Archive for May, 2010

Ripon Water Walks – Along The Ure

Monday, May 31st, 2010

I mentioned in my first blog about walks in Ripon in North Yorkshire that I did not believe that Ripon had only been settled as a monastery in 650AD.  I believe this basic historical fact about Ripon’s history even less now after walking along the River Ure.  Firstly, wherever you walk along the Ure and also nearly everywhere you are in the Dallamires area south of the River Skell, you are watched over by the brooding presence of Ripon Cathedral.  It seems to be watching you, eyeing you up and saying: what are you doing, where are you going and are you sure you should really be doing that because I am watching you?  Secondly, Hewick Bridge by one of the markers that indicate the edge of the sanctuary of Ripon was an important bridge in the Roman times connecting a settlement near the bridge/river with Isurium Brigantium, the major Roman town that is now the ancient village of Aldborough.  There is no physical evidence just the circumstantial thoughts of someone who has walked the land and feels that this was just too good a location to ignore.

On Saturday 23rd May, which was a warm and sunny evening after a scorching day, I parked my car on Magdalen’s Road and started my walk along the footpath over North Bridge Green.  North Bridge Green is a floodplain for the River Ure that stretches from the north side of North Bridge and follows the south side of the River Ure as it arcs round from the Bridge to where it meets with the River Skell by Fisher Green.  It is public land that floods regularly and is a green swathe of grass, however it would be great if more trees were planted, which would allow the ground to hold more water when the river is in spate and would also give more woodland for local biodiversity to thrive.

It’s a gentle 30 minute walk along the edge of the river, which languidly flows towards the Skell.  The water had a peaty brown hue to it and looked temptingly cool on an evening like it was.  There are shingle beeches every so often that you can wander down to and watch the river flow past, look for fish, watch the ducks swimming and the insects swarming on the water.  There were some teenagers enjoying skimming stones across the water, but most were enjoying the delights of “Over the Rainbow – The Final”  or some other TV delight.

Hidden Bench By River Ure

Hidden Bench By River Ure

Around half way around, the land rises to a small height where you can look across to Ripon Cathedral as it keeps an eye on you, before you slide back down to river height.  As you get closer to the meeting of the Rivers Ure and Skell, there’s an old bench hidden beneath bushes and covered in nettles, where once there must have been a lovely river view – a romantic sign of decay – while a newer bench by the meeting of the rivers has no seat and just the concrete base – a sign simply of neglect.  Once again, you can turnaround and see Ripon Cathedral checking up on you…

View Back To Ripon Cathedral

View From Skell To Ripon Cathedral

At  Fisher Green, we cross over the stepping stones across the River Skell and then follow the footpath along the south side past Yorkshire Water’s wastewater treatment plant coming out on a field called The Green, which is opposite Ripon Race Course.  It flooded here last December after a snow melt in the Yorkshire Dales and covered over the road, and the field itself floods at least once every winter.

Hewick Bridge In Ripon , Yorkshire

Hewick Bridge In Ripon , Yorkshire

Sanctuary Marker By Hewick Bridge

Sanctuary Marker By Hewick Bridge

At Hewick Bridge, you need to be careful as you cross the bridge as it’s busy and there’s no footpath.  Just over Hewick Bridge, there’s a footpath and a sanctuary marker that marks the start of a walk called the Sanctuary Walk, where you can walk around the ancient limits of one league from the monastery.  We just use the part that goes along the northern banks of the River Ure.  A few yards in from the start there is a concrete section that goes into the river and comes out the other side – I always thought this was a car park but apparently this is where tanks used to cross over the river.

This section of the walk to Sharrow and back to North Bridge takes another hour, bringing the total walk time to a good 2 hours.  This section is a decent walk in the countryside, save for the sound of cars constantly moving.  Soon you blot these out and can hear only the sounds of the birds with their evening chorus – swallows, thrush, ducks, blackbirds, pigeons, the high pitched chirrup chirrup of house martins and then the loud honking of a couple of geese as they flew overhead like 2 bombers.  The trees and flowers alongside the river were in full bloom – hawthorn, chestnut, white butterbur, nettles, wild garlic, bluebells and then you had the white parachute seed heads of the the Old Man’s Clock’s and downy female catkins on some small shrubby willow bushes (I think it’s a type of Osier Willow or Salix viminalis as the leaves are definitely spear shaped, but I am not convinced about this), as well as a patch of forget-me-nots in the middle of nowhere as if someone had just dropped a pack of seeds as they wandered idly by.

Forget-me-nots Among White Butterbur

Forget-me-nots Among White Butterbur

As I got to the point that the Rivers Ure and Skell meet, I walked through nettles and elder, climbed over an ineffectual fence and clambered down the riverbank and stood over the river on the trunk of an elder tree and took a picture of the confluence.  It was probably not worth the effort as it was decidely undramatic, but it was something I had been keen to do, and it satisfied a curiosity.  I still need to find the meeting places of the Ure with the Ouse Beck and also Kex Beck with the River Laver, having found the meeting between the Rivers Skell and Laver earlier.

