Archive for June, 2010

Pepper Harvest

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

I have just been cleaning out one of the drawers in my desk and found this old CD of photos from Kerala.  I thought it would interesting to put up a couple of photos of farmers harvesting the pepper from the vines.

Pepper Harvest In Kerala In India

Pepper Harvest In Kerala In India

Pepper Being Harvested In Kerala

Pepper Being Harvested In Kerala

Review of Mens Shaving Range at Steenbergs

Monday, June 14th, 2010

I have been looking at our range of shaving and other mens products at Steenbergs over the last few weeks to see whether we can improve it further.  As modern hippies, I like being clean shaven so growing a beard was never on the cards, but I have tried to pick some different products that are not available on the high street.  For example, I like the Somerset’s range and have been recommended it by various punters as being great for sensitive skin, but you can get their products in Boots, Ocado, Sainsburys, Waitrose and on their own web site already, so I didn’t get the point of those as we could never get near their prices.

I  – Axel Steenberg – like the Lavera range of men’s products as these have been devised by Thomas Haas at Laverana, who has been making natural cosmetics since 1987.  As a sufferer of neurodermatitis, he is very aware of making skincare products that are delicate on the skin and moisturising.  Laverana uses natural raw plant materials as the base of its skincare ranges, which are grown organically as much as possible, and their products are completely free from classic nasties like industrial chemicals such as perfumes, colourants and preservatives.  And everything is tested on volunteers, as well as by skin and allergy specialists.

These Lavera Men’s Products are some of the most ethical products you will find on the market, and they work.  I have been shaving with the Shaving Cream for some weeks now and it gives a great close shave that’s comparable to my normal traditional soap and brush shave, and is not as aggressive on your skin.  I tend to finish the shave by using a natural coconut oil moisturiser that replaces the lost oils during the harshness of the traditional single blade razor that I use, but we also have the Lavera After Shave Balm for anyone who would prefer a more refreshing and disinfecting after shave experience.

These new Lavera shaving, after shave balm and deodorants complement very well Steenbergs Weleda range of Shaving Creams that are based on biodynamic herbal products.  Both ranges are excellent and far superior for the skin and the environment compared to high street brands and own label supermarket brands.

I have also been trying the Thermal Mud Range of Male Grooming Kit that are based on thermal mud from boiling mud pools around Rotorua on New Zealand’s North Island.  The thermal mud is sterilized, then refined to remove any traces of volcanic ash.  The Thermal Mud is packed full of natural minerals and has a high affinity for moisture, so is highly restorative for the skin. 

Parrs Shaving Gel gives a nice clean shave – it looks a yucky, grey sludgy colour that comes out clear on the skin and allows the razor to run smoothly over your face.  It’s a bit strange actually seeing your skin whilst shaving, having spent the last 25 years scraping away at white foam or soap from a classic shaving cream or soap.  I found that it was easier to shave with than the soap that I normally use and did not irritate the skin; overall, it gives a slightly less close shave than the Lavera Shaving Cream but the upside is that you will get fewer nicks while shaving.  I then treated my face afterwards with the Thermal Mud Moisturiser which usefully comes with a sun protection in it – something I like all men are bad at putting on.

In addition, Steenbergs has included other Thermal Mud products including After Shave Balm, Soap, Shower Gel and a Facial Scrub.

None of these products need a shaving brush and can be used like a normal shaving cream from the high street, so you can replace your Boots  or Gillette shaving foams with these.  They are much less aggressive on your skin and pretty quickly will make your skin much happier, less dry and more glowing.

The new men’s skincare products complement earlier additions to Steenbergs range of male grooming items, including safety razors from Parker and Merkur, traditional shaving soaps and creams from Cyril Salter and Taylors of Bond Street.

My top shave currently is: Parker 90R safety razor, Wilkinson Sword blades (simply, still the best), fake badger brush with traditional shaving soap, followed by after shave treatment with coconut oil to moisturise the skin.  But I am about to trial a Mühle R89 that seems like another great bit of German engineering!

Ripon Water Walks – Walk Along Ripon Canal

Friday, June 11th, 2010

Ripon is blessed with lots of fabulous waterways and green corridors through the city.  One of the most noticeable is Ripon Canal, which cuts a straight caesura into the centre of the city, with the canal sitting on your left as you come in along Boroughbridge Road and onto Bondgate Green right up to Ripon Canal Head.  Like everything about Ripon, it’s on a small scale (only 2.3 miles), beautifully formed and has become forgotten by time, having closed down in 1906 and later reopened for leisure boating and recreation in 1996.  I love it.

