Posts Tagged ‘Fairtrade’

Recipe For Vegan Tofu And Coconut Curry

Saturday, June 4th, 2011

Continuing with our vegetarian fest after a successful week during National Vegetarian Week, I was craving a spicy curry that the kids would enjoy but would also be vegetarian – they are beginning to want some meat, but are just about hanging in there.  I came up with this quick and simple recipe for Tofu & Coconut Milk Curry, which we ate with plain boiled rice and red lentil dhal, plus poppadoms.  It is versatile so you can change the tofu for other vegetarian ingredients like Quorn or, if you are a pescatarian, white fish like cod or coley.

Axel’s Vegan Tofu & Coconut Curry

1 medium onion, chopped finely
3 garlic cloves, chopped finely
1cm / ½ inch cube of fresh ginger, grated finely
1 mild green chilli, sliced lengthways (optional)
2 tbsp organic sunflower oil
1tsp organic  vegetable curry powder, or other mild/medium curry powder
¼tsp organic Fairtrade turmeric powder
10 curry leaves, or bay leaf
400ml coconut milk
4 cherry tomatoes, chopped in half
1tbsp organic white wine vinegar (or cider vinegar)
1tbsp organic lemon juice
1tsp organic garam masala
1tbsp organic sunflower oil
300g tofu, drained then chopped into 1cm / ½ inch cubes
1tbsp chopped fresh coriander leaves

Firstly, we prepare the tofu, by draining it, then placing it between two plates or wooden boards with a weight placed on top to remove the excess water.  This is worth doing as it removes extra water and gives a firmer texture for later.  After 1 hour, pour off excess water and chop into 1cm (½ inch) cubes.

Chop The Tofu Into 1cm Cubes

Chop The Tofu Into 1cm Cubes

Next, we make the coconut milk curry sauce.  Heat the sunflower oil in a heavy bottomed pan.  Add the onion, garlic and grated ginger and sauté on a low heat until translucent – this should take about 5 minutes, but make sure they do not crisp and brown at the edges.

Add the green chilli (if you are after some extra heat, but this is not necessary), curry powder, turmeric and curry leaves and stir in.  Fry gently for 1 minute.  Add the coconut milk and stir in.  Bring to the boil, then turn down to a gentle simmer.  Add the chopped tomatoes and simmer for 5 minutes.

Add the vinegar, lemon juice and garam masala, stir and simmer for another 1-2 minutes. then take off the heat.

Add the sunflower oil to a wok, or frying pan.  Heat until really hot, then add the tofu pieces and turn down the heat.  Fry until golden brown, turning over as they fry to make sure all edges get a nice crispy texture.

Stir Fry The Tofu Cubes

Stir Fry The Tofu Cubes

Until The Tofu Is A Golden Brown Colour

Until The Tofu Is A Golden Brown Colour

Add to the curry sauce and reheat to a boil.  Simmer for 5 minutes until thoroughly cooked through.  Add the chopped coriander leaves about 1 minute before the end.  Serve with plain boiled rice and dhal.

Vegan Tofu And Coconut Milk Curry

Vegan Tofu And Coconut Milk Curry

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.

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.

Traditional Mincemeat Recipe

Sunday, November 14th, 2010

I am winning with Christmas food preparations this year, which seems unbelievable considering how little time I seem to have to do anything at the moment;. I am running about one week behind last year.  However, as a man who cooks, I do actually find baking strangely therapeutic and calming at the weekend.  I think it gives me some peace and quiet, allowing my thoughts to settle themselves down after a hectic week at Steenbergs, and this week has been one of those business nightmare weeks.

So Christmas cake was baked 2 weekends ago, Christmas pudding last weekend and this weekend I have made a new batch of mincemeat.  I always make a mammoth sized Christmas cake and extra Christmas puds, giving one to my parents and another to some great friends of ours, both of whom deserve just a little something for their help during the year.  As for the mincemeat, I have usually made one that does not include any sugar as I feel the dried fruit, apple and juices are usually sweet enough, however after some gentle prompting last year, I thought I would try a more traditional version and add some sugar, which is what I did this morning. 

Basically, it is my normal mincemeat recipe with the addition of 250g / 8oz dark molasses sugar from Billingtons crumbled into it and a reduced amount of apple as it seems to ferment a little over time.  Still simple and easy, so my old recipe is now called the “No Added Sugar Mincemeat Recipe” and this will become our “Traditional Mincemeat” recipe.  It really is worth the effort making this as it is really just a case of chucking some ingredients together and leaving to develop flavour over the short time to Christmas.

