Archive for December, 2009

Christmas Eve And It’s Still Snowing

Thursday, December 24th, 2009
Let it snow

Let it snow

It’s slightly eery at work today.  No-one else is here as we have completed the stock-take and all the Christmas orders have been dispatched.  Also, the snowy weather and the fact that it’s Christmas Eve means that the business park is almost deserted.  Other than Wolseley Centers (which never closes), Nidd Transport and Masham Sausages who are busy trying to get their last Christmas deliveries out, I think I am the only person on this estate.

It started snowing again in the night and we have had at least 3 inches since about 4am and it’s still snowing away.  There’s a muffled, silencing quality to the snow which meant that as I drove in this morning – with the odd skid for excitement – I felt as if I was cocooned in my own little space, a warmed personal ecosystem stolidly driving through a wintry landscape.

As I drove into Ripon, I pondered on the fact that the elements have been reminding us of who is in control, really; we have had floods and now snow in the last 3 months, which is quite something for the temperate British climate.

We have done a pretty good job in getting all the many Internet orders out into the delivery networks, but unfortunately the weather has played havoc with some of the parts of the country.

Parcels to Aberdeen and Cumbria have been hit especially badly, as has Aylesbury.  Checking with Fedex today, no trucks have got through to Kendal since last week so a couple of parcels have got delayed but it looks as though the trucks have now got to Aberdeen and some of the parcels are now out for delivery.

All the other missing parcels with Fedex are out for delivery again today as quite a few have been delayed by weather problems, but then again they have been out for delivery 2 or 3 times this week already, but fingers crossed and many apologies to those few people who may not get their packages prior to Christmas due to the weather.

I will sign off now for a few days to enjoy a turkey Christmas dinner, my homemade Christmas pudding and some Christmas cheer.

God bless you all, Merry Christmas and I hope Santa Claus / Saint Nicholas brings you all the things that your hearts’ desires.

UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen

Monday, December 21st, 2009

The UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen is the perfect example for the phrase “a damp squib”.  Squibs are small explosives that are used for special effects and in the past for clearing away coal in the mines when they were sold as “Miners’ Safety Squibs“.  In the past, squibs were not protected from moisture and so a damp squib was just an explosion that failed to detonate.

I suppose that we all expected too much from the conference; where views that are so divergent and relative powers so different were being brought together, there was probably nothing but a slim chance of agreement.  The outcome, however, was not unexpected as in the end and in my heart-of-hearts I probably expected nothing much.  Which is what we all got.

For me there are 2 big issues that come out of the conference – one is scientific and the other is political.

The scientific issue is that I am unconvinced that the detail of climate science is there yet and I am unsure that it ever will be.  That is a big problem and will get more and more important as time goes by. 

That climate change is occurring is irrefutable and that it is man made, i.e. anthropogenic, is also clear.  It aslo seems clear that we are heading for a general 4-5oC rise rather than 1.5-2oC rise that the politicians seem to be kidding themselves will happen, and that hotter world looks a pretty scary place (Source: “A World 4oC Warmer”, Santa Barley, New Scientist, 3 October 2009, p 14-15).

However, the temperatures are general, global and vague and I think that this is going to be an Achilles heel for climate change protesters and scientists going forward.  In the end, I, people and Governments need to know with some accuracy what is going to happen where and when?  And I think until this is fleshed out more, people and Governments have wriggle room. 

For example, I have been trying for ages to find on the Internet a report or simulation that shows the impact of differing levels of sea rise on areas of the world (I once saw one at The Deep in Hull which was very impressive), i.e. I know that low lying areas like the Netherlands, London, Tuvalu and Hull will become effected straight away, but what does a 10 metre rise do and what is the percentage likelihood of that?  I know that the Arctic sea ice melt is irrelevant to sea level changes but how much land ice is melting from Greenland, the Antarctic and Canada, for example, per annum and what impact is that having?

And even more precisely, what will the temperature rise be in the UK when the global temperature rises by 2oC?

Or will it actually result in the temperature falling in UK as temperatures rise globally?  My query here is based on the fact that our temperature should really be the same as Moscow, but because of the Gulf Stream we are kept artifically warm.  But if the ice sheet on Greenland and Canada flows into the Atlantic Ocean, it could change the surface density of the ocean and switch off the great ocean conveyor belt and so plunge the UK (and the world) into a cold patch that could compensate for the general rise in global temperatures.  This sudden freezing could be more devastating in the short term than a general rise in temperatures. 

