Posts Tagged ‘vanilla’

Steenbergs As Recommended On Delia Online

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Steenbergs Home Bakery range has been recommended on Delia Online as a Good Buy today which is pretty nice really:

Recipe – Sweet Tart Dough or Sweet Pastry

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

I am not very good at making pastry.  Some people say that you need cold hands to make pastry and dough, but I have warm hands as I seem always to be burning away all that food – perhaps I just never sit still or my metabolism runs too fast. 

So I asked our good friend, Anthony Sterne to come up with his easy pastry recipes and then for us to have a go at them ourselves.  Anthony used to be a development chef at Pret A Manger in London before setting out on his own, originally making pies and pastry with exotic fillings and has now branched out into quiches and (very successfully) into delicious cakes.  His business is called Independent Foods – originally I’s Pies – and his great creations are available in Booths, Morrisons and Waitrose, but in our opinion should be more widely available.  You can check his web site out at

In Anthony’s words “this recipe creates a crisp, biscuity pastry that is perfect as a base for tarts or mince pies.  As long as the oven is well preheated it generally works really well without blind baking.  The most important consideration is to make sure all the ingredients are at room temperature (especially the butter and eggs) before starting.”

400g / 14oz plain flour
160g / 5.5oz good butter (softened)
140g / 5oz caster Sugar
2 large eggs (we only ever use free-range)
1 tsp Steenbergs Organic Vanilla Extract 

Use an electric mixer with the beater attachment or a bowl and a wooden spoon to cream the butter and caster sugar together.  The mixture should be light in colour and slightly fluffy in texture.

Beat the eggs and add gradually with the teaspoon of Steenbergs Organic Fairtrade vanilla extract, mixing all the time.  If the mixture starts to split, you can add a tablespoon of flour, however it shouldn’t split as long as everything isn’t too cold.

Once all the egg has been incorporated, you can add the flour and continue to mix until a smooth dough is formed.  The pastry should be soft but not sticky, if it sticks to your finger when poked just add a bit more flour.

You can leave the pastry in a cool place (not the fridge) for half an hour to relax although it is fine to use it straight away.  Roll out on a well floured surface.  It doesn’t keep well in the fridge as it becomes hard and unworkable although any excess is fine to make into shells and freeze for later use.

Steenbergs Fairtrade Vanilla – Some Background

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

I tried to post a response online at The Times in relation to their article but they wouldn’t post it – perhaps it was too long or too partisan.  In any case here are some further details on Steenbergs vanilla

The article in The Times is unfortunately in part true as child labour is one of the big problems with vanilla in Madagascar and the developing world.  I am not sure about widespread employment of children below the age of 8 years old, but it certainly might exist in pockets and will tend to happen around harvest time on family farms. 

Other major problems include: very high levels of general poverty and low levels of development within Madagascar where GNI per capita is $410 for 2008 compared to $45,390 for the UK, ranking Madagascar 145th out of 182 countries; and environmental issues such as degradation of the rainforests for slash & burn agriculture and massive losses of unique biodiversity in Madagascar. 

These issues are being addressed in a small way by Steenbergs through a focus on (a) organic agriculture and (b) Fairtrade vanilla, but the fight must still go on to improve further the development prospects of the Malagasy people.

Steenbergs vanilla beans come from three Fairtrade projects in North Eastern Madagascar with about 1000 farmers structured into co-operatives.  Employed staffing is low at 60 people with a large amount of seasonal workers, reaching up to 400 people.  Child labour is prohibited.  All workers are paid above the minimum Malagasy wage and lunch is provided for free and is not deducted from wages.  All employees work 8 hours a day from Monday to Friday and 4 hours on Saturday morning.  If additional work is needed, overtime is paid at a higher rate.  The working week is no more than 60 hours.  Employees are provided with work clothes. 

