them (in advance) a fair price for their organic pepper, organic tea or other organic spices – at prices determined by the grower itself -and wherever possible these are organic Fairtrade black pepper, organic Fairtrade teas and organic Fairtrade spices.



What’s Fairtrade?


Fairtrade is an independent system of standards mainly targeting cash crops. Participating farmers get a fair price for their crops in return for meeting basic social welfare and environmental standards. Over 5 million farmers, workers and their families now benefit from Fairtrade 

When you pay that little bit extra for a Fairtrade product, that premium goes back to farmers and growers. They are guaranteed a stable price and one that is above the cost of production. This price allows farmers to earn a living wage, to plan for the future and to invest in sustainable business development.

For example, the price for organic teas is approximately £1.60 per kg and with the Fairtrade premium is £1.96 per kg. If a farmer doesn’t sell Fairtrade, he will receive the price in the market – currently £1.00 per kg. 

During the last 10 years, the lowest price was 80p per kg. In addition with Fairtrade teas, a proportion goes directly to the community to spend as they see fit. Steenbergs Organic is mainly focused on higher grade gourmet teas, so pays prices significantly higher than these quoted prices, which are mainly for CTC and Fannings, ie tea-bag grade teas.

Isn’t ethical and fair trading bad for competitiveness?

Ethical trading and Fairtrade is not without its critics. Critics believe that guaranteed prices cause global oversupply in commodities and that a focus on small producers will result in a lack of competitiveness. But

·         The ethical trade market is insignificantly small.

·         Fairtrade is 0.7% of the 148,000MT British tea market and 0.1% of the global market.

·         Demand for ethical and Fairtrade products is consumer-led.

·         If consumers don’t want to pay a little bit extra for an ethical product, these products would neither be made nor bought.

·         In Europe, we have basic standards of social welfare, education, workers’ rights and a minimum wage. It is difficult to deny similar benefits to the growers and manufacturers of the products we buy.


Give us a good news example?

Greenfield Tea Estate, the source of our Earl Grey and our bagged teas (Peace Tea and Green Tea), is set in the Uva Highlands in Sri Lanka. Greenfield is organic and Fairtrade. It’s part of Lanka Organics, which also supplies Steenbergs Organic with organic spices.

Among its many ethical initiatives, Greenfield provides full union recognition, a cow for each family, drinking water within 10m of each house, a staffed medical centre and on-estate schooling up to 18 years old, with teachers provided by the Ministry of Education. Fairtrade premiums from sales of Fairtrade tea are paid to the Social Committee for the 770 people of the Greenfield Tea Estate, which is responsible for receiving and allocating premium money.

Premium money was used recently for its biggest project so far: the re-development of the Estate Social Club. The Estate Social Club is a meeting hall that’s used for social events, special interest classes, mother and baby groups, children’s clubs, union meetings and other group events. The Fairtrade premium has, also, been invested in lock-up steel lockers, which is the first time families have had moth-proof and damp-proof places for clothes and valuables.

Crime has been almost non-existent on the Estate but there had been a few break-ins in the local village recently which had raised some concern among the workforce. During the day, the whole family is often out of the house and people didn’t like the thought of having to lock their homes and keep hold of keys (what if someone comes home early and someone else has the key etc?).

TVs and aerials have also been purchased at the houses of some of the community leaders as residents wanted access to news and Tamil TV broadcasts. The quality of housing on the Greenfield Estate is already higher than neighbouring estates but recently money has gone to help with interior decoration. This is on-going.

Many of these things may appear small but at Greenfield these developments are a source of pride, wonder and excitement. When the co-operative initially took over the estate it was in poor condition, the houses hadn’t been looked after in 20 years and people who lived on the estate had their legal entitlement to three days work per week on US$1 a day. Drug and alcohol dependency were rife. These problems have now mostly disappeared and the younger generations are involved in taking responsibility for their own community.

There’s still a long way to go but so far the leaps and bounds they’ve taken in 10 years has made a real difference.


Indian pepper chicken recipe

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

This recipe really should have been posted closer to the blog on black pepper.