So more detail is needed on anticipated changes and they will need to be accurate as each error will serve to undermine the generally correct concept of climate change.

The second is the concept of sovereignty.  In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, there is the iconic quote:

“ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL
BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE
EQUAL THAN OTHERS”

It has been used ever since as a ironic dig at socialism and communism.  However, the concept of equality, democracy and sovereignty is something that worries me; it is something that I cannot really get to grips with as to whether the way the world is run is right or wrong?  It worries me that the UK is more and more being run by the EU and that the EU and the UK Governments are largely run by oligarchs over whom there is very little control.  The expenses scandal and the next election may change the faces and the bums on the seats, but they will still come from the same political parties and the state apparatus will be largely unchanged and most of the regulations and legislation will stay in place.

The same goes for soverign states.  Does the USA have any more legitimacy than the small island states, such as Kiribati and Tuvalu, or mini states like San Marino and Lesotho?  If we are all equal then surely each country should have an equal voice, but (back to Orwell) that’s clearly not the case.  In other words, the world will be driven by the larger states as they have greater power in terms of cash, military might and global influence.

And how about the minority peoples who live in the areas perhaps most directly impacted by the melting of sea ice and land ice, the indigenous peoples of the Artic and elsewhere?  Where were their voices?  Was it but a squeak in the dark, which does not even seem to have been recorded, or maybe it never happened?  Surely the Inuits, the peoples of Chukotko-Kamchatkan family, the Altaic peoples, the Uralic peoples and the Na-dene of the Artic region should be allowed to express their points of view as to climate improvement.  They had their own conference in Alaska in early 2009

Which brings me back to the UK.  The parties who cobbled together the weak “Copenhagen Accord” were the USA, China, India, Brazil and South Africa.  That’s the political and military powerhouses within each continent who were clearly being tasked with strong-arming agreement from sovereign states within their areas of influence.  This is vote rigging and gerrymandering on a global scale. 

Where was Britain? Where was the EU? Clearly they are not regarded as drivers of the world going forward.  Gordon Brown can hardly believe is own rhetoric in saying “A breakthrough never seen on this scale before” – I must have missed something, somewhere, unless he was talking about the coup d’etat of the UN by powers other than the UK.

It is important that Britain and the EC who are supposed to be the cradles of modern liberty ensure that any construct arising from the Copenhagen Conference does not deny the sovereign status of all nations and that it cannot be seen as modern, legalised form of global colonialism that binds everyone to the global vision of a few, hugely powerful superstates. 

Small sovereign states are still sovereign states in the same way that every citizen in the UK is equal when it comes to the ballot box. 

And I am not sure my, my family’s or anyone else’s future in relation to climate change is a bargaining chip to be negotiated by a few heads of state.

Recipe For Snowy White Mince Pies

Sunday, December 20th, 2009
Winter time 2009

Winter time 2009

It did not snow last night in spite of predictions, but it was so, so very cold.  The snow outside is now crunchy under foot as the top has frozen solid; as you potter along, there’s that lovely crunchy sound.  Our windows were all covered with those beautiful fern-like frost patterns as if Jack Frost himself had painted the windows with his paint brush.

A day to hunker down and enjoy some mince pies.  We made the mincemeat back in our 29 October blog, but you can use any recipe or a good shop-bought mincemeat.  If you use another recipe, Mrs Beeton’s is a classic but I find it a little too sweet for my tooth.  But I implore you to make your own pastry.

Here’s a classic recipe:

350g/ 12 oz organic plain flour (we use Sunflours flour)
75g/ 3oz lard, chopped into cubes (lard makes the pastry softer, but you could replace this with more butter)
75g/ 3oz organic butter, chopped into cubes
Pinch of sea salt
A little milk
Organic icing sugar

Making pastry: rubbing fats into flour

Making pastry: rubbing fats into flour

To make the pastry, sift the plain flour and sea salt into a mixing bowl.  Rub the fats into the plain flour until it starts to resemble fine breadcrumbs.  Add just a smidgeon of cold water in small amounts until the dough just leaves the mixing bowl clean.  Leave the pastry to rest in a poly bag in refrigerator for half an hour (30 minutes).

