Archive for May, 2010

Is There An Easier Way To Save The Planet?

Saturday, May 15th, 2010

I worry about the planet.  I worry about poverty.  I worry about freedom.  I want the world to be a better place, and I want the planet to be fit healthy and beautiful for my children when they grow up and for their children and so on for many thousands of years.  But I also worry that I should just lighten up, stop worrying about it all as the world, nature and people will just sort itself out and be fine. 

Let me use an analogy.  I love the poem by Robert Frost called “The Road Not Taken” as it has always meant something deep and personal to me.  It has made me think that toil and struggle are good and worthy things and that sometimes you need to go for the trickier and harder path as it will be worth the effort in the end and you will get to some promised land, a better place.  You know… Martin Luther King’s Last Speech where he exhorts his people that he has seen the promised land:

“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop… And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight.”

But what if when I get to the end of the path, I come to the raging, roiling bleak expanse of the North Sea and simply have to turn back home back along the same road and the sun has gone in and the weather has turned dark and brooding and bodes a stormy evening. 

And what if everyone else has followed the easier path and found a nice pub at the end or been even more easy-living and gone to Newcastle Airport and flown to sunny Mallorca where they are enjoying a drink in the sun, or gone to work and are  now making a fortune in hustling, bustling Mumbai or Shanghai or Dubai.  Or perhaps they’ve driven along the motorway down to London and got a real job, or taken the ferry and gone to New York for a new life.  Who’s the mug then? Is this overgrown path just an overgrown path that leads nowhere, a Road To Nowhere?

Yes, perhaps I should relax and go with the flow.  Nah, that’s just not me, but maybe I could be more chilled about some things and maybe there is an easier way to save our planet…

Steenbergs In the Media

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Lifestyle magazine has long been a big supporter of Steenbergs and use many of our products to be inspired with. Many of the products not branded Steenbergs are available in our online shop.  Lots of inspiration for everyone.

This month saw:

  1. Steenbergs hot products
  2. Japanese history
  3. Japanese cooking
  4. Tonka beans

Get inspired!

Two Business Decisions That Will Shape Steenbergs Over Years Ahead

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

We’ve made a couple of small, seemingly innocuous commercial decisions in the last 10 days that will probably have a dramatic impact on Steenbergs as a business over the next 5 – 10 years.

Firstly, we had a visit from Waitrose at their behest to discuss some own label lines of flavoured salts that they would incorporate into exclusive recipe based adverts by Heston Blumenthal and Delia Smith.  We decided to turn down with working with them any further for many reasons, but the key thing really just boiled down to the fact that own label,  non organic work for a high street retailer just didn’t fit with where Steenbergs wants to go, particularly where neither of these chefs have any leanings towards “green issues”, i.e. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall might have made our decision harder.

Secondly, we have just asked to stop our FLO-Cert Trader Status for Fairtrade spices as the commercial basis for it didn’t stack up.  We can still trade Fairtrade spices in the UK and Ireland, but having to market Fairtrade spices across Europe for tiny margins was just not economic for us – we were actually not making any money on that side at all except for some sales of organic Fairtrade vanilla extract, but that work died away for us late last year when Divine switched their supplier.  Also, allied to that, there was no real interest from major chocolate makers for good Fairtrade vanilla as Green & Black’s has managed to get a derogation and so uses a non-Fairtrade vanilla extract in its Fairtrade chocolate bars, while Cadbury’s Dairy Milk contains industrial vanillin rather than a gorgeous vanilla alongside it’s “glass and a half of fresh milk from the British Isles”.

Why have we said no to both?  We believe that the next stage for small, ethical food producers is building out our use of the Internet.  We believe that media, communications and shopping will come closer together and over time those specialists with a web presence that has rich media content will be able to more than hold their own against the big behemoths that are the high street retailers.  The key is rich, unique content and the creation of web personality, rather than just being a database of products loitering on the world wide web. 