Meeting Of Rivers Ure and Skell In Ripon In Yorkshire

Meeting Of Rivers Ure and Skell In Ripon In Yorkshire

Near here it is worth looking east towards the Blackamoor Pub and looking over the perfectly landscaped farmland and the patches of Van Goghian yellow of rapeseed flowers, then to the north a derelict farmhouse that I will explore another day.

View Back To Blackamoor Pub

View Back To Blackamoor Pub

Beware Of Witches And The Gruffalo

Beware Of Witches And The Gruffalo

Two-thirds of the way along, you follow a pathway off the river bank and upwards onto Bell Bank, which is a National Trust owned wood that’s about 30 metres above the Ure.  It’s a steep slope upwards covered in trees clinging to the riverbank, so there’s an out-of-place sign warning those who enter the wood that they do so at their own risk – what of: witches or the gruffalo or that I might not notice the steep slope down to the river.  The wood was shaded and dappled with the setting sun and with patches of bluebells here and there, adding a colour contrast to the greens and browns of the woodland.

As you come out of the wood, you get a good glimpse of Ripon Cathedral staring at you, then you are down and nearly out at Sharrow.  As you follow the path along, you go under the Duchess of Kent Bridge, then out and over North Bridge.  Cross over to the opposite side of the bridge and look over the floodplain at one of Ripon’s curiosities – a white wigwam, why?  And you’re back at Magdalen’s Road.

White Teepee Near North Bridge In Ripon

White Teepee By North Bridge In Ripon In Yorkshire

Thinking about it, do you know what I hardly have seen when I do these short potters – people fishing.  Only once have I seen someone and that was in the centre of Ripon, but few people seem to be sitting on the bank, idling their time away trying to catch brown trout or whatever is in the river.  I know there are fishers out there, but where are they hiding?

PS: I must get a filter for my camera as I regularly get the blue sky whiting out in the photos I am taking.

Can We Save Ourselves From Global Warming?

Saturday, May 29th, 2010

I went to a public lecture by Professor John Beddington who is currently Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government.  He was lecturing on Climate Change as a University of York Biology lecture.  And yesterday he was back in London attacking climate sceptics who mistake weather for climate change and so on.

I am slowly trying to understand the science in more detail, having understood the basics since I did science way back when, plus I have even set myself out on doing an Open University degree on Environmental Science/Studies to improve my understanding of these issues.  So I guess I am now an advanced layman rather than much further on than that.

So what came out for me in his lecture was not whether or not climate change or global warming exists – it does and the science is clear, even if there are gaps in getting to a total understanding on the subject.  We know that quantum physics works even though there are gaps, while we know that evolution occurs and that alternative routes co-exist with it, such as horizontal gene transfer.  Gaps and alternatives do not necessarily negate the core scientific theory.

What struck me were 2 slides:

  1. One slide on annual deployment rates for alternatives, lower carbon emission energy sources.  I didn’t have time to take down all the data but it did include 32 new nuclear plants per annum, 215 million m2 of solar panels annually, 3750 offshore wind turbines every year etc etc.  That’s just an awesome task.  It chimed with some thoughts in Stewart Brand’s recent book “Whole Earth Discipline”.
  2. His final slide – which Professor Beddington called The Perfect Storm, where he stated that we must not forget that there are more scientific issues impacting environmental issues than just climate change.  He said that we have the interaction of the following – population growth and a population that will peak at 8-9 billion people, increased urbanisation and the fact that most people live in cities now and this will continue to increase, a lower relative number of poor in the world which will increase levels of consumption and (finally) climate change.  Once again that’s a tough set of environmental drivers to deal with.

For me, this begs the question whether you can marry up the economics that building all this new energy infrastructure requires with the fact that increases in population, urban living and consumption (as a by-product of reduced relative levels of poor) will demand ever greater levels of electricity and they want it now.  Also, if we need these levels of deployment, we better get a shift on and start sorting it out really, really fast.

Which brings me on to nimbyism (the not-in-my-back-yard syndrome) – how will all these new alternative power sources be put into place within the UK’s current planning regime.  Nuclear power – which must be in the energy mix – is hated by people near proposed plants while even near us in Melmerby in North Yorkshire, people are already campaigning against a putative wind farm nearby (it’s not even got further than a bit of scoping by a possible wind energy business).  If we all go around saying, we need to sort out climate change but we ain’t going to let you put your wind farm or nuclear plant next to us, we will never get off first base.  To get this scale of change in the energy supply for the UK, and other countries, politicians will need to become heavy-handed and force through building, while also making the financial returns more pallatable for businesses as these new forms of energy do not have acceptable short term returns, rather a very long and dull economic return.  This all chimes against my own views on liberalism – personal and economic freedom.

Good luck to you all – politicians and scientists.  You have my full support, but it’s going to be really hard to get this all done, especially when you have so many other shorter term demands on your empty pot of money.

Visit to Milk Shake Bar in Ripon

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Yesterday evening, the Steenberg family finally went to visit the milk bar in Ripon.  It was a treat after we took the kids to Evensong in Ripon Cathedral on Monday evening for the Whit Monday service; that was beautiful with the service sung by the boys and girls choir of Ripon Cathedral, who mainly come from the choristers at Ripon Cathedral Choir SchoolThe Archbishop of York, who is very cool, gave the sermon – all about repentance – and blessed the congregation.  He’s definitely a hero with his outspoken views against Robert Mugabe.

