Archive for October, 2011

Our Agony With Peppermint

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

Peppermint has been giving us here a headache over the last few months.  Somehow our peppermint just was not quite good enough and we have spent lots of time trying to work out why and what we could do about it?  Firstly, the peppermint tea was minty but missed that zinginess and spiciness that we really craved, while the peppermint extract was more tea-like than peppermint-creamy.  They were what they said on the tin, but for Steenbergs it was not good enough.

The first thing we needed to track down was the right peppermint.  Peppermint is a hybrid that crosses watermint with spearmint that was originally found in England but probably occurs elsewhere in the wild.  It has a higher menthol content than other mints, having a spicy and zingy flavour reminiscent of watercress rather than that sweeter and fruitier taste from spearmint.  Just like at Summerdown in Hampshire*, we fell for the Black Mitcham variety; actually, ours was sampled as a Mitchum strain originally from Montana on the west coast of America, but later it transpired that this was actually Black Mitcham.  Mitcham is in the Borough of Merton in Greater London and was well known for its lavender and peppermint crops.  Steenbergs organic Black Mitcham peppermint comes from a few plants that one of our suppliers took out to their project in Egypt several decades ago and has become the basis for their whole peppermint crop; it is grown organically and biodynamically.  It brews a tar black brew that has that powerful aroma from the menthol; if you brew the tea in a pot, then lift the lid off and stick your nose into the pot, you get a really powerful hit of menthol that is wonderfully cleansing.

We then debated adding back some peppermint oil to the leaves to increase the menthol strength of the leaves, but felt that this enhanced the aroma before brewing but slightly dulled the actual taste when you made the infusion.  In the end, we felt steeping the leaves a little longer more than compensated for any slight loss of volatile oils from the drying process.  We feel that that Steenbergs organic peppermint now compares well against leaves picked straight from the garden and the Black Mitcham variety has lifted our Moroccan Mint, which we sell as Green Tea With Peppermint.

As for the organic peppermint extract, it just did not feel or look right.  The old extract was deep green like an herbal infusion and had a strong alcohol nose, which worked well as an addition to herbal tea, but never felt quite right for that peppermint cream taste and aroma reminiscent of Bendicks Bittermints. So while it pains me to say it, we just needed something better.

We have done two things.  Firstly, we have put the organic peppermint extract on an organic sunflower oil base, rather than its previous alcoholic base, which has removed the strong boozy notes.  Secondly, we have sourced a good peppermint oil, whereas the previous version was more of an alcohol-peppermint infusion, which has dramatically improved both the aroma and taste.  It has all cost us a lot more in raw materials’ costs, which we are absorbing for the moment by holding our prices for Steenbergs Organic Peppermint Extract until 2012.

I hope the improvement pleases everyone as much as it does us.  Also, as an aside, we welcome constructive criticism anytime as it was one of our loyal customers who kicked me into action to make this change that I had been thinking about for some time.

However, ff you need something stronger, then I would suggest a pure peppermint oil rather extract, which is even more potent, but as of yet we are not geared to packing little bottles of oils.  Summerdown do a good non-organic one, or Baldwins have an organic essential oil.

Two quick, easy and tasty uses of Steenbergs Organic Peppermint Extract are to be found in my next blog…

* I must confess that I was disappointed by the Summerdown Peppermint Tea that I have tried, even if it is better than Twinings.  There was a hint of sweetness to it that I did not expect; in fact, I felt that it had a spearmint taste to it that should not have been there and is not right in a peppermint tea.

Roman Wall Blues

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Off to visit my parents this weekend for my Dad’s 75th birthday.  We live almost on top of the Roman wall outside of Corbridge.  I thought this poem that reminds you of what it must be like being a soldier away from home, whether Romans or Syrian archers back in the first few hundred years AD, or as a soldier nowadays in Afghanistan or anywhere away from home.

Roman Wall Blues

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.

Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish;
There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

W. H. Auden

Blending Breakfast Teas (Part 3)

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

So how to get us started? Well, I decided to start at the end first and to work backwards, so I tried to work out what were the types or styles of tea that we wanted to come out with as products. Basically, we were looking for light, medium and strong teas for drinking in the morning, which would cover China, East Frisian and Irish Breakfast Teas to complement our English Breakfast Tea. The light tea should be drinkable without milk or sugar or brewed stronger and taken with a little milk, while the others would be cuppable with milk and/or sugar. Next, I tried to consider the ways of blending tea and styles of tea that were out in the market. I have drunk a heck of a lot of different teas from tea blenders across Europe and into the USA, plus read old books and magazines that either covered or hinted at how to make tea. Obviously, very little is given away as most tea blends are proprietary and closely guarded secrets, rightly so I might add.

I began with the Light Breakfast Blend which is designed to be drunk without milk or sugar, or just a smidgeon of each if you need to. As a base, I used a sentence I found in “The Girl’s Own Paper” from 1882 on “The Right Way Of Making Tea And Coffee” where it was written “Many grocers mix Moning and Kaisow, and thus furnish an excellent tea.” Taking this as our starter, I blended a number of red and black teas together to create our China Breakfast Tea that harks back to the Regency and Victorian periods. We have Ching Wo tea to provide a red hue and the base flavour, one that is silky, rich, like a lightly oaked wine. This is contrasted to the Keemun varieties for the black-leaf congous that give a richer, fuller and altogether more juicy flavour that in its higher notes has an orchid floweriness. This is a great tea for the morning, giving a gentle ease into your hectic day.

Irish Breakfast Tea

Steenbergs Irish Breakfast Tea

In contrast, the next tea I devised is a more vigorous wake up call. This is Steenbergs’ Irish Breakfast Tea or Strong Breakfast Tea. For this, we have based the tea on a blend of broken Assam teas from a number of different estates, however it is based around a Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe from the fabulous Borengajuli Estate in the Mangaldai district of Assam. This Assam is malty, lightly astringent and full of sweet fruitiness, like a rich strawberry jam, with an herby floweriness from the abundance of tip within the tea. This is second flush Assam at its best. Against this, I have added some Pekoe Fannings for extra colour from another Assam estate and some more flowery tip from Jamguri, a biodynamic estate in the Golaghat district of Assam and part of the Ambootia group, from whom we get our green Darjeeling at the moment. Then to round off the astringency, I have used a couple of teas from Ceylon and Nilgiri that give extra flowery tip and some extra polyphenol power. This tea is an awesome breakfast cuppa that will wake you up.

Then sitting somewhere in the middle, I have made a tea (that I have moulded around samples of Ostfriesen Mischung from various German tea companies, including Dallmayr, Eilles and Thymian Tee) that sits somewhere between the two other breakfast teas. Steenbergs Medium Breakfast Tea is a more flowery and gentler blend of Assam teas that has been topped out with some Ceylon from Lovers’ Leap and Darjeeling second flush teas. The idea here was for a more sophisticated breakfast tea than the typical small leaf breakfast teas, so here we have used mainly Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe teas from estates like Dekorai (named for the Dickori River in Sonitpur district) and Hazelbank (Dibrugarh district), together with Ceylon teas. All in all this is a good fresh start to your day, combining the malty strength of four different Assam teas with the gorgeous complexity of Lovers’ Leap that is reminiscent of Darjeeling teas. Interestingly, the Darjeeling tea we have used uses the same Assam jat tea bushes as are indigenous to Assam rather than the China jat of most Darjeeling Estates, so here we get the muscatel flavours from the high Himalayan flush but with the body of an Assam coming through – this is terroir over genotype. I have named this Steenbergs’ East Frisian Tea in homage of the strong Assam based teas from Northern Germany, although I have made this more subtle by used larger leafed tea and a tiny, teensy amount of Ceylon and Darjeeling to reduce the bitterness that often comes through.