Why can small businesses like us succeed? (a) we have a personality that is not created in the marketing department; (b) software and technology is free and open on the Internet ranging from blogging tools to Twitter and via Youtube, which will kill any uniqueness that big business gets from their technology investments as it will all become free – look what the Internet is doing for newspapers and music and watch it creep out into the physical world; (c) who really would want the hassle of managing a portfolio of expensive freehold/leasehold property like Tesco or Sainsbury or Whole Foods or Holland & Barrett which cannot be moved around nor is it being constantly advertised as in the retailing etherworld?

Recipe For Rhubarb Crumble

Saturday, May 8th, 2010

Rhubarb is one of the first signs of the fruitfulness of the new season, and I really love rhubarb – we have always had lovely rhubarb at home.  There’s a Steenberg family story that our sweet rhubarb came from the Russian Royal family, however I personally cannot believe that the Romanovs actually ate rhubarb ever, although rhubarb is said to come from Siberia, so you never know…

Rhubarb is a really hardy plant – it starts early in the season being ready even up North in April time, while you basically just leave it alone except to cover it in some manure every winter as its nutrient feed.  Rhubarb is pulled rather than plucked and then you simply cut off the end and the leaf blade at the top and it’s ready.  It becomes tough and stringy after 6 or 7 weeks into its season and then dies back in midsummer.

So I pulled my first rhubarb the other day and then made a traditional Steenberg family rhubarb crumble.  As you can see, in the crumble topping I have added some Digestive biscuits which adds that extra crunch and so helps the mouth feel for a crunchy, crumbly topping for you to eat.

Ingredients

7 stalks of freshly picked rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 5cm chunks
Zest from 1 orange
Juice from 1 orange
1tsp organic Fairtrade cinnamon stick
2-3 tbsp organic Fairtrade golden caster sugar

For the crumble:

120g/4oz butter, softened
100g/3.5oz Fairtrade organic golden caster sugar
170g/6oz organic plain flour
5 Digestive biscuits, crunched into fine crumbs
Pinch of organic ground ginger

Chopped Rhubarb For Making Crumble

Chopped Rhubarb For Making Crumble

1. Put the rhubarb pieces into a pan, grate over the zest from the orange, then squeeze over the orange juice, then add the caster sugar and organic Fairtrade cinnamon stick and simmer for 10 minutes.  Remove the cinnamon quill.

2. Heat the oven to 180oC/350oF. Scoop the rhubarb mixture into a baking dish.

Ingredients For Crumble Topping

Ingredients For Crumble Topping

3. To make the crumble: combine the butter, caster sugar, flour, Digestive crumbs and ginger into a bowl. Rub with your fingers until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs; I find rubbing mixtures like this or pastry weirdly enjoyable and satisfying – a moment of peace in a hectic life. Sprinkle the crumble evenly over the rhubarb and bake for 10 minutes, until golden.

Rhubarb Crumble

Rhubarb Crumble

4. Allow to cool slightly before serving with custard or ice cream or cream; I prefer custard see my blog from last September – https://steenbergs.co.uk/blog/2009/09/dont-forget-the-real-custard/.

I Just Don’t Get Proportional Representation

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

As we’re potentially heading for a hung parliament or a very closely matched parliament, I wanted in my mind to consider the idea of proportional representation as it is something that’s going to be on the table in any post-election discussions that involve the Liberal Democrats.  As I see it, the Liberal Democrats want proportional representation as they perceive it to be a fairer way to allocate power based on the proportions of votes received by each party, while the Conservatives are against it and want to stay with the first-past-the-post system as (arguably) they do better under that voting method; the Labour Party seems to be fudging their position as they are currently pro first-past-the-post but have been against it in the past.  This suggests that Labour would deal on it, so the possibility of a referendum or legislation on voting reform must rank very high.