500g                 Chicken, cut into bite sized pieces

2 cloves            Garlic, smashed and chopped

2cm                  Fresh ginger, grated

4tbsp                Sunflower oil

2                              Onions, sliced

12                           Curry leaves

½                     Green chilli and remove seeds

1tsp                  Coriander seeds

½tsp                 Turmeric

225ml               Vegetable stock (Steenbergs organic vegetable bouillon powder)

1tsp                  Steenbergs garam masala

½tsp                 Freshly milled Indian black pepper

½tsp                 Natural sea salt


Dry fry (or brown in the oven) the coriander seeds, then grind them in a pestle and mortar or electric coffee grinder.  Add the garlic and ginger and mash to a paste.


Heat the oil in a larger frying pan.  Add the onions, curry leaves and green chilli and cook until the onions become translucent.


Add the seasoning paste and cook for 3 minutes, then add turmeric and a pinch of sea salt.  Mix well and cook for a further 5 minutes.  Add the chicken, stir through.  Add the stock and the garam masala.  Cover and cook for 5 minutes on a gentle heat or until the chicken is cooked through.  Stir the ground pepper into the mixture and serve with boiled rice and dhal.

Recipe – cheat’s paella or cheating at rice dishes

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

During the week, we have a constant battle at the end of each day to make something nutritious for the family in the 45 minutes after picking up the kids from school and tea time.  The meal needs to be made at the same time as we’re trying to persuade the kids to look at their homework and contemplate doing their music practice.


Finding things that are interesting to eat, and are quick and simple, are a real challenge.  This type of cooking is sadly neglected by TV chefs and most cookery writers who assume limitless time & money and an unrestricted storecupboard, which is sadly very depleted by Thursday night.


The cheat’s paella is something that fills the gap.  It assumes only that you have got some rice, some onions, some garlic and some paprika in the house. 


I am also going to explain it a bit differently from the way most recipes are shown; one of my issues with much of cookery done on TV and in books is that it is done as if we are in a chemistry lesson, i.e. here’s a list of things you need and a load of steps to follow.  I don’t think this is how cooking should be explained or shown as most cooking is based around a few processes or steps that can then be built on infinitely to make a whole range of different flavours but based around the same starting concept.  Paella is similar, or at least a cheat’s paella is similar.


The core process


Stage 1 – making the rice


225g     Rice (theoretically it should be paella/risotto rice but we actually prefer a long-grained rice like basmati, plus basmati is more versatile in our house)

450ml   Water

6          Threads of saffron (optional)


Cook the rice how you would normally cook it until it is still a bit crunchy.  This should take about 10 minutes.  If you want to use the saffron, put the saffron in a mug or measuring jug, boil some water in a kettle and pour about 200ml of hot water onto the saffron.  Leave it to infuse for about 10 minutes, then strain this liquid into the rice and use it to cook the rice, replacing 200ml of the 450ml of water from the above recipe.  Actually, there is no need to be this precise – we assume a cupped hand of rice per person and then just cover the rice with water and cook, topping up as you need it.  With rice practice makes you better (rarely perfect). 


Stage 2 – making the base flavour


3          Cloves garlic

1          Medium-sized onion

2tbsp    Olive oil

2tsp      Paprika

Pinch    Salt


Chop up garlic and onion finely.  I actually put these in a food processor as our children are at that stage where (if they can see them) garlic and onions are the devil’s food, but if you chop them up really finely they don’t even notice that they are eating it.  Add the olive oil to a heavy-bottomed pan and over a medium heat cook the garlic-onions until they are just beginning to brown at the edges.  Add the paprika and salt and stir together.


Personalising the dish


Stage 3 – being creative


This is the stage at which you personalise the rice dish.  Basically you need some vegetables (traditionally this would be 2 rice tomatoes and 1 red pepper but we often add broccoli as the kids love eating this) and some protein (traditionally wild rabbit, crayfish, prawns or snails, none of which are very easy to come by, so we use ham, pre-cooked prawns and any left-over meat in the fridge).  Down below is how we did it the other day:


1          Breast of chicken, chopped into bite sized cubes

10        Scallops

16        Slices of chorizo

10        Pre-cooked prawns


These things are cooked together with the garlic-onion in the order needed to ensure that they are all cooked through.  Raw chicken is added a few minutes before starting to the cook the garlic-onions and will take about the same length of time as the onions.  The scallops take about 3 minutes so are added towards the end of cooking the onions, i.e. after about 5-6 minutes, then the chorizo and prawns are added in the last 2 minutes just to cook them through.  Add the drained rice to the vegetables and meat and mix thoroughly.


