Archive for September, 2009

Organic…What’s In A Name?

Friday, September 25th, 2009

What’s in a name?  Everything according to branding consultants. 

I think this is an area that the organic movement has got badly wrong.  Everyone knows what fair-trade should be about just from the name, so while there are various different systems, they are all the same really, i.e. it’s all about being fair to everyone you trade with.

Yet what does organic actually mean?  I know that there are loads of standards and rules and regulations etc etc.  And I know that lots of famous people, from The Prince of Wales through to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, all explain why organic is good for us and the planet.

To me, however, organic means chemicals that contain carbon atoms; I remember with a cold sweat my second year organic chemistry at Kings Buildings at Edinburgh University.  Even if it also means something that is derived from or has characteristics similar to living organisms.

I am sure that you will think, so what. 

However, organic chemicals actually includes all the petrochemicals and many of the pesticides, herbicides and chemically-based fertilisers that the organic farming movement finds abhorrent.  It would include DDT and dieldrin, as well as many of the currently available commercial industrial products.

So in effect, organic refers to many of the chemicals that organic farming bans, as well as natural farming without those chemicals.

Confused.  I am not surprised; it’s a branding disaster area.  Have I got a clue as to what to call it; of course not, I am a scientist rather than a marketing consultant.  But it’s a good challenge for someone to come up with something better.

No wonder lots of people come up to me and say “aren’t all herbs & spices organic anyway?”

Recipe For Real Custard With Real Bourbon Vanilla Pod

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

As I said in my last blog, it’s just got to be custard.  None of this cream or ice cream with real puddings, please.

Cornflour based custards are fine, but try this gorgeous and simple real custard sauce.

Ingredients

2 free range egg yolks
1tbsp Fairtrade caster sugar
1 Fairtrade vanilla pod (½tsp Fairtrade vanilla extract)
½ pint (300ml) milk

Beat the egg yolks lightly in a small-medium heat proof bowl.  Heat the milk, sugar and vanilla pod in a pan until hot, but don’t let it boil.

Remove the Fairtrade vanilla pod and whisk the mixture briskly into the beaten egg yolks.

Now place the bowl over a pan of hot water and cook stirring coninuously until the mixture thickens.  This will take somewhere between 20 and 25 minutes, but it is worth waiting for in my opinion.

I know you can microwave it in seconds, but I leave it over to you as to whether you reckon that it’s worth the time and effort.

Recipe for Autumnal Apple Crumble

Monday, September 21st, 2009

I love the melancholic atmosphere of this late summer time.  The leaves are beginning to turn a beautiful orangey-red and the air is turning cooler, yet it has a warm, damp smell to it. 

Then if you are a lazy gardener like me, the apple trees have miraculously done all the hard work for you and the trees are covered in beautiful ripe apples.  I enjoy just going out into the back of our garden, looking at the cows in the field and munching on a perfectly ripe apple; these have the sweetness of summer coupled with the softness of silk, with none of that bitterness and tough bite of shop bought apples, which makes your gums tingle and hurt.

So it just had to be homely crumble as pudding with our Sunday roast this weekend. 

We have 2 types of cooking apples in the garden, so I mixed up the apples and stewed them gently in a dark muscovado sugar, some Fairtrade organic mixed spice of ours and a dash of orange juice (it gives it some citrusy taste while stopping the apples from turning brown as you peel and cut the others, plus it’s much less harsh than using lemon which some people suggest).

Also, when I make the crumble, I quite like adding extra flavours to it (which I am not going to include in the recipe), so this weekend I added some ground almonds and othertimes I have added some crushed digestive biscuits or mixed the flour types up, for example using wholewheat flour gives the crumble more of a chewiness than crunchiness.

This is all part of my cooking style.  It is good to start with the basic recipe idea, but then to gently adjust it to create a much greater depth of flavour or to change the texture.  It adds a certain mysterious quality that means your crumble will never quite be repeated by anyone else, or by you ever again. 

I suppose it’s all about making home cooking – real amateur cookery – unique and the antithesis of industrial food, which is all about keeping the same taste over gazillions of meals that are being bashed out by machines or cooks; industrial food has to be very simple and easily repetitive and have an unchanged taste whatever the quality of the ingredients, i.e. no tweaking for flavour.  It’s food of the lowest common denominator.