Ripon Canal Head In Yorkshire

Ripon Canal Head In North Yorkshire

So following on from my last walk along the River Ure, I have spent some time putting together some thoughts on walking along Ripon Canal, together with some photos. 

The concept behind the canal is simple: the River Ure becomes difficult to navigate on stretches upstream of Boroughbridge, so the building of the canal and other small sections of canal along the Ure made it possible for boats to pass from Hull and York to Ripon, especially with core industrial products like coal into Ripon from the Yorkshire coalfields and back the other way lead and other products.  

A quick history of the canal is as follows: it was authorised to be built by an Act of Parliament in 1767, with construction work being completed in 1773, but it fell into a rapid decline from 1844 when the Leeds and Thirsk Railway Company opened successful negotiations to buy Ripon Canal.  Leeds and Thirsk Railway became part of the North Eastern Railway in 1854 and the Canal was left to decline; by 1892, no traffic was going along the Canal and the railway companies tried to abandon it, then to offload it on the Corporation of York.  When all other canals were nationalised in 1948, Ripon Canal was excluded and was officially abandoned in 1956.  From 1961 until 1996, private boat-owners restored the canal for recreational boating and it now is actively used by enthusiasts.

I start this walk usually by parking outside of Wolseley Center on Bondgate Green, then cross over the road and walk back down towards Ripon Canal Head before turning around and doing the walk properly.  Ripon Canal Head has been renovated and includes some compact canal view houses, a farm shop and an embroidery and craft shop called Barnyarns, as well as a renovated warehouse.  There were four boats moored just beyond Ripon Canal Head and I briefly chatted to a gentleman who was enjoying a glass of red wine and reading a book beside his narrow boat – the Moorhen – and discovered he was based in Retford in Nottinghamshire and spent much of his time travelling the canal network.  It is a short gentle walk to the first lock beneath lovely lime trees, with a few industrial buildings on the left – such as Ripon Builders Merchants and Wolseley Center – and just before the bridge you might get the curious dry, yeasty smell of bread wafting across the canal from Ripon Select Foods on Dallamires Lane, which is one of England’s main manufacturers of breadcrumbs for the food industry.  It is reminiscent of the damper, beery yeasty smell of Edinburgh, which was one of the first memories I had when at university there back in the 1980s.

You amble under the dark, gloomy concrete bridge into the outskirts of Ripon, with Fisher Green on your left.  The canal bank here is covered in grasses and beflowered with meadow buttercups, white and pink wild roses and white ox-eye daisies and everywhere you look there are ducks and ducklings gliding busily along the waterway.  On your right, there’s a quaint wooden bridge, painted white and black, that leads onto Dallamires Lane and down to one of the mooring points where you will sometimes see a long boat with the name, Belly Button, that has got a pub-sign-style painting on the side of a man carrying his large beer belly along in a wheelbarrow.  Today, it was empty save for drake resting his weary head on the concrete.

Sleeping Duck On Ripon Canal

Sleeping Duck On Ripon Canal

Just before the first lock – Rhodesfield Lock – there is the pretty whitewashed former lock-keeper’s house and then you angle down about 3 to 4 metres to the new level alongside a caravan park and berths for narrow boats.  At Rhodesfield Dock, a local boat, the Graceland, had just completed coming up the lock system and the owner was pushing her off the side and was taking her to dock by the wooden canal bridge.  On the right, you can see sometimes see the blue-painted narrow-boat Söll, which has a row of beautiful carved birds on its roof; I don’t know whether it is its Germanic name or the wooden birds on top, but it reminds me of Bornholm and its eider ducks (I know Bornholm is not Germanic but Danish-Swedish, but that’s the way my thoughts erroneously wandered).

Ripon Lock-Keeper's Cottage

Ripon Lock-Keeper's Cottage

Rhodesfield Lock On Ripon Canal

Rhodesfield Lock On Ripon Canal

We now walk from Rhodesfield Lock to Bell Furrows Lock, which is beside Smeaton’s Marina, named after one of the engineers who built Ripon Canal.  You can cross over Bell Furrows Lock to the other side, giving you a decent view back along the route you have travelled so far.  A common frog scuttled across the path.

