Archive for May, 2009

Vanilla Ice Cream Recipe

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

 

Ingredients

 

·         2 organic Fairtrade vanilla pods

·         250g Fairtrade caster sugar

·         500ml milk

·         6 medium free range egg yolks

·         500ml double cream

 

What to do

 

1.       Make sure all your surfaces and utensils are really clean as using real ingredients can have the potential for a bacterial field-day.

2.       Slice the organic vanilla pods into 2 long pieces and carefully scrape out the seeds onto a plate. Add a little of the sugar to the plate and work with the seeds until you have a grey, speckly mixture. Scrape this into a large bowl, then add the rest of the sugar. Put the milk into a saucepan and add the emptied vanilla pods. Bring this to nearly boiling point – make sure it does not actually boil.

3.       Add the egg yolks to the sugar in the bowl and whisk until it thickens slightly and lightens in colour. This process takes about 2 – 3 minutes. Pour in the scalded milk over the eggs and sugar and whisk energetically. Remove the vanilla pods.

4.       Wipe the milk-pan clean and return the ice-cream mixture to it. Place over a gentle heat and cook until it is thick enough to coat the back of a metal spoon. This takes quite a long time, so be patient – it’s worth it. You could use a rubber spatula to ensure that all parts of the pan are stirred. When you think the mixture is thick enough, dip a spoon in the mixture and then run your finger across the back. If a clear and stable path is left, then you are ready. If you want to use a thermometer, you should heat until it gets to 85oC. Add the cream to this custard and mix well. Pour through a fine sieve and allow to cool before freezing.

5.       Freezing can be done in an ice-cream machine. Alternatively, place in 2 litre stainless steel bowl and every 30 minutes remove from freezer and whisk thoroughly. When you have a half-defrosted ice-cream that looks like a thick slurry, in which the solids and water have frozen together, you can then stop stirring and leave it to freeze.

Variations:

To make chocolate ice-cream: add the best quality Fairtrade cocoa powder to the vanilla base as it is cooling.

 

To make stracciatella ice cream: freeze a block of high quality plain chocolate. With a sharp knife, chisel small scrapings and curls from the block. When you have a large pile, add this three-quarters through the freezing and whisking process

 

To make coffee ice cream: make a large expresso, then allow to cool and filter. Add this to the mixture just before freezing.

 

To make caramel ice cream: make the vanilla ice-cream but use 100g Fairtrade caster sugar and not 250g. Also do not add the double cream. Allow to cool but do not freeze. Place a further 250g Fairtrade caster sugar in a wide stainless steel pan and place over a medium flame. In a minute or two the sugar will melt and then colour. DO NOT STIR: instead swirl the pan gently so the sugar melts and colours evenly. The caramel must go dark brown and when it is ready a lighter brown foam will form on top. As soon as this stage is reached, remove the caramel from the heat and pour in the cream – it will splutter and the caramel and the caramel will set into lattice-like crystals. Now you can stir and do so over a medium flame until the mixture boils and the crystals disappear. Add this to the vanilla base and proceed with the freezing process. 

Steenbergs Organic Web Site Buy of Day

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

Our web site – www.steenbergs.co.uk –  was the Buy of the Day on the Woman and Home web site yesterday (26/5/2009).  It’s good to get genuine, strong independent feedback that we’re doing the right thing. 

Take a look by following the link to: http://www.womanandhome.com/articles/food/buyoftheday/342809/wednesday-s-buy.html.

Another online magazine that’s a fan is International Lifestyle Magazine where Lynn has taken our spices and blends and worked her magic and interest over the last few months.

 

The magazine is a monthly on line magazine exploring the more positive aspects of life from around the globe. It looks at travel, activities, foods and people that all represent positive lifestyle choices.

  

These articles range from focuses on home bakery, Arabic cuisine to chillies and curry blends and include recipes as well as information.

 

Pages 54 – 60


http://edition.pagesuite-professional.co.uk/Launch.aspx?referral=other&pnum=&refresh=En904L1j1tY5&EID=f7cc27f2-2536-4af3-8ce2-5afcc726d544&skip=

 

Pages 22-23

http://edition.pagesuite-professional.co.uk/launch.aspx?eid=cdea7cea-c95a-4c33-a602-5415226796dd

 

May newsletter – baking, blogs and mustard

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

 

Baking, blogs and mustard

 

Steenbergs goes interactive with its blog and learn more about mustard and the Steenbergs team.

 

Free delivery on all orders over £15.00 for blog readers – see below for the offer code.

 

FREE DELIVERY OFFER

 

As a thank you for your past custom we’re extending an offer to you of free delivery over £15.00 for the month of June, currently £25.00. This is specific to this blogs – just quote “smilejune” when you place an order. This offer is valid until 30th June.

 

Many thanks for your continued support and hope that you have a great June.

 

Steenbergs Blog goes live

 

After six years as the UK’s organic and Fairtrade spice specialist we’ve decided to start our own blog. This contains ideas and background as to organic, Fairtrade, organic and green things as well as developments and discoveries, recipes and information from how to create a cheat’s paella to explaining the complexities of pepper grading and even a mouthwatering Indian feast in recipes. We are still feeling our way a bit, so we’d love your feedback and if you have anything that you would like us to tell you about through the blog let us know.

 

Baking with the best

 

We know many families where Friday used to be baking day to bake everything for the week ahead. Now baking is more for pleasure than necessity – to create delicious cakes and biscuits. Living in a rural community, summer often seems to be baking for a whole variety of events – whether its the village fete, and May Day or school fairs – these biscuits are always winners – the only problem is keeping them intact before they get to the relevant event! Alternatively, a plate of biscuits at work or even a cake goes a long way to cheer everyone up!

 

Steenbergs now stock a whole variety of organic, ethical baking ingredients to complement Steenbergs spices to cater for all your needs – including organic flours, organic/ Fairtrade sugars, organic Fairtrade golden syrup, organic molasses, organic vegan chocolate, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and unbleached baking paper and recycled aluminium foil.

 

Team Steenbergs

 

Whilst the name comes from Sophie and Axel, the founders and directors of Steenbergs, Steenbergs Organic is a team of nine people. There are three in production (one specialising in warehouse and big bulk, 2 concentrating on the packing into glass jars) and packing – who blend (Axel’s recipes), check, pack and label the 400 Steenbergs products. The extract filling machine, the large blender (blending around a quarter of a tonnes at a time), the sieve and the mill enabling us to grind fresh your products to maintain flavour and aroma.