Shake Up! is a neat, small shop on Westgate, and although there’s no real place for parking, everyone simply parks on the double yellow lines outside.  The decor is as you would expect a light pink painted wall, and then inside it’s sparse and utilitarian – a counter and then shelves with every type of sweet or biscuit that every parent wouldn’t want their kids to eat.  The aura is 1960s nostalgia, with the feel of English seaside resorts.

The whole experience was indulgent and – as a treat – allowed everyone to enjoy everything they’re not normally allowed.  The milk shakes are made from milk, ice cream and then any of a huge array of flavours you want.  The cost starts at a mere £2.20 – what huge value.  We went for the following 3 flavours – Toblerone, Skittles and Oreo (all differently not mushed together), but you can be healthy and have banana from real bananas and other fruits, however that would have missed the point. 

Did they taste good – yes, and the kids are already planning what evil, unhealthy concotion to have next.

My advice: go there, be tempted and enjoy yourself.

Water Walks In Ripon – Alongside The Skell

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

As you walk through the centre of Ripon alongside the River Skell, you get an appreciation of how many bridges there are.  Sure, Ripon isn’t Venice with its profusion of quaint, romantic curve bridges that play on the imagination nor the strong, engineered lines of the great industrial bridges of Newcastle.  However, Ripon does have a lot of bridges packed into a small area.

For the short walk across Ripon, there are 11 highly functional bridges connecting Ripon between North and South, between the old and new parts of the city, and even as you get to Fisher Green a ford and 2 sets of stepping stones.  Towards the North, there are 2 further bridges over the Ure – North Bridge and the Duchess of Kent Bridge – and Hewick Bridge as you leave the east of Ripon going towards Boroughbridge and York; then there are 4 footbridges over Ripon Canal.  And all of this is in a short distance of 1 – 2 miles (2 – 3 kilometres).  Bridges have always been important to city life – Hewick Bridge and Bishopton Bridge had chapels attached to them to encourage pilgrims to pay for their upkeep – but there were no pontage dues or Bridge Wardens in Ripon.

We start this short city walk where we left the previous walk by Borrage Lane, that is at Borrage Bridge but facing eastwards.  The first thing to notice is the beautifully converted piece of local industrial architecture – the old Williamson Varnish Factory.

View From Borrage Bridge Past Williamson Varnish Factory

View From Borrage Bridge Past Williamson Varnish Factory

You walk along the river for a bit before coming out to cross over a road and past the Williamson Drive Bridge built for the newly built housing around the old Williamson Varnish Factory.  Then we follow another river path that is parallel to the very old road, Barefoot Street, which used to connect Borrage Bridge to St John’s Chapel.  The river bank opposite is dominated by overhanging trees arching over the languid water as it flows slowly through the city, channelled by hard engineered stone and concrete walls to protect the riverbanks and houses from the Skell in spate.  Brown trout can be seen hovering in the river and range in size from 3 inches to about 8 inches in length.

View From Bondgate Bridge

View From Bondgate Bridge

All too soon, we have reached Bondgate Bridge, where the mill race would have entered the river again.  Opposite us, there is a quaint little white house where the owner has placed a cheap looking plaster cast of a fisherman on their wall.  Ironically, someone was fishing for their tea on the bank opposite but seemingly with little luck in spite of lots of brown trout clearly visible and rising to the surface for insects.  Once again, we need to walk over the road by St John’s Chapel and down again on to the other side.  Here you walk along a short while with a recently renovated playground opposite us on a water meadow at Bondgate Green.  And it’s but a short walk to Archer Bridge.

I went under Archer Bridge and continued on the south side of the Skell.  Opposite, you can see the white-painted backs of some of the old buildings connected to Ripon Cathedral, while we walk on towards the Water Rat Pub past Alma Weir with its ineffectual salmon leap.  Alma Weir is one of the places where the Environment Agency measures river flow, but they have also realised that it can cause the water to back up the river, so causing flooding in its own right.  As a result, under the Ripon Flood Alleviation Scheme, Alma Weir is to be removed and the river gouged out to lower it and hopefully make this part of central Ripon less prone to flooding.  The Water Rat and Alma Weir are the location of the world famous (okay locally quite well known) Annual Duck Race held on August Bank Holiday Weekend.

Alma Weir In Ripon

View Across Alma Weir To Ripon Cathedral

Here, I crossed over the wooden Alma Bridge to the north side of the river.  Now follow, the river for a short while before you can see the remnants of an old mill race in a small patch of greenery.  Now, you cross another wooden bridge where Priest Lane dips down to ford the Skell by Wolseley Center’s ugly brown buildings.