These new teas are designed to complement our classic English Breakfast tea that we have been blending to our own recipe for some years now, and hopefully give our customers a decent choice of flavour types to suit your palates and water. Our English Breakfast tea is more plural, using Assam, Ceylon, Darjeeling and Nilgiri teas, while using a smaller leaf that the East Frisian Tea, so it sits somewhere between Steenbergs Medium Breakfast (East Frisian tea) and Strong Breakfast teas (Irish Breakfast tea). Then Steenbergs’ English Breakfast Tea is organic and Fairtrade as well.

I hope you like something amongst these new tea blends, but as I said in the previous post – anyone who has any hidden little family recipes our classic tea blends that they know , I would love to here about them for curiosities sake.

Blending Breakfast Teas (2)

Monday, October 10th, 2011

These developments in tea blending style are best described through the developments in the composition of the standard household tea blend over the years.  These show how the blends became more complicated, even as they became less complex in flavour, and how the ingredients shifted from China towards Indian teas, so from artisanal Camellia sinensis towards Camellia assamica and industrial tea.  If anyone has any great family tea recipes – the older the better – I would love to hear them, so do not hesitate to leave a comment, or email me direct.

General blend – 1730 East India Company

All China teas

Mix together pekoe and congou China bohea teas

General medium quality blend – 1883 from “Tea blending” by Whittingam & Co

Mix of China and Indian teas

37.5%  Oonfa (China)
12.5%  Indian souchong or broken black (India)
25.0%  Tseu moo or souchong-flavoured Kaisow (China)
6.25%  Foochoo scented orange pekoe (China)
6.25%  Darjeeling pekoe souchong (India)

General English blend – 1892 from “Tea , its history and mystery” by J. M. Walsh

Mix of China and Indian teas

6lb  Ningchow (China)
6lb  Oonfa (China)
5lb  Darjeeling or Cachar congous (India)
5lb  Oolong (China)
1lb  Caper (China)
1lb  Pekoe (China or India, but most likely from Assam)

General medium quality blend – 1894 from “Tea and tea blending” by Lewis & Co

Mix of  Indian teas

Principal ingredients:-
Brisk pungent Assam
Rich Dooars

General blend – 1929 from “Tea and Tea Dealing” by F. W. F. Staveacre

All Indian teas (I have counted Ceylon and Java as Indian in that they are not Chinese style teas)

1lb  Darjeeling BOP
2lb Ceylon BOP
1lb  Ceylon Fannings
2lb Assam BOP
4lb  Assam BP
4lb  Dooars BPS
2lb  Java BP
4lb  Cachar BP Fannings

But perhaps the most intriguing is an unknown blend that is kept secret in the National Archives – the Royal Family’s “Empire Tea Blend“…

Blending Breakfast Teas (1)

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

I have been doing some research while trying to create a range of Breakfast Tea blends to complement our very popular English Breakfast Tea.  This has partly been a matter of curiosity as I like, in a slightly anoraky way, reading old books on tea, so have acquired small pamphlets on tea and tea blending from the Victorian period through to the mid 1930s.  What they give is a window into a completely different world, plus it makes me realise how much more interesting people’s palates must have been in olden times.  Also, it raises some historical anachronisms that I have sought to address in my range of retro tea blends.

The first thing is that tea blends contained a complex mix of flavours in everyday teas that mingled the simpler black teas with scented teas like lapsang souchong, jasmine green tea and osmanthus or gardenia oolongs in your everyday teas.  So tea must have been really quite exotic and not the strong malty, astringent black tea flavours that I had always imagined were being drunk.  Prior to then in the Regency times and before, teas were more likely single teas or simple mixes with more green teas and oolongs were being taken; smoky lapsang souchongs were perhaps the most popular teas in olden times, with it being written in the 1894 that “the old fashioned lapseng [sic] souchongs are also shipped from Foo Chow [Fuzhuo today], and the finer grades keep up the old characteristics and give us an idea of the sort of tea prized by our grandfathers; they still find their way into some of the best of the blends going into consumption.”  Lapsang souchong was still popular in the finer blends in the 1930s, but by the post WW2 period these type of blends appear to have fallen out of popularity.  Where general mixes are mentioned earlier, papers from the East India Company in 1730 suggest “if you mix Pekoe and Congo [sic], you shall have an admirable tea; you have all the goodness of the last in the first two waters, and of the first in the last two or three, but even then the water should not stand long.”