Here’s my attempt at recreating what I made.

Ingredients

For the fruit:

750g cooking apples
50g Fairtrade muscovado sugar (or more to taste)
1tbsp orange juice
50g raisins
1tsp Fairtrade mixed spice
1 Fairtrade cinnamon stick

For the crumble:

175g plain flour
75g butter
75g Fairtrade caster sugar
1tsp Fairtrade cinnamon powder

  1. Put on the oven to about 180oC.
  2. Peel and chop up the apples into slices.  Bung these into a large heavy-bottomed pan with the butter, Fairtrade dark & sultry muscovado sugar, Fairtrade mixed spice, Fairtrade cinnamon stick and orange juice.  Cover and cook gently until just tender, making sure that you do not overcook it as this just results in a stewed mush.  Mix in the raisins and remove the cinnamon quill.  Put all of these into the bottom of a medium-sized ovenproof dish.
  3. For the crumble, sift the flour into a ceramic mixing bowl and add the cinnamon powder, mixing them together.  Chop up the butter into cubes and then drop these into the flour.  Now rub the butter into the flour (using clean fingers please) until the mixture has the consistency of breadcrumbs.  Stir in the caster sugar and rub together.  Cover the top of the apple base thoroughly and smooth over.
  4. Bake in the oven for 45 minutes until golden brown and the inside is bubbling hot.  Serve with custard – sorry, it’s just got to be custard.

Recipe for Saturday Was Shepherd’s Pie

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

Back closer to the brief, I made shepherd’s pie on Saturday morning.  Typically, Saturday turned out to be the last blast of the summer with one of the best day’s of the whole year – no wind, unbroken sunshine and a really relaxed day with friends and family.

The shepherd’s pie was a fairly normal version but with a slight twist in the seasoning, developing on a theme that I have been experimenting with over the last few months – cinnamon.  I think cinnamon quills work really well in almost anything that Brits would traditionally also season with bay leaves, so stews and casseroles, marinaded red meats and poultry.  Here I used a couple of organic Fairtrade cinnamon quills to season the beef mince (also organic and from the new Booths in Ripon).

This version was the way I did it, which is a little bit long-winded, but you could just whack all the mince ingredients together and cook up for a quicker version.  For me, however, the key (like in many meat dishes) is to cook it before the meal and then let it sit and allow the flavours to meld, before reheating the stew or mince and serving.  This really improves the flavour.

Ingredients 

For the mince:

2 medium white onions, chopped finely (processed if young kids around)
2 medium garlic cloves, chopped finely (processed if young kids around)
3 medium carrots, diced into ½ cm cubes
1.8kg organic beef mince (or best you want to buy) 
2 organic Fairtrade cinnamon quills
2 bay leaves
1 pinch Steenbergs perfect salt seasoning
1 tsp Steenbergs vegetable bouillon powder
1 pinch lemon pepper mix
Good slug of dark soy sauce
2 tins of chopped tomatoes
200ml lager beer or water 

For the topping:

10 large potatoes (Maris Piper are ideal)
1tsp grainy mustard
Some milk

Boil the carrots until just tender, drain and leave to cool

Fry the onions and garlic in olive oil until translucent; this takes about 10 minutes at a low heat.  Take off heat and leave to cool.

In a heavy bottomed frying pan, add a tablespoon of sunflower oil and brown off the mince.  When browned remove with a slotted spoon and start the next lot of mince.

Get a large saucepan and put the mince, onions, garlic and carrots into this.  Add the rest of the mince ingredients, stir it up, and put onto a medium heat and simmer for at least 30 minutes.

Leave to cool for a few minutes and then layer a couple of ceramic dishes up to half the height.  Try and keep some of the mince spare (I’ll tell you why later!).

Peel the potatoes, quarter them and boil in water until tender.  Mash them thoroughly with milk and perhaps some butter and then mix the mustard through the potatoes.

Now, cover the mince with the mashed potatoes.  Do this by starting from the edge and just scooping a load of mashed potatoes onto the edge and then when you have gone all round the edge, fill the gap in the centre.  Now smooth over the top and wipe clean the edges.  I now use a fork and do diagonal lines firstly one way and then the other to create a net effect.