Ford in Ripon In Yorkshire

Priest Lane Ford In Ripon In Yorkshire

We’re now firmly back into parts of Ripon that suffer from flooding.  Obviously, the Priest Lane Ford gets unpassable a few times a year, but now we’re entering the Fisher Green area of Ripon which can get pretty wet.  We walk along the Skell’s south bank past the back of some industrial buildings where Interserve is doing work on the Flood Scheme and a strange little building by Fisher Green Bridge that houses NDS, which offers training in rock music ranging from guitar playing to drumming.  Fisher Green Bridge is a classic sturdy piece of Victorian industrial architecture that was built to last; it was formerly the bridge for the railway line that was removed under Beeching and has been collared for the Ripon bypass.  If you look up to the road you can see that the A61 has widened the original bridge simply by cutting off the sides, bunging on some wide concrete slabs that overhang the bridge base by a couple of metres each side and then stuck the edges back on again – sensible but you would not have known this from the road above.

We walk under the bridge and are basically in the countryside.  Save for a few houses on the north side, the small green space northwards between the A61, the Skell to the south and the curving Ure to the east is given over to farming and washlands, which are used for walking by locals.  The houses here along the Skell are all subject to flooding and you can see many of the houses have sandbags to the ready or sturdy floodgates to protect their properties.

Crossing River At Fisher Green in Ripon

Stepping Stones Across Skell

Here I crossed the river over some stepping stones set into the river and walked a short distance along a wide green grassed footpath to the point where the Skell meets the Ure for its journey onwards towards the Humber.  Here, there are a few trees but I must admit that I would like to see more – I can imagine an avenue of trees holding together the river bank and soaking up the water when the rivers get bloated.  The trees around here include sycamores and willows as well as decorative cherry trees, while the river banks are currently covered in flowering wild garlic.

View Towards Fisher Green in Ripon

View Towards Fisher Green in Ripon

Recipe For Pink Rose Macarons

Monday, May 24th, 2010
Pink is one of those colours I have never really liked.  However, getting married and then having a daughter have made me accept pink as a colour and slowly but surely start to like pink as long as it is subtle rather than Barbie coloured.  Sophie has even managed to get me into a light rose pink shirt once in a blue moon.

Anyway, I have been wanting to try and make pink coloured macarons for a while, ever since seeing a rainbow coloured display at Betty’s Tearooms at Harlow Carr Gardens in Harrogate.  I also was keen to combine this with our rose water – Steenbergs organic rose blossom water – but I find macarons recipes really complex.  For example, I found several recipes by Pierre Hermé, but while he is the master, it felt way too finickity for a country boy like me.  So here’s how I made some pink rose macarons and by the end it had become almost as hard work as if I had followed those damn difficult recipes in the first place!

Pink Rose Macarons

Pink Rose Macarons


For the rose blossom filling:

62.5g/2.25oz good quality white chocolate, melted and left to cool a bit
62.5ml/2.25oz double cream
15g unsalted butter, at room temperature and cut into pieces
1.5tsp Steenbergs Rose Blossom Water

For the batter:

125g/4.5oz ground almonds
125g/4.5oz icing sugar
1tsp red food colouring (see how I made it at end of the recipe)
2tsp Steenbergs organic rose blossom water
90g/3oz egg whites (somewhere around 3 eggs are needed)
125g/4.5oz Fairtrade caster sugar

Pre-heat oven to 180oC /350oF.  Line two baking trays or sheets with baking parchment paper and get a pastry bag ready with a 2cm plain tip.

Mixing Cream Into Melted White Chocolate

Mixing Cream Into Melted White Chocolate

Start by making the rose flavoured filling.  Melt the white chocolate bits in a mixing bowl over boiling water.  Heat the double cream and when the cream is just about to boil, remove from the heat and add to the white chocolate, then stir until smooth.  Add the butter and mix these through until completely smooth.  Now add the Steenbergs organic rose blossom water and mix thoroughly.  Cover the filling with clingfilm touching its surface and refrigerate for about 2 hours.

In a food processor, grind together the icing sugar and ground almonds until really fine and then sieve.

Put the egg whites into a mixing bowl and beat them with an electric mixer until they start to rise, then add the caster sugar in two parts, adding the Steenbergs rose blossom water and colouring with the second batch of caster sugar, and continue to whisk until the egg whites become stiff, firm and slightly glossy on the outside.

Carefully fold the dry ingredients in two parts into the beaten egg whites with a metal spoon or rubber spatula.  When the mixture is just smooth and the last streaks of egg mix disappear, stop mixing and scrape the batter into the pastry bag.

Carefully pipe out the batter into 3cm round evenly spaced every 3cm apart onto the parchment paper.  Rap the baking tray three times on the counter top to flatten the macarons.  Then bake for 15 – 18 minutes with the oven door kept slightly open held by wooden spoon.  Leave to cool for a few minutes and then carefully detach and leave to cool completely.

Putting The Pink Rose Macaron Together

Putting The Pink Rose Macaron Together

To put the pink rose macarons together, pipe some of the rose blossom filling onto a macarons and then sandwich another similar shaped macaron on top, twist it slightly until the filling spills our a bit.  Carry on until you have built all of the pink rose macarons.

Cover them and store in the fridge for about 24 hours before taking out of the fridge and serving at room temperature.

Note on colouring:

You could use carmine red food colouring or cochineal for the colouring if you wish.  These are not natural colours or are derived from animals, so may not meet with your ethical viewpoints, however these macarons are much better coloured pink as that is part of their appeal.  Here’s how I got around the issue, I made my own food colouring. 

