Archive for February, 2010

Follow the frankincense trail

Sunday, February 7th, 2010
A Bedouin checks a frankincense tree

A Bedouin checks a frankincense tree

With deft strokes, a Bedouin chips away the grey, papery bark, then smoothes a green patch the size of your hand on the tree; it’s a scrubby, scraggly and unpretentious tree.  As if by magic, milky white tears of gum-resin start welling up in the freshly made green wound.

The Bedouin moves to another tree continuing his harvest.  At some of the trees, the Bedouin man finds trees that he has recently tapped and from these he removes handfuls of precious sap that has now hardened to a golden hue – this is frankincense, one of the world’s most precious substances that is now so rarely used in the developed world.

The trees that the Bedouin would have tapped are Boswellia sacra and we were in an imaginary walk through the fabled frankincense groves of Oman’s desert plateau that borders the green mountains of Dhofar.  This is where the best frankincense is grown as this is where the ideal conditions are – a steady tropical sun, pale limestone soil and an heavy dew from the monsoon.

Omani frankincense has a subtle aroma of balsam that recalls distant shrines or northern pine forests.  The trade in frankincense struggles like many of the ancient spice and ingredients trades as they are hard work for the money that you can make – in the Middle East, young men would rather work in the oil fields rather than the frankincense fields, while in Sri Lanka, young men would rather work in a bank than learn to prepare cinnamon bark.

Chunks of frankincense

Chunks of frankincense

From these chunks of golden resin, a whole economy flourished along the frankincense trail, from ancient Arabia to distant Greece and Rome.  On the back of the camel, this river of incense built up fabled kingdoms with names that have a haunting romantic quality and litter the texts of the Bible – Main, Hadramawt, Nabataea, Saba (of the fabled Queen of Sheba) and Qataban.

These ancient city states had their own languages, their own histories, their own law and religions, their own art and architecture and they created dams and irrigation to develop agriculture to feed their peoples and water systems to provide pure, luscious water for their people.  Then their kingdoms collapsed before slipping into the dust of ancient history, becoming forgotten tales and monuments (like at Petra) for tourists to gawp at.

The Egyptians used the “perfume of the gods” for temple rites and as a base for perfumes; frankincense is first recorded on the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut from the 15th century BC, where it says that she had sent an expedition to the land of Punt (perhaps in Somalia) to go and get some frankincense.  In 450BC, Herodotus, the Greek Father of History, mentioned the aromatics of Arabia – “The whole country is scented with them and exhales an odour marvellously sweet.”  In the Roman world, incense perfumed cremation rites and Nero lavished a whole year’s production of frankincense on the funeral of his consort, Poppaea.

The trade in frankincense nowadays is obscure and a very small niche, but in 100 – 200AD, Southern Arabia sent over 3,000 tons every year along the frankincense trail to Greece and Rome.

The Hadramawat city of Shibam

The Hadramawat city of Shibam

This 2400 mile trail began in Hadramawt in South Yemen around the ancient of Sabota.  Pliny the Elder wrote “Frankincense…is conveyed to Sabota on camels…The Kings have made it a capital offence for camels so laden to turn aside from the high road”.  The camels would have collected the frankincense from the valley of Wadi Hadramawt with its cities, Shibam, Sayun and Tarim.  From Sabota, the camel trains would go to Qana for shipment overseas and trading with India for spices or north to Timna and then through Saba, the ancient kingdom of Sheba.  After Marib, they would travel to Main and then to Mecca, al Medina and finally to Petra, where the ancient Nabatean Kingdom traded incense and spices with the Roman Empire.

Was it from one or more of these ancient frankincense kingdoms, that the magi brought their wisdom and their gifts worthy of a prince.  Along the trail, the caravans would collect myrrh, salt and indigo.  For the Magi, frankincense symbolised divinity, an offering equal in importance to gold and myrrh.

Today, the best frankincense comes from Oman, with Hadramawt long gone as the centre of the trade.  Frankincense is also grown in India, Somalia and the Yemen.

Steenbergs Launches New Design For Spice Tins

Friday, February 5th, 2010

At Steenbergs, we have been doing a lot of work trying to refresh parts of our organic spices and seasonings range.  Now we have relaunched our spice tins into a bright new label and an elegant rolled tin.

Steenbergs new spice tins

Steenbergs new spice tins

Part of what we have been seeking to do is to pull out parts of our long list of spices and seasonings that can either sit as a standalone range, such as our Home Bakery products (which we relaunched in August 2009), or added value blends that differentiate Steenbergs in the spices and seasonings world. 

We have a range of over 200 blends that we make in small batches by hand which is way more than industrial spice blenders and packers can hope to do – they just don’t have the ability to work on small batch runs nor the inclination.

So during 2009 we redesigned the spice tin, which was originally a spice dabbah made for us in Mumbai in India, to a rolled tin that is now being made for us in China.  This new tin was launched in mid 2009 and looks much smarter and more elegant than the old tin that we felt was a bit shiny and the shapes of the actual dabbahs were inconsistent.

In the latter part of 2009 and through to early 2010, we have created a new look label for a few of our most popular blends – Steenbergs Signature Blends.  These labels are brightly coloured, individual for each seasoning and now include a recipe idea.