You can grate some cheese on the top towards the end of the cooking should you so wish, but I don’t often do this and it can overpower the general flavouring.

Cook at 180oC for 45 minutes until piping hot.  Serve with peas or broad beans.

Why keep some mince back?  There is always one child who doesn’t really like shepherd’s pie so you can always make a quick pseudo-spaghetti bolognaise by boiling up some spaghetti and now everyone is happy.  This is just what happened on Saturday and 2 of the 6 kids wanted pasta, but for once I had second guessed them and was prepared.

Summer’s Over

Monday, September 14th, 2009

Saturday was hot, a really glorious day.  However, the swallows have gone so the blue sky felt empty without their energetic dance swooping and soaring the catch insects.  They must have left while I was in London last weekend and into last week.  Another year gone, another winter to contend with.  It’s still warm and today is bright sunshine, so I shall enjoy the last days of an Indian summer.

You can see it with the changing light.  There’s a field just over Hewick Bridge as you come into Ripon where there a rows of round straw bales all lined up neatly like soldiers to attention. 

I love the long shadows cast by these as I come in of a morning.  There is a crispness of light at this time which seems to sharpen shapes and contours.  I can now see why Monet enjoyed painting these simple shapes with seemingly endless paintings of haystacks, but it is the changing light that fascinates him.  And light has weird colours to it – purples and blues in winter, but there’s still a warm orangey glow to the shadows and light in this early autumn time.

Turner’s Rain, Steam, Speed – The Great Western Railway

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

Last weekend, we spent in London at The Speciality & Fine Food Fair 2009, where we had a stand displaying our wares to UK trade buyers.  It was a good show, with numbers slightly down, but the quality was there; the froth has gone out of the market, leaving only the serious buyers and cutting out the speculative people.

After setting up the stand last Saturday, I went to The National Gallery especially to see Turner’s “Rain, Steam, Speed – The Great Western Railway”.  It hangs a few down from Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire” and Constable’s “The Cornfield”.  While “The Fighting Temeraire” has been voted Britain’s favourite painting, it is “Rain, Steam, Speed” that draws me in.  Take a look at this link: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/joseph-mallord-william-turner-rain-steam-and-speed-the-great-western-railway.

It is a virtuoso piece of painting, showing early modern styles together with some (very little) classical realism.  It’s an amazing study in light and the play of light on clouds and steam.  Turner has built the canvas up with strong, extravagant brushstrokes, full of huge energy with dabs of colour shining through.  It is drama, capturing light and movement in a  two dimensional space in a way that photography just cannot emulate.

The sun sends shafts of light from the right hand side of the picture streaming across the foreground.  Blues can be seen on the skyline, but these are overpowered by swathes of creams, whites and greys, interspersed with every shade of yellow and orange as the sunlight reflects off the rain and steam from the train.

In the distance, a bridge can be seen and hints of Maidstone.  On the Thames a small rowing boat is lazing languidly in the water, with an umbrella protecting the rowers.  A group of walkers are walking along the shoreline, staring up at the bridge and the train. 

On the right hand side, a ploughman strains against the plough pulled by a heavy shire horse.

It is a beautiful painterly picture.

But this is sliced across with 2 stark black lines of perspective hacking this beautiful scene into bits.  Everything is natural and hazy, but the bridge is harshly detailed accuracy.  It is dark and brooding and ugly.  Then charging towards us is the black locomotive with red fire in its belly.  We are drawn to the locomotive’s sharp point of a funnel as this train races into our space and will surely overtake and squash to death a hare that is racing along the tracks, barely visible in the foreground. 

Natural speed as exemplified by the hare from Aesop’s Fable is being overrun by modernity and technology.

Soon the ploughman will become extinct, as will the pleasure of lazing on the river.  Even the steam train is now just a museum piece, perhaps even trains themselves as we race around in gas guzzling cars, planes and tractors.

Progress.  The only constant is change.

What it tells me is that while maybe the past seems a more peaceful place.  An idyll that was never truly a haven.  We have to live with progress and technology and accept it. 

While some may want to hark back to simpler times, closer to nature, we need to accept that we live in the modern world.  We need to pay taxes, pay for our food, our fuel and our leisures and pleasures.  We must be commercial and practical and not be unrealistic. 