 

There’s one main picker and packer of orders. One person who has a rather unique job of  chief photographer, dispatcher, label creater and office admin. Apart from Axel and I there are also 2 in accounts/customer service. Everyone has been part of Steenbergs for sometime now – most of them over 3 years – and they have all helped to create the place Steenbergs is today.

 

Sadly they are all (allegedly) rather shy so the idea of a team photo has been hard to persuade, but one of these days we’ll manage to get a photo of us all…

 

Upbeat and positive and MUSTARD

 

Sophie went shopping the other week and was encouraged to see that at least 90 per cent of shoppers had brought their own “eco” bag with them. Whether it was Sunday morning shoppers who knows?

 

On a different matter the great north south debate rumbles on in our household. Although ¾ Scottish in terms of blood lines, Sophie was born and brought up in the South, whilst Axel, is firmly a northerner born and bred in Northumberland. There are frequent bizarre discussions about differences such as macaroons (don’t ask ) and mustard seems to be the latest of these.

 

When I (Sophie)  was younger I distinctly remember driving past fields of yellow mustard – later this gave way to the more intense yellow of rapeseed. Axel assures me that he’s never seen mustard growing and it must be a southern thing; although Lincolnshire and Yorkshire appear to be South, in this discussion. I’ve tried to find out whether there was less acreage of mustard growing in this country and whether it was actually a southern thing or not.

 

Whatever the reality, mustard is still one of those wonderful things that can be used as an ingredient in cooking as well as a savoury sauce. In terms of spice we stock Steenbergs Organic yellow mustard flour (great for cooking with or making your own mustard), Steenbergs Organic yellow and brown seeds (the brown ones are particularly used for curries).

 

In terms of ready made mustard – we’ve chosen our favourite three – Kitchen Garden’s organic English mustard (the only organic English mustard we can find). Kitchen Garden are based in Gloucestershire, which is where Sophie was brought up. Kitchen Garden’s won many awards for its chutneys, jams and mustards over the years. Glenroyd Organics, who are based in Barnsley, create two useful mustards – organic deli mustard and organic honey mustard. Depending on whether you are looking for a mild mustard, a grainy one (deli mustard) or a hot mustard, we have something for everyone.

 

Great for salad dressings.

 

Stockist news and recipes

 

Don’t forget that we keep a list of your local stockist on the web – just tap in your postcode and your nearest stockist should come up. Booths supermarkets also stock us and we have a number of distributors particularly for our popular organic Fairtrade vanilla extract, organic rose water and organic peppermint extract – as well as several stockists in Scotland, Ireland and Finland.

 

Our recipes are constantly updated and hopefully there’s something to inspire.

 

 

AND FINALLY…

 

One of the delights of the summer is lots of salads – whether it’s a simple avocado vinaigrette or a tomato and mozzarella salad or a green salad. One of our favourite dressings is simply Steenbergs organic perfect salt, which has the crunchy salt flakes from our traditional sun dried salt from the Algarve, with our organic coarse ground black pepper and organic mixed herbs, combined with organic olive oil and organic balsamic, wine or cider vinegar. Sometimes we add sugar – lemon sugar, or just our straight unbleached organic sugar from Paraguay, but often it’s delicious with just the tartness of the dressing and the crunch from the perfect salt.  The hardest thing is always to get perfectly ripe avocados, before they’ve gone over….

Chief Seattle’s speech in 1854

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

This oft quoted piece from 1854 is attributed to Chief Seattle as his response to President Franklin Pierce’s statement that he would buy the land of Chief Seattle’s tribe.

“Yonder sky that has wept tears of compassion
upon our fathers for centuries untold,
and which to us looks eternal, may change.
Today is fair,
tomorrow may be overcast with clouds.

My words are like the stars that never set.
What Seattle says the Great Chief at Washington can rely upon
with as much certainty as our paleface brothers can rely upon
the return of the seasons.

The son of the White Chief says
his father sends us greetings of friendship and good will.
This is kind,
for we know he has little need of our friendship in return
because his people are many.
They are like the grass that covers the vast prairies,
while my people are few
and resemble the scattering trees of a storm-swept plain.

The Great, and I presume, also good,
White Chief sends us word that he wants to buy our lands
but is willing to allow us
to reserve enough to live on comfortably.
This indeed appears generous,
for the Red Man no longer has rights that he need respect,
and the offer may be wise, also
for we are no longer in need of a great country.

There was a time when our people covered the whole land
as the waves of a wind-ruffled sea covers its shell-paved floor.
But that time has long since passed away
with the greatness of tribes now almost forgotten.
I will not mourn over our untimely decay,
nor reproach my paleface brothers for hastening it,
for we, too,
may have been somewhat to blame.

When our young men grow angry
at some real or imaginary wrong,
and disfigure their faces with black paint,
their hearts, also, are disfigured and turn black,
and then their cruelty is relentless and knows no bounds,
and our old men are not able to restrain them.

But let us hope that hostilities
between the Red Man and his paleface brothers
may never return.
We would have everything to lose and nothing to gain.

True it is, that revenge,
with our young braves is considered gain,
even at the cost of their own lives,
but old men who stay at home in times of war,
and mothers who have sons to lose,
know better.

Our great father Washington,
for I presume he is now our father as well as yours,
since George has moved his boundaries to the North
– our great and good father, I say,
sends us word by his son,
who, no doubt, is a great chief among his people
that if we do as he desires he will protect us.

His brave armies will be to us a bristling wall of strength,
and his great ships of war will fill our harbors
so that our ancient enemies far to the northward
– the Simsiams and Hyas,
will no longer frighten our women and old men.
Then he will be our father
and we will be his children.

But can that ever be?
Your God is not our God!
Your God loves your people and hates mine!
He folds His strong arms lovingly around the white man
and leads him as a father leads his infant son
– but He has forsaken his red children,
He makes your people wax strong every day
and soon they will fill all the land;
while my people are ebbing away
like a fast receding tide that will never flow again.
The white man’s God cannot love his red children
or He would protect them.
They seem to be orphans who can look nowhere for help.