The labels were printed last week and are now launched on the web site and will be officially launched at the forthcoming Organic & Natural Products Show at Olympia in April 2010. 

They have great shelf presence and we expect to add maybe another 5 – 10 more over the next 2 years.  The blends that are currently available are:

Organic Fairtrade 4 colour pepper
Organic Fairtrade curry powder
(a new blend!)
Organic Fairtrade garam masala
Organic Harissa with Rose Petals
Organic Herbes de Provence
Organic Italian Herbs

Organic Mixed Herbs
Ras al hanut
Zaatar

Tell us what you think, and what other Steenbergs products we should add to this range of Signature Blends – I am thinking China 5 Spice, Dukkah, Jamaican Jerk and Mexican Chile Powder.

Recipe for Traditional Pudding: Queen of Puddings

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

I was listening to Radio 4 the other day and they were talking about steam puddings and how it is a truly English traditional that is not found anywhere else.  One of the puds they were talking about was Queen of Puddings which was being made  at Riverford Farm Shop (I think). 

This is one of our firm family favourites and used to be my grandfather’s favourite pudding, as well.  I made it the other weekend for my parents as my dad says he never gets it cooked for him.  Here’s how we did it:

Ingredients

290ml / ½ pint full fat milk, ideally organic
15g / ½ oz butter, ideally organic
30g / 1 oz organic Fairtrade caster sugar
60ml / 4 tablespoons white breadcrumbs
Grated rind of 1 lemon
2 free range eggs, separated into whites and yolks
1tsp Steenbergs organic Fairtrade vanilla extract
30ml / 2tbps raspberry jam or raspberries in a sauce, warmed to make runny
110g / 4 oz organic Fairtrade caster sugar

Preheat the oven to 180oC /350oF.

Warm the milk then add the butter and sugar.  Stir it all with a wooden spoon until the sugar has all dissolved, then add the breadcrumbs and lemon rind.

Seperate the eggs.  Whisk the eggs gently by hand and add the Steenbergs organic Fairtrade vanilla extract into this.  When the breadcrumbs mixture has cooled down a bit, stir in this egg yolk mixture thoroughly.  Pour the breadcrumb custard mix into a pie dish and leave to stand for 30 minutes somewhere cool.

Put into the preheated oven and bake for 25 minutes, or until set.  This can be done in a bain marie for even more exacting results, but it doesn’t need it if you watch over it.  Remove and allow to cool.

Reduce the oven to 150oC /300oF.

Using the warmed jam, spread this over the top of the set breadcrumb-custard base.  At my parents, we used some frozen raspberries from the garden which we warmed through and then added some sugar to; this was less sweet than using raspberry jam and had a better mouth feel or texture, but maybe are less close to hand.

Whip the egg whites until stiff and then whisk into this about 2 teaspoons of the caster sugar.  Whisk again until very stiff and then fold in all but ½ teaspoon of caster sugar.  Pour this over the top of the base, then sprinkle over the remaining caster sugar.

Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes until the meringue is set and lightly brown at the edges.

You could serve this alone, as we do, or with a luxurious clotted cream or even vanilla infused whipped cream.

Carbon Offsets and Steenberg Carbon Footprints

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Every year on slightly ad hoc basis, I sit down and try and calculate our carbon footprint and then offset for the greenhouse gasses that make up our carbon footprint.  It’s a guesstimate because it does not include all aspects of the Steenbergs business, but we cover a much wider proportion of Steenbergs’ impact on the planet than most other people get round to doing.

Firstly, let me explain the things that we include and those that we exclude:

Carbon costs that are included: transport of raw materials and packaging from most recent supplier to Ripon; transport of Steenbergs goods from our Ripon factory to customers; transport of Steenbergs staff on business; and carbon cost of paper used in marketing and office functions

Carbon costs that are excluded: energy (as it is 100% from renewable sources via Good Energy, but see my note i below); staff travel to and from work; embedded carbon within Steenbergs raw materials and packaging (this is something we are still trying to collect all the data on)

We have used the Climatecare model for carbon costs and the total annual cost for 1 January – 31 December 2009 was 3.75 tonnes CO2 which is actually below (and I mean way below) the minimum that Climatecare will offset, which is an annual minimum of 10 tonnes.  So we pay the minimum of £75 + VAT to offset this rather than the actual cost of roughly half that.  Basically we are a carbon minnow, treading pretty lightly on the planet, but I do accept that this excludes the embedded carbon in our packaging materials, which may be horrible!

What is interesting and very shocking (at least to me) is the breakdown of our carbon costs, which shows that the cost of our paper is astronomic comprising half of our carbon costs.  We use even in our small business about 500-600kg of paper a year on stuff – I am going to get this figure down but it will be painful as everyone seems very attached to their own particular piece of paper for processing and/or recording our operations.

Our carbon costs from transport are actually quite low because we do not have our own transport and through using consolidated carriers from the Royal Mail to Palletline we optimise space utilisation on transport vehicles rather than inefficiently running our own vans at below full capacity.  In addition, we do next to no mileage for business purposes – we hardly do any direct face-to-face selling or account handling which perhaps we should do but is just not part of Sophie or my inner psyche.