View To Smeaton's Marina On Ripon Canal

View To Smeaton's Marina On Ripon Canal

From Bell Furrows Lock, it’s a half mile walk to Nicholson’s Bridge and Ripon Motor Boat Marina.  On your left, you have a bird sanctuary beside Ripon Race Course; it is a wetland that has been restored from gravel pits, forming part of a larger wetland area along the River Ure and all the way down to the Humber Estuary.  On the other bank, there are some fields and the well manicured ends of some of the posher residences at the edge of Ripon, while the trees have changed to a mix of sycamores and elder.  I couldn’t see much of interest the other day except a few swans and tufted ducks, while I raised a grey heron that had been calmly fishing in the canal and languidly started its laboured flight off the canal onto the wetlands, with its strange cricked neck folding back on itself.  By Nicholson’s Bridge, you have the edge of Ripon Race Course to your left and the edge of Ripon to your right and move on to cut through farmland to the meeting of the Canal and the River Ure about one and a half miles further on.

Ripon Motor Boat Marina

Ripon Motor Boat Marina

Canal Boats By Nicholson's Bridge Over Ripon Canal

Canal Boats By Nicholson's Bridge Over Ripon Canal

Narrow Boat Under Rentons Bridge

Narrow Boat Under Rentons Bridge

From Nicholson’s Bridge to Ox Close Lock the walk opens out and you have Ripon Race Course to your left and then farmland on the right bank.  On Saturday evenings in the summer, there is loads of activity around the marina and up and down the canal.  Everyone is full of spirits and cameraderie, while proud narrow boat owners are bringing their boats in to a resting place for the night.  Boat names are an art in themselves, while the colours of the boats’ painting are glorious and the flamboyance of the pots of flowering plants atop the boats is full of gaudy joy.  The air is suffused with the smells of hedgerow flowers interspersed with the smoke from charcoal burning in barbecues.

May Fly

Mayfly By Ripon Canal

After you pass one of the starting points at Ripon Race Course, you seem to be walking along a wide garden path.  On the opposite bank, cows come down to the water’s edge for an evening drink.  At Renton’s Bridge, I crossed to the other side to the sound of several joyous song thrushes with their evening choral mash-up.  Mayflies were flying around, bobbing up and down in a weird dance.  At Ox Close Lock, there were quite a few boats hunkered up for the evening, with several more including the Rivendell coming into the canal system off the River Ure.  I walked beyond the canal to a lone oak tree and rested for a while, looking at Newby Hall a short distance to the west and back towards the small hidden opening of Ripon Canal. 

Entrance To Ripon Canal from River Ure

Entrance To Ripon Canal from River Ure

I pondered on why so many people were on boats and in caravans, constantly moving around and why we all felt the need to escape rather than to enjoy the here and now of where we live.  I realised that it’s because we are so disconnected from reality and the natural world in the artificial edifice that mankind has built and calls “life”, so that we need to reconnect with the natural world, rediscover where north is and listen to the music of the nature.  It’s mankind’s fictional “life” that is wrong, and in the end irrelevant, and whenever people realise that deep down, they must rediscover reality for themselves, somewhere, somehow and they need to go on a journey, and that journey is personal and the solution is unique for each individual or family and is beautiful and right whatever the solution they arrive at for restoring their own inner harmony.

Recipe – French Tomato Tart

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

The other day my parents visited from Northumberland, and as it was a gorgeous sunny Thursday, I plucked up the courage to try one of David Lebovitz’s recipes.  It’s always a matter of bravery as I am in awe at other people’s ability to make seemingly perfect pastry as mine rarely seems to meet the challenge adequately, or perhaps I am just constantly craving for an unachievable better taste. 

This particular pastry was a lot wetter than those I am normally used to, but it came out a wonderful rich and flakey texture that was just perfect.  As always, my available ingredients and equipment did not match the original recipe, but they seemed to work pretty well, so here is my annotated recipe. 

This is great summer food and works in the same flavour bracket as my Summer Vegetable Tart, which is one of my stock in trade recipes; I found it in a newspaper so long ago that I have lost the original clipping and cannot even remember who to thank (so thank you whoever created the original recipe).