Secondly, the anachronism is that I often read something that goes along the lines of “research shows that Keemum was the original English Breakfast tea from the 1800s”, as suggested for example by Harney & Sons in the USA and Wilkinsons of Norwich.  However, in the 1800s, the Keemun region only made green teas and not black tea, so Keemum could not have been the basis for English Breakfast tea.  By 1883, Keemun is being suggested as a “one of the newest tea descriptions of China tea”, by which time Indian teas were already being grown and imported in quantity and forming around 50% of each tea blends.  Further, while we now would choose a Keemun over a Kintuck in the the 19th century and early 20th century, Kintuck was rated more highly than Keemun – tastes change, we all change.  Then by 1894, tea blends were pretty much using only Indian teas.  Prior to the late Victorian period, the core of blends was black teas, or Monings, like Ning Chows and Oonfas mixed together with red teas, Kaisows, like Ching Wos and Tseu Moos.  In fact, a blend of black and red teas still formed the basis for many blends in the 1930s, with Keemuns joining Kintucks as the Moning teas of choice, with Ching Wo  and Panyong teas being the popular Kaisows.  I don’t disagree that the original breakfast teas would probably have been made with China teas as Indian teas only started being produced in sensible quantities during the 1870s, growing from 6,750 tons in 1870 (10% of UK consumption) to 22,000 tons by 1880 (22% of UK consumption), however there was a switch from tea being a posh items to being everyday as pricing came down and perhaps sociologically as tea became a drink of men and women and not just the ladies – a polite way of saying men reduced their intake of booze as livelihoods became more industrial and less agricultural or artisanal.  Notice also that black teas and red teas were actually different categories of teas that have become merged into one by the 21st century – perhaps as we have become less discerning about the subtle differences between the various regional teas within China.

As you can see, there was a mindblowing array of different names given for teas with different names given to China and Indian tea grades.  Also, names change, so originally all black tea was called Bohea, then it became the lowest grade of black tea, before being more correctly attributed nowadays to lightly fermented oolongs.  Even more confusingly, Bohea is an anglicisation of Wu-I, which is a mountainous area of Fukien, from where China oolongs originally came from, i.e those that were lightly and up to 60% fermented.  Finally, teas were often sold as different things to they were and some were adulterated, for example, the leaf of [Canton Scented Capers] was “faced with soapstone, &c” and other books suggested these were “highly faced with gypsum, Prussian blue, magnesia, and other colouring matters.”  So getting down to what people actually blended together is fraught with difficulties.

Blending began in earnest when the Indian and Sri Lankan teas began arriving into the UK.  This was in part for pricing reasons, i.e. trying to make a decent, consistent blend from as cost-effective ingredients as possible, and the fact that the new teas from India especially were much more astringent and strong than the flavours that consumers were used to, so you needed to use Indian teas for bulk and strength and China teas to smooth out the flavour edges and add some character.  Therefore in 1883, it was written “the greater proportions of the English people like in every blend at least half China tea.  The reason is that most Indian teas have a sharp acrid taste, not to be found in the teas of China.  This acrid taste tea-drinkers rarely like, unless it is tempered by the softer milder flavours of some China varieties.”  However, by the 1930s, most tea blends were cheaper mixes with Ceylon, Indian and Indonesian teas making the blends.  In the post war period, especially, African teas took over from Indian teas, however the balance has shifted back towards India with many of the UK household brand names now owned by Indian tea groups, e.g. Tata Tea owns Tetley Tea and Typhoo belongs to Apeejay Surrendra Group.

Actually, I think tea blends and the growth in tea had more to do with class than anything else.  Prior to the late Victorian times, tea was a luxury item and its growth was defined by snobbery and the fact that it was expensive – as taxes on tea increased it only served to drive up sales further.  Blends were expensive and tea was a posh item for the afternoon for those with time to spare.  However, as wealth became less concentrated in the upper classes and so tea became more available with increased supplies arriving from India and Sri Lanka, tea became more of a general household item, hence blenders needed to create cheaper, more consistent brews for sale through the general tea shops set up by Lyons and later multiple grocers such as Sainsbury and Tesco, which had begun by selling tea in 1919.

