Posts Tagged ‘foodie news’

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 (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.

Two Fish Shops – Craster And Seahouses (19 & 20 July 2011)

Saturday, August 6th, 2011
Robson Home Of The Craster Kipper

Robson Home Of The Craster Kipper

On the way back from Alnwick, we went to Craster and to L. Robson & Sons Ltd, who have been smoking herrings for kippers there for over 130 years.  It is an unprepossessing little sea village, with a small harbour that feels lost and drab.  There is only a little bit of sand and a few sad looking boats.  It is a good base for a walk along the coast towards the grand ruin of Dunstanburgh Castle and buying some fish, but not worth a visit on its own.  Robsons is a functional shop, the restaurant was closed and the service cursory, but the fish has a good reputation far and wide, and you can buy online at or by mail order (01665 576 223).  Kippers are £5.75/kg.

In contrast, Seahouses has managed to make the transition from a busy fishing harbour in the era of herring through to a tourist place much more smoothly.  It is a larger harbour, plus has the benefit of the Farne Islands and Holy Island closer to, enabling the ecotourists to come for birds, seals and the occasional dolphin, Minke whale and orcas.  Still, it is a much quieter harbour than I can remember from when young.  Then, all the edges of the harbour would be full of moored fishing boats, where now you have a handful of fishing boats and many more pleasure boats taking trips to the islands.

I remember coming down to the harbour to choose fish, crabs and lobster freshly landed and direct from the boats, where now signs say “No Landing Of Shellfish”.  The only hint at the former times are lobster pots and a fish van from Eyemouth with its incongruous saltire on its side.  The piers and harbour had more of a hubbub then and lots of busyness, but progress moves us ever forwards to a better place, supposedly.  I remember sitting at the end of the pier with legs dangling over the edge, surrounded by other kids, fishing with rod or just line; the joy of catching a pollock or when fishing from the shore a flattie, then the sweet and sour taste of food legitimately hunted and brought home to table.  In Seahouses, MacKays has changed from a shop with wet fish counter into a palace for plastic seaside geegaws and kiss-me-quick hats, as well as body boards and wet suits, called the Farne Island Gift Shop (be careful as it is cash only).

Swallow Fish In Seahouses , Northumberland

Swallow Fish In Seahouses , Northumberland

In Seahouses, you must rootle out Swallow Fish that is hidden above the harbour in South Street – it is hard to find down a potholed, little road.  Here they still smoke on site from fish that is landed in the harbour (probably only crab and lobster); you can sometimes see their van waiting patiently on the quayside.  My uncle used to get his salmon smoked here.  The Wilkin family have been smoking fish here since 1843 and claim to have invented the kipper, making this the oldest smokehouse in Northumberland.  The shop is a lovely warm and small space, unchanged from my memories as if you step from 2011 into someone’s warm front parlour in the 1960s or 1910s.  The service was warm and helpful in that quiet, reserved Northumbrian manner.  I bought dressed crab and kippers, normal and deboned.  Don’t buy the deboned as the shape is a fillet and feels wrong for a kipper, plus only the backbone has been removed and all the smaller bones are still there.  You can buy other fish products, plus live crab, crab claws, crab meat and lobster.  Swallow Fish is available in Fenwick Food Hall in Newcastle or by mail order or over the phone (01665 721 052) or  Dearer than Craster at £8.25/kg, but worth it.  And what I love about their website is the section where you can meet their fishermen, which includes 2 of the Glad Tidings fleet as used for trips to the Farnes.

Swallow Fish Kippers - filleted or normal

Swallow Fish Kippers - filleted and normal

Our tasting notes from 12 of us:

  • Swallow Fish: lightly smoked taste with succulent meaty flesh and nice level of oil.  Really good example of kipper that have no artificial colours or smoke flavour.
  • Robson & Son Craster Kippers: more smoky and saltier in flavour than the Swallow Fish kippers.  Good taste and delicious meat with no artificial colours or smoke flavours.

