Posts Tagged ‘ethical’

Context…Social Dividends And Choosing Charities For Steenbergs Web-shop

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

So following on from my last blog, we see Steenbergs’ brand as being entangled with our range, the quality of our products and the context of these products.  Where the spices, teas and blend ideas come from tells us about different cultures around the world and how people interact with their environment, both as nature and as the human world.  Spices grown rurally in India, for example, are part of a history that stretches back into deep human history but then links back to villages and urban environments in a quickly expanding and modernising economy like India.  We must understand and smile at the strangeness of this paradox of old, rural and traditional farming mixed with modern industrial processing of spices and teas, together with the fact that they are shipped from Cochin in normal shipping containers on big containerships and not quaint sailing boats – the old and the modern, the rural and the industrial all get mixed up together in the environment of Steenbergs’ spices and teas.

This social aspect of how our retail products that we pack in North Yorkshire for sale in urban and rural shops across the UK and elsewhere, connects to internet customers almost everywhere, and links back to the Wynad region of Kerala in India or the Uva Highlands in Sri Lanka or Mananara in Northern Madagascar is hugely important to Sophie and me.  And while paying a premium of around one-third for our spices, herbs and teas generates profits that enables people to earn a living wage and reinvest into their businesses and communities, we are not sure that this is enough.  After all Steenbergs is at its heart a social enterprise and while we have very limited resources, so we cannot make much of a difference through our financial capacity, we can reach out wider to the community of people who buy our products.  We feel we must try as if we don’t make even a few small steps then the journey is never started.

We tried this once before with Peace Tea and Green Tea but it did not work because the products were not successful enough, so we would like to retry to generate a social dividend from sales at Steenbergs and believe that the best way to do this is via paying out a fixed amount from each web shop sale via www.steenbergs.co.uk to relevant charities.  We are fixing this at 20p for each web sale and will not make any adjustments to costings for this, i.e. it is a straight cost to Steenbergs and not our customers, which we will backdate to the start of 2011 – if we had done this for 2010 it would have been well over £1,000.

At the outset, as we have only really just firmed up the idea after our own flood, we are thinking of two charities – Practical Action or Water Aid.  However, in the future we would like to consider other more homegrown and smaller charities or projects, particularly those run locally and that foster genuine development like microcredit schemes rather than those that create aid dependency and those without any political or religious agenda – with smaller charities, we can make more of a difference whereas for mega-charities our donations will be just a drop in their ocean of income .  We also would like the charities to be active where we are linked with for our purchasing, so enhancing this context for Steenbergs products.  For example, from our quick scout around, we like ideas such as the Asha Trust, Grameen Bank and the Women’s Bank in Sri Lanka and Zahana in Madagascar.  But in the end, we want to hear from you what charities we could support as every year we are looking to our customers and supporters to choose one to benefit from this social dividend.

With this co-operative spirit in mind, we want people to tell us which of Practical Action or Water Aid we should all support this year and ask that you email your choice to charity@steenbergs.co.uk or tell us via Twitter or Facebook, where we will also explain the choices in a little less depth.  Every year we will hold a similar collective decision, so you can help us choose possible organisations and then make a choice openly and together.

In outline, here is something about the 2 possible charities this year or you can go to their websites for more gen.

Practical Action grew out of an idea from the economist E. F. Schumacher in the 1970s that people in poverty needed technology that met their context rather than grandiose schemes coming out of the developed world.  The founders termed this Intermediate Technology and technology as being “physical infrastructure, machinery and equipment, knowledge and skills and the capacity to organise and use all of these.”  They work closely with communities and at their scale and relative to their power, knowledge and available resource and using sensible, practical ideas like treadle pumps for irrigation, zeer pots for refrigeration and nanotechnology ideas such as filters to remove contaminants and pesticides from water.  These small steps enable communities to lift themselves out of their poverty and then hopefully move out of dependency to build their own wealth.  Practical Action works in (amongst other places) India and Sri Lanka, our major two countries for supplies of spices and teas, including Biofoods and Greenfield in Sri Lanka.  There is lots more information at their website at http://practicalaction.org/.