As part of my Open University course, I also had to do my personal carbon footprint last year using their Quick EYE-OU greenhouse gas emissions programme.  This came up with a personal score of 9.2 tonnes CO2e per year which is actually 3.2 tonnes (-25.8%) below the UK average.   This comprised direct CO2e from home energy, personal food and travel of 6.0 tonnes CO2e and embedded carbon of 3.2 tonnes CO2e from indirect goods and services (such as goods and services purchased and my share of governmental CO2e).

To put it into perspective, the US average is 19.9 tonnes CO2 per person, but the Indian average is 1.2 tonnes CO2, the Brazilian 2.1 tonnes CO2 and the Chinese 4.8 tonnes CO2  per person (see Timesonline article).  The article also shows UK’s carbon to be 9.3 tonnes CO2 per person, which does not match the information above, because this study does not include all greenhouse gas emissions or non household carbon.  So even if my contribution to climate change is low compared to the UK average, it is a big clumpy footprint stamping down on our planet.

It is interesting to see that my personal totals are much higher than Steenbergs as a business.  This is partly because we have ignored the embedded CO2e at work from goods and services purchased, as well as in packaging materials.  But also, we are much more profligate with energy at home than at work, plus travel is less efficient than the consolidation carried out at work.

One of the conclusions I came to when I did calculations for work back in 2007 was that personal travel is the real swinging factor.  Energy will eventually be tackled via nuclear power (whether you approve of it or not, and I don’t, but Professor James Lovelock is probably correct on this one).  More CO2e is generated by staff travelling to and from work than the business as a whole; similarly, more CO2e is probably generated by shoppers going to and from the shops than the embedded carbon in the products and/or services that they purchase in those shops. 

Basically the cost of our personal freedom through the car is hugely inefficient and as a nation we must come to terms with reconfiguring our relationship with transport if we ever want to really grapple with climate change. 

But I suspect the price of this will be too hard to bear and it just won’t be tackled by any MP or Minister in any UK Government, of whatever political persuasion.

Note i: if you did include office and factory energy, we used 2572kWh which equates to 1.36 tonnes CO2 and would add another £20.17 in offset costs.  So while I exclude this from our calculations, it is actually covered by the minimum carbon cost per reporting period that we have bought carbon offsets for.

Trying To Build A Better Spices Business

Monday, February 1st, 2010

When Sophie and I set up Steenbergs, we were very clear in our own minds about what Steenbergs as a business wanted to offer as products – the widest and most exotic range of great spices, herbs, seasonings and teas from around the world that are grown under organic agriculture and ethically sourced.  But we also wanted Steenbergs to be run as a different sort of place to those that I had been asked to expect since I entered the corporate world.

We didn’t want a one dimensional pursuit of money to the exclusion of everything else  – I remember being interviewed for a job at Lazards in the City when I was maybe 25 years old and being told in that interview by an American gentleman when asked “why do you want to work in corporate finance?” that my waffly answer about “interesting, intellectual work” was wrong and that he wanted people that wanted money, were turned on by money and were motivated by greed, so luckily I did not get a job there.

Steenbergs also needs to be a fun, happy place to work where no-one blames people for mistakes and that when things go wrong we all muck in and clear up the mess, sort it out and get on with life.  Firstly, we all make mistakes and secondly, you need to make mistakes to learn.

We hope that we have created a decent place culturally to work rather than one driven by profit and fear.

Finally, we are following a middle path, one that is decent, fair and reasonable to all people within and outside the business that come into contact with Steenbergs as an entity, and that we need to carefully consider Steenbergs impact on the world, on Gaia – our planet, and try to ensure that we make as small an impact as possible on the world.

It’s a middle path that accepts we must make compromises and so will not please everyone, but we will try and improve what we do, while also striving to make a small profit.  Without being profitable, it would be impossible to earn any income and to generate cash to re-invest in our business – we do not have the private wealth or big income to have the luxury of running Steenbergs as a loss-making entity without the need to consider how to grow sales, where to scrimp and save to keep costs down nor where to make pragmatic choices that may not always be the best choice for the environment (especially in packaging).

Recently, I have come across the the concept of the triple bottom line concept (“TBL” or “3BL” or “the three pillars”) which means that a business should think about “people, planet, profit” in its business dealings, rather than just to be in it for a quick buck for ourselves.  I like it as an idea as it encapsulates more rigorously what we have been trying to do in our own haphazard style.

We see the triple bottom line model as a better way to run a business, being a virtuous circle of slow but constant improvement in our business operations and the impact we have as a business on the world environment and people within Steenbergs and those who become involved with us, such as suppliers, buyers or just interested people.

So I thought it worthwhile to be very open about some of our thoughts and start explaining ways we think about and address certain key social and ethical questions within our business.  These can now be found at the following links on the web site:

Over the next few months, I hope to address packaging as an issue area and embedded carbon costs, so I will keep you informed of when I get somewhere there, but the information available to small businesses on these things is limited and the advice on how to look into it almost no existent.