Now in my mind, I see that first-past-the-post is a simple and logical concept.  You divide the country up into small parcels then get each parcel to vote for who they want to represent their interests politically; the smaller the constituency or parcel gets the more representative the elected person is of the wishes of the constituency until you get down to a constituency of 1 person who represents themselves.  What’s good about this system is that the constituents get who they vote for and in return the MP must look after the interests of the constituents firstly to ensure re-election and secondly as in the UK you vote for MPs and not for governments or prime ministers.  I know that most people believe that we vote for political parties and prime ministers but that’s actually not really the case as we’re electing our representative, i.e. MP, in the national parliament.

However, the third party (i.e. Liberal Democrats) argue that this is unfair as the number of MPs does not correlate back to the percentage shares of the vote.  This is because the Liberal Democrats tend to come second everywhere and so get a relatively high overall vote but don’t win comparatively many constituencies.  My quick analysis of the 2005 election is in the table below:

  First past post Seats Overall votes
Labour 55.1% 356 35.3%
Conservative 30.7% 198 32.3%
Liberal Democrats 9.6% 62 22.1%
Others 4.6% 30 10.3%
Total 100.0% 646 100.0%

So by going for an extreme version of proportional representation as you get in Israel, where there is one constituency for the whole country and then the vote is apportioned by share of total vote, the Liberal Democrats and the other parties would double their MPs within the Houses of Parliament.  The downside of this approach is that you allow the extreme parties to have positions in the corridors of power, as well as the more hippy parties like the Greens, so you get the big parties and the rough, smooth and cuddly of the smaller parties.  Also, you completely lose any linkage between voters and their representatives with your local MP being chosen from a central list – in my mind, this would be like having someone from Cardiff representing Harrogate or in an imaginary European Election having a Greek MEP looking after the Yorkshire and Humber Region.

As a consequence, parliamentarians have invented more complex versions of proportional representation that involves the idea of first preference votes where after voting for your initial number one choice the prospective candidate with the lowest score is eliminated and his/her votes reallocated to the next choice candidate on those ballot papers and so on until one candidate gets 50%.  This just seems to me to be a case of people being too clever for their own good in trying to slice and dice the voting system to get an answer that they want, rather than really meeting the needs of the people – a triumph of bureaucrats and the political class over normal people, the hoi polloi.

Then there’s the maths.  We all have been explained the iniquity of first-past-the-post versus proportional systems as in the table above.  However, there are mathematical issues with all proportional voting systems – if you read this week’s New Scientist, there is a good mathematical analysis of the voting system at http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20627581.400-electoral-dysfunction-why-democracy-is-always-unfair.html.    The key conundrum is that it is impossible to allocate a whole number of seats in exact proportion to a larger population, and so it is possible that, as you increase the total number of seats available, it will actually reduce the relative representation of individual political parties even when the population is unchanged.  In the end, none of the maths of any of the systems actually stacks up completely, so it simply comes down to your personal judgement about each voting system rather than anything to do with fairness or maths, i.e. no voting system is actually completely fair or perfect for running a country and we as citizens just have to live with whatever are the results that each election throws up –

“So we are left to make the best of a bad job. Some less fair systems produce governments with enough power to actually do things, though most voters may disapprove; some fairer systems spread power so thinly that any attempt at government descends into partisan infighting. Crunching the numbers can help, but deciding which is the lesser of the two evils is ultimately a matter not for mathematics, but for human judgement. (Source: New Scientist with above Internet reference)”

The way I have come up with to characterise the question is via a football team.  Imagine that you are to select a regional team to represent where you live, so I am looking for a team to represent the North East and I can pick people from Newcastle United (obviously the best, but I’m not biased), Sunderland and Middlesborough.  Now for simplicity’s sake, we have 1 player from each team for each position and there are 100 people who will decide on the team we pick to represent the North East versus a team from London, picked from Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs.  Each voter has to rank secretly each player as their first, second and third choice.  Now the way, they pick them is as follows:

Position First choice Second choice Third choice
1 Newcastle Middlesborough Sunderland
2 Newcastle Middlesborough Sunderland
3 Newcastle Middlesborough Sunderland
4 Newcastle Middlesborough Sunderland
5 Newcastle Middlesborough Sunderland
6 Newcastle Middlesborough Sunderland
7 Sunderland Middlesborough Newcastle
8 Sunderland Middlesborough Newcastle
9 Sunderland Middlesborough Newcastle
10 Sunderland Middlesborough Newcastle
11 Sunderland Middlesborough Newcastle
       
  Newcastle/1st Middlesborough/2nd Sunderland/3rd
Overall vote 45% 35% 20%

Under first-past-the-post, you pick the the team based on the First Choice, which is a mix of Newcastle and Sunderland with a Newcastle Captain.  Under first preference choice, you would pick a team of all Middlesborough players with a first preference vote of 55% (i.e. 2nd column vote + 3rd column vote), and under proportional representation you get 5 Newcastle players, 4 Middlesborough players and 2 Sunderland players. but note that you really are after them in order 4.95 : 3.85 : 2.2, but people and positions do not divide up into neat integers.  In fact, true proportional representation is weirder and you have to vote (in this case) for the team you want but without knowing the players, so in the end you just vote partially, i.e. I vote for Newcastle etc, and then the players are selected from a list that has the top Newcastle players, top Sunderland players and so on in order of preference, so you end up with a team of perhaps 7 forwards, 2 goalkeepers and 2 midfielders, which wouldn’t be much cop. 

Clearly you should go for a team of the best players and then really choose the best captain, so first-past-the-post is the right system while the other two are fraught with problems.  Not least of these issues is which players do you actually choose to represent you after you know that you need to squeeze them in to accomodate the voting quirks.

Now this issue of who represents the constituents is a big one for me.  There is nothing I hate more than to have a centrally chosen candidate foisted on me – I will always choose a local candidate over a centrally chosen candidate or will abstain from voting.  I want someone who knows and cares about the area, an ex-councillor is ideal; someone who will actually come back to the constituency and care about his/her constituents whatever the flavour of political party.  Our MP used to be Phil Willis of the Liberal Democrats and he was ideal – ex local teacher, ex councillor and then put up against Norman Lamont of the Conservatives, who lost resoundingly; under these so-called fairer voting systems Norman Lamont would have won. 

A proportional respresentation system will give you people you don’t know or want to represent you as your MP, plus you’ll never get rid of the leaders or inner cabals, because however the percentage votes are cast you will always get the senior party candidates being given their seats first and then the favoured central party people second, so it is the new blood and interesting non-standard candidates that will not be given seats.  In the end, the candidates will all be London groomed, party groomed and all the mavericks and free thinkers refused seats, so your politics will become greyer and unchanging except for an overhyped moving of the political deckchairs. 

What first-past-the-post gives you is candidates that need to look after their constituents and the chance for us – the electors – to kick them out (especially with changes expected to be put into place after the election) – every election giants are felled by their constituents and this election will see many political giants banished to the wilderness of the real world, or Europe, or the House of Lords.  Under proportional representation these political heavyweights cannot be easily removed, so you ossify a political oligarchy into place.  It is the crude cruelty of first-past-the-post that professional politicians hate as it creates a sort of lottery where the electors can punish sitting MPs and remove them, while political leaders like to be able to plan ahead and know that their key MPs are guaranteed to win, which is what true proportional representation does and so to a lesser extent does the first preference system.

Finally, while the politicians kid themselves that it is the political system that’s the issue, I think it’s the policies and the parties.  In the end, as a elector, I don’t like everything about every party, but rather bits and pieces of policies from each party.  So I like the Liberal Democrats over all, but believe in nuclear energy being important, I like a nuclear deterrent of some sort and hate proportional representation, while I am intrigued by the potential of genetically engineered crops; I like much of Labour’s policies but in the end I believe that an individual should be free and able to chose to keep most of what he/she earns to spend as they wish and then to pass on to future generations, with the individual and family coming way before the state; for the Conservatives, I like their starting point of individuals and families first then the state, but I hate their immigration policies as I come from a family that fled from Denmark from the invading Germans in the 1850s and I don’t know what this Big Society idea is really all about.  My ideal would be a patchwork party that doesn’t exist and I am not convinced that voting reform will create this fictional party, because my views on policies are not up for negotiation.