How, then, can we become brothers?
How can your Father become our Father
and bring us prosperity,
and awaken in us dreams of returning greatness?

Your God seems to us to be partial.
He came to the white man.
We never saw Him, never heard His voice.
He gave the white man laws,
but had no word for His red children
whose teeming millions once filled this vast continent
as the stars fill the firmament.

No. We are two distinct races,
and must remain ever so,
there is little in common between us.

The ashes of our ancestors are sacred
and their final resting place is hallowed ground,
while you wander away from the tombs of your fathers
seemingly without regrets.

Your religion was written on tablets of stone
by the iron finger of an angry God,
lest you might forget it.
The Red Man could never remember nor comprehend it.

Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors
– the dreams of our old men,
given to them by the Great Spirit,
and the visions of our Sachems,
and is written in the hearts of our people.

Your dead cease to love you
and the homes of their nativity
as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb.
They wander far away beyond the stars,
are soon forgotten and never return.

Our dead never forget the beautiful world
that gave them being.
They still love its winding rivers,
its great mountains and its sequestered vales,
and they ever yearn in tenderest affection
over the lonely-hearted living,
and often return to visit and comfort them.

Day and night cannot dwell together.
The Red Man has ever fled the approach of the white man,
as the changing mist on the mountain side
flees before the blazing morning sun.

However, your proposition seems a just one,
and I think that my folks will accept it
and will retire to the reservation you offer them,
and we will dwell apart and in peace,
for the words of the Great White Chief
seem to be the voice of Nature speaking to my people
out of the thick darkness that is fast gathering around them
like a dense fog floating inward from a midnight sea.

It matters little where we pass the remainder of our days.
They are not many.
The Indian’s night promises to be dark.
No bright star hovers above his horizon.
Sad-voiced winds moan in the distance.
Some grim Nemesis of our race
is on the Red Man’s trail,
and wherever he goes he will still hear
the sure approaching footsteps of the fell destroyer
and prepare to meet his doom,
as does the wounded doe
that hears the approaching footsteps of the hunter.

A few more moons, a few more winters,
and not one of all the mighty hosts
that once filled this broad land
or that now roam in fragmentary bands
through these vast solitudes or lived in happy homes,
protected by the Great Spirit,
will remain to weep over the graves of a people
once as powerful and as hopeful as your own!

But why should I repine?
Why should I murmur at the fate of my people?
Tribes are made up of individuals
and are no better than they.
Men come and go like the waves of a sea.
A tear, a tamanamus, a dirge
and they are gone from our longing eyes forever.
Even the white man, whose God walked and talked
with him as friend to friend,
is not exempt from the common destiny.
We may be brothers after all.
We shall see.

We will ponder your proposition,
and when we have decided we will tell you.
But should we accept it,
I here and now make this first condition,
that we will not be denied the privilege,
without molestation,
of visiting the graves of our ancestors and friends.

Every part of this country is sacred to my people.
Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove
has been hallowed by some fond memory
or some sad experience of my tribe.
Even the rocks,
which seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun
along the silent shore in solemn grandeur
thrill with memories of past events
connected with the fate of my people,
the very dust under your feet
responds more lovingly to our footsteps than to yours,
because it is the ashes of our ancestors,
and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch,
for the soil is rich with the life of our kindred.

The sable braves,
and fond mothers,
and glad-hearted maidens,
and the little children who lived and rejoiced here
and whose very names are now forgotten,
still love these solitudes
and their deep fastnesses at eventide grow shadowy
with the presence of dusky spirits.

And when the last Red Man
shall have perished from the earth
and his memory among white men
shall have become a myth,
these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe
and when your children’s children shall think themselves alone
in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway,
or in the silence of the woods,
they will not be alone.
In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude.

At night, when the streets of your cities and villages
shall be silent and you think them deserted,
they will throng with the returning hosts
that once filled and still love this beautiful land.

The white man will never be alone.
Let him be just and deal kindly with my people,
for the dead are not powerless.”

It was rewritten in 1971 and this newer versions still remains a truly poetic explanation of how man really connects (or should connect) to the earth.

 

“How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us.

 

If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

 

Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man.

 

The white man’s dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. Our dead never forget this beautiful earth, for it is the mother of the red man. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and man — all belong to the same family.

 

So, when the Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land, he asks much of us. The Great Chief sends word he will reserve us a place so that we can live comfortably to ourselves. He will be our father and we will be his children.

 

So, we will consider your offer to buy our land. But it will not be easy. For this land is sacred to us. This shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you the land, you must remember that it is sacred, and you must teach your children that it is sacred and that each ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.

 

The rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirst. The rivers carry our canoes, and feed our children. If we sell you our land, you must remember, and teach your children, that the rivers are our brothers and yours, and you must henceforth give the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.

 

We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his father’s grave behind, and he does not care. He kidnaps the earth from his children, and he does not care. His father’s grave, and his children’s birthright are forgotten. He treats his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.

 

I do not know. Our ways are different than your ways. The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the red man. There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. No place to hear the unfurling of leaves in spring or the rustle of the insect’s wings. The clatter only seems to insult the ears. And what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of the whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around the pond at night? I am a red man and do not understand. The Indian prefers the soft sound of the wind darting over the face of a pond and the smell of the wind itself, cleaned by a midday rain, or scented with pinon pine.

 

The air is precious to the red man for all things share the same breath, the beast, the tree, the man, they all share the same breath. The white man does not seem to notice the air he breathes. Like a man dying for many days he is numb to the stench. But if we sell you our land, you must remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports.

 

The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh. And if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred as a place where even the white man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow’s flowers.

 

So we will consider your offer to buy our land. If we decide to accept, I will make one condition – the white man must treat the beasts of this land as his brothers.

 

I am a savage and do not understand any other way. I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train. I am a savage and do not understand how the smoking iron horse can be made more important than the buffalo that we kill only to stay alive.

 

What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of the spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.

 

You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of our grandfathers. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin. Teach your children that we have taught our children that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves.

 

This we know; the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected.

 

Even the white man, whose God walks and talks with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We shall see. One thing we know which the white man may one day discover; our God is the same God.

 

You may think now that you own Him as you wish to own our land; but you cannot. He is the God of man, and His compassion is equal for the red man and the white. The earth is precious to Him, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator. The whites too shall pass; perhaps sooner than all other tribes. Contaminate your bed and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.