Overall, Swallow Fish was our preferred kipper, but Craster Kippers are way ahead of other high street kippers, so go for either.  Some time back I reviewed Loch Fyne and Marrbury Smokehouse Kippers, which are good, but still not as good as Swallow Fish or Robson of Craster Kippers.

Two places for tea – The Old School House and Galloway Activity Centre

Monday, August 1st, 2011

I seemed to spend the first week of our holidays driving a triangle from Loch Ken to Cream O’ Galloway at Rainton and then to Kirkcudbright, ferrying our kids from activity to activity.  We did manage to break for tea a few times. 

Firstly, there is the delightful Old School House on the A75 itself that serves a good Brodies tea (I had Darjeeling) and a great selection of home made cakes, including brownies, fridge cakes, cheesecakes and a fruit frangipani that I indulged in.  Well worth a stop, should you have the time.  I will do a longer review next year when we revisit Dumfries & Galloway for our jollies.

Secondly, much more functional and certainly less indulgent, you could turn off the A713 to the Galloway Activity Centre and is a couple of miles from Parton.  It is a sailing centre*, but the food here is home baked and reasonably priced, so great if you are happy to have your tea in a mug and to take out your teabag yourself.  The shortbread, chocolate brownies and chocolate cake with pears are all heavenly and you can watch the boats or windsurfers floating on Loch Ken from the safety of the decking outside or the newly enlarged viewing area indoors.  And pricing is ideal: hot chocolate £1.20; tea or coffee £1.00; scone £1.25; shortbread 60p or £1.00 depending on size; tray bakes £1.35; brownie £1.00; and tarts £1.25.

*  You can also do windsurfing, power boating, kayaking, mountain biking, archery, laser quest, climbing wall, abseiling, zip wire etc, or further down the loch there is a water ski centre.

The Better Supermarket Beefs In The UK – More Thoughts On Burger Making

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

For the supermarkets, I have reviewed their offerings (see below) and made an initial selection of meats, going for beef from Booths, Sainsbury’sTesco and Waitrose

Next, we needed to make some burgers from these suppliers, so I chose the following: from Booths, chuck and rib eye steaks; from Sainsbury’s, rib eye steak and braising steak; from Tesco, rib eye steak and casserole steak; and from Waitrose, rib eye steak and braising steak.  To these, I then made simple burgers following my core recipe from my blog earlier in July 2011 without the onions to let the meat speak for itself.  The meats were ground through a 4½mm mincer and shaped using the Italian burger press from Weschenfelder. 

Tasting Beefburgers Made From Supermarkets' Steak

Tasting Beefburgers Made From Supermarkets' Steak

They were lightly fried in deodourised sunflower oil then tasted with fork & knife rather than in bread rolls.  We tasted them en famille so the results are across ages and sexes and the ranking was Booths and Waitrose first equal then Sainbsury’s and last Tesco.  However, it is important to state that Booths, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose were clearly good with Tesco’s quality lagging a long way behind.

As for Booth’s and Waitrose, the differences were that Booths had the best general flavour and mouthfeel, while Waitrose had a deeper, richer flavour.  I reckon this was because the Waitrose meat was hung for longer and so had more beefiness coming through whereas for Booth’s I was able to get exactly the cuts that I desired, so perhaps the ideal is as I argued in my previous blogs for a 1:1 mix of chuck and rib eye that has been matured for 21 – 28 days rather than a relatively quick 14 days as was the case for Booths.

As an aside, we also taste tested Sainsbury’s versus Waitrose dry aged sirloin and the Sainsbury’s beef was a clear winner, so it is not a case of Booths & Waitrose being clear winners across the board nor was the older beef the better as Sainsbury’s was 21 day and Waitrose 28 day aged.

Review of supermarket beef

At Asda, the choice of beef was from British or Irish meat with most coming from Ireland.  Mince was Irish beef and £6.08 for 1kg (in 500g amounts) or 2 for £5, braising steak was £8.75/kg and rump steak £7.00/kg (currently down from £11.48/kg) and from Ireland.  In ribeye steak there was the biggest choice – organic (£16.99/kg), Irish 14 day matured (£14.49/kg), British (£15.00/kg) or Yorkshire Dales steak (£21.94/kg).  Overall, I was impressed that they had Yorkshire sourced beef and some organic, but too much was from Ireland rather than Britain and very little provenance was given.

