Archive for January, 2010

Reflections On Le Credit Crunch

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

I think I am now pretty much up to looking back on 2007 – 2009, and thinking about 2010 and forwards.  Le credit crunch and le recession have been a roller coaster, like surfing a bad set of hairy, tumbling roiling waves, but it’s been a truly cathartic time, that has allowed Steenbergs to be reset on a better course.

We’ve rejigged the way we run the business, what we’re trying to do with Steenbergs and truly Steenbergs Organic is now a better business, and one both Sophie and I feel much more comfortable with.

One of the key additional themes has been Sophie’s cancer, which Sophie hinted at in one of the blogs in December.  It certainly makes you focus on what is important in your life, and in our case it’s each other, family and friends first and foremost. We love Steenbergs as a business and it has to work for us and what we want it to be – luckily it appears we can match our interests with the market.

2008: somehow we realised really early on that banking was going to get really tight for small businesses; I would like to claim a sixth sense, but it probably was more a case of realising that they way the banks had been getting us to run Steenbergs was rubbish because we (that’s the owner-directors) were not getting a penny out of the business despite our daily toil and ownership of Steenbergs, and were having to plough cash in at an alarming rate.

In any case, in one of my best ever business deals, we fixed all our development debt into 2 tranches, repayable over 15 years and 20 years at 155 basis points and 200 basis points over base rate plus an overdraft facility.

The rates on the overdraft have been unilaterally changed several times over the last two years for small businesses, but we have been in credit pretty much ever since we renegotiated our long term debt.  This was not the highly clever corporate finance of the City but it was well done and very timely.

While we were on a family holiday in Bridlington in July 2007, there were loads of floods in Tewkesbury where my mother in law lives.  It was like a forewarning of what was to come – in September 2007, Northern Rock collapsed and almost exactly one year later Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail in September 2008, which saw the vacuum that’s at the centre of international credit and finance exposed and the global financial system start falling into that hole.

I say it’s a black hole because it is based on the premise that no-one will ever ask for all their money back from the banks at the same time, so a bank can always borrow money from somewhere else to plug a financing gap; so banks tend to lend long term on borrowings that are short term, whereas most real world businesses operate the other way around.

Also, thinking about risk-reward and whether or not it is commensurate would have helped people with the credit bubble and risks in proprietary trading.  Banking is really a low margin, low return staid old game, so to get higher rewards you need to take on more risk, i.e. bet bigger, to get your profits ahead of normal banking returns, but if the reward and the risk for those actions are uncoupled then too much risk will be taken on.  So if I am a trader/banker and get the reward while a shareholder takes the risk (or even the tax payer) then you are likely soon to get to a situation where too much risk is being taken on for the level of return being generated.  It’s a bit like going down to William Hill’s with someone else’s cash – I would tend to bet bigger and on longer odds because where’s the real downside for me.

During 2007 – 2008, we really tried to batten down the hatches.  We did not replace any staff except for a few essential posts and let our staff numbers drift down from a peak of 15 to our current level of 9, without any change in sales.  Some of those employees were really quite expensive and were not revenue generating.  Also, we let a small 1500 square foot warehouse go, reducing our rent roll.

Simultaneously, anything that wasn’t obviously revenue generating was ditched, so pretty much all advertising has been curtailed as it doesn’t generate us any return on sales, because we are not in the big supermarket chains, and we have cut down on the trade shows we go to, as we have maxed out on the number of direct independent retail accounts that we are going to get (basically while it is going up still and the quality is getting better, the rate of growth of new accounts has slowed and most of the new enquiries come direct to us from our web site or word of mouth and not from trade shows).

But as unlikely as it may seem 2008 was our record year for sales since we started and we were profitable with really strong cash flow.

2009 began with the world full of gloom and doom – the worst financial crisis since 1929 and the worst recession since modern records began in the 1950s.  Actually, we found 2009 a mixed picture – our internet site and sales to retailers had our best year yet with the web site growing sales by over 40%, while our sales of raw materials was down, particularly to those customers that sell directly into the supermarkets who have reduced their interest in organic and premium products despite what their marketing might actually say.

Our retail sales were up as we have done 2 new things: we have targetted specific parts of our product range direct to distributors for the health food market and fine food marketplace, with good sucess for Steenbergs Home Bakery products and our organic Fairtrade mulled wine; and we have widened the scope of the products we offer via the web site to cover more ambient products that green people might want.