But in your perishing you will shine brightly fired by the strength of the God who brought you to this land and for some special purpose gave you dominion over this land and over the red man.

 

That destiny is a mystery to us, for we do not understand when the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses are tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires.

 

Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone.

 

The end of living and the beginning of survival.”

Vanilla – The Temperamental Diva

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

A brief history of vanilla

 

Vanilla – the fruit of a perennial, climbing orchid – was discovered by the Totanac Indians in Mexico.  They developed the process of fermenting the pods which brings out vanilla’s natural flavour components.

 

Fleurvanille 5 - mediumWhen the Aztecs conquered the Totanacs, they were so enchanted by the aroma and flavour of vanilla that they forced their new subjects to grow the beans for them as tribute to the Emperor.

 

Vanilla beans were used as an aphrodisiac, a herbal remedy and as a medium of exchange.  Most critically, however, they were used as the flavouring for a blend of powdered cacao beans, ground corn and honey – this became the legendary xocaotl, the “legend of the gods”.

 

Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador, became the first European to taste xocaotl when he was offered it by Emperor Moctezuma II in 1519 in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.  Cortés was so enchanted by the aroma and flavour that he killed Moctezuma and conquered his people, claiming Mexico for Spain.  The Spanish soon established factories in Spain to manufacture chocolate flavoured with vanilla.

 

Xocaotl became chocolate from the Aztec, while the secret flavouring, tlilxochitl, became vanilla from the Spanish “small pod” or “small scabbard”.

 

In 1602, High Morgan, the apothecary to Elizabeth I, suggested that vanilla could be used on its own as a flavour.  The Virgin Queen was so enamoured of the flavour of vanilla that during her last years she would only eat foods prepared with vanilla.

 

The popularity of vanilla quickly spread through Europe, but nowhere so much as France.  The French adored vanilla (and still do), so, in desperation for a more accessible source of vanilla, they smuggled out cuttings to their own colonies in 1793.  The plants thrived in the tropics, but would not bear fruit.

 

The vanilla orchid is a small, trumpet-shaped light yellow flower.  There is a thin membrane separating the male anther from the female stigma, so external help is needed to encourage pollination from the anther to the stigma.

 

The problem was a very small bee – the melipona bee.  In 1836, Charles Morren, a Belgian botanist, discovered that the flowers were pollinated by the melipona bee, which is indigenous only to Mexico.  Without this insect intervention, vanilla vines do not bear fruit and so vanilla was impossible.

 

However, the French on their Island of Réunion came up with a process called la marriage de vanilla – by piercing the membrane of the flower with a bamboo skewer you can collect the male pollen and transfer it to the sticky female stigma.  This process was devised by a former slave, Edmond Albinous, in 1841.  It was later discovered that the Totanacs had been doing this for hundreds of years in Mexico!

 

Vanilla plantations became established in the Bourbon Islands of Réunion, Madagascar, Mauritius and the Comoros, as well as other tropical regions, such as Sri Lanka, the Seychelles, Indonesia and parts of mainland Africa, such as the Uganda.

 

Sadly, however, the discovery of artificial vanilla from the waste sulphite liqueur of paper mills, coal tar extracts or eugenol (the oil from cloves) nearly ruined the natural vanilla industry.  This imitation vanilla is a fraction of the price of natural vanilla and accounts for the bulk of vanilla flavouring used in the global market for ice-cream, confectionery and beverages – look for the word “vanillin” on the list of ingredients.

 

Growing, harvesting and curing

 

Growing vanilla

 

Vanilla is one of the most labour intensive crops in the world, ranking alongside saffron.  There are 2 main species of vanilla orchid:  Vanilla planifolia Andrews which is the classic Bourbon style vanilla and is grown in the Bourbon Islands (including Madagascar), India, Indonesia and Mexico; Vanilla tahitensis Moore is the species grown in Tahiti and Papua New Guinea.

 

Vanilla grows best in regions 10 – 20 degrees north or south of the equator.  The climate must be warm, moist and tropical.  Ideally, the humidity should be high and the wind light, however the Bourbon Islands do suffer from tropical storms which can decimate crops.  The soil should be rich in organic matter ,and as it is usually grown on smallholdings of 1 – 1½ acres, vanilla growers tend to use natural fertilisers and mulches.

 David (2) medium


Vanilla vines are grown from cuttings planted alongside “tutor trees” on which to climb.  The trees are pruned short to keep the plants within reach of the farmers and workers. 
The vines do not produce a worthwhile crop until their 3rd year, but they continue to bear a good crop for at least 7 years.

 

The plants flower for only part of 1 day and if not pollinated at that time no pods will develop and so they are tended daily and pollinated by hand using la marriage de vanilla.  Shortly after pollination, the beans appear, reaching 10cm – 18cm in 6 weeks, then they need a further 8 – 9 months to reach full maturity. 

 

Marque individuelleJust as with the flowers, the beans do not all mature at once and so the beans require daily attention.  In Madagascar, each grower will use a cork with a pin in a unique pattern to label their beans with a simple bar code; when you get your matured beans it may look like a series of dots/blotches of lighter brown on the bean.

 

Harvesting and curing vanilla

 

After about 7 – 8 months from initial pollination, the green vanilla pods begin to turn yellow at their tip.  This means that they are ready for picking.   Just as with the flowers, the green pods do not all become ready for picking at the same time, and so vanilla growers must check their vines on a daily basis.

 

In some vanilla-harvesting areas, the beans are harvested early to meet demand and reduce theft but this leads to an inferior bean.  Conversely, if the bean is left on the vine too long, the pod may split and can no longer be sold whole, but can be used for extracts or the ice cream industry.

 

The first stage of the curing process differs slightly from region to region.  It is this stage that starts the enzymatic process that causes the classic vanilla flavours and aromas to develop.  Thereafter, the process is fairly similar from country-to-country similar.

 

In Madagascar and the rest of the Bourbon Islands, India, Tahiti and Tonga, the raw green beans are plunged into hot water to “kill” them.  After this, the pods are laid out on mats in the sun to heat up for hours, where the workers handle the beans and turn them over.  Late in the afternoon, the baking hot beans are collected and wrapped in blankets and straw mats, then placed into air-tight wooden containers to “sweat” overnight.  This process is repeated for weeks until the head curer is happy that the beans have been properly cured.  During this stage, the raw green beans turn a dark brown. 