Water Aid on the other hand focuses as its name suggests on water and sanitation, seeking to improve communities lives by removing the scourge of contaminated water and poor sanitation which are major causes of premature death amongst infants and vulnerable adults throughout the world.  Water Aid’s vision is to transform “lives by improving access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation in the world’s poorest communities.”  They use sustainable technologies like rainwater harvesting, spring protection and hand dug wells, together with dry pit latrines and ventilated improved pit latrines.  Water Aid is active in many countries including India and Madagascar, where we get our fantastic Fairtrade vanilla from in Mananara.  Their web site is a great source of information and awe inspiring – www.wateraid.org/uk

Please take some time to think it all through, then come back to us for your choice and let’s try and make a difference, however small that may be.  Email Steenbergs at charities@steenbergs.co.uk or call Sophie or Axel at 01765 640 088 and tell us your thoughts.

Spices, spices everywhere

Friday, May 13th, 2011

We had a visit recently from Helen Best-Shaw of FussFreeFlavours, who is a lovely lady – other bloggers welcome.  She asked many interesting questions and one of them got me thinking and that was why are we so interested in spices.  It certainly is not the money as I think we are successfully proving that there are no fortunes to be made in spices anymore.

But what it is, I think, is the sheer complexity of them.  Spices, herbs and salts are the essence of cuisine that takes food away from being the source of the raw materials of life into cooking, i.e. something that is human, cultural, social and learned rather than just a bunch of proteins, carbohydrates and fats etc.

Spices, herbs and salt have the key things that make food truly great and tickle the senses:

  1. Aroma – smell
  2. Flavour – taste
  3. Heat – temperature
  4. Colour – sight
  5. Texture – touch
  6. Context – knowledge

For me, context is one of the key things that our spices can give you.  They create a story of where the cuisine has come from – Britain, Thailand, Japan or India, for example – and a sense of our life story and what we have learnt through our travels and experiences, from other people (whether in cookbooks, websites, from mum or the TV) and through experimentation. They offer a leitmotif to our world.  Context tells us whether they are organic or not, whether the people who grew them have been fairly treated or exploited, creating a depth and connection back to farmers who have toiled to bring us these gems of flavour.

When I blend a spice, all these things get wrapped up into the experience.  For example, today I made some ras al-hanut.  It takes an age to weigh out all the ingredients and then mix them up, all of which we do all by hand.  I use a unique recipe that includes 22 ingredients and took about 3 weeks and many years to perfect.  It harks back to when we started Steenbergs in 2004, so has context for me as I remember really struggling with the blend, but it also has context as it is based on the Moroccan blend – ras el hanout  – which is the master blend of the spice merchants in traditional bazaars across North Africa and into the Levant.  It connects Steenbergs back to other spice merchants and we have been indulgent, like you should, as this is not a blend to scrape and pinch like an accountant for bits of profit here and there, it is a thing of character and blend of excellence designed to show off our prowess and balances the flavours, aromas and colours of a stupidly wide selection of spices from a ridiculously wide geographic range of countries.

So we have – galangal from Vietnam; cassia and cubeb pepper from Indonesia; ginger and turmeric from India; cardamom from Sri Lanka; orris root from Italy; paprika and saffron from Spain; black cardamom from Pakistan; dill seed from Turkey; roses from Iran; bay, caraway and fennel from Turkey; and allspice from Guatemala – all of which are blended by hand in rural North Yorkshire.  We can travel the world with our flavours and ingredients.  Then there are the chromatics of the smells, flavours and colours that are carefully balanced to sing together in harmony and create something that has a bottomless depth of gorgeous sensation that is deliciously exotic – much better than each individually and full of pure intensity.  For a little flair, we add some texture by including whole dill seeds and deep purple rose petals that add an extra dimension to a blend of powders.  Then there are the colours from the exuberant deep purple of the damask roses, the mute yellow of turmeric, the blacks and browns of black cardamom, cassia, galangal, cubebs, the greens of cardamom and bay and the reds of paprika and saffron.  All these heats and flavours and colours meld seamlessly into a flavour bomb of depth and intensity that I just love to blend up.

Or we can enjoy something perhaps more mundane like our garam masala, where you can enjoy the flavour mix as well as its context.  The recipe is based on a Punjabi recipe that has been tweaked here in North Yorkshire, then has the context of being organic and Fairtrade, so you get kit that tastes fantastic, is good for the environment and has great social welfare attributes.