Here are some basic facts relating to financial status of region:

  • Vanilla represents over 90% of agricultural income of planters’ families with rest coming from sales of coffee and some rice, but perhaps more importantly it is these cash crops that enables farmers to generate income above pure subsistence farming; the rest of their farming is cassava, rice and vegetables for their own consumption.  Each planter produces on average 400kg a year of green vanilla (unprocessed vanilla) every year which generates income of roughly $600/year per family.  Switching to organic Fairtrade vanilla generates income of over $2,000 for the same crop, an increase of $1,400 per year per family. 
  • So without Fairtrade and organic, vanilla farmers only earn less than $2 a day to live on and so their standard of living is miniscule, and even with Fairtrade and an income of $5.5 a day there is still a long way to go.  On top of this, a typical Malagasy family comprises 8 people plus sometimes some additional grandparents, and they live in  a bamboo hut of 20 – 30m2.
  • As for schooling in the vanilla growing regions, 80% of children aged 6 – 11 go to the local state school, but only 10 – 15% continue to middle school (12 – 15 years old) and 3% continue their schooling beyond the age of 15 years old.  Schools are usually about 100m2, which is then used to teach 4 grades, i.e. 300 children, in the same space.

    Vanilla Planters Walking Along Track

    Vanilla Planters Walking Along Track

  • Other social information: with a few exceptions, mains drinking water is not available nor is electricity.  Transport is by foot along country tracks and average distances of travel to various places are: 5 – 8km to middle school; 25km to high school; 25km to nearest dispensary for pharmaceuticals; and 90km to nearest hospital with first 20km by foot.

The Fairtrade premium has been used in the last year for the following:

  • Purchase of land and construction of silos for storage of rice
  • The repair of bridges and other small structures
  • Improvement of school facilities

Other projects being looked at include:

  • Drinking water supply and sewerage infrastructure
  • Improvement of country tracks to make walking easier
  • Irrigation systems to aid rice farming and stop “slash & burn” farming techniques
  • Plan on AIDS awareness to be conducted at school

For me, even Fairtrade seems like a drop in the ocean and more needs to be done.  But the key is to start taking those small steps towards greater economic stability and social improvements and to halt environmental degradation (stop the slash and burn of the forests). 


Vanilla Flower

Vanilla Flower

Fecondation or Hand Pollination of Vanilla Flowers

Fecondation or Hand Pollination of Vanilla Flowers

Initial Heating To Kill Green Vanilla Beans - Echadaudage

Initial Heating To Kill Green Vanilla Beans - Echadaudage

Curing and Testing the Maturing Vanilla Beans

Curing and Testing the Maturing Vanilla Beans

Sorting And Packing Fairtrade Vanilla

Sorting And Packing Fairtrade Vanilla

Child Labour and Vanilla

Monday, March 15th, 2010

There was a pretty damning article in The Times yesterday about child labour and low prices paid for vanilla from Madagascar – see, however rest assured our vanilla beans are not creating abuse like that.  Here is my full response to the article:

“At Steenbergs, we were one of the first people in Europe to start with Fairtrade spices before any of the supermarkets or other major spice brands.  We hate the fact that such a small amount is being on the high street for commodities that mean the difference between a sustainable living and real poverty and hunger for families in the developing world, including child labour on a big scale; a few pence saved by Tesco or Sainsbury translates into a huge difference back on the small farms in Madagascar, India and Sri Lanka.  When Axel Steenberg (that’s me) and Sophie Steenberg (my wife) started buying and selling organic spices back in 2003, there had been a few bad crops of vanilla in Madagascar so 90% of world supply disappeared overnight and the price of vanilla shot up to $500. We worked hard to pioneer Fairtrade spices and became one of the first to do these in the world.  As for vanilla, small farmers in India borrowed money and started planting vanilla plants to “cash in” on the boom, only for Madagascan supply to come back and the prices on the world market to collapse to below $20 now, leaving farmers in India with unpayable debts and suicides rising.  That’s where Fairtrade comes in, as it put a floor on the vanilla price purchased from source at $45 per kg of vanilla plus $6.50 as a Fairtrade premium, as well as having rules on using child labour and educating children and so on.