I took 1 teaspoon of organic beetroot powder and added 2 tablespoons of mineral water and mixed together.  Leave for about 30 minutes, then filter through paper tea filter – I used one of our DIY tea bags or you could use a coffee filter.  Unfortunately, it smells a bit of beetroot so I added rose blossom into the batter which isn’t really necessary, and the colour is more of a berry, but it looked better than off white and gets into the spirit of it all.

Filtering Beetroot Juice

Filtering Beetroot Juice

As I wrote earlier, making macarons is a bit like a complex chemical experiment and really feels a bit fussy at times, but these did taste delicious and sweet.

New Season Asparagus

Saturday, May 22nd, 2010

There’s nothing simpler, nothing more delicious than new season asparagus.  Some years ago, Sophie and I tried to grow asparagus, but we never had sufficient patience and that project came to nought.  But luckily there are loads of brilliant local growers of asparagus who do have the patience.

Sophie came back with a punnet of fresh asparagus from M.L. & R.C. Snowden, who farm on the Leeds Road between Harrogate and Harewood in North Yorkshire.  They are one of our favourite places for asaparagus, soft fruits (pick your own) and fresh salad leaves.

New Season's Asparagus

New Season's Asparagus

We simply trimmed off the woody ends, washed them, boiled them in our upright asparagus pot until they were just softened and then we served them covered in melted butter and a sprinkling of sea salt – we used Fleur de sel and you could, also, use Maldon salt.  Then we eat them with our fingers. 

Delicious, natural and simple yet indulgent.

Tip: never drink white wine with asparagus as I find it makes the wine taste really metallic.

Recipe for Indulgent Coffee Cup Cakes

Friday, May 21st, 2010

There’s lots of fuss and carry on about cup cakes and how wonderful they are, so I felt I better try and make some.  I was, also, unsure what the actual difference between a cup cake is and a good, old fashioned fairy cake.

Well, the difference is as much about perception as it is about any real change – cup cakes are bigger and to fit in with that extra size the toppings are more indulgent and rich than a classic fairy cake.  In addition, the texture and mouth feel of the cake is moister and richer while a fairy cake tends to be lighter and more springy.  This is partly to do with the ingredients that add in milk and some plain flour to increase the richness and reduce the airiness of a Yorkshire fairy cake.  What do I prefer – I think the answer is a classic one of “horses for courses”, i.e. it depends on the event.

Here’s a good version of a cup cake – a Fairtrade Coffee Cup Cake. 

Four Fairtrade Coffee Cup Cakes

Four Fairtrade Coffee Cup Cakes

Ingredients for the cup cakes:

Ingredients for the icing:

How to make Steenbergs Fairtrade coffee cup cakes:

Preheat to oven to 180oC/350oF and oil lightly a dozen hole muffin tray.

Make the strong Fairtrade coffee – I used an Ethiopian coffee from Grumpy Mule – and add to the milk.  Sieve the organic flours together.

Getting The Ingredients Ready For Fairtrade Coffee Cup Cakes

Getting The Ingredients Ready For Fairtrade Coffee Cup Cakes

Put the butter and caster sugar into a mixing bowl and beat until pale and creamy.  Add the free range eggs, one at a time and then add the strong Fairtrade black coffee flavoured milk, and beat until well mixed together.  Fold in the sieved organic flours and ensure well mixed through.  Stir until smooth.

Divide the cake mixture about two-thirds up a muffin hole (or a muffin sized case and place on baking tray) and bake for 20 minutes.  Enjoy the remaining mixture taste by sharing with the kids, or just enjoy yourself while (in this case) the children were playing outside in the garden.  Remove from the oven and leave to sit for 10 minutes, then tip the muffins out of the muffin pan onto a wire rack to cool, or just place the muffin cases straight onto the wire rack.

For the icing, melt the milk chocolate over simmering water.  Leave to cool down and then gently beat in the mascarpone until you have a thick creamy icing.  Spread the mix over the cooled muffins and sprinkle with a Fairtrade chocolate drops or Steenbergs dark or light chocolate strands – I used dark.

Fairtrade Coffee Cup Cake

Fairtrade Coffee Cup Cake

Then it’s up to you how to enjoy them – whether with a cup of strong coffee or some delicious freshly brewed Steenbergs organic Fairtrade Peace Tea in a mug.

New Indonesian Pepper Just Arrived at Steenbergs

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

I read a book last year called “The Scents of Eden” by Charles Corn – it’s a history of the spice trade.  It was great as the perspective was different from the histories that I had read in the past which always wrote them from the angle of European spice traders – including British, Dutch and Venice.  It’s written for an American audience and talks about the first American exploits into Indonesia and the history of Salem (other than it’s infamous one about Salem’s witch trials), plus the founding of Yale University with the proceeds of Elihu Yale’s generous gifts of East Indian exotic and books; none of which I knew much about except the odd snippets here and there.

As much of the spice trade had been carved up between Britain and the Netherlands, there were slim pickings for relatively new global traders like America.  As a result of this together with happenstance, most of the original spices for the American market came from Sumatra, with the result that the new and growing US developed a love for the intensely hot black and white peppercorns shipped in from the East Indies – now Indonesia.   It was in 1790 that Captain Jonathan Carnes sailed back his ship the Cadet after 2 years “lost at sea” and had found Sumatra.  So here we are experimenting with Indonesian flavours rather than the Indian style pepper that we usually deal with.