And it is not just about blends of spices and herbs, but we also go that extra mile for customers, searching out variety within individual spices.  There is a vast range of peppers, from the basic black peppercorns and white peppercorns through to speciality black pepper like the TGSEB we get from friends in Northern Kerala, the Wayanad Social Service Society and the more unusual peppers like cubeb pepper, long pepper and Madagascan wild pepper.  Or you could try some of the ersatz peppers, such as grains of paradise (Melagueta pepper), allspice (Jamaican pepper), Moor pepper or our vast range of chillies, that includes the mega-hot Naga Jolokia.

But I am particularly proud of Steenbergs vanilla.  As a standard, we have delicious, fragrant, succulent and sensual Bourbon vanilla from Madagascar.  It is organic and Fairtrade, and we use these for the base of our organic Fairtrade vanilla extract as well.  Then there is variety with vanilla from Congo that has tobacco notes to it, from Tahiti that is more floral and succulent than that of Madagascar.  I just love the vanilla.  Then there is the context of these that are grown with so much patience and effort by lovely rural communities in Northern Madagascar, for example around Mananara.

For me, what becomes more amazing as time goes by is the sense of community effort that goes into these small gems that are spices and herbs.  I am not really meaning the work that we do at Steenbergs, but rather the culture, the social structures, the economies and the people that go into growing that extra special vanilla or that amazing peppercorn.  It is they that are the true heroes and heroines and we should salute them by indulging ourselves to enjoy what they have spent time and effort creating, yet they have so little.  That for me is what I mean by context and that community effort gives Steenbergs that little bit more to it than just a rigid focus on the mechanics and standards of quality and value as demanded by those faceless high street and big brand corporations.

Brownies Recipes From Cakes By Pam Corbin

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

We have just been at the International Food Exhibition 2011, IFE 2011, at Excel in London, where we have been exhibiting. 

It is one of those strange and massive events, where you can be treated to delicious, lovingly made cheese from the Wensleydale Cheese Company with their Jervaulx Blue through to the tasteless, sweaty industrial cheese of AB Technologies Alimentaire, who initiated me into the delights of chocolate flavoured cheese strings (revolting) and wasabi flavoured cheese strings (not great but strangely I think it is a possiblity, but you would need more wasabi for a kick and tastier cheese).  The other weird flavour from the show was Purbeck Ice Cream’s Horseradish and Beetroot Icecream, which was intriguing and would work well as an amuse bouche.  The Steenbergs (our) stand was quite busy, but opposite us was Higgidy Pies – now they have done massively well and are now in most of the major multiples which from a start about 7 years ago is truly immense. 

In fact, most of the businesses around us at the IFE trade show were all in Boots, Sainsburys, Tesco and Waitrose etc, so it was slightly weird being one of the few to hold out and say “No thank you” to the big multiples, and long may we be able to resist the temptation even if it means we are all the poorer for our positioning.  It is also interesting to note that inspite of the fact that customers are always telling us “Don’t got into the multiples” and so on, they were happily swarming around Higgidy Pies despite the fact that they are listed in Asda, Boots, Budgens, Ocado, Sainsburys and Waitrose.

And just round from us was Thursday Cottage, which is now part of Tiptree, but was founded by Pam Corbin.  Pam now does courses in jam making and writes books for River Cottage.  She is one of the world’s beautiful people – lovely nature, light and fresh manner and a great cook, as well as a real fan of Steenbergs ingredients.  Pam has just finished her book from River Cottage on Cakes and she has kindly mentioned Steenbergs spices on more than one occasion, for which we are so grateful.

Anyway to the book.  The aptly-called “Cakes” is number 8 in River Cottage’s series of indispensible handbooks, covering the basics of core areas like jam making, baking cakes etc.  They are hard-backed but the size of a normal paperback, so they are handy and convenient rather than big and bulky.  What’s more they make difficult topics, really easy.  There are masses of cakes – real cakes as this is full of lots of delicious-sounding flavour combinations, but they are classic British-style cakes and not the flouncy, airy and chic cakes of the superchef catwalk scene.