Fairtrade rules state that no child below the age of 15 may be employed (contracted) and any work may not interfere with schooling, or jeopardize “the social, moral or physical development of the young person”.  Also, the people involved must work under the Small Producers rules of Fairtrade and cannot be big industrial concerns.  This is audited annually by auditors working for Fairtrade as there is a fine line between a bit of casual work on the family farm (which is permitted and cannot be policed) and employed work which could drift to become like the article above.  The minimum price of $45 per kg is the price that is paid by our exporters of vanilla, whether from Madagascar or India, to the farmers groups plus the various costs of getting it here to Ripon in North Yorkshire.  We pay more for the gourmet high quality beans that we use for Steenbergs products or sell to people like Crazy Jack’s and a bit less for extract grade Fairtrade vanilla beans that go into Steenbergs organic Fairtrade vanilla extract, so when you buy these products we have paid minimum prices way above the world market price, as well as adhering to the rules of Fairtrade and a chain of custody that ensures money gets down to the people who matter.  We are currently redesigning our vanilla packaging and you will be able to get two Steenbergs organic Fairtrade vanilla beans for less than the price of non-organic vanilla in a supermarket – about £4.50 for two.

One of the things to look out for is that the vanilla in the your chocolate bars is actually from a Fairtrade vanilla.  So I am not convinced that your Fairtrade Dairy Milk Bar from Cadbury’s contains any Fairtrade vanilla, so it’s a bit of a swizz, just like the Green & Black’s Fairtrade Maya Chocolate Bar that does not include Fairtrade vanilla just a straight old organic one.

Find out more at for fairtrade products and about our ethics at and about how Fairtrade works at

Recipe for Vanilla Fudge and Coconut Ice

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Fudge and coconut ice

I know this is really quite pathetic but I have only just cracked how to make fudge in the last year.  It always seemed to burn every time I tried to make it – the problem is that most recipes don’t give the mixture long enough for the sugar to be transformed into fudge.  I would then always turn the heat up too high and it would stick to the bottom and start burning, or turning the sugar to toffee and then burn.

Vanilla fudge 

450g    Caster sugar (organic & Fairtrade)
50g      Unsalted butter, diced
170g    Can evapourated milk
150ml   Full fat milk
½ tsp    Organic Fairtrade vanilla extract (Steenbergs is of course the best!?)

  1. Lightly oil a shallow non-stick baking tray – about 18cm.
  2. Gently heat the sugar, butter and milks in a metal saucepan, stirring with a wooden spoon until all the sugar has dissolved.
  3. Bring to the boil and bubble away gently, stirring continuously (and I mean all the time with no breaks) for 25 – 30 minutes.
  4. When the mixture reaches the soft ball stage or 116oC, remove from the heat and add the vanilla extract.
  5. Beat until the mixture becomes thick and pale in colour, then pour into the baking tray and leave to cool.  When cold cut into 2.5cm squares.
  6. For a variation, you could stir in 150g of organic chocolate rather than the vanilla extract, for a rich dark chocolate fudge.   

Coconut ice

397g    Can of sweetened condensed milk
500g    Icing sugar, sieved
350g    Desiccated coconut (organic if possible)
Few drops of red/pink food colouring (optional)

  1. Line a 20cm cake tin with baking paper.
  2. In a bowl, mix together the condensed milk and the sieved icing sugar, then stir in the desiccated coconut.
  3. Now divide the mixture into 2.  Put the first half into the prepared cake tin and press it into all the edges.
  4. Add the food colouring to the second half of coconut mixture and knead until the colour is evenly through.  Put this into the tin on top of the white layer and spread out. 
  5. Leave to set in a cool place, then cut it out into 1-2 cm squares.