For the pastry

210g (7½ oz) Organic plain flour, sieved
½ teaspoon Natural sea salt, sieved with plain flour
125g (4½ oz) Unsalted butter, chopped into small cubes and softened
1 Free range egg, large
2 tablespoons Cold water

For the tomato filling

2 teaspoons Grainy mustard
2 – 3 Large ripe tomatoes, finely sliced
1 Small orange pepper or ½ a yellow sweet pepper
2 tablespoons Olive oil
1 teaspoon Sea salt and pepper or Steenbergs Perfect Salt seasoning
2 tablespoons Fresh thyme and chives, chopped finely
125g (4oz) Goat’s cheese, finely sliced

  1. Preheat the oven to 200oC / 390oF.
  2. You can use frozen shortcrust or puff pastry or make your own as we do here in this recipe.  Firstly, you need to sieve together the organic plain flour and the sea salt.  Next put in the softened butter cubes and rub with your fingertips into the organic plain flour until you get to a breadcrumbs’ consistency.
  3. In a separate bowl, add together the cold water and the free range egg.  Whisk together lightly and then tip into the plain flour mixture and stir together using a knife.  This pastry is a pretty damp, glutinous mixture.
    Making Pate Brisee

    Making Pastry - Pouring In Egg/ Water Mix


    Rolling Out The Pastry

    Rolling Out The Pastry

  4. I then quickly greased two 15cm wide flan dishes, then rolled out the pastry and lined each of the flan dishes, using my fingers to get the pastry into the edges.  I kept a little bit of the pastry over the edges of the flan dish, cutting off the remnants and letting the kids eat those – you could use them to make some extra mini tarts or save them for later.  Spread the mustard evenly over the pastry base and then put this in oven to start the baking process for about 10 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, I sliced the tomatoes and goat’s cheese thinly and prepared the orange peppers by chopping them into smallish pieces.  I picked some fresh herbs from the garden and chopped these finely.
  6. Remove the part-baked pastry from the oven and then arrange over this the chopped tomatoes, sprinkle over the chopped colourful pepper and fresh herbs, plus the salt and pepper or Steenbergs organic Perfect Salt seasoning.  Drizzle over the olive oil, then arrange the goat’s cheese over the top.

    Drizzling Olive Oil Over Tomatoes

    Drizzling Olive Oil Over Tomato Tart

  7. Cook for 20 – 25 minutes in the oven.
  8. You can either serve this warm or (as I prefer) cold with new potatoes and salad.
Cooked French Tomato Tart

French Tomato Tart

May 2010 Food Blog Round Up

Friday, June 4th, 2010

This month definitely has a seasonal theme of Spring to it.  Everyone has recipes for rhubarb, all of which are so much more inspiring than the classic Rhubarb Crumble that I blogged about this month and the rhubarb compote that we have been living on.  The Rhubarb Raspberry Betty from The Wednesday Chef will probably even get an outing in the next few days.

CookSister is a fusion blog from a South African living in London, so this month has seen her start series on restaurants and other things in South Africa to celebrate the upcoming South African FIFA World Cup 2010; something we’re all very excited about here in our household with every type of Panini card and sticker book being collected (yes Panini is not just a type of bread).  What caught my eye, though, was a recipe for Rhubarb, Strawberry and Ginger Tarts.  I love rhubarb and, being English, don’t see that it would be a fruit/vegetable devised by Terry Pratchett etc etc but will live with being laughed at.

David Liebovitz has two delicious looking recipes – one for tomatoes and the other an Ottlolenghi recipe.  I was drawn most to the colours and earthy tastes that I anticipate from the French Tomato Tart, which would be a great summer sun or picnic food, or round a long table at a family gathering and cool glasses of white wine.  The Ottolenghi recipe is Fried Beans With Sorrel and Sumac which is a great sounding recipe and uses delicious sumac; for those who might be struggling to find sumac or zaatar, Steenbergs sells both and the zaatar was rehashed recently with help from Yotam Ottolenghi.

Mahanandi is a beautiful blog full of Indian recipes that make your mouth water and inspire you to make delicious Indian cuisine, as well as some amazingly gorgeous garden and flower inspiration.  There is a fantastic set of photos of gardenias from Mahanandi’s American garden that are so pure and beautifully formed.  I love their recipe for Zucchini Zunka and will definitely trying to do this myself – I am always struggling to inspire the rest of the family to enjoy zucchini / courgettes here, and this will just be perfect.  I think I will, also, combine it with the healthy green colours of her Green Bean and Green Peas masala.