Chocolate Brownies

Chocolate Brownies

So I have chosen a couple of recipes to try: firstly “My chocolate brownies” in this blog, followed (perhaps) by “Wholemeal orange cake“, “Simnel cakelets“, “Cut and come again” in subsequent blogs.  But please make sure you go out and buy her books, because Pam is really lovely.

Ingredients
(Adapted from Cakes by Pam Corbin)

185g / 6½ oz plain chocolate (60-70% cocoa solids), broken into small pieces
185g / 6½ oz unsalted butter
3 large eggs
275g / 9¾ oz Fairtrade golden caster sugar
85g / 3oz plain flour
40g / 1½ oz Fairtrade cocoa powder (even Cadbury’s is Fairtrade these days)
50g / 1¾ oz white chocolate, roughly chopped (I tried out Morrisons Best for this)
50g / 1¾ oz milk chocolate, roughly chopped (I used half a bar of Cadbury’s Fairtrade Dairy Milk, then ate the rest)

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F.  Put the plain chocolate in a heatproof bowl with the unsalted butter.  Place over a barely simmering water on a low heat and leave until melted.  Stir to blend together and take off the heat.

Whisk the eggs and Fairtrade golden caster sugar together with an electric whisk or mixer until pale and quadrupled in volume, which takes 5-10 minutes.  According to Pam, this is the key bit as it increases the volume massively and makes the whole brownie more succulent.
Whisk The Eggs And Sugar To Much Bigger Volume

Whisk The Eggs And Sugar To Much Bigger Volume

Fold the chocolate mixture into the mousse-like egg mixture.  Sift the flour and cocoa powder and fold into the mixture as gently as possible.  Then fold in the chopped chocolate pieces.

Fold Chocolate Into Egg-Sugar Mix

Fold Chocolate Into Egg-Sugar Mix

Pour the mixture into the baking tin and bake for 35 minutes, or until the top has just stopped to wobble and then take out and leave to cool in the tin.  You are trying to leave the brownie partly uncooked and stop it becoming a chocolate cake.

When thoroughly cooled, turn out the brownies onto a tea-towel and then place onto a chopping board.  Cut into squares.

The brownies can be stored for 4-5 days in an airtight container, but brownies never last that long in our household and these are truly scrumptious.  The ones from the centre of the cake tin are the best as they have that delicious, moist mouthfeel.

Brussels Sprouts And Chestnuts With Maple Glaze – A Recipe

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

I have never liked brussels sprouts, feeling they were the devil’s food rather than the fairy cabbages that friends have sought to con their children with.  I have always dreaded Christmas lunch with the obligatory brussels sprouts or as in my case sprout.  So it was with great interest that Sophie told me about a recipe for brussels sprouts that even haters seemed to like.

Brussels Sprouts With Chestnuts And Maple Syrup Glaze

Brussels Sprouts With Chestnuts And Maple Syrup Glaze

It comes from a great little cook book “The Boxing Clever Cookbook” by Jacqui Jones and Joan Wilmot, which is full of recipes to liven up the repetitive dullness that seems to creep into your veg from a box scheme over the months, especially in the depths of winter.  You know what it’s like: week after week of struggling to liven up turnip or cabbage, or even what to do with brussels sprouts. 

Brussels Sprouts Ready For Cooking

Brussels Sprouts Ready For Cooking

The recipe that we liked is brussels sprouts with chestnuts and maple syrup, which basically masks the bitter, cabbagy flavour of brussels sprouts by mixing it with the nuttiness of chestnuts and loads of butter and maple syrup.  Could I still taste the brussels sprouts? Yes, but when diluted with the other flavours, it was actually quite pleasant, so while I won’t be eating brussels sprouts on their own, this is not at all bad.

Brussels Sprouts And Chestnuts With Maple Glaze

Adapted from “The Boxing Clever Cookbook” by Jacqui Jones & Joan Wilmot

90g / 3oz / ⅓ cup cooked, peeled chestnuts, chopped into small dice
225g / ½ lb / 1 cup brussels sprouts, trimmed with outer leaves removed and X on base
3tbsp maple syrup
20g / 1oz butter
Salt and pepper to taste

1.  Boil the sprouts for about 10 minutes until they are tender.  Drain and rinse in cold water.  Set aside.  Quarter them if you want or keep whole as I did.