Steenbergs Lampung Black Pepper comes from a small region called Kota Bumi in Lampung Utara on the southern end of Sumatra in Indonesia. Here spice farmers still use the old farming practice of growing pepper vines on shade-growing trees. Glossy leaved pepper vines grow up the trunks of tropical shade trees providing protection from heat and harsh sunlight. On the forest floor, nitrogen-fixing legumes are planted in rings around the pepper vines, providing a constant source of nutrients and protecting valuable biodiversity such as beneficial insects that act as natural protection against diseases that affect these pepper vines.  While not certified organic, these spice farmers are having a damn good stab at earthy, natural farming.

The black pepper berries themselves are incredibly pungent when grown like this, developing intense heat like chilli pepper fruits.  The quality of this Lampung black pepper compared to the kit you get from high street stores is amazing – like the difference between home grown tomatoes and the junk you get from the supermarket. Steenbergs Lampung Black Pepper comes from only 1% of the total available pepper harvest in a shade-grown pepper field, with higher quality Steenbergs pepper berries specially selected and harvested at the peak of ripeness.

Steenbergs Lampung black pepper has a bold, pungent flavour – even stronger than Malabar black peppercorns like Steenbergs luxury black pepper berries.  Lampung black pepper starts warming with a classic aromatic, appetising flavour before I got a sudden numbing heat on the tongue that built in intensity around the mouth; the heat lingers a bit but leaves an appetising, mouth-watering taste for a good 5 minutes.  Steenbergs Lampung black pepper is versatile like all good pepper and great with red meat, poultry, grilled vegetables, marinades and dressings, soft cheese and even on strawberries!

Steenbergs Muntok White Pepper – a close relative of Lampung black pepper – is a normal vine pepper but one that has been grown exclusively for making white pepper.  This white pepper is grown in the hills behind the village of Muntok on the Indonesian island of Bangka.  The pepper growers wait until the pepper berries have matured a bit longer than those in Lampung so that they are mainly red and so give a fuller flavour and then start the harvesting.  The pepper farmers use traditional bamboo tripods to climb up the trees and then hand-pick pepper fruit spikes of red ripe pepper berries.  These fruit spikes – that are reminiscent of bunches of grapes – are packed into rice sacks and soaked in slow running streams that flow down from the mountains above.  Seven days later the outermost skin of the pepper has disintegrated and the peppercorns are piled together for a traditional trampling called Nari Mereca or the Pepper Dance which is a bit like the classic stamping on grapes to make wine – the technical name for this process is a rather bland decortication. The dancing separates the peppercorns from the fruit spike and after a final washing the berries are left to dry in the sun where they naturally will bleach to a creamy white. 

Muntok white pepper smells faintly foisty but nowhere near as badly as some white pepper which smells of dirty, sweaty football socks – yuck – and doesn’t have that warming aroma that you would expect from black peppercorns.  The white peppercorns are crunchy to bite on and quickly build to a numbing heat that makes your eyes water – I started coughing but god was it a great feeling – and the heat numbed the mouth and top of the throat.  Muntok white pepper is perfect with pork and veal, poultry, white fish and shellfish, rice and pasta, steamed vegetables, blue cheese and great in white and cheese sauces.

PS: I wouldn’t advise anyone to chew on the Muntok white pepper on its own as it really was numbing and hot, but the Lumpung black pepper would be fine – I only chew on these things because it’s what I do.

Water Walks In Ripon – A Walk Along Borrage Lane

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

I have been spending a few minutes every day exploring the waterways of Ripon over the last month as part of some course work.  It has been really enlightening and an abject lesson in what you can miss on your doorstep when you keep your eyes closed and your nose to the grindstone of daily toil.

The first thing that happened was that it was plain and simply good fun – just the beauty and a sense of excitement as you found new things.  Secondly, Ripon really is a little gem of a city, forgotten and a bit tatty at the edges, but truly beautiful with countryside and farmland encroaching into the city.  It’s a green place, teeming with wildlife, and defined by its rivers.

Ripon is an old place.  It’s not Roman, but must have been inhabitated by local Britons before St Wilfrid rebuilt the monastery and cathedral of St Peter’s & St Wilfrid’s in the 7th century and that now defines and dominates the cityscape and skyline.  But it’s when you walk the rivers that you realise why Ripon was built where it is and why also it must have been inhabitated for many years prior to St Wilfrid.

There are three rivers that define Ripon – the River Laver, the River Skell and the River Ure (or in older times the River Yore which hints at its older pronunciation).  All the rivers have their sources in the Yorkshire Dales.  The Laver forms a border for Ripon on the west, meeting the Skell at the western edge of the old city and then the enlarged Skell flows through the centre of Ripon and where it used to form its southerly border.  The Skell then flows out of the old city and meets the Ure at its eastern edge, before the Ure flows past Hewick Bridge and off to Boroughbridge.  After a name change at Linton-on-Ouse, the Ure becomes the Ouse flowing through York, Selby and Goole before flowing into the Humber Estuary at Faxfleet and by England’s largest tidal reedbed – Blacktoft Sands.  The Ouse is the river of North Yorkshire and York is the second city of England.