At Booths, they have a good minced steak at £4.00 for 700g which is very good value compared to Morrisons in spite of Morrisons claiming to be the value store and Booths having the reputation for being expensive.  They have a much smaller selection than the big highstreet multiples but the quality is much better, and I went for a mix of traditional chuck steak (£8.00/kg) and rib eye steak (£20.00/kg) with marbling a little light at around 10%, but I compensated with some beef fat that I took off another sirloin steak.  The beef at the butcher’s counter is hung for 21 days, but the instore staff did not know whether the steaks in the chillers were the same age, but presumed they could be.  If you go to one of their stores, try and get their 28 days National Trust beef, which often comes from Fountains Abbey for the Ripon store – it is just amazing kit and the best beef in any supermarket but that is for another blog.

At Morrisons, you can get either minced beef or steak, where I suggest that minced steak at £5.56/kg for 720g is a good bet or for the Butcher’s Mince at £6.99/kg.  Alternatively, you could buy from the Family Butcher rib eye steak (£14.49/kg) and braising steak (£7.99/kg) then cube them both up and grind them at home.  We tried their The Best Scotch Beef Quarter Pounder Burgers and they were tough, rubbery and full of gristle, plus lots of liquid came out during the cooking process, which left me feeling mighty suspicious.  Anyway one of the key reasons to make you own burgers is to look at the ingredients: beef (86%), breadcrumbs, beef fat, roasted onions, seasoning, then the horrors of sodium metabisulphite (horrible stuff!), sodium ascorbate and trisodium citrate.  Note that all supermarkets use heavy preservatives as they need to maximise the length in store to minimise wastage, so all superamrkets use these nasty chemicals.

For Sainsbury’s, there was beef mince (£4.40/kg), braising steak (£8.75/kg), Taste the Difference rump steak (£13.99/kg), sirloin (standard = £19.99/kg; 21 day dry aged Taste the Difference = £21.99/kg), rib eye steak in various guises – scotch beef (£16.30/kg); North Highland rib eye (£20.40/kg) and 21 day dry aged Taste the Difference (£23.99/kg).

At Tesco, there was steak mince (£5.74/kg) or organic beef mince (£5.75/kg)casserole steak from Britain or Ireland (£8.00/kg or £9.00/kg at the butcher’s counter even though it looked the same style of beef), rump steak (£11.79/kg for standard and £13.49/kg for Tesco Finest), sirloin (standard = £15.97/kg; Tesco Finest = £15.99/kg; organic sirloin £17.99/kg), rib eye steak in various guises – standard beef (£14.49/kg)Tesco Finest (£13.00/kg – should be £15.99/kg per but was mispriced in store at £13.00/kg so I got a bargain) and organic rib eye (£16.00/kg).

At Waitrose, there was beef mince from Aberdeen Angus cattle in 10% fat and 20% fat forms, with the 20% being £6.58/kg and the most appropriate for making burgers; there is a beef mince that is organic at £13.16/kg for their Duchy Original brand.  There is an organic rump steak from Duchy Originals (£16.49/kg) and sirloin (£21.99/kg).  Non-organic beefs are Hereford diced braising steak (£10.47/kg), 14 days aged sirloin (£23.99/kg) and rib eye steak (£26.99/kg),  plus 28 day dry aged Aberdeen Angus beef from the butcher’s counter – sirloin (£25.99/kg) and rib eye steak (£26.99/kg).  The butcher at the counter in Harrogate was really helpful and the best of all the supermarkets for knowledge and courtesy.

I make no warranties or claims on pricing or availability in store.  They are provided as guides, but as I visited the supermarkets at different times and in different places, these could have gone up or down or done some somersaults while some products may even have been delisted.  Booths prices at 28/6/2011; Morrisons prices at 26/6/2011; on 1 July 2011, I got prices for Asda, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose.  I went to Harrogate for Asda, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose; Ripon for Booths; Morrisons in Boroughbridge; and Tesco in Thirsk.