If organic businesses and fair-trade businesses are to succeed, they must operate in this real world, where technology thrives.  They must stand on their own merit, without special exemptions and subsidies.  They must not be squashed like the hare.

Footprints in the sand

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

Earlier this year, anthropologists announced the find of ancient fossilised footprints in Kenya dating back about 1.5 million years.  That’s 1.7 million years after our major prehistorical ancestor, Lucy or Australopithecus afarensis, whose skelton has been dated at 3.2 million years ago.

The footprints were found near Ileret in Northern Kenya in a layer of fine sand sandwiched between layers of volcanic ash.  The fossils show the wandering footprints of Homo ergaster which is an early version of Homo erectus and the first with the same body proportions as modern human beings like us.

One layer of rock contained three footprint trails: two trails of two prints each, a trail of seven prints and several isolated prints.  The other sediment layer, showed a trail of two prints and a smaller isolated print that the authors said probably was that of a child.  The anthropologists have analysed the footprints to show that these ancient ancestors of ours walked in the same way as we do.

Very interesting, but what were these ancient ancestors of ours doing?  Was it a father hominid having a walk with his son while explaining to him the secrets of how to hunt?

In 1991, Otzi was found by 2 German walkers in the Ötz valley in the Alps between Austria and Italy.  Investigations found the body to be that of a 30-45 year old male from 5,300 years ago.  He had been killed since he had a arrowhead buried in his body and there was evidence of a knock to the head with a blunt instrument.  It seems that he had died in a skirmish as it appears that his companions had attempted to remove the arrowhead, but that he had died probably from the head injury.

But who were his companions and what were they doing in the Alps outside of their own territory?  Were they on an expedition to look for new territory and to move over the Alps into Southern Germany, or were they hunting for Alpine red deer.

On Hadrian’s Wall at Corstopitum, the Roman military town of Corbridge in Northumberland, there is on display a set of Roman armour that was hidden in a pot below a floor.  This lorica segmentata is almost perfect and allows archaeologists and Roman enthusiasts to recreate early laminated body armour of Roman legions in Britain in the first century AD.  It appears to have been hidden by the armourer for safe keeping when Corstopitum was attacked by marauders from the North.

Who was the armourer and what was he hiding from?  Why didn’t he retrieve this very expensive body armour?

We find these very thin traces of human history appearing every so often.  Small traces of what life was like, allowing us to glimpse at an older more ancient time.  The past is a mystery to us just as much as the future.

History as we know it tells us about great kings and a few successful politicians, as well as those artists and writers who have stood the test of time.  Nearly everyone’s lives fade into the mist of the past quickly.  We do not know the names of the slaves who built Hadrian’s Wall or who Otzi’s companions were nor whether the genetic code of the our prehistoric ancestors at Ilaret has been passed down to modern times.

Most people’s lives and deeds are forgotten.  Our loves and our mistakes are erased by time.  But I have a sense of wonder at these tiny glimpses of our prehistory that we can sometimes see.

All of our lives – whether Royal or senior politician or footballer or film star or checkout lady or tramp – are footsteps in the sandy desert that a gentle breeze will clear away.

This is not something to be melancholic about.  It is something to enjoy as our time in the world is a brief spark of joy.  But we should try and make it good and worthwhile and not measure it only in money or what TV show was watched, but in good things done and projects achieved.  We should enjoy the natural and man-made beauty around us, celebrating it and creating it (where we have the ability).

This is what is important: love and beauty, nature and the arts.  So don’t get too focused only on the daily grind of survival, of money, of material things.  These things just doesn’t matter in the end as we are all but ashes and dust.  Enjoy yourself, be good and smile.

“Men in their generations are like the leaves of trees.  The wind blows and one year’s leaves are scattered on the ground; but the trees burst into bud and put on fresh ones when spring comes round.”

[Homer, The Iliad VI 146]

STEENBERGS SEPTEMBER NEWSLETTER

Saturday, September 5th, 2009

Beat the autumn blues with Steenbergs

Once again its been a packed summer with lots of new products and events happening at Steenbergs – so it certainly has not been a wash out in Yorkshire!

We’ve got lots of new things to share with you as well as a special offer for you.