Ingredients 

175g/ 6oz raisins (Organic and/or Fairtrade if possible)
175g/ 6oz sultanas (Organic and/or Fairtrade if possible)
250g/ 8oz currants (Organic and/or Fairtrade if possible)
85g/ 3oz chopped mixed peel
85g/ 3oz flaked almonds, toasted
125g/ 4oz eating apples (Cox’s are good), cored and chopped but not peeled
125g/ 4oz shredded suet (I  use Community Wholefood’s vegetarian suet, but Atora also do one)
250g / 8oz dark muscovado sugar  (Organic and/or Fairtrade if possible)
1tsp organic Fairtrade nutmeg powder
½ tsp allspice powder
½ rounded tsp organic Fairtrade cinnamon powder
Grated rind and juice of 1 orange (or 50:50 orange and lemon)
75ml/ 1/8 pint “good” whisky or brandy (I use Bruichladdich from Islay)

1.  If possible, use organic ingredients and/or Fairtrade ingredients, as they are good for the environment and the communities that grow the crops.

2.  Simply mix all the ingredients together and seal in a large tub, or ideally a bucket with a lid.

Ingredients For Mincemeat Weighed Out

Ingredients For Mincemeat Weighed Out

Mix The Dark Muscovado Sugar Into The Fruit And Nuts

Mix The Dark Muscovado Sugar Into The Fruit And Nuts

Traditional Mincemeat All Mixed Up

Traditional Mincemeat All Mixed Up

3.  Stir it once or twice in the maturation period – at the end of November and maybe mid December.  Pot it up into a couple of good sized Kilner-style jars on or about the 20th December.

4.  It lasts for a good 2 – 3 years, so don’t worry if you haven’t used it all in one Christmas period.  It is good to use in baked apples or to make a quick mincemeat tart for pudding anytime in the year.

Recipe For Tea Infused Indian Rice Pudding

Saturday, November 6th, 2010
Indian Rice Pudding

Indian Rice Pudding

For pudding with my Imperial Korma, I made Indian Rice Pudding.  I love rice pudding and I love the Indian versions, especially Pal Payasam which is the traditional Keralan recipe; these use basmati rice which has a firmer mouth-feel than arborio rice, which is used for a typical English rice puds. 

In Kerala, you would flavour it with cashews as they are grown all over Kerala, including by my friends at Elements Homestead; however, the other day I did not have any cashews to hand so I used flaked almonds which worked really well (cashews are rarely in our storecupboard, but almonds always are).

As it is an Indian rice pudding, I wanted to add an extra flavour element to the rice pudding and decided to infuse the milk with tea and I actually used one of our chai teas, which I make using a Keralan black tea from the POABS Estates near Nelliyampathy together with Fairtrade spices that are indigenous to the region.  You do not need to use a chai tea (or tea at all for that matter), but I suggest you should use light and flowery teas rather than strong ones, so a Nilgiri Black Tea or a Fine Darjeeling would work well, but I do not think a malty Assam or Kenyan tea would be right as those flavours will come through too strongly.

Axel’s Tea Infused Indian Rice Pudding

½tsp green cardamom powder
2tbsp ghee or unsalted butter
2tbsp flaked almonds
2tbsp raisins
100g / 3½ oz basmati rice
600ml / 1 pint full fat milk
1tsp Indian tea (optional)
100g / 3½ oz light muscovado sugar

Heat the ghee/butter in a heavy bottomed pan and fry the almonds and raisins until the raisins have swollen up.  Remove from the hot oil and drain almonds and raisins on kitchen paper and keep to the side; keep the oil in the pan but off the heat.

In a milk pan, warm the milk to just below boiling point; you will see bubbles just appear at the edge of the milk just by the pan edge.  Take off the heat and add the tea to the milk, stir in and leave to infuse for 5 minutes, then strain out the tea leaves by pouring the milk through a sieve. 

Wash and drain the rice twice.  In the saucepan, reheat the ghee/butter and lightly fry the basmati rice for about 1 minute being careful not to let it stick or burn.  Add the tea-infused milk and stir into the rice; heat to just below boiling point, stirring all the time to stop it sticking on the base of the pan and so burning.