However, tastes change and people become accustomed to different flavours.  Old tea blends would have been smokier in flavour and lighter in colour and taste than modern blends, as Kintucks and Lapsang Souchong have a strong smokiness, whereas Ching Wo and Keemun are much lighter but still have that hint of smoke; this comes from the process of making Chinese black and red teas which includes a roasting stage.  Then nowadays, we find that some tea blenders of fine teas actually blend in these bitter flavours either by using particular Assam teas as in Ringtons’ 1907 Blend and English Breakfast tea or by adding green teas as in Dallmayr’s and Eilles’ English Breakfast Teas. or Fauchon’s Siva Afternoon Tea dating back to the 1910.  All of these could do with milk and sugar, which perhaps reflects how classic English Breakfast teas were originally drunk, i.e. strong, with milk and sugar, in the early 20th century.  However, at Steenbergs, we like our tea to be smooth and capable of drinking without milk or lemon when brewed lightly or with milk if you want to take it strong, except for the very strong brews like an Irish Breakfast tea.

Food Waste, Food Poverty And Fareshare

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

Food waste is criminal, so it is brilliant when you hear or read of charities like FareShare that collect and distribute surplus food from retailers that would otherwise be thrown away.  FareShare works closely with companies like M&S, Nestlé and Sainsbury’s.  Food poverty is a big issue that needs to be addressed, while charities that look after people can benefit from any savings made by food charity so they can focus on spending money on areas that are important to them like their staffing.  Interesting articles on the BBC website that address waste include the following three:, and  At Steenbergs, we are lucky in that our product waste is next to zero as our ingredients have long shelf lives and can be stored at room temperature.

So I became a little bemused, and angry, to discover that the local Boots stores, and for all I know all their shops across the country, have been told that all sandwiches beyond their display date must be chucked away.  In the past, they could be sold to staff at a discount, which is not great in the first place.  But why doesn’t Boots give these to charities like the Salvation Army who could make use of these for the benefit of people in food poverty?  And does this happen across all Boots stores?

Strange that Boots devotes a big part of their website to Corporate Social Responsibility, but this seems only to be a tick-box exercise to paint an image of caring through showing off how much money they have given, rather than starting from a caring attitude and empathy to other people.  When CSR becomes something to be met for bureaucratic reasons rather than from the heart, silly wastes like throwing out sandwiches shows the real soul of the corporation.

The Sound of Northumberland

Sunday, October 2nd, 2011

I have been to listen and watch Kathryn Tickell twice over the last month, once in Ripon and then at the Sage with her new show, Northumbrian Voices with her band and her dad – actually her dad, Mike Tickell, also came to the show in the Holy Trinity Church, Ripon.  She is a great virtuoso player of the Northumbrian small pipes and fiddle, plus there is a togetherness as the core of the Kathryn Tickell band is herself and her brother, so like all great traditional musicians they can move the set around, play different pieces and just wing it as they needed to do in Ripon with their accordion player not there.  And like all natural musicians who are completely confident with their instruments and repertoire, they are often best when they need to tweak, change and stretch themselves rather than just play the same old routine when they would rather have a glass of beer, wine or put their feet up and read a book!

I feel she plays her best when the songs are a bit darker and bleaker, or more frenzied and manic, than those that are lighter or the jollier dances.  Perhaps she laments, quite rightly, the loss of the traditional livelihoods that have shaped the North, whether it’s the fishermen, the pitmen or farmers that scratched a tough life from these beautiful, but unforgiving, lands, to be replaced by softer jobs in tourism or banking.  Somehow, the harder times made for better music, a deeper understanding and enjoyment in our landscapes and seascapes, as well as those times of rest and the spaces and gaps we used to have in our lives that were not filled with adrenaline kicking, speed filled modern media.  No time to reflect, no pauses and no spaces, as well as a detachment for the physical world we actually live in.  Also, perhaps a loss of contrast between the genuinely hard graft and relaxing down times makes it difficult to enjoy simple pleasures.