Some Rules For Better Beef For A Better Burger

Friday, July 15th, 2011

These are some more technical thoughts on the type of beef you are after, over and above the right breed and farmer.

The key complaints about burgers are that they can be tasteless or are rubbery and/or dry.  The dryness is a result of the meat being too lean, so your are looking for 15-20% of fat content, or marbling, to baste the beef during the cooking process.  The rubberiness comes from a number of possible factors, including the meat being ground too fine, then packed really tightly in a machine to a pattie shape.  Another possibility is the collagen level in the beef itself; there is more collagen in the muscle when it has been worked harder, so you tend to get more collagen and so toughness and gristle for cuts from the lower half of the beast or the hind legs, especially lower hind legs.  As you cook meats full of collagen, the collagen contracts and becomes more rubbery, which is why these meats are best slow cooked in a stew rather than quick cooked over a grill or fried.  Fortunately, these cuts tend to be the cheaper ones, so you can use the price/weight method and go for higher value cuts.  Another way to reduce the rubberiness is through the ageing process (see below).  Finally, there may be binders that tend to compact the shape of the pattie further as liquid escapes during the grilling and frying process, particularly if water has been injected into the meat at any stage of the preparation.  As for taste, this comes from the quality of the meat – I have a rule of thumb which is simply would you eat the meat as a steak or not; if you would eat it as a steak then when ground it should still taste great.  Once again ageing helps with flavour.

Age of the steak is important, as the hanging process develops the flavour and tenderises the meat.  So you should ask your butcher how long the beef has been aged for. As a rule, 21 days should be the minimum and 35 days as a maximum.  So what does ageing do? Firstly, moisture evaporates from the muscle, resulting in a richer and deeper umami intensity to the beef. Secondly, the beef’s natural enzymes break down the tough and rubbery collagen in the muscle, resulting in a tenderer beef.  So the hanging process overcomes the key issues of collagen, excess water and flavour, which if you then merge with the idea of marbling will serve as a good guide to buying better beef for your burgers.

Differences Between 21 Day (left) And 28 Day (right) Aged Rib Eye Steak

Differences Between 21 Day (left) And 28 Day (right) Aged Rib Eye Steak

When choosing a steak, sirloin (short loin in US) is a fine choice due to its tasty, melt-in-the-mouth succulence. Good sirloin has just the right amount of fat and nice marbling. Rump steak (sirloin in the US) is slightly cheaper than sirloin but is still a great griddling or frying, with more depth of flavour than sirloin. However, it does tend to be slightly chewier, especially if it has not been matured properly.  For more on meat cuts, see

How To Prepare The Meat For Your Burger

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

But the key to the recipe is the meat. You should not just get the nearest pack of mince that you can find, but should go to a proper butcher and get the mince made for you using the right types of meat.  The best beef for a burger comes from the top, so you are looking for neck, chuck & blade (in the US, this is chuck), rump (in the US, this is sirloin), silverside and topside (in the US, this is top round, i.e. from the top of the hind leg rather than towards the base); for UK cuts, you can see the attached website or in the US.  Each cut has different characteristics and pricing, but they are all great for burgers.   If you are going to buy your meat from the supermarket or preminced, try and get minced steak rather than minced beef, and organic or free range beef over factory farmed, so you are more likely to get a better quality cut and more ageing.  However, good mince and braising steak often comes straight from chuck so you could just go straight for these, then mince the braising steak yourself, but check with your butcher if you can. 

What you are looking for is a beef from the top of the cattle with a good level of marbling of 15% – 20% of the total meat.  A good level of marbling (the little veins of fat running through the beef) is vital as it melts as you cook, helping the beef to baste itself while cooking, so keeping the beef succulent and flavoursome.  Then you are looking for muscles that are worked and so have good flavour as in the hind leg or neck, rather than the soft, but less flavoursome cuts from the ribcage area, which are forerib and sirloin in the UK and rib and short loin in the US, however on the other side you do not want the overly tough meat from the lower round or brisket.  Then you are after an aged beef as this overcomes any possible issues from extra collagen from being worked hard.