Strategically we have been thinking a lot about risk-reward, and come to the realisation that the reward, i.e. gross margins, from selling to the big retailers together with the working capital tied up does not equate with the relative risk that Steenbergs has/would be taking on.  Allied to this, the bulge bracket retailers – Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury and Asda – are very much tied up with the big food manufacturers, such as McCormick for spices and British Pepper & Spice and Barts, and British Sugar and Dr Oetker for Home Baking.  So its slim pickings to get the work that falls off the high table of the retailing world, which is already being aggressively fought over by Fiddes Payne, Green Cuisine and a few others.

So we could either go in and fight a price battle on low financing capacity, which for Steenbergs would be a mug’s game or just rejig our business to grow in other ways.  So we have decided to talk cheap and say that Steenbergs will not sell to the grocery multiples bigger in size than Waitrose – it’s cheap talk because while we have done some casual marketing to them all, we are not listed in any of them including Waitrose.  If they approach us, we will just have to say no, as we would want to do it on our terms (our prices and 30 days credit with any big stock up pre-financed by the retailer) and they didn’t want to deal with Steenbergs even when they initially courted us – that’s Sainsburys who said they were very excited about Steenbergs and led us a merry dance via 3 or 4 buyers until finally we were told “we deal with McCormick and cannot see the reason to change this”.  Well, luckily we had only wasted time and not been caught on the hook by investing money – wiser but not poorer.  The truth is that working in partnership with the big retailers means working for the big retailers to fulfil their strategic aims and their margin requirements, one is a bit like a lamprey on shark.

2009 has been a gentle year of managing cash and costs, keeping the ship steady.  Also, Sophie and I have started a process of redesigning key parts of our business.

This began with the complete overhaul of the web site – originally it was conceived as paid for marketing to supplement the development of Steenbergs as a brand for shops, but we now want retailing to be at the centre of what we do.  So the site is now bright, colourful, eccentric and full of rich content that we will carry on adding to and developing as a resource.  The web site also had a massive back end rewrite to make it easier to work with and interlinks now directly into our accounts system.  As a result, we are getting more than twice as many visitors each day and much more stickiness onto the site – we are very, very pleased with the way this has worked.  We just need to work a bit more on speed and navigation.

We have started refreshing our products.  So far, we have redesigned our spice tin and tea tin, with the spice tin relaunched and the tea tin imminent (it’s being made at the moment).  Allied to this, we have redesigned our tea labels and labels for a small range of specialist spice blends in our new spice tins.  We love these as they are bright, fun and happy new products that fit with our personality and web site, rather than being overly serious.  They will be fully relaunched by Q2 2010.

We focused a lot on Home Baking and launched a compact range of 5 high quality extracts that are distributed by a wide array of UK distributors.  To complement this, we redesigned the flavoured sugars, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) labels and launched them in August 2009.

What we are doing is simple, we are pulling out groups of lines within the vast Steenbergs portfolio of blends and creating distinctive designs that still fall within the whole Steenbergs brand features.  They will be bright, fun and have great shelf presence.  This process will continue through 2010 & 2011.

So what do I think about 2010?  I feel it will be tougher than 2009.  2009 was characterised by a very loose financial regime of the government propping up the banks, pumping cash into the larger corporates and printing money, while keeping VAT down temporarily and running a scrappage scheme.  For those still in work, it was an easy year of low taxes, low inflation and very low mortgage payments.  But the ballooning budget deficit will need to be repaid, so the next few years will become (after the impending election) years of abstinence and frugality.

For small businesses, we will be hit by continued tight credit conditions, the uplift in VAT (which Steenbergs has absorbed into our operating margins), the business rates review this year (we are expecting a 20 – 30% increase in costs there) plus a rent review and a complete lack of help from the government, of whatever hue.  We asked for help with some capital investment in Q4 2009 and were told by Yorkshire Forward that we were too small and by BusinessLink that there was no money in the kitty and so while we had a visit by a very nice gentleman last year, nothing came of it.  The answer is simple as always ignore the politicians who know nothing and just get on with doing what you do best and make some money.

I am actually looking forward to the next few years.  The Steenbergs ship is perhaps a bit less ambitious but going in the right direction – and one Sophie and I are very pleased with – and there’s plenty to go for out there that no-one else is targetting well.