When the rice is nearly cooked with an al dente bite, add the sugar and stir it in until it has dissolved and the rice is throughly cooked.  Add the fried almonds, raisins and cardamom powder, stir right through and gently cook for about 2 minutes longer.

Serve hot, with cream or milk if you want.

Blending Christmas Tea

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

It is that time of year when customers are after our Christmas tea which is made to my own special recipe. 

Steenbergs Organic Fairtrade Christmas Tea

Steenbergs Organic Fairtrade Christmas Tea

We use a high grown organic Fairtrade from the POABS biodynamic tea estates in Kerala in Southern India as the base.  This is a lovely clean drinking black tea, while at the same time being mild in flavour without any maltiness or meadowy flavours coming through; therefore it is a wonderful base tea.

Whole Fairtrade Spices Ready For Grinding

Whole Fairtrade Spices Ready For Grinding

I take organic Fairtrade cardamom, organic Fairtrade cinnamon quills and organic Fairtrade cloves from the Small Organic Farmers’ Association in the Kandy region of Sri Lanka.  I then get some organic Fairtrade vanilla pods from the warehouse and chop these to about 1 cm in size.  All of these are mixed together and then ground down to a 1 – 2mm chop.  By grinding the whole spices in small batches, I can ensure that the quality of flavours is fresh and strong and that I am happy with their quality.

These are added to the tea together with some organic orange peel granules.

Cracked Spices And Black Tea

Cracked Spices And Black Tea

I mix it all together by hand, transfer it into sacks and leave to infuse with these gorgeous spicy flavours for a couple of weeks before testing and releasing for packing.

Christmas Tea All Mixed Up

Christmas Tea All Mixed Up

No additional flavours are added, no chemicals; it’s just tea and spices, blended by hand in North Yorkshire by me.  The final tea is a gently spiced, homely and warming for these darker evenings.

Vanilla – A Beautiful And Sensual Spice

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010
Vanilla comes from the vanilla orchid, called Vanilla planifolia, which is native to Mexico, but is now indigenous in many tropical parts of the world, for example Madagascar and surrounding islands.  There is a second vanilla orchid called Vanilla tahitensis, which is native to Tahiti and Papua New Guinea, and has a slightly different flavour profile.  The vanilla orchid flower is a pretty, delicate light green colour.
Vanilla Orchid Flower

Vanilla Orchid Flower

In the wild, vanilla flowers are pollinated by the melipona bee, whereas outside of Mexico, it is pollinated by hand with a small wooden skewer to move the male pollen to the female stigma.  This process is sometimes called la marriage de vanille, or fécondation.
Fertilising The Vanilla Flowers

Fertilising The Vanilla Flowers

It is then a long careful process to tend the vines as they trail along little wires from post to post.  This tending period takes about 9 months.

Tending The Vanilla Vine

Tending The Vanilla Vine

Green Vanilla On The Vine

Green Vanilla On The Vine

After about 9 months, the green vanilla beans are picked and taken to the nearest vanilla processing centre.  At this stage, the vanilla beans looks like French or runner beans.  The first thing to do is to “kill” the beans, which basically denatures the enzymes that would simply make the vanilla rot, but allows the enzymes that result in the curing process to start.

Killing The Green Vanilla Beans

Killing The Green Vanilla Beans

The curing process then takes  several weeks before the raw green beans have turned a deep, dark brown. The pods are laid out on mats in the sun to heat up for the hoursduring the day, where the workers handle the beans and turn them over.  Late in the afternoon, the baking hot beans are collected and wrapped in blankets and straw mats, then placed into air-tight wooden containers to “sweat” overnight.

Collecting Vanilla Beans For Sweating

Collecting Vanilla Beans For Sweating

The head curer checks the progress of the curing every day and assesses when the time is right to stop this curing stage.

Checking On Curing Process In Karnataka In Southern India

Checking On Curing Process In Karnataka In Southern India

Quality Control On Curing Vanilla Beans In Madagascar

Quality Control On Curing Vanilla Beans In Madagascar

The next stage is the conditioning phase when the vanilla pods are held in storage for 3 months to let the flavours develop and run through.  During this conditioning stage, the beans are handled regularly, softening and shaping them – in the Madagascar, they roll the beans between their fingers and so resulting in a rounded shape, while in India, they tend to flatten them between their fingers giving a flatter, longer shape.

Madagascan Vanilla With Their Individual Markings

Madagascan Vanilla With Their Individual Markings

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.