As for breeds, the best beef comes from hardy Border and Scottish breeds, like the Aberdeen Angus and Galloway lines or Blue Grey, which is a Whitebred Shorthorn crossed with a Galloway.  Then for global beef afficionadoes there is Wagyu beef from the Japanese Wagyu cattle, which has intense marbling.  One thing I feel is that the best beef comes from hardy cattle that have been farmed in tough conditions where the beef has been grown properly rather than becoming flaccid and dull from easy living.

Heston Blumenthal goes into some detail and consideration of the types of beef to use in the perfect burger.  He uses a mix of chuck, aged short rib and brisket in a ratio of 1:2:1, with a 6 hour presalting of the chuck before grinding.  Personally, I think this is too complex, but agree that a mix of chuck and short rib (or rib eye) or rump, using 21+ day aged beef if you can get it, is a great idea, but you must still look for the right fat:meat ratio, i.e. marbling.  The idea of presalting the beef at this stage is interesting, but does not actually make any difference as I always suggest that you season the minced beef for at least an hour before you grill the burgers, so you draw the moisture out at that stage.  Some blog views on his burger can be found at and

Cutting through all this, I go for a 1:1 ratio of chuck steak to either ribeye steak or rump steak, with the picanha cut being a great rump cut to use.

Chuck Steak (left) And Rib Eye Steak (right)

Chuck Steak (left) And Rib Eye Steak (right)

No 8 Stainless Steel Hand Mincer

No 8 Stainless Steel Hand Mincer

The next thing to consider is the grind size for the beef.  The best way is to get your butcher to do this as they have the right equipment and good hygiene.  You should ask for the beef to be minced through a medium (4.5mm; 3/16 inch) setting, not finer like industrial pre-ground mince.  At home, I grind the meat once with the 4.5mm blade then again either with the same blade or a 6mm blade, as I find the double mince creates a smoother and less tough beef.  If you are going to do this at home, you must ensure that all the equipment is really, really clean and should scald the blades in boiling water to kill all the bacteria or use food grade cleaners and rinse off afterwards thoroughly; then refrigerate the equipment for 30 minutes to help to prevent the meat from sticking to it.  Once again, I would recommend Weschenfelder for a manual mincer and would plump for either the No 8 or No 10 stainless steel mincers on their site.  Heston Blumenthal suggests that you grind the meat then align the strands in parallel, but this is not worth the effort and also means that the burger has much less bindability and can easily fall apart.  The key is the quality of the meat, not in being overtly particular to align the strands of minced beef this way, i.e. don’t bother as it is a pain in the butt.

Mincing Beef Steak At Home

Mincing Beef Steak At Home

Maldon Sea Salt

Maldon Sea Salt

Having minced the meat, you should season it right through.  To do this, grind the salt to a fine powder in a mortar and pestle as you want this to be all the way through the beef.  You must use a sea salt for this and not an industrial salt.  For this, I would suggest either our fleur de sel, or be more British about it and use one of the wonderful crystal salts from Anglesey, Cornwall or Maldon.  The salt draws out some of the moisture in the beef creating a greater succulence and binding the beef together more, while subtly enhancing the umami tones within great beef.  Next get some coarsely ground good quality black peppercorns, which you can either do with your grinder on a coarse setting or buy a cracked black pepper (called crushed black pepper in the US and butcher’s cut in Germany).  This brings the characteristic warm, piperine flavour that wonderfully offsets the richness of the beef.  I think that you want bursts of flavour in this case rather than an even heat throughout, which would come from a ground pepper, essentially the opposite flavouring style to the sea salt.  I think our Steenbergs TGSEB from Kerala is the best pepper you could want, so that is what I use.  Finally, I add a small amount of fried grated onion, which is really my own personal preference – it is only a small amount and complements the meat nicely with a hint of sweetness.  For really good beef, you can, and I often do, drop this and rely on the salt and pepper, but I do like a little bit of fried onion in the burger mix, but this is optional.