Serve with a green salad.


It is useful to have the oven on at 125oC at the same time, so if you get your timing wrong, you can either put the rice of the meat mix into the oven to keep warm, or if your kids are playing up and don’t come to tea straight away you can keep the whole lot warm in the oven without it spoiling.


Variations on a theme


You can make this into any style of cuisine by changing the flavour in Stage 2, so if you replace the paprika with curry powder, it can become a kedgeree style meal.  Here are some simple ideas:


1tsp Madras curry powder, plus replace chorizo with fish = cheat’s kedgeree rice


1tsp Nasi goreng, plus change chorizo for cooked ham, and add some salted peanuts (coarsely chopped) and 1 tablespoon light soy sauce = cheat’s Indonesian nasi goreng

What does organic mean for Steenbergs in practicality?

Friday, May 8th, 2009

Basic business set-up

As a business, Steenbergs is relatively simple to manage from an organic perspective.  We are committed to importing and manufacturing organic food, and we are committed to thinking in a green way in everything we do.  We are not part-green or just a bit organic at the edges of what we do as our main business; this isn’t some cynical marketing gimmick or way of keeping the UK major multiples happy by adding a few lines of organic into the mix of a range of standardised, factory food.


So, with us, it’s a matter of remembering to squeeze in that 1% of conventional product lines at some time in the manufacturing week.  At Steenbergs, it’s a matter of finding room to keep our non-organic ingredients, rather than worrying about contaminating the precious organic in the corner with the mass of conventional ingredients in the warehouse; our non-organic ingredients are on 1 small, 6 ft long shelf in the corner of a 2500 sq ft warehouse that’s stacked 3 pallet spaces high with organic kit.


We source all our products from reputable international and European exporters of organic spices and herbs, most of whom we have been dealing with for over 3 years.  One of them, Lanka Organics in Sri Lanka is a group we have partnered with since we started importing directly from source in 2004.


Every product and every unit of raw material that comes into our warehouse is traceable with a unique code back to the original incoming product batch code.  This can be traced from incoming source batch code through to our end sales unit, or vice versa from a single jar of organic black pepper back to the incoming bag of organic black peppercorns that came into our warehouse and back to the grower at origin.


The only other thing that really matters is what happens in the middle, i.e. the processing part.  Firstly, we never mix non-organic with organic processing (and never put non-organic raw materials into organic materials and call it organic) and we have a principal of never, ever seeking a derogation to use non-organic materials in organic products and call them organic.  A derogation is an opt-out that allows you to use a non-organic ingredient where it is “impossible” to find that ingredient as organic, so long as it is less than 5% of the end product.  Personally, I think this rule is pretty dubious and is easily abused by those who don’t understand it.  In the end, like pregnancy where you’re either pregnant or you are not, so for organic it is either organic or not, and I say no to derogations completely.


For example, some people quote to me the fact that it’s okay to use non-organic in our products if the organic is less than 5% – well it isn’t and I am sure that they are just being loose with the technical details but it does give me the heebie-jeebies.  Secondly, it means that you can specify into your product something obscure and then get round the underlying principles of organic.  For example, you could specify into your product fresh Scotch Bonnet chillis or Bhut Jolakia chillis and, as these are not available as organic anywhere in the world, you can go for a derogation, but it is possible to change your product slightly and use a hot dried chilli, such as dried chilli pilli pilli from somewhere in Africa (perhaps Tanzania or Uganda), without too much problem with the end product. 


Another example could be smoked paprika.  As far as I am aware, this is not yet available in a organic format but manufacturers are always after it as they like the idea of getting natural smokiness into their products without using something ghastly like liquid smoke.  But you could use a beautiful organic paprika from Spain, then add an organically approved smoked salt (available commercially from the likes of Maldon Salt) or even smoke the end product oneself under organic rules.


Anyway, going back to what we do.  If we are packing a raw material straight into its end packaging, we basically get a container of organic chilli, for sake of argument, and check that its status has not been compromised (via broken packaging etc) and then pack the organic chilli carefully under normal good food manufacturing procedures.  All the relevant identification information is recorded and approved labels are put onto the packaging, detailing organic status, which our organic certification agency is, together with the normal food safety information.