In the end, if it ain’t broke then don’t change it, so I think it’s best to leave the current system alone.  If the politicians do want to fiddle with our political system, then they must not just change the basic electoral system but they should look at the whole system of governance in the UK in its totality, so they must look at the House of Lords, the House of Commons, the Council Systems and the European Parliaments, including the Council of Ministers (all curently unelected), which of course they won’t do – will they?

Great British Ice Cream Parlours

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

One of the great changes caused by the decline of agriculture in the UK has been farmer diversification, and one of the wonderful changes made by dairy farmers has been home-made ice cream.  Some of these are real gems.

Yesterday, my daughter and I visited one on the Military Road outside of Corbridge in Northumberland, while my son was watching football on the TV.  I enjoyed a Blueberry and Lime Ice Cream while she had a mix of Mint Choc Chip and Caramel Toffee Fudge, both of these were in cones.  We took back a Chocolate Brownie Ice Cream for her brother.  I loved the clean taste of the Bluberry and Lime, while the Caramel Toffee Fudge was to die for.

The ice cream parlour is called Vallum Farm – see www.vallumfarm.com and you can enjoy tea and cakes there as well, and shop at Bywell Fish & Game as well as for some other kit.  It’s run by the Moffitt family and the milk comes from the well-known Hunday herd (at least well known in Northumberland) and now includes Brown Swiss Cows.  I remember the farm from when I was a kid as I studied it at school when Peter’s dad ran the herd, while I trialled working as a vet when Vallum Farm was involved in cattle semen – quite a change to ice cream parlour!

It made my daughter and I decide on our favourite rural ice cream parlours, which is obviously completely biased as they have to be places we’ve visited.  Our short list is as follows:

  1. Cream O’Galloway – organic and delicious ice cream, including tours and make your own ice cream, plus nature walks, wildlife activities and an indoor and outdoor play area.  This tops our list and is perfect for families and it’s well worth travelling all the way to beautiful unspoilt Dumfries and Galloway just for this – http://www.creamogalloway.co.uk/
  2. Vallum Farm
  3. Mr Moo’s – this is in Yorkshire on the coast at Skipsea and near Bridlington.  They have a great range of ice creams and the food is delicious, plus there’s an interesting walk to the Yorkshire beaches past World War 1 and World War 2 machine gun outposts and a nuclear war bunker.  Good hearty Yorkshire ice cream.  See http://www.mrmoos.co.uk/

We’d love to hear of where else we should be going to taste some great ice cream, but we’re not interested in anything really commercial or that you can get in the high street retailers.

New Organic Vanilla From Tahiti

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

We’ve had a delivery of some gorgeous fecund organic vanilla from Tahiti.  It’s brilliant kit and it’s totally different from normal organic vanilla from Madagascar – firstly, it’s a different species of vanilla orchid, called Vanilla tahitensis as against the standard Vanilla planifolia; and secondly they insist on a higher moisture content than is standard for typical vanilla from India or Madagascar or Uganda so they look really juicy, moist and fat.  These Tahitian organic vanilla pods look so gorgeously bountiful and full of flavour.

The flavour of these Tahitian vanilla pods is full of smooth, luxurious and rich vanilla aromas and tastes, but they seem to have a more delicate flavour than standard Madagascan vanilla, while there is a hint of anise and loads of orchid floral delight coming through.

I love it as a great alternative to classic Bourbon organic vanilla pods.  These complement Steenbergs range of organic vanilla that includes Bourbon vanilla from Antsirabe Nord in Madagascar and premium vanilla beans from Eastern Congo.

For more on these go to Steenbergs web shop.