 

The beans are then held in a conditioning room for a further 3 – 6 months where the flavours develop further.  During this conditioning stage, the beans are handled regularly, softening and shaping them – in the Madagascar they roll the beans between their fingers and so resulting in a rounded shape, while in India they tend to flatten them between their fingers giving a flatter, longer shape.

 Fille Vanille 2 - small


In Mexico, however, the process is begun in an oven.  The green vanilla beans are wrapped in blankets, then straw mats and baked in ovens for 24 – 48 hours.

 

In Indonesia, Java and Uganda, the curing process is done more quickly with the beans being cured over a smoky wood fire or even a propane heater.  The resultant bean is inferior and can only be used for extracts.

 

After the curing process is complete, the beans are sorted and graded according to quality, length and moisture content.  Moisture content is quite important – if the beans are too dry, they lack flavour; if they are too moist, they also lack flavour.  Good moisture levels are 18 – 25% – ours average around 20%.  About 1kg of cured vanilla comes from about 5kg of green beans.

 

For export, the beans are sorted into bundles and tied together with raffia.  These are then packed in wax paper lined square tin containers with loose fitting covers.  Steenbergs Fairtrade vanilla beans come as bundles vacuum-packed in 5kg amounts to preserve the flavour.

 

The world’s best vanilla is called Madagascan Bourbon – named after L’Île de Bourbon, the former name for the Island of Réunion.  This designation now applies to all vanilla beans from the islands of the Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius and Réunion.  Of these, the best comes from Madagascar where vanillin levels are 2.5%.  The vanilla from India is almost of the same quality now as that from Madagascar – the climate is similar and the Bourbon process has been taught to the Indians by growers from Madagascar.

 

Tasting notes

 

Fresh vanilla pods have no flavour or taste.  After fermentation, they develop a rich, mellow, intensely perfumed aroma with hints of liquorice or tobacco matched by a delicate, fruity or creamy flavour.  They may also have hints of raisin or prune or smoky, spicy notes.  Its flavours and aroma come from vanillin as the major flavour component as well as well over 250 additional trace flavour components.  It is these subtle variations in relative amounts of aromatic aldehydes, esters, oils, organic acids and resins as well as the vanillin that creates the individuality of vanilla.  No scientist can duplicate the individuality of vanilla.

 

Good vanilla pods are deep brown or black, long and narrow and somewhat wrinkled, moist, waxy, supple and immediately fragrant. The best pods have a light, white frosting, called givre, of vanillin crystals; so don’t worry about this on your pods, it’s a sign of quality and is not fungal growth.

 

The individual flavour profile of the beans is a result of the terroir and the curing process.  Terroir consists of the soil, general climate and specific annual weather patterns.

 

Bourbon vanilla from Madagascar has a rich creamy flavour with sweet velvety notes (almost like chocolate); Bourbon vanilla from Réunion has a similar rich creamy flavour but with sweet spicy notes; Mexican vanilla is traditionally considered to be the most delicate and complex – it has the rich creamy flavour but with a hint of allspice; Indian and Ugandan vanilla are less full and creamy in flavour than the vanilla from the Bourbon Islands; Indonesian vanilla has a smoky, strong flavour. 

 

Vanilla coming from Vanilla tahitensis Moore is different in flavour.  Tahitian vanilla is heady, floral and fruit.

 

Vanilla extract

 

Vanilla extract is made by chopping the vanilla beans, then immersing them in a mixture of water and alcohol, which is continuously re-circulated through the beans until the essential flavour has been dissolved into the liquid.  The details of the process vary from extractor to extractor.  Some of the cheaper products – e.g. Supercook/ Dr Oetker in the UK – use propylene glycol as the solvent, which is an industrial solvent.

 

The simplest method is chops some vanilla beans up and immerse them into alcohol.  This can be done quite easily at home – take a bottle of pure flavourless shop-bought alcohol, such as vodka, and chop some beans and put into the bottle.  Shake it every few days and after 3 months, you will have your own vanilla extract.

 

A more controlled version of this is undertaken by extractors like Nielsen-Massey, who extract their vanilla at a warm temperature – maintained at 22oC, 365 days a year.  They claim that this is cold-processed, but that’s warm for North Yorkshire.  They then circulate different solutions of alcohol solvent over the beans fully to extract the flavours.  This process takes about a month after which the finished extract is filtered and bottled.

 

Other producers carry out faster extraction by heating the solvent and using different levels of pressure.  This can reduce the extraction time down to 48 hours. 

 

The resultant “perk” is then filtered in a holding tank where it is aged like wine.  Sugar or corn syrup is sometimes added to mellow the alcohol and to assist with aging.  Once bottled, the aging process can continue for 2 to 3 years a bit like a good malt whisky from the Isle of Islay.

 

For the Steenbergs organic Fairtrade vanilla extract, we use the quicker extraction process.  We don’t believe that the colder extraction process produces any better quality extraction, in spite of the views held by some other vanilla businesses.  The key to the flavour is not the differential between the temperatures but rather the quality of the beans and the care taken in the extraction process. 

 

Steenbergs organic Fairtrade vanilla extract is made as follows: whole organic Fairtrade vanilla beans are chopped and placed into a large processing vessel.  A mix of water and organic ethanol (about 60:40) are added and the vanilla beans are steeped, gently heated to around 70oC and stirred for 24 hours prior to drawing off; this is done at atmospheric pressure.  The same beans are re-extracted 2 further times and then all the batches are blended together to create the final end product.VANILLA CUT OUT

 

Unlike some other vanilla products, we don’t add sugar or syrup as we believe that this obfuscates the delicate vanilla flavours and while it does dampen the alcohol aroma it’s tampering with a good product for the sake of giving a more consistent, more pleasing aroma while masking the vanilla notes with added sweetener.  Going back to the whisky analogy, a good whisky is left to mature unadulterated whereas you can blend it with sugar to create a new product, a liqueur, such as Drambuie or Southern Comfort.

In awe at nature

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

 

We spent this weekend en famille in the Brecon Beacons near Talgarth, celebrating a 50th birthday party.  While walking around the woods, I came to a pond.  It’s a quite large pond with little vegetation around it, but covered in pondweed.  All the bug life was relishing the glorious sunny weather; there were damselflies and other dragonfly-types, but it was underwater that was the most exciting. 