After it’s settling time, put the oven on to 200oC/400oF.  Cover a board with a small amount of flour and roll out half of the pastry as thin as possible and cut into 7½ cm (3 inch) circles; afterwards, roll out the other half a thin as possible and make smaller rounds of 6cm (2½ inch) in diameter.

Lightly butter or oil a tray of 6cm (2½ inch) moulds.  Line the moulds with the larger rounds and then fill these with mincemeat to the level of the edges of the pastry.   With a little bit of cold water, gently dampen the edges of the pastry and cover them with the smaller pastry rounds and press them together with your fingers to seal the pies shut.  Brush the tops lightly with the milk and cut 2 or 3 holes into the tops with the end of a sharp knife.

Bake in the oven for 25 – 30 minutes until lightly brown.  Cool slightly in a tray and sprinkle with icing sugar.  I love eating them straight from the cooling tin.

Homemade mince pies

Homemade mince pies

Supposedly my grandfather would take the tops off and put in some more whisky to liven them up a bit more, while Sophie loves to eat hers with brandy butter.

White Snow… White Icing – A Recipe For Royal Icing

Saturday, December 19th, 2009
Christmas time in snowy North Yorkshire

Christmas time in snowy North Yorkshire

It’s freezing outside, never getting much above -2oC outside and the roads are all icy and mean. 

But it does get you into the Christmas spirit – we’ve got a wreath on the front door (complete with its cassia sticks), the tree has been decorated, Christmas cards are on every available space and are being hung now from strings hanging along wooden beams in the sitting room (not sure how many of the people who’ve sent us cards I actually remember) and the children have broken up from school.  And we’re on the way with wrapping Christmas presents; we’ll work out the gaps in our list this weekend.

So with white outside, it seems very fitting to be icing the Christmas cake.  We’re never that neat at the icing of cakes, but the end result tastes the same.  I’ve never been one for presentation; basically I’m rubbish at the finickity side of cooking, so I leave that to others.

The recipe I use is one from Claire Macdonald of Macdonald, which is very similar to our traditional family recipe.  The only difference being that she uses glycerine and our traditional one just uses the egg whites, so it’s a bit more gloopy and a little less stiff.

Ingredients

750g/ 1½ lb icing sugar, sieved
4 large free-range egg whites, beaten to a froth
2tsp glycerine
1tbsp lemon juice

Sieving the icing sugar

Sieving the icing sugar

Beat the egg whites to a froth, then add the glycerine and the lemon juice and whisk a bit more to get it all throughly mixed through.  Mix in the sieved icing sugar.  Beat it together really well, then cover the bowl with a damp tea towel and leave the icing for an hour or two.

Covering the Christmas cake with icing

Covering the Christmas cake with icing

Then simply dollop some icing onto the marzipanned cake and start spreading it over.  Leave for a few days to set…well until Christmas, I suppose.

Now it’s time for Strictly Come Dancing Finals…Ricky Whittle is the best dancer but does he have the public support; we shall find out very shortly.

It’s cold up North

Friday, December 18th, 2009
Snowy days at Steenbergs Organic

Snowy days at Steenbergs Organic

As I look out my window in the office, it’s blowing a blizzard outside.  It’s that dry, fluffy type of snow and had coated our car this morning with about 3 inches of snow.  The temperature is about -2oC.

But we’re here at the factory, having driven along snow covered roads that didn’t always look as though the snow ploughs had been out along, and there was not much evidence of gritters out last night.

We’ve got a fairly good turnout amongst our staff so far with another couple going to make an attempt after getting their kids off to school.  So courier and post dependent we’ll be able to get more orders out today, but perhaps Santa will need his sleigh.

Snowy Thirsk

Snowy Thirsk

Recipe For Egg Free Marzipan And Baking For Christmas Fairs

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

It’s the time of the School Christmas Fairs, Nativity Plays and Carol Concerts and we are always being tapped for products or being asked to do some baking. 

But one of the problems we have always had is that, firstly, Christmas is our busiest part of the year for Steenbergs Organic in terms of order volume, and secondly, the fairs etc seem always to be mid-week.  But as both Sophie and I are working baking mid-week is almost impossible beyond the odd cake or biscuit.