So her Wild Hills of Whannies is bleak, windy and wet like Steel Rigg, Haughton Common or the Cheviots up by Wooler, before you get the livelier and freer bubbling and flowing of the burns after the flood through the middle of the tune.  In contrast, Billy Pigg’s version has a more joyful, playful relationship to the same countryside.  And I loved the slow, mournful lament for Stonehaugh Community Centre that morphed into a livelier jig that brought back memories of functional community halls and dances, whether country dances or more often than not cheesy disco music.  Then later she played her version of Bill Charlton’s  Fancy.  The sounds were different but the function was the same, people came together from their farms, crofts and houses and had a good crack.  In the days before MP3 players, multichannel TV and digitised everything, that was the height of fun and it kept the mischief controlled and somewhere close by.  Innocent and largely without too much real badness.

But I love their sounds as her Northumberland is still my Northumberland, although for me a river always runs through it, the Tyne, and the smell of the sea is never that far away.  So whether I was swinging on a tyre swing over the North Tyne by Chollerford or swimming in the Tyne at Bywell, or holidaying by Seahouses, or playing kick-the-can in Bell’s Valley by Fredden Hill, her sounds have that doleful, dreich feel that is the bleakness and beauty of Northumberland.  But that’s its soul, my soul, and I wouldn’t have it otherwise.  Yes, there is, and always has been, much fun to be had, but it is hard won and deserved – especially for us who bear the cross of support for the Toon – and a laugh will be deep and unrestrained, but underneath there is not too much softness, more hard rock covered in moss.

This feeling for a land shaped by the hills, rivers and sea was even more closely followed with the Northumbrian Voices show.  For example, the Song for the North Tyne by Mike Tickell specifically told of the changes wrought to the Tyne and the valleys by the building of Kielder reservoir and forest.

This was a country music show that was pure Northumbria (except for the country sounds from Hank Williams’ Your Cheatin’ Heart) and was filled with stories and sounds shaped by hills, snow and sheep.  The music and songs were played by Kathryn Tickell, Julian Sutton (melodeon), Kit Haigh (guitar), Patsy Reid (fiddle and viola), Hannah Rickard (voice and fiddle) and Mike Tickell (voice).  Then there were words transcribed from conversations during the spaces in recordings, covering stories about traditional knowledge and ways of life that have gone or almost gone; whether these are how to look after sheep or how to look after the hill farms or passing down knowledge between generations in hefted flocks on where to graze. 

Yes, life is wealthier and there is more sparkle and glamour in towns and cities, where the shopping is way better, however I do agree and feel that somehow we are culturally poorer as we loose these simple bits of knowledge that have been learnt over 100s and 1000s of years, whether it is how to shepherd the hills or fish the North Sea, and how to dance a reel especial to a particular valley.  We have destroyed our communities, we have chucked away our local culture and replaced it with global media and music that has no connection back to the land.  I worry that there will come a time when we will need to go back to the land and our hands and heads will be too soft to know what to do and unlike the Pilgrim Fathers in America there will be no-one with the local knowledge to help us.  And as Clive Aslett in The Daily Telegraph wrote – who would want to bring up their children as country bumpkins – well, me actually.

Once again, I was drawn to the melancholic that seems to fit the sound of the pipes, so the Pipes Lament and the Carrick Hornpipe that told of cold winters and changes that continue to be wrought to the land, for better or the worse.  But perhaps, it was even better to just hear and sing some of the old songs that have no time to them but plenty of spatial context – Canny Shepherd Laddies of the Hill, Duns Dings A’, Hesleyside Reel and Small Coals and Little Money.

All in all, a bunch of really great shows and something we would be really proud of if we were in the USA, but here it is just so not mainstream and we prefer the fantasies of Britains Got Talent and X Factor than a more solid and honest local music.