Don’t forget our recipes and our blog for ideas to inspire. Happy autumn from us all at Steenbergs.

Thank you for all your support and we are always interested in hearing from you.

Steenbergs home baking continues its colour campaign

After the success of Steenbergs extracts and floral waters, we’ve continued the new look throughout our home bakery range. The seven organic Fairtrade flavoured sugars have all taken on colourful labels – vanilla, cinnamon , lemon, lavender, mulling wine, chai and our award winning rose . They are joined in this range by our organic Fairtrade mixed spice, bicarbonate of soda and baking powder.  They make a colourful and useful addition to any kitchen.

If you’ve never tried flavoured sugars before start off on pancakes or over fruit to get the flavours and then try baking with the different flavours. We’ve all got our own favourites but it also depends on our moods – lavender and lemon work well in dressings and over meat as well as in puddings. Steenbergs lavender sugar was used by Sophie Grigson in the Fairtrade cookbook for lavender scones.

Cinnamon, vanilla and rose are slightly more traditional in that they can be used in pretty well any sweet dish. Try the first two in home made hot chocolate as another suggestion.

Although the summer is still on its way out it won’t be too long before we are turning our heads to making Christmas puddings and cakes so don’t forget our Fairtrade mixed spice, as well as a tasty addition to plain yoghurt and a host of other baking dishes.

New products

The range of products available at the Steenbergs online shop grows all the time. Favourites from our recent additions include “The world famous Spice and herb playing cards” – the spices version of these cards are packed with nuggets of information about spices as well as beautifully illustrated. Fantastic for playing anything from patience and hearts to bridge.

We’ve added a shaving area to the web shop. Axel was amused when his 6 year old daughter pounced on his shaver and asked whether she could take it to school as an example of something “old”. The truth is that “an old fashioned” razor as opposed to disposable or electric is still one of the classic eco friendly products – you don’t have to change your razor very often just your blades.

Another new area is for babies and children – this area has been introduced as we know that many of our customers are families. It is has a selection of more eco-friendly products. Before we start the debate on “real” nappies versus disposable. We are looking into “real” nappies as a next step  and  these disposable ones are more biodegradable than normal disposables.

On a more fragrant note the new products we now stock include incense sticks and natural protectors for clothes and against shoe odour.

New organic food includes Duchy Original biscuits, organic teriyaki sauce and even more choice in our cereals and vitamins/ supplements.

We’ve also just started stocking a whole variety of Tyrrells hand cooked potato crisps – Tyrrells grow all the potatoes they use for the crisps on their farm in Hertfordshire – very tasty. There are two sizes the handy snack size and the more sociable larger pack. These are available in cases as well to make it easier for stocking up your larder.

Other new products that we are excited about include our ecoforce recycled clothes pegs and sponges – making things out of things that would otherwise end up in landfill has just got to be good news. The clothes pegs are really good and seem to be coping with the weather that this Yorkshire summer is throwing at them!

Daylight bulbs, organic cotton wool, organic maple syrup…  there’s all sorts of new things at the Steenbergs online shop.

We add to these on a regular basis and if there’s anything that you would like us to start selling or that you don’t seem to be able to find please don’t hesitate to email us at enquiries@steenbergs.co.uk.

Special offers

We would like to offer you 10 per cent discount on all your orders in September if you quote the following code 0909. This offer is valid until the end of September. The perfect time to try out something new whether its one of our curry mixes, home bakery products or even hand soap.

We’ve also got all our Glenroyd organic chutney, mustards, marmalades and jams on special offer. There’s never been a better time to stock up.

FDA report on organic

The recent FDA report on organic food was a bit of a non event except for its release in the traditional “silly season” in August. For more information on our response to this report please look at our blog x 2 .

Alternatively we include our comments on the very recently revised standards for Fairtrade spices.

We keep the blog as up-to-date as possible with news and views which we hope are of interest. We always welcome feedback.

Ecoleaf home cleaning products

We are in the process of moving all our household cleaning products to Ecoleaf. Ecoleaf is a new brand on the market of eco-friendly household cleaning products and is produced for Suma workers cooperative. This organisation is one of the heroes of wholefoods and organic and has done much to help provide environmentally responsible products.