 

There were tadpoles galore (last year we must have visited here earlier in the year around Easter as there was frogspawn then), but what made me really smile were an adult newt and a smaller baby newt, or eft.  Looking online, I think they were Palmate Newts.  I don’t think I’ve seen a newt for nearly 30 years since I lived at a house called The Quarry in Stocksfield, Northumberland.  This house had been purchased by my grandfather, who had hewn a series of ponds out of sandstone using brute force and a pickaxe filled from a majestic small waterfall.  It was idyllic for a young boy like me and full of waterlife, including frogs, toads and newts. 

 

Also, there were funny looking elongated beasts that I correctly guessed were the nymphs of the damselflies; these are predators but I don’t know if they would be eating the smaller tadpoles.  There was also a pair of mating Great Diving Beetles, loads of Backswimmers and a few fish.  The Great Diving Beetles would definitely feast on the tadpoles.

 

As I walked further around the boggy woodlands (a swampy meadow is called a wern in Welsh, although wern can also mean alder grove), I stopped in the dappled sunlight from the trees, leaning on my quarterstaff.  Wherever we go with a wood, I end out playing Robin Hood games with my son, and I am always Little John, hence the quarterstaff, which I simply make from any long piece of straight wood that’s lying around on the ground.  After the game, it simply goes back into the wood.

 

While listening to the song of the birds, including the call of a nearby cuckoo and the screech of birds as a barn owl flew into the woods, and the constant background hum of the insects, I was struck by how beautifully interconnected were each and every bit of the local nature.  Each little niche, however poorly resourced it may seem, has an occupant busying away to extract the most energy from the nutrients available in that niche.  It’s so skilfully efficient with nothing going to waste; energy is such a precious natural resource in nature with only plants capable of creating natural energy in a way that other beings are able to utilise.  We could learn a lot about waste (or not wasting things) from the clever antics of all the different bugs.

 

And this all goes on, day in day out, with no input or interference from us, mankind.  But we’re so much an important part of this vast jigsaw puzzle and we must remember our place within it.  It is only when we believe that we are no longer a part of the puzzle that we start creating problems, interfering almost always for the worse.

 

I always have this profound feeling of the wonder of nature at spring time as the earth seems to renew itself after the long winter, as the buds come out on the trees without any help from man.  We must rediscover this wonder; we must rediscover that sense of awe in newts, in the development of damselflies from nymphs through to fully grown adults.

 

We read books like “The Hungry Caterpillar” to children, but it is the children who understand that story not us adults; the process of growing from funny caterpillar through to ugly chrysalis and then that amazingly beautiful caterpillar is just wonderful, and that’s the point.  We should just open our eyes and respect the whole wonder of our earth. 

Brown and Cameron should check their history books

Monday, May 25th, 2009

Oliver Cromwell had it right back in 1653:

“You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing.  Depart, I say, and let us have done with you!”

“In the name of God, go!”

[Oliver Cromwell to Parliament]

“Take away that fool’s bauble.”

[Oliver Cromwell of the Parliamentary mace]

Recipes – An Indian Feast of Food

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

This is an Indian feast that I first put together as a demonstration for Yorkshire Ladies.  It requires a bit of preparation but is surprisingly quick to finish off.  The key is to make the Masala Gravy beforehand, divide it into smaller amounts and then to freeze it, and to marinade and pre-cook the Tandoori chicken bites the day before or in the morning.  We make a quick version of the Meen Papas regularly which I will explain in a subsequent post.

Masala gravy

 

110g ghee (sunflower oil, if cannot get this)

 150g garlic cloves, finely chopped

110g ginger, finely chopped

1kg strong onions, chopped

600ml water

250g masala paste, using Steenbergs organic Madras Curry Powder 

 

1.       Add 50ml water to 200g of Steenbergs curry powder and stir to thick paste.  Add a little more water if you want to.

2.       Heat ghee in a wok and stir fry the garlic and ginger for 2 minutes.  Lower the heat and add onions.  Don’t add all onions at once as they will reduce down in size as they cook.  Continue stir-frying until the onions become caramelized.

3.       Add the water, then using a hand blender or in a blender mash up the mixture to a smooth puree.

4.       Add the curry paste to the gravy and stir in.  Boil for about 10 minutes on a gentle simmer. 

5.       Take off the heat and put into 3 pots of equal size and freeze.

 

Red marinade

 

150g natural yoghurt

2tbsp vegetable oil

2tbsp lime juice

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 fresh red chillies (or fewer if you’re feeling nervous)

2tbsp fresh coriander leaves

1tsp organic cumin seeds, roasted

1tsp organic garam masala, roasted

2tbsp organic tandoori powder

½tsp organic chaat masala 

 

1.       Add a little water to the Steenbergs garam masala and tandoori powder and mix to paste.

2.       Put the paste and all ingredients into a blender and puree

 

Marinaded chicken

 

20 4cm cubes of skinned chicken breast

200g red marinade (½ the mixture above) 

 

1.       Put the chicken breasts into a non-metallic bowl and pour over the red marinade.  Mix well and leave in fridge for 24 hours.

2.       Preheat grill to medium (or ideally use a barbecue).  Skewer the chicken cubes and put on grill pan.  Grill for 5 minutes on each side.  Check that the meat has cooked through.  If it hasn’t grill for a little longer.

 

Chicken tikka masala

 

20 cooked chicken tikka pieces

2tbsp ghee

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

225g onions, very finely chopped

2 ladles curry masala gravy

1½tbsp organic tandoori masala paste

6 canned tomatoes

1tbsp white vinegar

1tbsp tomato ketchup

175ml canned tomato soup

½ green bell pepper

4 green chillies, chopped

100ml single cream

1tbsp garam masala

1tbsp fresh coriander, chopped

½ tsp chaat masala

 

1.       Heat oil in wok and stir fry garlic and onions until golden brown.

2.       Add pastes and gravy and cook for 2 minutes.  Add all other ingredients and cook for 5 minutes.  Add chicken pieces and cook for a further 5 minutes.