Recipe for Traditional Pudding: Queen of Puddings

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

I was listening to Radio 4 the other day and they were talking about steam puddings and how it is a truly English traditional that is not found anywhere else.  One of the puds they were talking about was Queen of Puddings which was being made  at Riverford Farm Shop (I think). 

This is one of our firm family favourites and used to be my grandfather’s favourite pudding, as well.  I made it the other weekend for my parents as my dad says he never gets it cooked for him.  Here’s how we did it:


290ml / ½ pint full fat milk, ideally organic
15g / ½ oz butter, ideally organic
30g / 1 oz organic Fairtrade caster sugar
60ml / 4 tablespoons white breadcrumbs
Grated rind of 1 lemon
2 free range eggs, separated into whites and yolks
1tsp Steenbergs organic Fairtrade vanilla extract
30ml / 2tbps raspberry jam or raspberries in a sauce, warmed to make runny
110g / 4 oz organic Fairtrade caster sugar

Preheat the oven to 180oC /350oF.

Warm the milk then add the butter and sugar.  Stir it all with a wooden spoon until the sugar has all dissolved, then add the breadcrumbs and lemon rind.

Seperate the eggs.  Whisk the eggs gently by hand and add the Steenbergs organic Fairtrade vanilla extract into this.  When the breadcrumbs mixture has cooled down a bit, stir in this egg yolk mixture thoroughly.  Pour the breadcrumb custard mix into a pie dish and leave to stand for 30 minutes somewhere cool.

Put into the preheated oven and bake for 25 minutes, or until set.  This can be done in a bain marie for even more exacting results, but it doesn’t need it if you watch over it.  Remove and allow to cool.

Reduce the oven to 150oC /300oF.

Using the warmed jam, spread this over the top of the set breadcrumb-custard base.  At my parents, we used some frozen raspberries from the garden which we warmed through and then added some sugar to; this was less sweet than using raspberry jam and had a better mouth feel or texture, but maybe are less close to hand.

Whip the egg whites until stiff and then whisk into this about 2 teaspoons of the caster sugar.  Whisk again until very stiff and then fold in all but ½ teaspoon of caster sugar.  Pour this over the top of the base, then sprinkle over the remaining caster sugar.

Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes until the meringue is set and lightly brown at the edges.

You could serve this alone, as we do, or with a luxurious clotted cream or even vanilla infused whipped cream.

Development thoughts about vanilla from the Congo

Friday, January 29th, 2010

I like the vanilla beans from the Congo because of their story.  I like the idea that the vanilla beans are grown in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the Virunga National Park.  I, also, like the fact that this is a fair trade story, where local people are striving to improve their lives through high quality agriculture.  It shows how fairtrade is part of the process of international development and not the only solution. 

Mountain gorilla in Virunga

Mountain gorilla in Virunga

Just like at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, the Virunga National Park has a popular and successful gorilla tourism program whereby relatively wealthy people from the developed world pay $500 to spend 1 hour looking at the mountain gorillas, plus the cost of general tourism like hotels, catering and transport, and then there are the game reserves throughout the region, for example the Queen Elizabeth and Rwenzori Mountains National Parks in Uganda.  So you have got tourism and premium agriculture bringing in foreign currency to this poor region and helping to lift the region out of pure poverty. 

However, still it needs to develop its own bedrock of economic activity, rather than purely be reliant on sales of vanilla beans to Europe or tourism to Europe and America, so that’s where NGOs can step in, developing and nurturing small entrepreneurial activity.  I love the dried mushrooms that we get from Tropical Wholefoods, which are grown and dried by farmers in Colombia and Zambia and apricots from the Hunza in Northern Pakistan.  The Hunzas were one of the people studied by British colonialists that became the germ of the idea of organic agriculture, and was written up by Sir Robert McCarrison who felt the Hunzas to be the “direct embodiment of an ideal of health and whose food was derived from soil kept in a state of the highest natural fertility” (quoted from Sir Albert Howard’s “Farming & Gardening for Health or Disease”).