We look forward to hearing your feedback on their products, certainly we’ve been very impressed by their performance so far and the antibacterial hand soap has become a bit of a family favourite.

New Fairtrade products

New excitements from the Steenbergs camp of Fairtrade products include two of our curry blends going Fairtrade – organic Fairtrade garam masala and organic Fairtrade curry mix. We will constantly continue to look at new Fairtrade products as and when available and possible.

We are also now stocking in our online shops several other Fairtrade products including Fairtrade rubber gloves, Fairtrade chocolate crispy bars, as well as the Fairtrade cleaning cloths , cocoa, sugar, golden syrup and coffee that we currently stock.

Force cereal part of Steenbergs family history

We’ve recently started stocking Force cereal – which claims to be one of the first breakfast cereals. This is not the first time the Steenbergs family has been the purveyors of Force. Axel’s just discovered that his grandfather was the UK agent for Force cereal just under a century ago, before the first world war when Force was imported from America for the first time. At that time it was owned by A C Finckens – now it’s part of Nestle.

Staff choice

This is a new idea for the Steenbergs newsletter where one of our trusty staff share their own selections. This month’s turn is Lesley

Favourite Steenbergs product:–  organic Malay Masala. The whole family loves the curry I make with this – a definite winner.

Recipe – for 4

  • 1 tbsp organic coconut oil
  • 1 tsp organic malay masala
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tbsp onion granules
  • 1 tsp garlic granules
  • 1 red pepper, sliced
  • 5 closed cup mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 chicken breasts, cooked and diced
  • 1 large tin organic coconut milk

What to do:

Melt coconut butter, fry pepper and mushrooms until soft. Add malay masala, onions and garlic and fry for 1 min. Add turmeric, stir in and add coconut milk, bring to the boil, add cooked chicken and reduce to a simmer for approx 10 mins or until chicken is heated through. Serve with basmati rice. (You can also use any vegetables you have to hand and substitute the chicken for white fish).

Fav non Steenbergs product:   Biona organic Coconut oil  – this is great because we use it for cooking and moisturising

Environmental tip: If you have a multi-fuel or wood stove and no central heating, or would like to cut your gas bill, you can set up a closed radiator system to run by thermal syphoning from a radiator placed behind the stove. We installed this about 12 months ago and the difference has been amazing and we haven’t turned on our gas heating since.

Steenbergs out and about

Since our last newsletter, we’ve been delighted to be listed in The Observer’s top food gadgets listed – particularly for our sumac and Za’atar.

Our home bakery range was also listed in Woman and Home as website of the day.

Our natural almond extract has recently been reviewed favourably in Caterer and Hotelkeeper and our organic spray dried vanilla powder also received praise from the BBC Good Food Magazine.

Our list of stockists grow daily  and our home bakery range is now stocked by a variety of distributors so we don’t always know where our products are available. However if you have any problems please don’t hesitate to contact us and we’ll do our best to help you.

Fairtrade spices standards – a reprise

Friday, September 4th, 2009

Steenbergs is a commercial enterprise.  We operate in an economy based upon free market economics and that is something that we are completely comfortable with.

Per Adam Smith, what gets made and sold and the prices that transactions are closed at is determined through a bargain struck between 2 willing parties.  However, we also believe – like Adam Smith – that this free market may need moderating at times.  He believed that this would be done through the established church and people’s own conscience, however in those days the church was stronger and peoples’ consciences were far more restricting.

That’s where Fairtrade can come in.  In a similar way to the way mutuals ought to moderate in the personal financial market (they didn’t because they simply tried to emulate the incorporated retail banks), Fairtrade offers consumers a choice to pay more for a product that carries with it certain social and ethical features.

Our interest in Fairtrade stems from the fact it offers a simple, understandable and transparent mechanism for providing a fairer price in some tradeable commodities.

