Posts Tagged ‘herbs’

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.

Steenbergs Launches New Design For Spice Tins

Friday, February 5th, 2010

At Steenbergs, we have been doing a lot of work trying to refresh parts of our organic spices and seasonings range.  Now we have relaunched our spice tins into a bright new label and an elegant rolled tin.

Steenbergs new spice tins

Steenbergs new spice tins

Part of what we have been seeking to do is to pull out parts of our long list of spices and seasonings that can either sit as a standalone range, such as our Home Bakery products (which we relaunched in August 2009), or added value blends that differentiate Steenbergs in the spices and seasonings world. 

We have a range of over 200 blends that we make in small batches by hand which is way more than industrial spice blenders and packers can hope to do – they just don’t have the ability to work on small batch runs nor the inclination.

So during 2009 we redesigned the spice tin, which was originally a spice dabbah made for us in Mumbai in India, to a rolled tin that is now being made for us in China.  This new tin was launched in mid 2009 and looks much smarter and more elegant than the old tin that we felt was a bit shiny and the shapes of the actual dabbahs were inconsistent.

In the latter part of 2009 and through to early 2010, we have created a new look label for a few of our most popular blends – Steenbergs Signature Blends.  These labels are brightly coloured, individual for each seasoning and now include a recipe idea.

The labels were printed last week and are now launched on the web site and will be officially launched at the forthcoming Organic & Natural Products Show at Olympia in April 2010. 

They have great shelf presence and we expect to add maybe another 5 – 10 more over the next 2 years.  The blends that are currently available are:

Organic Fairtrade 4 colour pepper
Organic Fairtrade curry powder
(a new blend!)
Organic Fairtrade garam masala
Organic Harissa with Rose Petals
Organic Herbes de Provence
Organic Italian Herbs

Organic Mixed Herbs
Ras al hanut

Tell us what you think, and what other Steenbergs products we should add to this range of Signature Blends – I am thinking China 5 Spice, Dukkah, Jamaican Jerk and Mexican Chile Powder.

Herbs and Spices for Your Health

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Herbal medicine has historically been the primary approach to acute and chronic health problems – this remains the case still in many countries.  We often forget that herbal medicine is the most enduring form of treatment and is still used by 80% of the global population as a key component in healthcare.

In the UK, botany and medicine were closely linked until the 19th century.  Later, with the development of the NHS in the UK, there was an almost permanent break in use of herbs and spices in British medicine.  Yet, in Germany, doctors still routinely prescribe herbs to patients.  About 70% of Germany’s population has used herbal products while in the UK the corresponding figure is 20%.

Personally, I have every evening an infusion of freshly picked rosemary after supper and I use echinacea for colds during the wintertime and the Ayurvedic triphala herbal blend for the digestive system.

Aniseed aids the digestion and is good for small children suffering from diarrhoea.  With honey, the tea disperses flatulence and for asthma, the tea should be drunk warm; if fennel is added, it helps to ease bronchial catarrh.  Chewing aniseed induces sleep and a few seeds taken in warm water will cure hiccups.

All chillies are used medicinally as carminatives, stimulants and aids to digestion and relaxes a sore throat.  They are taken as a good source of vitamin C; also, for treatment of dropsy, diarrhoea, lumbago, rheumatism, toothache and gout.

Caraway can be used as a tisane to ease digestive and bowel complaints and it is safe to give to children who generally like the flavour.  The seeds can be chewed after a meal to dispel dyspepsia and sweeten the breath.

Chamomile has a soothing effect and is used a tisane for abdominal pains, nervous upsets, cystitis, dilated veins and rheumatism – it can also be used as a mouth rinse for toothache and inflammation.  Infusions can be added to steam baths or as compresses for skin troubles (boils, abscesses, eczema), conjunctivitis, haemarrhoids earache and cramp.

Cinnamon is astringent and carminative.  It is a strong stimulant for the glandular system, and being an antacid is helpful for stomach upsets and diarrhoea.  Cinnamon is good for colds and sore throats.  In earlier days, it was used as a breath sweetener, as a tonic for the whole system and was given as a sedative to mothers during childbirth.