However, there needs also to be the development of a manufacturing sector in these countries that trades locally within Africa.

Vanilla, Gorgeous Heady Vanilla

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

I love vanilla.  I really do.  I blogged about it as a spice back in May 2009 under Vanilla – the temperamental diva.

At Steenbergs, we have had such a good run with our organic Fairtrade vanilla extract that we are nearly down to our last few drops.  So last week, we got delivery of a new batch of organic Fairtrade vanilla beans and after Lee did the initial prep work he said that these Madagascan beans are of the most superior quality, and Lee’s hard to please! 

Gorgeous organic vanilla

Gorgeous organic vanilla

Well, I suppose that’s what you would expect from our new suppliers from the Antsirabe Nord region of Northern Eastern Madagascar; these beans have much more luxuriant richness and depth of the character than our last batch of beans, which hailed from Kerala in India.  Think of it as the difference between a New World wine and a Premier Cru from France; everything’s the same but the terroir in France just creates more character.

I am really excited by our vanilla at the moment.  We’re getting a better quality extraction at present than before.  Also, we have a great range of classic gourmet vanilla products – Steenbergs organic Madagascan gourmet vanilla beans (vanilla pods), organic vanilla powder (that’s gorgeous beans from Mananara that have been ground to a rich black powder, that looks like gunpowder in the old Western films but smells like heaven), organic vanilla extract powder (that’s the extract dried onto a dextrin base to remove the alcohol). 

The gourmet beans are actually from a Fairtrade source and we trade these into Crazy Jack’s and Essential Trading who pack them off as organic and Fairtrade, so we need to get our act together and actually launch them as Fairtrade!  It’s a bit ridiculous as we have had the product approved by Fairtrade and done the design work for them but never actually pushed the go button; soon, I assure you.

Mountain gorilla from Virunga Mountains

Mountain gorilla from Virunga Mountains

I (that’s me Axel Steenberg) have also sourced a wonderful organic vanilla from the Democratic Republic of Congo from the foothills of the Ruwenzori Mountains in the Virunga National Park and near Lake Edouard, which is one of the two strongholds for the rare mountain gorilla (the other is Bwindi Inpenetrable Forest in Uganda). 

I came across them whilst reading Tim Butcher’s book  (Blood River – A Journey To Africa’s Broken Heart) about following in the footsteps of Stanley down the River Congo, like a latter day Kurtz, dodging the insurgents on the back of a motorbike or travelling down the lazy, languid Congo River on a pirogue; hence finding them was really poignant. 

These Congolese organic vanilla pods have a different character to those from Madagascar and will be in short supply as getting them is really, really hard – these organic vanilla beans have a rawer, earthier flavour, full of chocolatey aromas but also an underlying sweet leathery intensity.

Now, I’ve added mysterious tonka beans to this flavour package.  This is banned in the USA because it contains coumarin, an anticoagulant, but banning it almost makes it more exciting.  And the top world chefs like Gordon Ramsay at Petrus-Gordon Ramsay or Alex Stupak at wd-50 or Ferran Adrià at El Bulli use it, so let’s try it I say.

Tonka beans (memories of Tonka toys and that takes me a long way back) are the seeds of Dipteryx oderata, which originates from Venezuela in the Orinoco river basin.  The main sources of tonka beans are Nigeria and Venezuela. 

Tonka beans

Tonka beans

It looks like a flat, wrinkled deep black bean/nut with a shape that’s reminiscent of an almond and a look that’s a cross between a prune and date.  They have a flavour and aroma that is full of volatiles and immediately remiscent of vanilla but with more esters coming through like pear drops or furniture polish, with hints of magnolia and other warming, sweet spices notes like cinnamon, cloves and allspice.  It is used in French cuisine and sometimes for perfumes, and even flavouring tobacco.