It is based upon an elegantly simple process, a virtuous circle:

steebergs

(i) Find, audit and approve groups of farmers that are willing to operate with a higher level of social responsibility

(ii) Find, audit and approve businesses that are willing to pay a higher price to groups of farmers that operate at a higher level of social responsibility

(iii) Impose a pricing mechanism for the sale of goods, whereby the buyer is willing to pay the higher of the market price and a minimum price for the commodities, where this minimum price incorporates the costs of a living wage for the farmers and an element of profit to enable them to invest in their business to improve product quality, as well as meet minimum social, ethical and environmental factors

(iv) A system of tithes that (a) enables the farmers and/or workers to invest in social projects for the benefit of their communities and (b) for the concept of Fairtrade to be promoted to consumers

For me, (i) and (iii) are the fundamental factors.  They are basically responses to the fact that a belief that the free market can push prices below a price whereby the weaker party in the sales transaction can earn sufficent cash to live and invest in his/her business.

I believe that the new standard takes away one of these fundamental principals of Fairtrade for the sake of expediency, a breach of one of basic underlying social factors that underpins the Fairtrade brand.

To me, it says that, in certain circumstances, the free market price is fair for Fairtrade, so long as you assuage your conscience through the payment of a tithe.  It’s okay: you can trade with anyone, anywhere so long as you pay a smidgeon more to a social fund; that’s what all major corporates already do – it’s called charitable giving or corporate social responsibility.

New Spice Standards for Fairtrade

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Fairtrade has issued new standards for Fairtrade spices which seem to be a recipe for chaos.  They basically say that you can trade any spice or herb as Fairtrade and that the Fairtrade price is the price agreed between the buyer and the seller.  A premium of 15% then needs to be paid on this to the Fairtrade social fund as normal.  The list of herbs and spices is very wide, even including sweetcorn which could be a huge market for the likes of the Jolly Green Giant, where it could set prices as it sees fit and say it’s Fairtrade.

Where a Fairtrade minimum price exists, the higher of this and the market price prevails, e.g. for vanilla and pepper (where it has been set for India & Sri Lanka but not Brazil or Vietnam).  Also, certain countries have opted to continue with the minimum price route, e.g. India and Sri Lanka, while the rest of the world has not; therefore those going for the more interventionist route will be squeezed out of the market by more aggressive intensive growers from Vietnam and Brazil.  And the consumer will not be able to differentiate between old-style Fairtrade and new-style Fairtrade countries, since there is no attempt at a level playing field.

As someone who has put a lot of effort (even if it seems small to some out there) into Fairtrade spices, getting them up and running, launching them into the UK market and trading them with other producers, I am disappointed with the new spices standards, to say the least.

They seem to be a gigantic cop-out.  These standards don’t appear to be any different from normal spices without any Fairtrade protection, where the price is agreed between the buyer and the seller, except for the Fairtrade premium.

Also, who’s going to police the pricing when the markets plummet – I thought one of the key features of Fairtrade was that there was a minimum price, a floor.  So for an example we can use a product that does have a set price such as vanilla, we could buy organic or conventional vanilla at present for less than $20/kg in the open market but the Fairtrade floor price is €43.83/kg, but for new products this potential 100% differential would have disappeared and Fairtrade producers are stuck.  But if I found vanilla in an area that had no price floor, e.g. Central America, I could buy it at $20/kg or less.  Of course I still have to find a Fairtrade certified buyer who was willing to sell at these below Fairtrade set prices.

It feels as if Fairtrade felt that working out the Fairtrade pricing for spices & herbs was too difficult, so they just compromised and gave up – perhaps the supermarkets were asking for them to get a move on, or perhaps the big boys, like Fuchs in Germany or McCormick/Schwartz, wanted to launch their own products using their own sources.

All-in-all, I am very unimpressed, but who really cares about my viewpoint as my voice is very weak.

What’s next, will banana producers say that the price of bananas should be agreed between Chiquita and Wal-Mart rather than using the Fairtrade mechanism?  Perhaps we should ask the cotton growers to accept what they are forced to pay by sweat shop owners in the developing world so that the large retailers in the EC and the USA can meet the margins and pricing requirements that Governments want and consumers demand, while meeting the internal rates of return of Wall Street and the Square Mile.

My view is that Fairtrade could do better.  They should see the potential damage this could do to its brand as it starts watering down its principals at the edges.  Or aren’t spice growers valued as highly as the coffee growers?  I think not.

Just like in the current Ali al-Megrahi debate: you either have red lines over which you will not cross and keep these as fundamental principals, or you say we will sell our soul whenever it gets too complicated or the economic stakes are high enough.