2.  Put the maple syrup into a pan and warm.  Add the butter and chestnuts and stir as the butter melts.  Add the sprouts and stir.  Season with salt and pepper.

Mixing Chestnuts In With Maple Syrup And Butter

Mixing Chestnuts In With Maple Syrup And Butter

3.  Enjoy.

Rich Hot Chocolate Recipe

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

I have been trying to create a hot chocolate product at Steenbergs and as part of my research I came up with this really rich hot chocolate recipe.  This Hot Chocolate Recipe is something to relax with and enjoy at home, since Sophie calls it “a hug in a mug”.  It is, however, probably impossible to commercialise as any attempt to dumb it down will make the whole experience cheap and less luxurious.

Homemade Rich Hot Chocolate

Homemade Rich Hot Chocolate

Recipe For Rich Hot Chocolate Drink

575ml /1 pint / 2½ cups full fat milk
60ml / ¼ cup water
60g / 2 oz / ¾ cup good quality Fairtrade caster sugar (not your plain white stuff)
100g / 3½ oz dark Fairtrade chocolate (I use one bar of Divine chocolate)

In a bowl over boiling water, melt the chocolate bar, then switch off the heat but leave over the hot water.

Put the milk and water into a pan and bring to the boil.  Just as the first bubbles appear at the edges, take the pan off the heat.  Add the caster sugar and stir in until dissolved.

Add the chocolate and stir in; reheat the mixture until it just starts to bubble again. 

Take it off the heat, then whisk quickly with a hand whisk for about 1 minute.  Pour into 2 or 3 mugs, sit back and enjoy.

Recipe For Chicken Tikka Masala

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010
Chicken Tikka Masala

Chicken Tikka Masala

We had to rearrange our weekend as our daughter got chicken pox mid week, which meant her birthday party needed to be rearranged, childcare and cover at work needed to be sorted.  So with no baking to do for the weekend, I felt like making some of the Anglo-Indian curry classics  We start with the quintessential of fusion meals, Chicken Tikka Masala, which has become one of the icons of modern British food.

I like it in part because it tastes good, but also because it really is one of those evil meals that makes use of ingredients that I would never normally touch – Heinz tomato ketchup and Heinz tomato soup.  I know you can make a more authentic Indian sauce without these ingredients, but that misses the point about Chicken Tikka Masala, i.e. that it is tandoori chicken with a lightly spiced tomato-curry sauce using quick-to-hand ingredients; you can feel the panic of the chef who invented it – what do I do to make a tomato curry sauce? Oh I know tomato soup, tomato ketchup, tomato, cream and some spices with a dash of sourness from vinegar and see what happens.

So here is my version, which can be made hotter but this is designed to be child-friendly rather than adult-authentic, so if you want some heat added just add 2 – 4 green chillis to the tikka masala sauce and you should be okay.  Also, you could circumvent all the spices by using a tandoori masala for the chicken-yoghurt marinade and a tikka or Madras curry powder in the tikka sauce.

We also made lamb korma which I will write about soon.

Axel’s Chicken Tikka Masala

Stage 1: To marinade and roast the spiced chicken

1tsp organic paprika
½ tsp cumin seeds, dry roasted then ground in pestle & mortar
½ tsp nutmeg powder
½ tsp coriander powder
¼ tsp yellow mustard powder
1tsp garam masala
4 green cardamom pods, opened so the flavour from the seeds comes out
1 green chilli (medium heat), deseeded and chopped
2tbsp lime juice
3tbsp plain yoghurt
500g / 1lb chicken breast, chopped into 2cm / 1 inch cubes

Spices For Tikka Marinade

Spices For Tikka Marinade

Firstly prepare the spices, dry roasting the cumin and deseeding the green chilli.  Add all these to a metal or glass mixing bowl.  Stir in the lime juice until you have a paste, then add the yoghurt and mix through all the flavours. 

Finally, with the best chicken you can find or are happy buying, chop this into cubes and then add to the spicy marinade and stir through throughly.  Cover with clingfilm and leave in fridge to infuse with the flavours.  I try and leave it overnight but a minimum of 3 hours is fine. 