 

Meen pappas

 

400g white fish

2 tomatoes, quartered

1 onion, sliced

20 curry leaves

2 green chillis

2.5cm ginger sliced

½ tsp turmeric

¼ tsp chilli powder

400ml coconut milk

1tbsp lemon juice

1tbsp vinegar

½ tsp salt

 

1.       Cut fish into cubes 

2.       Heat oil in frying pan.  Add tomatoes, onion, curry leaves, green chillis and ginger.  Cook for 5 minutes.  Add turmeric and chilli powder.  Add coconut milk and simmer for 5 minutes.

3.       Add fish and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

4.       Add lemon juice and vinegar.

 

French beans with cumin and tomatoes

 

2tbsp oil

3 – 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 onion, finely chopped

1tsp cumin seeds, lightly roasted and crushed

¼ tsp chilli powder

250g slender French beans, trimmed

2 tomatoes, chopped

1tbsp fresh coriander leaves

1tsp chaat masala

 

1.       Heat oil in a wok.  Add garlic, onion and cumin and cook for 2 minutes.  Add chilli powder.  Cook until onions start going opaque.  Add beans and stir fry.  Cook for 2 – 3 minutes.  Add some salt and the tomatoes.  Checked if cooked.  Sprinkle over with Steenbergs chaat masala.

2.       Beans should be crunchy but you can add some water and make softer.

What has Steenbergs done for Fairtrade?

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

 

When Sophie and I founded Steenbergs way back in 2003, there was no such thing as Fairtrade spices and herbs.  This came as a bit of a surprise to us, as it was one of the key founding principals on which we had intended to base our business.  So we decided that we would try and influence Fairtrade to get rules in place for spices.

 

We did 2 things:

 

(i)                  Becoming a Fairtrade trader: by 2004, we had got ourselves accredited as a Fairtrade trader in teas with FLO-Cert in Bonn, Germany, as well as launching our Fairtrade loose leaf teas.  We started with a fantastic Earl Grey from Sri Lanka and a Special Finest Tippy Golden Orange Pekoe from Ambootia Estate from 2004 Autumnal picking, which I still reckon to be one of the best Darjeelings I have ever drunk; the later Ambootia’s that we have purchased since have never quite had the same depth of character. 

 

This initial application process entailed completing detailed business plans about what we could offer the Fairtrade movement and how we would seek to develop the market.  It was a fairly onerous process and we only just managed to squeak in with some help/support from Ben Kaukler at TopQualitea. 

 

While we (as in Steenbergs Organic) have not perhaps been particularly successful in the tea area to date, I think we will get there with our Fairtrade chai teas; in hindsight, it was perhaps naïve to believe that we could have any meaningful impact on the UK tea market or even the UK Fairtrade tea market.  Clipper and others had stolen a march on us by at least 10 years and were doing really very well, thank you. 

 

Our tea remains a really good cup of tea and our Fairtrade chais are (in my biased view) the best on the market, but it will take some time to make a difference; we will carry on pushing and prodding away at the market.  Whatever else, becoming a Fairtrade trader for tea gave us a firm starting position for pushing on with Fairtrade spices.

 

(ii)                Lobbying for Fairtrade spices: we put forward the case for Fairtrade spices.  We prepared really quite detailed proposals on making pepper Fairtrade, followed up by our own very detailed financial modelling on the impacts of conventional farming on farmers’ effective wages at the farmgate and the impact of global market forces on pepper farmers’ earnings and their ability to pay down loans taken out for fertilisers, pesticides and machinery.  I will put the original proposal on as the next blog.

 

The way I see it is simple.  It is not reasonable to live in a country with massive wealth and huge social protection via the welfare state and yet willingly to purchase goods from countries that have low levels of individual wealth, no welfare state and no social protection.  It’s as if we are happy to export poverty from the UK by enslaving people overseas, but that’s okay because the separation of a pair of jeans from the original manufacture is so great that we have no feeling or resonance with the conditions under which the original jeans were made.  There is no way that you can make a pair of jeans to sell for £3 or even £10 and meet the standard of welfare that the end consumer in Britain would ever be happy with – when I was young my mum bought a pair of Geordie Jeans for £15 in the 1980s and that was regarded as cheap then and they were really horrible.

 

Furthermore, I have never quite understood the economic value of money from a theoretical perspective.  Why is $1 worth so much more in India or Indonesia than in the US or the UK?  I get most of the way there but then there always appears to be a mismatch of at least 20% that cannot be explained by economic theory or factors, i.e. it’s as if we benefit from an extra bit of inflated value for the money in our pocket versus the same dollar in India or Indonesia.

 

Going back to spices, there is something obscene about buying cheap own brand spices from Asda or Tescos.  The buyers at these multiples constantly seek to screw down the price of the individual spice without any consideration of the impact of their actions on the actual farmers who tend the original plants – note this important fact it is not the multiple that bears the financial impact of their promotions but the suppliers who pay for it (so the multiple gets the marketing benefit of the price reduction but does not bear the cost – that’s great business Mr Tesco if you can get it).  So a buyer who is paid around £30,000 – £50,000 plus benefits spends his/her day seeking to squeeze a few extra pennies from the spice prices, but that 5%-10% reduction feeds its way back to smallholder farmers on a subsistence wage in the developing world. 

 

But this reduction or discount magnifies itself as it goes down the chain of supply, partly because of the impact of the purchasing power of the £ or $ as it goes from the developed world to the developing world but also because many of the farmers are already at the margins of subsistence.  Let’s assume the smallholder sells 1 tonne for $1 per kg, so he earns $1,000 for his work and so he can pay his costs of say $200 and a living wage of $800 per annum to support and extended family of 10 people, or more.  Now we reduce his earnings by 10%, so his wages go down 12.5% (because of the costs of $200).  But if he was on a subsistence level at $1, he is now pushed even further below a living wage and must reduce his investment in his land or reduce the nutritional value of his family’s food or even go to work in a city and leave his family to tend the farmstead.

 

The impact was recently even greater for vanilla where loans taken out to develop new vanilla farms when vanilla was trading in the UK at $500/kg in 2005/6 were crippling when it crashed to prices more like the current 2009 prices of $20/kg.  Steenbergs pays over €50/kg for our Fairtrade vanilla beans which is the effective Fairtrade floor – this proves that Fairtrade can work and provide a floor for prices, but it is unfortunate that consumers/ grocery multiples have not switched enough to Fairtrade vanilla to give a large enough marketplace to mop up all the available supply with growers.  It would help if chocolate makers committed to using Fairtrade vanilla in all their Fairtrade chocolate, for example Cadbury’s with their Dairy Milk bar or their Green & Black’s bars.