So the three rivers create natural boundaries to the old city on the west, south and east.  Then you have the low lying hill by the Skell, where Ripon Cathedral now sits and would have allowed you to watch over the shallow valley in all directions.  The rivers are also flooding rivers and the area south of the Skell, where the canal and Dallamires Lane is located, would have been wet and boggy land, further protecting the city, while the surrounding land is good farmland that was mentioned in the Domesday Book.

So Ripon would just have seemed a great location to start a new settlement and I cannot believe that monks were the first people to notice this at the comparatively late date of 650AD.

Back to the walk, I started on Borrage Lane by Borrage Bridge and wandered along this small lane that has houses backing onto the River Skell and must regularly get flooded.  There’s a house here with a plaque stating that Wilfred Owen, the war poet, stayed here when recuperating in Ripon in March 1918 before going back to France and the trenches and death literally days before Armistice Day on 4 November 1918; how peaceful and idyllic Ripon must have seemed then and how dirty, noisy and cruel the war must have seemed as a distant memory only for him to have to return.  In his famous collection of “War Poems and others”, it states in the preface: “having much free time outside the camp, took a room in a cottage near the river where he could work in peace.  In this pleasant retreat, poems begun earlier were heavily revised and new pieces written.”  He decided to go back to the front when Siegfried Sassoon was injured with a head-wound and parting in September wrote presciently to his mother “When I go from hence let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unsurpassable.”  Because of him, we should all have etched onto our hearts the last 4 lines of one of his greatest poems:

“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”…And yet we still go to war for glory!

At the top of Borrage Lane just before it curves northwards, I followed the path onto a green swathe that acts as a water meadow along the River Laver and wandered up to Laver Weir by Bishopton Bridge.  Here, I watched the water pouring over the weir – quite mesmerizing and peaceful. 

There used to be a dam here by the bridge called High Cleugh Dam, which diverted water along a Mill Race that went down the middle of Mallorie Park Drive, Skellbank and Low Skellgate all the way to a duck pond at the bottom of Duck Hill, before flowing back into the Skell by Bondgate Bridge.  A cleugh means a cleft with water running through it, which is exactly what this is!  There’s a memory of these mills outside the Hugh Ripley Hall where two millstones are placed in the steps up into this community hall; this was the site of the High Mill.  These mills declined after the High Cleugh Dam was destroyed in a flood in 1892 ending the flour mills of High Mill, Duck Hill Mill and Union Mill.  In fact prior to then even, Ripon used to be the centre for textiles of the north before Halifax took over in the sixteenth century and Ripon entered centuries of economic stasis.  Also, a bit further down river, there is more of the mill race on the north side of the Skell by Alma Weir, but more of that another day.

I pootled back down the River Laver to where it meets with the River Skell by Borrage Lane and wooden bridge that crosses over the enlarged Skell.  This is a great place to play pooh sticks, but today I was more intrigued by where some steps up a bank by the Skell would lead to and where the path on the south side of the Skell came out back in Ripon.  Anyway, the steps led to a field which takes you back to Whitcliffe Lane and the houses in that area plus Ripon Cathedral Choir School, while the path is a short walk back to Borrage Green Lane and a playground that was donated to the children of the city in 1930 by the widow of the last Williamson of the now converted varnish factory by Borrage Bridge in the centre of town. 

Meeting Of River Skell With River Laver In Ripon

Meeting Of River Skell With River Laver In Ripon

Wooden Bridge Over River Skell

Wooden Bridge Over River Skell

If you were to walk across the field and then along Whitcliffe Lane now (May 2010), you will firstly see Ripon Cathedral Choir School which provides the beautiful young male and female voices for the sadly, hardly supported singing within Ripon Cathedral; it’s such a waste of talent that no-one listens to Evensong every evening or the sung services in Ripon Cathedral as the talent is amazing for such a small area that is Ripon.  Also, you should have a nosey at the school’s main building as this was the former finishing post stand for Ripon Race Course for many years – it’s actually back to front, i.e. the front of the school is actually the back of the stand; this was Ripon Race Course’s second location, with the first by the Ure on the far side of North Bridge.  This year and further down Whitcliffe Lane, you will see a quaint ceremonial gas lamp outside one of the houses and this is where the current Mayor of Ripon lives and is inscribed with the words “The Right Worshipful Mayor of Ripon”, and moves around dependent on the current appointee.

It is amazing how green and interlocked with nature this part of Ripon is – farmland cuts behind Whitcliffe Lane and the Skell all the way up to the centre of the city by Borrage Bridge, while modern housing creeps ominously close but has not yet removed this belt of green.  Then on the south side of Borrage Lane you walk among trees and the appetising aroma of wild garlic – masses of wild garlic and other riverbank plants.  Ducks swim with their young broods of 4 or 5 ducklings, and the swallows dive and dance in the skies above the farmland.  Save for the constant drone of cars, buses and lorries in the background, you would never believe that you were literally just feet away from urban life – albeit rural city life.