Chicken Pieces Infusing With Spices In Yoghurt Marinade

Chicken Pieces Infusing With Spices In Yoghurt Marinade

As for chilli, you can increase or decrease those quantities to suit your desire for heat; as we have two children, they are not too enamoured of over hot food so I tend to keep the heat quotient down for them.

On the next day, while you are making the tikka masala sauce, roast these curry flavoured chicken pieces by placing them evenly on a baking tray and cooking in a 180C / 350F oven for 20 – 25 minutes until nicely browned.

Roasted Tikka Chicken Pieces

Roasted Tikka Chicken Pieces

Stage 2: Making the tikka masala sauce

2tbsp ghee or sunflower/vegetable oil
3 garlic cloves, chopped finely
1 large onion (1½ medium onions), chopped finely
½ sweet pepper (red or green), chopped into small dices
1cm / ½ inch fresh ginger, grated
½ tsp paprika
½ tsp medium curry powder
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp coriander powder
¼ tsp chilli powder (or more to taste)
1tbsp white wine vinegar
4tbsp chopped tomatoes from a tin
1tbsp tomato ketchup, ideally Heinz as it should be slightly sweet
175ml  / ¾ cup tomato soup, once again ideally Heinz as the colour and sweetness is right
100ml / ½ cup single cream
½ tbsp garam masala
1 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped finely
½ tsp sea salt, or chaat masala

Spice Mix For Tikka Sauce

Spice Mix For Tikka Sauce

Start by preparing the spice mix that is needed for the sauce, i.e. the fresh ginger to coriander powder in the list.  When done, heat the ghee or vegetable oil in a frying pan.  Add the onions and garlic cloves and fry gently for 3 minutes until starting to get translucent, then add the chopped bell pepper and fry for another 2 – 3 minutes.  Add the spice mix to the onion-garlic-pepper and mix throughly and fry for about 1 minute. 

Gently Fry Onions, Garlic And Ginger In Ghee

Gently Fry Onions, Garlic And Ginger In Ghee

Now add all the liquid ingredients to the onion mix and stir completely – that is the white wine vinegar, chopped tinned tomatoes, tomato ketchup, Heinz tomato soup and single cream.

Bring to the boil and simmer gently for about 15 minutes.  Then add in the garam masala, fresh coriander leaves and chaat masala/ salt.

Stage 3: Fusion Time – bringing it all together

As a final stage, add the roasted spicy chicken pieces to the tikka sauce.  Stir it together and let cook together for about 15 minutes.

Homemade Chicken Tikka Masala

Homemade Chicken Tikka Masala

Serve with rice and naan bread.

Should We Encourage People From Countryside To Cities?

Saturday, September 11th, 2010

…Self doubt gets you thinking.  I am still thinking through my concerns about Fairtrade and I wonder whether I’ve got it arse over tip. 

People who live in the countryside are relatively poor compared to people who live in an urban environment, but is that because there are, firstly, too many people in the countryside trying to eke out an incremental profit from cash crops to keep themselves above water, and secondly you actually are richer and better off just by being in a city or town. 

There is a strong argument that workers shifting from rural Amazonia and moving to Manaus (the regional capital of the Amazon region) to carry out industrial activity have taken farmers out of Amazonia and so reduced pressure on deforestation, allowing those remaining in the countryside to farm more efficiently and spread their profits across fewer people, while simply the act of going to a city has improved their personal finances.  So rural-to-urban migration is good for everyone financially and great for the environment! 

There is a strong case (and made by people much cleverer and knowledgeable than me) that people living in the slums of big cities and the favelas of Latin America are one of the most dynamic and happening economies of the world.  These are people getting on with life, generating income and stepping up out of poverty.  These places are not the pits of despair that we all once thought and continue to be taught.  Okay, they’re not perfect but they’re significantly better than rural poverty.  And city dwellers have less children, so women are liberated from their historical rural position as child-bearing machines that must cook, fetch water and bring up children.  City life gives them freedom and the creative energy of the fairer sex is a massive force for good and economic improvement.