 

Well we got there and spices became Fairtrade in 2006 and Steenbergs was one of the first three to start trading and marketing Fairtrade spices in the world – the other two businesses were Italian.  While we have had little impact to date in Fairtrade tea, I feel we have had some small impact with Fairtrade spices.  Perhaps not in actually getting as many sales as some of our competitors (as our competitors like Bart’s and Seasoned Pioneers are in the supermarkets while Green Cuisine provides own label to the wholefoods distributors like Crazy Jack’s, Essential and Suma), but indirectly by forcing our competitors to launch Fairtrade spices within their range whether they like it or not (i.e. you can almost imagine a supermarket buyer twisting the arms behind the backs of their suppliers and saying “do Fairtrade or else we will give the business to those upstarts at Steenbergs”).

 

But what has this meant in practice for us?

 

Firstly, we have to hold stock of the Fairtrade spices and extracts that we offer to the food industry.  So we need to hold stock of organic Fairtrade vanilla extract to go into chocolates for Divine and Traidcraft and we need to hold Fairtrade spices for Green Cuisine so they can do the own label Fairtrade spices of Essential Trading and SUMA, as well as sometimes supplying Seasoned Pioneers for their Fairtrade products.

 

Secondly, we must register new products via Form B with the Fairtrade Foundation to ensure that it is registered and logged with Fairtrade as a genuine and valid product.  We are always trying to find new ways to make some of our other products Fairtrade – we have done Fairtrade flavoured sugars and now have Fairtrade chai teas and soon Fairtrade curry powders and Fairtrade mulling wine spices.  We still try to lead the market in this area by pushing the boundaries of what can be done; our view is that, even if we don’t get noticed by the bigger specialist shops or the UK supermarkets, it may indirectly force our competitors to close out the competitive threat that Steenbergs poses, by being able poentially to squeeze a Fairtrade product onto the shelves at one of these stores, by launching their own Fairtrade spices or flavoured sugars or mulling wine spices. 

 

Once the product has been approved by The Fairtrade Foundation, we must then get sign off on our packaging by their Marketing team – this is an area where we are currently trying to improve our performance.  Our products have been perhaps a little bit samey and have had an earthy organic style, but we now recognise that we need to improve their shelf appeal, hence we are trying to put more design effort into some new products.  We have sexed up our organic Fairtrade vanilla extract with a more exhilarating and eye-catching design, as well as putting it into a wider range of new organic extracts that should improve their overall appeal to potential buyers.

 

Thirdly, we must complete quarterly returns detailing all our purchases and sales of Fairtrade ingredients from all our suppliers and to all our customers.  This, also, includes all the sales of retail products that we have sold.  We show on these returns that (a) we have paid at least the Fairtrade minimum price; (b) we have paid the Fairtrade premium to our suppliers; and (c) we have paid the separate Fairtrade licence fee to the Fairtrade Foundation.

 

Fourthly, we are subject to external audit by Product Assurance International to monitor our compliance with all the requirements of our Fairtrade agreement with the Fairtrade Foundation with regards to record keeping and paying the correct prices.  Our next audit is in June 2009.

 

While we sometimes get frustrated with the bureaucracy of Fairtrade, this is probably really a frustration that comes of being a very small business (we’re only 9 people in total), an impatience to grow our business to a better size and a sense that our motives are often misunderstood so we want people to understand what we’re about as a business (Steenbergs Limited) and as people (Axel and Sophie Steenberg).

 

We’re by nature quiet and don’t shout from the roof tops so we’re not great salespeople or marketeers, nor are we committee people who want to spend their lives getting involved in the nitty-gritty of Fairtrade.  But in our own quiet way, we think we have made a small contribution with Fairtrade spices.  And while spices are a really small market compared to tea, coffee, bananas or cotton and while the stories of banana and cotton workers are maybe more harrowing, we feel the imbalances and vagaries arising out of global free trade are still very important concerns for the spice farmers and their families throughout the developing world, and though spices are small things they can be really and truly beautiful, just like their growers.

To vote or not to vote

Monday, May 18th, 2009

 

The MPs expenses scandal rumbles on.  While I am (like everyone else) angry at the complete contempt of parliamentarians for the public’s money, I am actually not that surprised by it.  We have not apparently moved that far since the Reform Act of 1867 and the end of rotten boroughs, or perhaps we did move forward only to fall backwards as politics became professionalised and MPs stopped thinking for themselves, sticking to the party line in the hope of benevolent patronage from their party leadership.

 

In the real world, claiming false expenses usually results in summary dismissal without any rights, i.e. it falls outside of the normal disciplinary procedures, and the potential of getting the Police involved.  Repaying falsely claimed expenses does not remove the original crime, otherwise every burglar and fraudster would simply repay the value of the items stolen and escape a jail sentence.  Maybe even worse for the House of Commons is that Radio 5 is today running a feature on what outrageous joke expenses claims can be made; this means that MPs are now being seen as a bad joke rather than people to respect.

 

Strangely however, it’s not the ethical vacuum within Westminster that exercises me, but rather the fact that as we come into another round of elections in June this year and a General Election next year, I feel completely disenfranchised.  For some time, none of the political parties has spoken out to me with political ideas that are in line with my own political, social and economic views.  This includes the fringe parties even more so than the mainstream political parties.

 

I will vote because that’s what I do; I don’t believe in wasting a vote.  However, if there are more people like me who vote in an apathetic way – even though I have political views and am interested in economics and social issues – then the disinterested vote is higher than the 65% who don’t even bother to vote in local council elections.  Yet councils control a budget of about £60 billion every year. 

 

There has to be something wrong with a system where 40% of electors in the UK don’t bother to vote in general elections, where a large proportion of those who do vote don’t care that much about it and yet are completely relaxed about giving politicians (European, national and local) power over our lives.  This power comes in the form of law, regulations, social engineering, health, education, going to war, planning, taxation etc, together with a vast budget of our money. 

 

Something needs to be done to give the political system back to the people, or perhaps even open it up to the electorate for the first time.

 

Note:  in General Elections, 60% cast and vote and 40% do not, whereas in local council elections 35% vote and 65% don’t.