At Smitten Kitchen, I once again found a rhubarb recipe and this time loved the Rustic Rhubarb Tarts, which I will definitely file away in my mind as something to try this year/next year.  However, it’s the Carrot Salad With Harissa that I am going to do first; I love carrots as a vegetable and in carrot cake, but have always struggled with it sitting insipidly, shredded in a salad.  This recipe, with its bite and kick from harissa, might just lift the chore of eating a healthy salad to something acceptable.  And to round it all off, I am a sucker for cakes and baking so the Pecan Cornmeal Butter Cake will soon get an outing.

In New York, The Wednesday Chef has the exotic sounding recipe for a biscuit that’s made like bread with the long Greek name, Paximathakia Portokaliou, but I don’t think I will ever get around to making these.  And then it’s got to be her Rhubarb Raspberry Betty recipe that I think I’ll make this week when my parents come down from Northumberland; my father loves a good pudding and adores rhubarb.

Steenbergs Has Improved Our Range Of Household Cleaning Products

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

Did you know that one of my first jobs was in the Pets & Cleaning Department in Fenwick’s in Newcastle?  And ever since, I have had a strange and haunting obsession for Household Cleaning products.  Well, I am not really that fascinated in them, but we have been keen to get our Household Cleaning products right, i.e. good for the environment and vegetarian and alternative.

Our biggest problem has been that Ecover has the largest and most easily accessible range, but their products are everywhere from Tesco through to small health stores, plus they do add some less than brilliant things into their products and are not vegan anymore.  We’re down to a few pots of Ecover Stain Remover and then we’re done with them as a brand.  Finally and this is a big one, the performance has to be decent as I have found some of the green Household Cleaning products pretty rubbish so you may as well not bother with them – your clothes go grey, your floor never gets clean and they sometimes even curdle in the bottle!

Steenbergs has now got a good range of alternative brands that we feel gives you – our customer – a decent choice of green and ethical alternatives.  You may not like all of them or might find some do not perform as well as you would dream, but you must remember that our choice of Household Cleaning products will never be as aggressive in their action as the traditional high street brands like Domestos or Flash or Cif as these are packed full of industrial chemicals that we just don’t want.  But we use these greener products at home and some of them – for example the Alma Win range – got me positively excited as the floor cleaner actually worked as I worked my mop around on our tiled floor.

The range is now based around cleaning kit from Alma Win , Earth Friendly and Ecoleaf (Suma’s brand of cleaning products).  In addition, we’ve got natural incense based fresh smells from Colibri (incense sticks, shoe odour neutralisers and wool protectors), soap nut washing balls and dryer balls from Ecozone , natural fibre nailbrushes, vegetable washing brushes and washing up brushes and scourers made from luffas and coconut shells that do a pretty good job, plus recycled scourers and clothes pegs from Ecoforce – the clothes pegs are brilliant and come from recycled plastics while Traidcraft’s Fair Trade rubber gloves really got me jumping up and down for joy – loved them but then I am a bit sad about these things.  Then there’s Veggi Wash to get all those nasty chemicals and waxes off your fruit and veg that you didn’t manage to grow in your allotment or garden.

For me, it was Alma Win that got me truly excited and finally happy that our range had become pretty much sorted.  A few samples just came randomly in the post, so I tried them at home and found that they were better than most of the other brands we had come across and their range slotted in nicely, allowing us to drop Ecover dishwasher tablets that we had been finding a sticking point in our range. 

Alma Win is a range of German products – in fact some of the things we’re selling only come with German labels so apologies there – and they’re biodegradeable and suitable for vegans and vegetarians unlike Ecover, and they’re kind to the skin and should over time help to reduce the UK’s high rates of allergies like hayfever, asthma and eczema.  They’re also certified as organic by EcoGarantie in Belgium which none of the other ranges are yet, being based on organically grown plant ingredients and not made in a massive chemical plant in Ellesmere Port or somewhere like that.  So their products don’t have any of the following nasty gunk in them that you will find in many of the high street brands – optical brighteners, parabens, petrochemicals, phosphates, chlorine, bulking agents, silicone, borium, colour additives, ethoxylated raw materials and genetically modified enzymes.

Please tell us what we are missing in this range and we will see what we can do.