South Bank Of River Skell Opposite Borrage Lane

South Bank Of River Skell Opposite Borrage Lane

Also, you can see why Borrage Lane floods regularly – its banks are lower than those on the south side by about 2 or 3 metres, while the riverbanks have suffered erosion, especially close to Borrage Bridge.  Also, like many rivers the Skell is deceptive – small, gentle flowing for most of the year, it will suddenly fill up as rainfall and snowmelt rush into it from the moorlands into the Laver, Kex Beck and Skell, all merging quickly and simultaneously in central Ripon to create a rapidly formed flood head that finds the lowest and weakest place to break the banks.  The first place to go for these flood waters to find some freedom is Borrage Lane. 

Gabions Provide Softer Riverbank Edges By Borrage Lane In Ripon

Gabions Provide Softer Riverbank Edges By Borrage Lane In Ripon

Most of the flood protection is home made concrete and solid walls, but nearer to Borrage Bridge gabions have been put in that create a softer edge to the riverbanks that also allows river life to flourish.

And there is loads of river life right here in the centre, and on the edge, of the city – wild garlic, ducks and ducklings, fish (like grayling, brown trout and salmon are slowly wending their way further up the tributaries of the Ouse), native crayfish, bats, skylarks, swallows and supposedly lampreys, water voles and sometimes otters.  This is a part of England that is coming back to life as the countryside is cleaned up and people stop exploiting and fighting with nature, and letting it co-exist with us, enriching our lives.

White House, Ducks And Riverbank From Borrage Bridge In Ripon

White House, Ducks And Riverbank From Borrage Bridge In Ripon

Two Thoughts On Nature After A Walk In North Yorkshire

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

I walked along the River Ure last night.  It was sunny and warm, albeit with a slightly brisk wind towards the south east.  I was amazed that no-one else was out walking along the embankments – there are about 5,000 locally – but I guess that the draw of “Over The Rainbow” on the box was too interesting for nature.

What struck me was two things – firstly, the birds were so busy and noisy; and secondly, the colours. 

As for the birds, there’s a song thrush nesting in the chimney of our neighbour and she sings away early in the morning and in the evening, jamming away with a free flowing tune.  Blackbirds could be seen scruffling around in the leaves and debris below trees and in the hedgerows.  Ducks were busy on the water and several drakes were fighting while flying vertically up from the river, while house martins were flying in flocks of 5 or 6 in strict formation like Red Arrows planes (on reflection, I wonder whether they were sand martins).  Peewits landed in a newly sown field and start poking their black beaks into the soil, hunting for food.

Then there were the colours of the birds, as well as the bright blue sky.  Also, the colours of the plants – to a background of a wide variety of verdant greens, there were the white blossoms of cherry trees, apple trees and horse chestnut trees (I looked at the horse chestnut flowers and they had streaks of pink coursing through the petals), with the bright yellows of rape, brooms and dandelions.  I stooped to pick a seed head from a dandelion and blew 10 times to set all the seeds floating into the wind to start new generations of dandelions – this was done near to where the Battle of Boroughbridge was fought many, many years ago.

It made me think of two things. 

Firstly, how amazing nature is.  It just gets on with life and has worked out such an intricate way of enabling genetic material to pass from generation to generation, ranging from the clever floating seed heads of dandelions to the complex fighting of the drakes, and the beautiful temptations of the horse chestnut flowers luring in the busy bees to pollinate them.  Science is amazing and genes will continue to be transferred by a full range of complex mechanisms whatever we humans get up to.  I am in awe of nature, constantly amazed by its secrets; it has excited me since I was a small kid and it still fascinates me, as well as making me smile.

Secondly, I thought about dinosaurs.  I realised my views of dinosaurs were defined by big fossils in the Science Museum and films like Jurassic Park, Godzilla and Walking With Dinosaurs.  They have made me think of big animals, slow animals, a mute colourless world, deep throated calls and slow lumbering beasts.  But I reckon that’s all wrong – a paradigm shifted.  I reckon that the world of the dinosaurs was bright and colourful, full of high pitched chattering, buzzing insects and busy small animals scurrying around and living their lives.  I know that scientists have started imagining dinosaurs with feathers and colour, but I think that’s not going far enough.  The problem is that the big animals are the ones that leave a trail through geological time in the form of fossils, while the small bugs that dominate our world then and now leave no trail across the aeons.  There are next to no records of bacteria, viruses, moulds or other monocellular creatures and few records of insects and other bugs.

We have that problem even now, in that we see the world from a big mammalian perspective, whereas we don’t rule this world – it’s a world of bacteria, fungi, viruses, insects, spiders, plants and birds, as well as the bigger animals like mammals, reptiles and amphibians.  I realise that deep down I must actually miss the world of microbiology that I studied at Edinburgh University, of those weird bacteria and viruses that transfer their genes horizontally and vertically.  I really am just a science geek that went out into the real world, escaping the lab.

However, we would do well to remember that we are but curiosities to the rest of earth’s life – largely irrelevant.

Update:  I did the walk again today, but back to front and without the sun in my eyes, and they are definitely sand martins as I could see them flying in and out of their burrows in the riverbank opposite the Ings.