So should we be encouraging rural-to-urban migration rather than preserving current rural farming structures.  Urban living is better for the environment as it is more efficient on the world’s resources.  Urban living is better for women.  Urban living reduces overpopulation as people living in towns and cities have less children – overpopulation is effectively a rural problem.  Finally, when people move to the city it reduces the amount of people living in the countryside and so reduces the burden from humanity on the countryside and nature quickly recovers – yes, the rainforest does just simply regrow when people leave it be. 

Lastly, is our nostalgic lova affair with the countryside and rural idyll and farming (I don’t know if it is just an English obsession, and I mean English in this case as I cannot speak for others here) simply wrong and something that just makes us look via rose tinted glasses at all rural farming, believing that this must be a great, wonderful and rewarding life for everyone in the countryside, rather than something most farmers just want to escape from, and be liberated from the back-breaking, never-ending drudgery of subsistence living and would rather become housekeepers, labourers, doctors and accountants or whatever is available in the nearest mega-city.  Who are we in the developed world to deny those in the developing world from wanting to live a better life with loads more consumer stuff to ease their daily grind?  Who are we (the great polluters and destroyers of the world) to deny the rural poor a new start and free women from the potential prison of a rural life?

I suppose what I am saying is that if farmers cannot make a living wage from growing sugar or tea or vanilla or fruits or rice, shouldn’t we encourage more of them to move to cities so then less people grow these crops, so then there is a relative shortage of supply over demand and then prices will go up until farmers can then earn a living wage or more.  Are we not just perpetuating an imbalance of excess supply over actual demand by offering a bit above market prices via Fairtrade?

In stark figures, a rural farming family in Madagascar earns $600 per annum, with Fairtrade vanilla they can earn $2000 per annum, but what could they earn were they to live and work in the capital city of, for example, Madagascar – Antananarivo – and perhaps their family size might also fall*.  So isn’t it better to get them to migrate to the cities where education and public services are better and they will have a lower impact on the environment?

I honestly don’t know the answer, but it remains a dilemma that is constantly fighting itself out between my heart that says “yes to fair trade and ethical food” and my head that says “yes to free trade” and reducing levels of rural farming and shifting population towards the cities.

As in everything in life, the answer I suggest is a fudge – we need to trade ethically to ensure that those farming now are not disadvantaged and abused hence Fairtrade, while at the same time providing incentives for people to move from the villages and rural economy into the nearest cities, and then to ensure that cities become as economically vibrant, socially responsible and environmentally sustainable as possible.  But I will probably never answer this quandary to my own personal satisfaction, so will remain racked by doubts and indecision.

* I asked The Foreign Office and World Bank for help on numbers here, but the former could not help and the latter never deigned to answer or acknowledge my request.  That is a worrying starting position for Madagascar.

Exercised About Barclays Settlement With US Authorities On Sanction Busting

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

I have become increasingly bemused by the story about Barclays agreeing a settlement with the US authorities regarding violations of US sanctions against Cuba, Iran, Libya, Myanmar and Sudan.  The amount of the settlement was about $300 million (£192 million), which seems remarkably low, even though a lawyer from the Justice department stated that the settlement was “beyond what they [Barclays] earned” from the business transacted.

However, it is not the piddling amount that is exercising me, rather the fact that the story is a complete non-story.  Barclays broke the law in the US, yet we all just shrug our shoulders and regard it as a non-story, but if your neighbour broke sanctions or was involved in money laundering, I am sure that firstly, we would be thrown into gaol, but also treated with scorn by friends and family.

Where are the politicians nowadays who would stand up like Edward Heath when he denounced Tiny Rowland, the mining baron, as the “unacceptable face of capitalism” in part for breaking sanctions against Rhodesia.  Our economies and political systems are now so inextricably linked with the big mega-banks for financing governmental projects and deficits that they dare not complain or criticise.  What a damp squib it has been so far with the post-financial crisis review of banking across the Western world, and so (I guess) it will remain.

Have business and corporate morality really fallen so low that we just accept corrupt behaviour as an expected corporate norm?  Is business all about money and nothing else whatever the underlying basis of the transactions?  Perhaps it is and I am just a naive fool, but I hope there are some out there in the ether who try and conduct their lives – personal and business – with some basic ethics.