Put the minced beef into a stainless steel bowl.  Having prepared the fine ground sea salt, the coarse ground black pepper and the grated onion, you should sprinkle these then mix through the ground beef as well as you can.  Use your hands here, making sure they are scrupulously clean.  Then cover the stainless steel bowl with a clingfilm and leave in refrigerator for at least one hour.

To make the patties, you should either shape them with clean hands or use a burger press like the ones I suggested from Weschenfelder or Scobies in East Kilbride.  If doing them by hand, shape them to 10-12cm (4 – 5 inches) in diameter and 4cm high (1½ inches), which is roughly palm-sized and about two fingers thick.  Place these burgers into the fridge until you are ready to fry or grill them.

Shaping The Ground Beef In A Burger Press

Shaping The Ground Beef In A Burger Press

Having explained the basics for making a burger and some of the kit to use, I will review some possible sources for where you can get great meat for making your burger at home, both through the supermarkets, local to the North East, some online speciality stores and a few other great places that are worth tracking down if you have the time and money to reach for greatness.  From there, we will go to ideas for sauces, burger buns and so on.

Starting Out – The Basics For A Simple Homemade Burger

Friday, July 8th, 2011

Some time ago, I started a quest for a great burger, then stopped that search as things at Steenbergs gave me less time than I had needed.  But I think I am ready to start that hunt again.

In the meantime, I have not been completely idle..well, a little perhaps…and have tweaked my core simple burger recipe, reducing the seasoning to let the flavour of the meat come through more.  However, it is completely a matter of taste as to how much seasoning you want to complement the beef flavours, plus an element of how good the meat itself is, where the better the flavours in the meat, the less seasoning you should be adding.

So here is my amended Simple Burger recipe:

450g / 1lb ground chuck, rib eye, rump, silverside or topside beef
1tbsp grated or minced onion (optional especially for top notch 21+ days’ beef, but ideal for shop bought mince), lightly fried then cooled
½tsp sea salt
¼tsp cracked black pepper

If doing the onion, fry gently in ½tbsp of sunflower oil until clear, then cool until chilled in the fridge. 

Next, clean your hands.  Then, in a clean stainless steel bowl, mix together all the ingredients using your hands, making sure all the ingredients are spread evenly through the mix.  Leave in the fridge for at least an hour and ideally overnight (or 6 hours).  Form the burger mix into patties that are 2cm (¾ inch) thick with your hands or in a burger press.

Season With Mince With Salt & Pepper

Season With Mince With Salt & Pepper

Shape The Burgers In A Pattie Press Or By Hand

Shape The Burgers In A Pattie Press Or By Hand

Homemade Burger Patties

Burger Patties Made At Home

Lightly brush with sunflower oil on each side, then either grill them over a barbecue or in a good cast-iron frying pan over a medium-high heat to the desired degree of doneness – around 4 – 5 minutes per side for medium rare; 5 – 6 minutes for medium.  However, the degree of doneness is not an exact science and depends a lot on the actual temperatures used and the meat, so be flexible rather than rigid in these guides.

Burger Press From Weschenfelder

Burger Press From Weschenfelder

To shape the burgers, I just use my hands.  However, Lakeland have a burger press that would do the job if you do not like the feel of meat, or you could try Twenga where there seem to be loads of alternatives over a wide price bracket.  Better still there is a range of burger presses from £7 – £300 at one of my favourite web secrets, Weschenfelder.

If you find that your burgers are falling apart, you may find that the meat you are using is not moist enough.  Alternatively, you could add some breadcrumbs, which will help to bind the meat together more.  In my homemade burger recipe via the main Steenbergs website, I use these in a more involved burger recipe.  The other possibility is that the burger is being turned too much or you are pressing it down, so releasing the juices that would bind the meat together, as below.