The only wrinkle to the above is when we make our organic blends, of which we have over 300.  In this instance, we calculate the recipe ingredients using our computer-held database of recipes (all of these are based on batch sizes of 1kg so we simply work out how many kilos we want and then multiply the ingredients up).  In our own blending room, which is separated from the packing rooms, we take the picked organic raw materials, weigh them out carefully, mix them together and store them in suitable food-grade containers.  All the relevant identification information is recorded and approved labels are put onto the packaging, detailing organic status, which our organic certification agency is, together with the normal food safety information.


Since we began in October 2003, we have been audited each year by Organic Food Federation, which is registered as UK Certification 4 (Soil Association is UK Certification 5).  We are checked against our compliance with the law as embodied in EC834/2007 (previously EC2092/91; these are the EC regulation numbers) and the specific rules of the Organic Food Federation.  The Organic Food Federation itself is registered with defra and regularly reviewed by defra for its competence as an organic certifier.  The key issues for any certifier are: (i) can we prove the materials we are dealing with came in as organic (see below); (ii) are we maintaining the organic integrity of these materials; (iii) can we trace all the materials as they come in and out; (iv) are we correctly labelling and disclosing the organic status of our products? 


Import process


For Steenbergs, verification of the original organic status of our raw materials is paramount.  In this area, it’s down to proving the organic chain of custody from seed planted in India, China, Spain or wherever right to our warehouse door in Ripon, North Yorkshire.


Whether we are certified by Organic Food Federation or Soil Association is less important for the sourcding and importation part of the cycle as what actually matters is the certifier of the original farmer or farmers group.  Certification outside of the EC is usually undertaken by one of the international European agencies (the British certifiers have been particularly poor at getting themselves out there to do this type of business), so the certifiers are agencies like Control Union from the Netherlands, Ecocert from France, BCS-Oeko and Lacon from Germany, IMO from Switzerland or Indocert from India.


Importing products from the EC is simple.  We order it from businesses certified as organic within their own country and keep records of the chain of custody, i.e. batch codes on the incoming product. 


Similarly, products from a number of approved countries can also be purchased on the same basis but with a slight technical wrinkle.  As products from outside the EC require Customs Clearance and (as a food) authorisation from UK Port Health, there is an importation form that needs the official stamp and signature from the exporters organic certification agency confirming that the products being exported are organic under EC law; this form is then countersigned and stamped by the UK Port Health Authorities as it enters the UK (or technically as it enters the European Community, i.e. this is an EC rule not a British rule). 


In fact, this latter point is important: organic is nothing really to do with Britain, it is a European Community matter and is governed by EC law under EC834/2007 (it used to be EC2092/91). defra, the Organic Food Federation and the Soil Association are all effectively agents of the European Parliament and what can be regarded as organic is ultimately a matter for Europe and not Britain.


These approved countries are those that are regarded as having a certification process and certification agencies as good as any country in the European Community.  This includes countries such as Argentina, Australia, Costa Rice, India, Israel, New Zealand and Switzerland.  For the purpose of organic rules, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway are regarded as members of the European Community.


When we started in 2003, countries like India were not approved under the fast-track route.  In these cases, you had to go through a longer route.  It is interesting to note the countries with equivalence; you would perhaps expect Canada and the US to be approved but they are not, whereas you may not expect Argentina, Costa Rice and India to be in the approved club.  I suspect that there is a large political element in who is in and who is out of the fast-track club.


To get initial authorisations, we have had to complete some fairly onerous forms (now called an OB11) that required us to prove that, for each product, for each agricultural unit and for each processing centre, we could show that EC organic legislation had been met and that an EC-authorised certification agency has been undertaking regular inspections of the land, farming method, processing methods and export handling to ensure that the produce is organically farmed and that nothing in the post-farm process could adulterate the organic status of the farmed food.  This could take weeks of toing and froing with many finickety queries.  These import authorisations must be renewed every year through the completion of a shorter form (an OB12) that also requires sign off by the EC-authorised agency.


However, on the basis of streamlining (read penny pinching and cost-saving), this checking process as been effectively stopped and become a rubber-stamping process.


Perversely, the system is actually now more expensive than it used to be.  In the past, I filled out the forms (which were really long) but nowadays the form is much shorter and has to be completed by the exporter’s certification agency, which includes their seal and sign-off.  A renewal used to cost us £50 which we paid to defra but now costs £15 plus the cost to the external agency of €125.  Wouldn’t it have been better to charge us £75 or £100 and allowed us to continue to do the work – this would have kept the income in the UK, allowed the staff to be kept on at defra, rather than shifting the increased cost to British businesses while shifting the cash benefit to agencies based in mainland Europe.