Cloves help in treating acidity, thirst, nausea, dysuria, liver dysfunctions, semen disorders, colds and breathing problems.

Couchgrass has been used since the 16th century for cleansing the blood, rheumatic complaints, diseases of the bladder and as a diuretic.  It was much praised by Culpeper who used it for all kidney complaints.

Dandelion is recommended for diabetics since its sugars do not burden the metabolism.  Dandelion juice has a general strengthening effect on the body systems and is said to be a cure for various ailments such as eczema, blood diseases, loss of appetite and dropsy.  Dandelion juice, mixed with agrimony and made into tea, is a well known relief for rheumatism and arthritis.  Dandelion’s bitter principles are said to strengthen the stomach, improve digestion and have a beneficial effect on the liver, kidneys and gall bladder.

Fennel seed is a good digestive spice and is used for babies’ gripe water or chewed as a breath freshener.  It is helpful medicinally for earache, toothache, coughs and asthma.  Fennel seeds stimulate milk production in expectant mothers and are sometimes indicated as being good for weight loss.  The seeds are good for the eyes and maybe be infused in water to make a soothing eye lotion.

Garlic cloves can be crushed and infused in water or milk and taken for all digestive disorders and will keep high blood pressure down.  It has an antiseptic effect good for infectious diseases and inflammations of the stomach and intestine.  It may be used in the treatment of gall bladder and liver troubles, headaches, fits, faintness and skin blemishes.

Lavender has a tranquillising effect; even inhaling its scent will calm troubled nerves and depressed spirits.  The leaves and flowers can be used to make a tea for heart palpitations, headaches, fainting, migraine and insomnia.  For headache and faintness, a cold lavender compress may be applied to the temples.

Nutmeg was once used to protect against Black Death, but is now used as an expectorant and stimulant that is beneficial for insomnia.  It is helpful against flatulence and vomiting, and it helps the digestion generally.  In severe case of diarrhoea grate ½ nutmeg and take in a dessertspoon of rum.

Onions have antiseptic, diuretic, expectorant, detoxicant, anthalmintic and antisposmadic qualities.  They should be included in the daily diet to discourage coughs and colds.  It helps in reducing blood pressure, cleansing the blood generally and in kidney troubles.  It also helps to promote digestion, stimulating the appetite and fortifies the nerves, heart and glands.  Raw onion juice rubbed on to arthritic and rheumatic joints is believed to relieve the pain.

The ancient Aryans considered black pepper as a powerful remedy for various used for disorders of the bodily system, while the Egyptians used it for embalming.  Nowadays, it is used in India for treating coughs and colds, fevers, lack of appetite, indigestion, worms and flatulence.  For a cold, take 5 – 15 grains of pepper, grind to a fine powder, taken with honey or sugar; or gargle several times a day with pepper powder in a solution of water to ease a sore throat.

Rosemary has a reputation for strengthening the brain and the memory if applied to the outside of the head.  This is because it has properties that expand the tissues to which it is applied so increasing the blood supply to those tissues.  Used as an infusion, it is beneficial for the heart and circulation – we often use it as a digestive after a rich meal.

Sage tea is used as a tonic for the nerves and blood, and used as a lotion, is said to improve the condition of hair and skin.  As a mouthwash, it helps to keep teeth white.  Leaves among clothes discourage insects and rodents.  Red sage tea is an old remedy for sore throats.

Turmeric is fundamental to Indian medicine with various properties, including the treatment of skin allergies, diabetes, blood impurities, anaemia, jaundice, fever, worms, stomach disorders, anorexia, coughs and Alzheimer’s.  Turmeric is used in India boiled with milk and sugar for a cold and as a remedy for flatulence and liver complaints.  Scientists have identified curcumin oil as a chemical trigger that induces haem-oxygenase, which operates as part of the human defence against free radicals.  Curcumin has also been shown to be a powerful antiseptic, to guard against liver damage and assist in cancer treatment.