If you wish to barbecue them, a charcoal fire is much better rather than a gas grill, but obviously comes with more of a hassle factor.  Here are some basic burger cooking rules:

  1. Turn the burger only once – flipping might make the burger fall apart, while turning it back and forth will dry it out without letting the burger cook through.
  2. Don’t squash down the burger while it is cooking.  It does not speed up the cooking time much and squeezes out the juices, so ensuring your burger will become dry and solid rather than succulent & delicious.
  3. Finally, make sure your frying pan or grill is hot before you start cooking, but you don’t want a mega hot flame that chars the burgers to a crisp, cinder, better to be white hot charcoals than big flickering flames.  Impatience will not help the best flavours to develop.

But the key to any burger recipe is the meat.

Recipe For Axel’s Vegan Mung Bean And Tofu Soup

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

This week is National Vegetarian Week and we have been enjoying new and wonderful vegetarian recipes including Sally’s new recipes for Moroccan Vegetable Stew and Vegetable Fajitas that we have added to the main Steenbergs website. 

Vegetable Curry Powder

Vegetable Curry Powder

Meanwhile, I have developed an organic vegan mung bean soup.  It is really versatile as you can reduce the water used and make it into a dhal with a thicker consistency, then eat with boiled rice for a healthy and balanced vegan main course.  The inspiration for this has morphed significantly from a recipe in an old Madhur Jaffrey cookbook that I find lurking on our bookshelves, Far Eastern Cookery, and hails from the Philippines, Mongo Guisado.  The original is a seafood soup using meat stock, but this version adds some extra flavours and uses tofu and vegetable stock.

Axel’s Mung Bean & Tofu Soup

185g / 6½oz organic mung beans
900ml /1½pts organic vegetable bouillon
3tbsp organic sunflower oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
1tsp freshly grated ginger
115g / 4oz tofu
Freshly ground organic black pepper, to taste
½ tsp Steenbergs organic vegetable curry powder

Soak The Mung Beans In Water Overnight

Soak The Mung Beans In Water Overnight

Begin by placing the dry mung beans in a bowl, then check through them picking out any that look black or off.  Cover them in water with 2cm (1 inch) of excess water and leave overnight, or do in the morning for the evening.  When ready, place the soaked mung beans in a colander or sieve, drain then run fresh water over them to wash off any dirt.

Put the mung beans in a pan and cover with water some 2cm (1 inch) in excess and bring the water to the boil.  Boil at a roiling boil for about 2 minutes, then take off the heat, skim off any scum then cover with a lid and leave to soak for 1 hour.  Drain and wash with running water as before.

Return to the pan, then cover with the vegetable stock, either homemade or you can use purchased vegetable bouillon powder adding about 1 tablespoon to the 900 ml (1½pts) of freshly drawn water.   Bring to the boil, cover with lid and simmer for 1 – 1½ hours until tender.  Blend with a hand blender or in a food processor until coarsely blended – you can blend it really smooth if you wish, but I prefer a coarser texture.  Return to a low heat or put into a warmed oven at 90C/200F.

Using A Handblender Mush Up The Mung Beans

Using A Handblender Mush Up The Mung Beans

Heat a wok then add the organic sunflower oil until it starts just to smoke when you should turn down the heat.  Add the chopped onions, garlic and ginger and stir fry until translucent.  Add the vegetable curry powder and stir into the mix.

Add the tofu pieces and stir fry for 3 minutes until cooked through.  Season with some freshly ground black pepper, but do not add salt as there is already plenty in the vegetable stock.

Stir Fry The Onions, Garlic, Ginger And Tofu

Stir Fry The Onions, Garlic, Ginger And Tofu

Mix the tofu stir fry into the mung bean dhal and serve. 

Mung Bean & Tofu Soup

Mung Bean & Tofu Soup

We like to eat ours either relatively runny as a soup with bread or thicker as a main course with boiled rice.  To make the thicker consistency, either boil the mung beans for longer to reduce the liquid content or start with 800ml/1¼ pints of stock, but watch over the mung beans to ensure they do not dry through before they get mushy; if they do get dry, top up with a little extra water.

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.