What extra checks do we do?


The above processes are all very well, but they are really legalistic and it is key for us that our organic suppliers believe in organic and are not simply very good at form filling.  This is one of my great bugbears about legislation in all spheres – by relying on legislation, it enables businesses to turn around and say “we’ve met the requirements of the law” whereas in actual fact they are flouting the idea behind the law in all some areas that are not directly and very specifically addressed in the legislation.  In accounting, we used to talk about looking at “the substance” of transactions rather than “the form”.


We choose our organic suppliers very simply.  We look for businesses that only do organic products and have been doing organic for at least 5 years.  Wherever possible we like them to also be involved in fair trading in some format, whether Fairtrade/Max Havelaar or Ecocert Fairtrade or Traidcraft Fairtrade or some other recognised process.  We also like to meet them and look into their eyes to see whether they really believe in organic and ethical trading or whether it’s simply a money-making gimmick.


We then try and visit as many as possible places, but this is financially really difficult for a small business like ours, so we cannot do this as much as we would like.


We also get our suppliers to complete a long and detailed Self-Audit Questionnaire that covers many aspects from Good Food Manufacturing through to How Do You Treat Employees and what Manuring Process do you use.


Then when the products come in, we test them on a random basis for microbiological quality, pesticide contamination and sometimes irradiation.  Nothing is released into our production until these tests are satisfactory.  Any issues are then questioned back through the chain.  Once we had a real internal scare and thought that one of products had been irradiated but after loads of extra testing, which cost us a fortune, meetings with the farmers and their certification agency, it appears that the laboratory made a mistake or at least the result was a rogue – we retested the original and new samples as well as samples of other products from the same supplier and found no evidence. 


We then trade with them continuously as we believe that the best way is for us to build up a relationship over time and a feeling of mutual trust.  So while we are still bringing on new suppliers all the time, one of our favourite suppliers (Lanka Organics/Greenfield Tea) was our first approved organic supplier and we are still working with and doing more things all the time.

Wood-smoked food

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

We have just had a couple of really disappointing smoked meals.  We had been sent a couple of Smoker Bags, which are made by SAVU in Finland, to try. 

The concept is great: they are aluminium foil bags with a 3-ply system that supposedly keeps the smoke in the bag via a bottom layer in the bag that contains the hickory or alder wood chips.

Firstly, we tried the Smoker Bag for Poultry with hickory wood chips.  We seasoned some chicken thighs and legs with sunflower oil, some salt and pepper and put them into the bags.  We cooked them in the oven for 30 minutes and then took out the cooked chicken, eating them with some boiled new potatoes and steamed broccoli.  The chicken did not taste at all smoked and our house smelt as though someone had lit a bonfire in it, albeit using pleasantly flavoured sweet hickory wood.

Today, we tried the Smoker Bag for Fish which was used alder wood chips.  This time we cooked cod fillets.  I did not season them at all this time as I was slightly concerned that maybe the seasoning had interfered with the smoke flavouring of the chicken legs, but added a smidgeon of milk.  I cooked them in the oven for only 20 minutes.   We served the “smoked” cod fillets with mashed potatoes with steamed mange tout and baby corn.  While the house did not get smoked out, the end result was still a real disappointment with very little smokiness coming through into the end product.

Getting decently flavoured home-smoked food is really difficult.  We are often asked for organic smoked paprika but find it hard to come by; actually, it seems impossible.  The problem is the smoking process: you need to find an organically certified smokery that’s willing to have a crack at smoking the paprika; then you need to find someone who’s willing to take sufficient volume to make it commercially viable (around 500kg).  There are no willing takers for either!

Anyway, it’s given me an idea for a new spices blend that would bring together that smokiness without the need of a Smoker Bag or a barbecue.  I’ll use this as a way of explaining how we come up with new ideas (the good, the bad and the truly disgusting), but it may take a couple of weeks to finesse the blend itself.

Summer is here, let’s celebrate

Monday, May 4th, 2009

The swallows arrived on 17th April this year. They got to Northumberland on 19th April. Summer is now here. This winter has been a long haul – cold, with lots of snow, and pretty glum. 