Anyway, Steenbergs tonka beans come from Venezuela and a little goes a long way as they are very specialist and very strong – completely decadent and slightly naughty.  You use them like a nutmeg and grate them, so you could cook with them as a garnish over coffee or into cream or over stewed rhubarb.  I’ll conjur up some recipes in a future blog, so hang fire on asking for a recipe.

Recipe – Baking Chocolate Brownies For Haiti

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

Our children’s school council have decided to run a cake stall tomorrow to raise money for Haiti.  I feel especially moved by Haiti as my grandmother was born next door in the Dominican Republic, which has escaped the horrors of their neighbours.  This recipe is something my daughter and I cooked up this afternoon.


220g / 7oz butter, organic where possible
450g / 16oz caster sugar, organic & Fairtrade where possible
90g / 3oz cocoa powder, organic & Fairtrade where possible (Suma do a great one)
270g / 9.5oz self raising flour (we used an organic flour by Sunflours)
4 eggs (ideally organic & free-range please)
4TBSP milk, organic if possible
1tsp Steenbergs organic Fairtrade vanilla extract
100g / 3.5oz chocolate, ideally organic & Fairtrade – we used Green & Blacks cooking chocolate, which we bashed into small chunks with a rolling pin

Lightly grease a metal baking tray and line the base with baking parchment.  Heat the oven to 180oC /350oF.

Sift the organic self-raising flour and organic Fairtrade cocoa powder together into a large mixing bowl.  Add the caster sugar, butter, free range eggs, milk and Steenbergs vanilla extract to a food processor.  Whizz it all up together.  Add the flour-cocoa mix and process once again until you have got a sloppy, dark brown mixture.

Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and then add the chocolate chunks.  We then gave it a gentle stir with a knife to mix in the chocolate bits, then smoothed over the top to give a roughly even covering.

Bake for 20 – 25 minutes until just set in the middle – a wooden skewer into the centre should come out with just a few moist crumbs on it.  Don’t overbake.

Leave to cool completely in the pan before cutting into squares and serving, or in this case boxing up to take to school tomorrow.

[Sorry no photos today as I have left the camera at work!]

Update 29/1/2010: the school raised £142 for the Haiti appeal which for 100 children is truly brilliant.

Recipe For Kulfi – The Perfect Indian Pudding

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

Of course, you need a pudding/sweet to round off the indulgence of a delicious, groaning table of delicately spiced Indian food.  Kulfi (Indian ice cream) has been made for ages and was served to the Moghul Emperors at their hedonistic courts in Delhi and Fatehpur Sikri. 

It is harder than the soft texture of British ice creams, but then they do pump them full of air to bulk them out (and so increase profits but add value as “soft scoop”).  And I love their flavours, eucalyptus cardamom, nutty pistachio and almond and tropical mango.

2.25l (4 pints) full cream milk
150g (5½ oz) Fairtrade caster sugar
4 drops Fairtrade organic vanilla essence (Steenbergs is best, but I am very biased)
2 pinches ground organic green cardamom
10g (½ oz) flaked almonds
10g (½ oz) chopped unsalted pistachios
50ml (2 fl oz) single cream

1.  Bring the milk to the boil and then reduce the heat and simmer over a low heat, stirring all the time and until it has reduced down to one-third of its volume.  It is important to keep stirring to stop it sticking or burning; whenever a film forms on the top, just stir it in.

2.  Add the Fairtrade caster sugar, Fairtrade vanilla essence, ground cardamom powder and almonds, and stir until everything is well combined.  Simmer like this for 2 minutes.

3.  Transfer to a bowl, add the pistachios and stir in, then let it cool down completely, which will take about 30 minutes.  Stir in the cream and pour into kulfi moulds or yoghurt pots. 

4.  Put in the freezer until solid, preferably overnight.  Get it out of its mould by running under a hot water tap for a few seconds.  When serving, sprinkle liberally with a few more flaked almonds and chopped pistachios.