As I discussed in an earlier blog, I have been experimenting with sweet making instead of baking.  Sweets last longer and can be made at the weekend and children (and adults) possibly prefer sweets to baked goods!

I have devised my own egg-free marzipan which we have coated in delicious dark El Rey 61% chocolate from Venezuela, as well as moulding chocolate into santa shapes, snowmen shapes and christmas bauble shapes; we used El Rey chocolate for all these – the dark one, a milk one and a white chocolate.  We have dipped brazil nuts in dark chocolate and milk chocolate.  We have also made milk chocolate circles and sprinkled them with mixed chop nuts and some sultanas.

These have then been bagged up into some polythene bags and then put into some nice Christmassy small bags for sale.  As always, the amount of effort, cost of materials and packaging never quite add up to the sales price, but you cannot be an accountant about everything in life.

Christmas sweets and shortbread snowman

Christmas sweets and shortbread snowman

This morning I have also started my token bit of baking – some shortbread snowmen, using a mould that we got at Lakeland.

So I’ve done my duty and I can go and listen to the school carol concert today in Ripon Cathedral with a clear conscience.

For those who are interested, the marzipan I made is a variation on something I found on the web.  I am going to keep my recipe a secret but heres the one from the Internet: 

350g/ ½lb organic ground almonds
350g/ ½lb organic icing sugar
4tbsp water
2tsp Steenbergs natural almond extract

Mix all the ingredients together in a mixing bowl and knead dough until smooth.  Sprinkle some icing sugar on a baking board, roll flat and then cut into shapes – I made round balls and simple rectangles.

Water, Water Everywhere And Not A Drop To Drink

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

As world leaders take themselves very seriously and think themselves very powerful as they negotiate their climate change treaties in Copenhagen, while they drive their big limos and they fly in from around the globe, I have been thinking about water.

We have had an excess of rain here up in Northern England and there is no problem with our amounts of water.  As the planet warms, we may even get more and some of the lowland areas could flood.

But then I read today that the United Nations Development Programme says that 1.1 billion people (15% of global population) worldwide do not have access to clean drinking water and 2.6 billion people (38% of world) do not have access to sanitation.

Of this 1.1 billion people, most of them use only about 5 litres of water a day, that’s water not clean, potable water.  That’s 10% of the water that we use in the developed world.  The EU averages about 200 litres a day, the US about 400 litres and I calculated that I average about 140 litres a day, but like many personal estimates I probably undercooked it.

To bring it even closer to home, our toilets have been converted with a water-saving hippo, so each flush is approximately 5 litres, so each time we flush the toilet at home, we flush away more water than 1.1 billion people get a day.  And the water we use to flush the toilet is potable.  As the Duke of Edinburgh so succinctly put it once “The biggest waste of water in the country is when you spend half a pint and flush two gallons.”

So when the great big soundbites come out about how many billions of dollars have been committed to tackle climate change and what “tough” targets we have all been set on carbon emissions, let’s think about some of the nitty-gritty issues for about one quarter of the global population:

  1. Access to water, then providing potable water
  2. Access to sanitation, such as pit latrines rather than flush toilets

And perhaps the Governments should commit some of our hard earned and taxed money to these little issues.  But perhaps there are no headlines or votes to be won from talking about water and toilets.

Billy Pigg And The Northumbrian Small-Pipes

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

I remember hearing the Northumbrian small-pipes for the first time many years ago.  I was about 10 or 12 and we went with some of my German relatives – probably my Granny – to Wallington near Morpeth in Northumberland. 

Outside the café area , there was a lone elderly man playing a set of pipes and I remember asking my mum “what are they?”, but being German she had no idea.  So I asked someone and was told that these were Northumberland’s bagpipes.  The chap playing them was called (so I have been told by my mum) John Armstrong who came from Carrick, and was one of the foremost players of the Northumbrian small-pipes.

The Northumbrian Pipes are a very little known instrument – together with the Half-long Border Pipes – that are peculiar to the Border region.  Northumberland has its own rich heritage of clans, folk tales, dance music and folk songs as well as its very own Small Pipes.

If Northumberland was Scotland, Ireland or Wales, there would be huge interest in its heritage, but as rural society declines and the big cities and London dominates, there is every chance that these special things of England could be lost.