It is humbling and refreshing to get to spring/early summer – nature continues regardless of the trials and tribulations of mankind’s ups and downs.  The daffodils and tulips come out in April and are still here, but turning, while the bluebells are just perfect.  A couple of weeks ago, our cherry tree was beautiful, heavy with fulsome white blossom, which suddenly fell onto the ground on windy day to leave a melancholic blanket of white on our lawn.  Our crab apple tree has come out with its deep pink blossom, soon to turn white like the blossom on our apple trees. 

Then comes the baroque extravagance of the purple blossom on our wisteria – a truly exuberant expression of the beauty of early summer.  It covers one whole wall and the blossoms hang like huge bunches of grapes.  It hums with the buzz of all manner of insects attracted to its jasmine smelling flowers.

At this time every year, we celebrate May Day in our village just west of Ripon we live in. It’s a really traditional event. Held on the village green, there are May Day dances by the girls of the village and usually a few very reluctant boys. A new May Queen is crowned by the previous year’s May Queen.

Then there are cake stalls, a tombola, a white elephant stand, face painting and several shops, as well as games and activities – such as coconut shies, pig races, catch-a-rat, a bouncy castle and large bouncy slide.

May Day is a celebration of half the year, moving from the Wintry Half back into the Summery Half. It is thought to be associated with celebrations like Beltane which has become Christianised and more secular to become the modern event, which often also includes Morris Dancing in many villages. Traditionally, the May dancers were led out with the dancing figure of the Jack-in-the-Green, who harks back to the times when our trees were sacred. In our village, we have a bag-piper, which sounds good but is not very proper (perhaps a Northumbrian piper would be better, but I am not sure there is such a thing as Yorkshire pipes).

It’s a great day and is another sign of the start of Summer. It’s also good that traditional festivals are being kept going.   Modern society is too interested in riding roughshod over traditional values just for change for changes sake; often without replacing them at all.

In 2008, the traditional Ripon pancake race had to be abandoned for health and safety reasons. Not because the race was considered especially dangerous, but rather completing all the paperwork was far too onerous and the Council was going to charge the organisers £250 for the privilege of carrying out the race. After an outcry, which included lots of publicity from the newspapers and Terry Wogan on Radio 2, the pancake race was reinstated on Shrove Tuesday 2009.

A traditional British event on Shrove Tuesday, the first pancake race was said to have taken place in Olney in Buckinghamshire in 1445 and originated from a housewife, busy cooking pancakes to eat before Lent, rushing outside with pan in hand when the bells sounded to summon people to church.

It’s good that the killjoy attitudes of modern health and safety legislation don’t always prevail and that some fun things are allowed to be continued. Let’s try and keep the colour in our lives rather than letting the powers that be bleach out all the colours in their do-gooding way to make our world all grey.

I, also, feel that we don’t celebrate the coming of summer enough in Britain.  We have lots of festivals at the end of summer and the middle of winter, but why not celebrate the end of winter and the start of spring/ summer?  It’s a time of renewal when everything seems possible. Whereas harvest festival marks the end of summer, while Christmas gives us a welcome break half-way through winter.

Thinking about organic?

Friday, May 1st, 2009

At Steenbergs, we are passionate about the wonderful tastes, heady smells, glorious colours and the thrill and excitement of high quality pepper, spices and herbs.  We are, also, looking for products that can be traced back to the farmers and growers.


This provenance and level of food-quality only comes through organic products.  Organic food is about respect for the consumer and nature – “making” food the way consumers expect it to be made without harming, damaging or polluting our environment.  But what exactly is organic and what’s so bad with non-organic foods?


What it means to farmers?


To start with, they must “convert” their non-organic land – following organic practices for 3 years before they can sell their produce as organic.  This is a massive commitment in time and money.


Organic farming starts with the seeds, which must be “natural” and cannot be genetically engineered.  Next, there comes the soil – organic farming looks to build healthy, living soil that can produce great food.  Soil is nourished with manure and compost, rather than with synthetic fertilisers.


Pest and diseases are a major issue for farmers, reducing crop and meat yields.  An organic farmer cannot use artificial pesticides or routine antibiotics.  Organic farmers protect against disease through maintaining healthy soil, crop rotation, intercropping and using natural controls.


Are organic foods healthier?