Inspired And Humbled By Jennyruth Workshops

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

Sometimes you visit some people, who really are so good and wonderful that it shames you a bit.  The people at Jennyruth Workshops are some of those unsung heroes that underpin every society in the world; they just get on with it, doing good work, day in day out and neither expect nor want any huge praise.  About a fortnight ago, I had been driving through Ripon as I do almost every day, but this time I had my eyes open when I stopped at the traffic lights on North Street and there was a display in one of the windows about Jennyruth Workshops and I thought I wonder whether they could craft us some spice racks.  So I arranged to meet with them and wow were they lovely, amazing people.

Jennyruth Workshops is a wood and metal craft workshop that provides people with disabilities the opportunities and skills to make things for sale.  Currently, there are about 16 colleagues with disabilities and 30 carers, most of whom give a little time here and there, but some are more permanent like Mark, one of the permanent helpers, who showed us around yesterday with Jonathan, one of the disabled workers, who has been there since the start as his father founded the place.  Jennyruth Workshops is based at Red Farm on the Newby Hall Estate in a large building that looks nondescript on the outside, but has been well built and finished inside with help from prisoners and soldiers.  Although Jennyruth Workshops has been around for some time, having been founded about 15 years ago by Jonathan’s father, it was opened in this new complex in 2004 by the Countess of Wessex

At Jennyruth, they make all sorts of items from bird and bat boxes through to meditation stools, as well as rainbow crosses and wooden clocks; they also make cards and sew products including some brilliant shopping bags from empty, hessian coffee bags donated by Betty & Taylors in Harrogate, who are big supporters of theirs.  They also do a lot of one-off items, for example there was a wooden sign for a toy library in Sharow in progress that was shaped as a giant teddy bear with each letter for “Borrowers Toy Library” being individually cut out and painted.  And Jonathan proudly showed us a farm that he had made with buildings and animals all cut from wood, pieced together and painted; I was awed by Jonathan’s pride, skill and enthusiasm for what is being done at Jennyruth Workshops.  Yesterday, there were also 2 teenage boys from The Forest School in Knaresborough (another amazing place) who were working on a week’s work experience and were busy screwing in the hinges on the kneeling-style meditation stool. 

What I love about the concept of what is being done at Jennyruth and many other similar places is they are trying to ensure that all the disabled workers get involved with every stage in the process from the cutting, through to the piecing together, the painting and varnishing, the packing up and dispatching, so there is no Smith-style division of labour.  It is, therefore, a fun and meaningful place to work.

I was humbled by them all and hang my head in shame that I never help enough, getting so wrapped up in our own relatively mundane and small problems of the daily grind.

What Sophie and I would like to do is start by selling a few of their items on the Steenbergs web site, such as bird and bat boxes and perhaps meditation stools and hopefully spice racks.  We would simply sell them at Jennyruth’s retail price, so making not a penny on these ourselves, and see what happens.  If it becomes popular, then we may add a few extra items, but more importantly we would seek to widen the circle of other great places that also work with people with disabilities and bring their products to our customers on the same “no profit for Steenbergs basis”, since we are all concerned that customers are aware that making such products takes time and that neither Jennyruth Workshops nor places like Botton Village up at Danby are factories but wondrous, traditional crafting places for people with disabilities who should be treated respectfully.

I think it is sad that we as a culture are great at buying ethnic products from the developing world that are fairly traded, but that there is not such a great network for selling products made by people in our own country whether with learning disabilities or just trying to get started and out of a poverty trap.  As they say, charity starts at home, so let’s see if we can develop this more. 

What do others think?

Sprouting Beans

Friday, June 25th, 2010

We have just put Just Wholefoods Organic Sprouting Bean Mix onto Steenbergs web shop.  I remember my mum used to grow mung bean sprouts in a Kilner jar at home which was quite fun and tasted really fresh and crunchy in salads or used in a stir fry.  So in memory of those angry days in the late 1970s, we have been growing the seeds in large jars in Steenbergs office to see how well they work.

Sprouting Seeds - Day One

Sprouting Seeds - Day One

Day 5 - Smaller Seeds Sprouted

Day 5 - Smaller Seeds Sprouted

Day 5 - Enjoying The Small Seed Sprouts on Spelt Bread

Day 5 - Enjoying The Small Seed Sprouts on Spelt Bread

Big Seeds Starting To Sprout

Big Seeds Starting To Sprout