So it has been a real pleasure of my recent few weeks to find online archive recordings of  Billy Pigg, one of the greats of the Northumbrian Small Pipes, together with other folk heroes of Northumbrian music.  These have been preserved in digital online at Radio Farne, which is a project from the Music Information Resource Centre at The Sage Gateshead.  For a link , click Radio Farne.  Or for a less fiery and speedy style, there’s the more melodic style of Joe Hutton who can be heard playing at Cullercoats’ Bay Folk Club here in 1979 also at Radio Farne.

This is something to be truly treasured.

Find out more about the Northumbrian Small Pipes, at http://www.nspipes.co.uk/.

Recipe For Oxtail Casserole

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

I made a delicious oxtail casserole the other day.  Sophie brought a pack of oxtails – there were about 5 decent sized ones and 4 smallish ones. 

I made it Sunday and we ate it Monday – it’s one of those meals that’s best slow-cooked and then eaten the day after.  It matures nicely and by the time we ate it 24 hours later the meat just slid off the bones; everyone loved it, even the kids.

I am not 100% sure how I made it; it was just one of those meals that happened and I didn’t really pay much attention to how I did it, but it came out good.  Here’s a crack at the recipe.

Ingredients

Pack of 5 – 8 oxtails
2 lamb’s livers, or 1 calf’s liver
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, halved
1 leek, topped and tailed and roughly cut
1 carrot, peeled then diced
1 glass of red wine
1 tin haricot beans
1tsp  Steenbergs Perfect Salt
1tsp Steenbergs Vegetable Bouillon Powder
1 organic bay leaf
Some butter, olive oil and sunflower oil

1.  Put the onions, garlic and leek in a food processor and pulse a couple of times until smallish pieces, but not completely minced.  Gently sweat in a mix of butter and sunflower oil for 8 or so minutes until translucent.  This triumvirate of oniony flavours is the perfect base for any stock-based meal; gently fry them up then add a carrot and some seasoning and it can be the base for almost anything.

2.  While the onions etc are gently cooking, brown the oxtail in a saucepan with olive oil until the meat has sealed all around the pieces of oxtail.  Do the same for the liver.

3.  Add the diced carrots, Steenbergs Perfect Salt, vegetable bouillon powder and bay leaf and sweat for a couple more minutes.

4.  Add a generous slug of red wine and simmer for maybe 2 minutes.  Add the tin of drained haricot beans.

5.  Add the oxtail and liver to the pot and cover with water.  Stir it together and bring to the boil.  Boil vigorously for 10 minutes, then turn the heat down low and cook slowly for 2 – 5 hours.  I actually forgot about it and we cooked it for 5 hours on Sunday, then reheated it on Monday, which seemed to do the trick.

6.  Serve with boiled rice and carrots, then mop up the delicious gravy with bread.  Wonderful.

Kit-Kat Goes Fairtrade

Monday, December 7th, 2009

Fairtrade has just announced that Kit-Kat, the massive brand of Nestlé in the UK, is switching its cocoa over to Fairtrade.  This will start in mid January 2010 and is obviously a reaction to Cadbury’s Dairy Milk going Fairtrade in Summer 2009.  See press release.

That’s great news for the Fairtrade movement and cocoa farmers. 

However, I am sure that many fairtrade compaigners and ethical entrepreneurs will be bemused, and have quite a lot to say, that Fairtrade has become so mainstream that Nestlé, often regarded as the devil incarnate, should be embraced so closely by Fairtrade.

It will be good news in terms of cash, but it probably means that small businesses like Steenbergs will become ever more marginalised within Fairtrade as we become regarded as irritable fleas upon the greater ethical system, and (horror of horrors) views and opinions on Fairtrade.  Internal systems will be devised to meet the requirements of big business, rather than being entrepreneurial in its structure, so discriminating against smaller UK manufacturers; but does that matter if producers in the developing world are benefitting from the extra cash – probably not as long as the influence of the large brands and multiples does not start to dilute down the principles of Fairtrade and/or the rake off of the Fairtrade premium to the producers.

We shall plough on regardless, however.  Maybe, there could be a system more focused on smaller family-owned enterprises in the UK that target the independent sectors, rather than the major multiples, but ideally such an initiative would be within the wider Fairtrade framework enabling it to nurture newer ethical brands.