With organic foods, you can be sure that artificial processing has been kept to a minimum.  Organic foods tend to have higher mineral and vitamin content.  No artificial chemicals are used in farming; no post-harvest chemicals are applied to plants and meat.  They contain no hydrogenated fats, artificial additives, flavourings or preservatives.


So while it may be impossible to prove whether organic is healthier than non-organic there is something suspect about tampering with our food.  Personally, I think that the problem is not actually whether organic is better than non-organic, but that no-one has devised an experiment or trial that could show this.  It’s all a problem of: the vested interests in the chemical and biotechnology industry; how much such an experiment would cost; how long the experiment would need to take (probably at least several generations of people); and actually whether anyone is really that bothered in the outcome.


What about the environment and the farmers?


Organic producers, also, consider the environmental impact of food production and the welfare of their workers.


Organic producers start with the idea that they are the guardians of the land, respecting the environment, looking to preserve plant and animal species, nurturing the soil and keeping the air and water clean.


At Steenbergs, a key factor in the way we work is respect for people.  We have a strict policy that guarantees producers a fair market value for the goods they produce.  We work closely with our suppliers to ensure that their workers are paid a fair wage, as well as given decent levels of sanitation, power and education.


Can I be sure that it really is organic?


“Organic” has a strict legal meaning – all food or drink sold as “organic” within Europe must be produced according to European laws on organic production.  This means that farmers, processors and importers need to be reviewed every year by a recognised agency and importers must obtain import licences for every non-European product.  We are registered with Organic Food Federation, UK Certification 4.


When we have visited and checked our suppliers, we move to getting import licences from defra (the UK food and farming department).  This means that our growers in India, Sri Lanka etc must also be checked every year and hold EU organic certificates.  Then when we order, each shipment must be checked by the exporter’s certification body, the UK Port Authorities and ourselves – we carry out laboratory analysis checking for pesticide residues (amongst others).


The impact of chemicals


25,000 tonnes of pesticides are applied to crops in the UK every year and pesticides are recommended for use in the production of pepper and spices by the local spice associations.  However, of the 75,000 synthetic chemicals on the market only 10% have been rigorously tested with 30% having never been checked.  But what is known isn’t great:

  1. Methyl bromide is used in many pesticides and as a fungicide for pepper.  Yet it is linked to the deaths of farm-workers in the developed and developing world, attacking the nervous system, as well as damaging lungs, kidneys and is linked to testicular cancer.  It, also, damages the ozone layer, so is being (supposedly) phased out by 2015.
  2.   Irradiation may be used to sterilise herbs and spices under UK legislation, although it is rarely used.  Where it is not used, ethylene oxide is often used.  Ethylene oxide is a known genotoxic carcinogen, which has been banned in Australia for use on herbs and spices.
  3.  In the USA, farmers apply over 14 million tonnes of man-made nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers to their fields, but only 20% is actually absorbed in plant tissue.  The rest runs off into our rivers and seas, where it can cause nitrate poisoning in humans, as well as algal blooms that can kill aquatic life and pollute drinking water supplies.


Too good to be true!


Natural food does not behave the way we are used to – colours tend to be more muted and variable, powders can cake up and the shelf life may be reduced:

  1. Organic curry powders are light brown and contain no artificial colourings.  Non-organic foods often contain permitted food colourings, such as tartrazine (E102), sunset yellow (E110) and Ponceau 4R (E124).  Tandoori mixes and sauces contain Ponceau 4R, and tartrazine to give it that “improved” look, but tartrazine is banned in Austria, Finland and Norway.
  2. The major supermarkets and independent retailers have had product recalls for cayenne pepper, chilli powder and curry mixes several times between 2003 and 2005.  It was found that non-organic chillis had been “improved” with Sudan I, a carcinogenic red dye that is banned in Europe for foods and is normally used to colour shoe and floor polish.
  3. Spice powders and salts tend to cake up with moisture.  That easy-flow consistency comes from anti-caking agents, such as aluminosilicate for your salt or silicon dioxide in your tandoori mix.  But when you start preserving, you must use clean kosher-style salts as the anti-caking additives cause cloudiness in your chutneys and terrines and cured hams, as well as adding a slightly metallic flavour.

And finally…


Conventional foods are not all bad – a balanced diet is the best thing for all of us.  Just choose the best quality food you can find, consider where it came from, then slow down a little, relax and enjoy it!