It’s back to what we started the business to do – great spices and ingredients in sensible packaging done in a fair and reasonable way.  I will try and explain some of ethics and how we are trying to develop the sourcing and marketing side to get the excitement of the spice trade of old.

Development thoughts about vanilla from the Congo

Friday, January 29th, 2010

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

Mountain gorilla in Virunga

Mountain gorilla in Virunga

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

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

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

Vanilla, Gorgeous Heady Vanilla

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

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

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

Gorgeous organic vanilla

Gorgeous organic vanilla

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

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

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

Mountain gorilla from Virunga Mountains

Mountain gorilla from Virunga Mountains

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

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

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

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

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

Tonka beans

Tonka beans

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

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

Recipe – How To Make New Mexico Red Chile Sauce

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Here is a way to use some of the new chillis that I introduced in a blog last week.  It is a traditional recipe for a New Mexican Red Chile Sauce (Chilli Sauce) that is preferred by northern New Mexicans and New Mexican old-timers, especially those with Hispanic roots.  It’s for chile lovers only and has a coarse earthy flavour.

Ingredients

450g/ 1lb dried New Mexico red chile, remove stems (leave seeds and veins if you want it hot)
2 heads of garlic, peeled
1 large onion, chopped
2tbsp dried Mexican oregano (European oregano will do)
1tsp sea salt
Water as necessary

Place the dried New mexican chilli pods on a baking tray and place in a preheated oven at 180oC / 375oF for a few minutes until they become soft and leathery.

Working in small batches at a time, purée smooth in a food processor with all the spices, adding small amounts of water as needed to make a sauce that’s got the consistency of double cream.

Place each batch of the puréed New Mexican chile in a large bowl until it has all been blended smooth, then stir it all up to get a consistent mix of the flavours.

You can then freeze these into batches and use over the next 6 – 12 months.

Recipe – Baking Chocolate Brownies For Haiti

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

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

Ingredients

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot Chili From Steenbergs

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

The snow may have gone but it’s cold, dreich and miserable.  But after a manic Christmas, it’s given me time to do some of the boring, but necessary, things of business life – stocktake inputting, stock valuation and pricing review, plus I’ve just done the first cut of our Q4 2009 Fairtrade returns which will keep them happy.  I’ve still got to do stock reconciliations and new price lists – most things are going to stay the same price.

But on the upside, I have been able to do some of tastings and stock reviews that I have been wanting to do since October/November last year, and you will start to see some of these additions and tweaks to our product range over the next couple of months.

One of the key things we will be doing is going back to our roots – Steenbergs as your secret ingredient, the place to find those things that you just cannot find on the high street, a place for the exotic ingredients that dreams are made of.  Somehow we want to get the excitement of finding these mysterious ingredients onto our web site experience and not just in my mind, mad that it already is.

So we will introduce a new concept for us of web exclusive products, which are lines that we will not sell to retailers or Ebay customers of ours.  These are the wacky products that we have spent a lot of time and effort to track down, so we don’t want other people to get the benefit of our hard work.

Birds Eye Chillis Growing

Birds Eye Chillis Growing

As a start, we have begun by widening our range of chilli products.  We used to have quite a good range of these, but our supply chain wasn’t very good, and we also were concentrating on building Steenbergs raw materials activities and trying to build on success with retailers.  Perhaps we went awry and too far away from our roots, i.e. away from being good, old fashioned spice merchants!

So for chilli heads, we now can provide a wider range of chillis:

Ancho chilli: this comes from Mexico and is chile poblano ripened and dried.  A great quality ancho chile is flexible and neither damp nor dried out.  It is a deep red (although they can get really quite dark, blood red) with a wrinkled shiny skin – it’s 11cm long and 7-8cm wide.  Ancho chiles have a sweet, fruity, slightly acid flavour and while generally they are mild, they can shock you and be individually very hot.

Bird’s Eye chilli: these chillis come from Uganda and are sometimes called pili pili or peri peri chilli and I’ve even heard it called mistakenly Devil’s Penis chilli and is probably related to chile pequin.  They are bitingly hot with a Scoville rating of 135,000SHUs and have a flavour that’s reminiscent of dry hay.

Hungarian cherry chilli pepper: these are your classic chilli for making goulash.  They are packed full of flavour yet are quite mild with a bit of heat at 10,000 SHUs, so they’re like a mildy hot paprika.  Hungarian cherry peppers are traditionally smoked and are a deep tobacco brown in colour.

Chilpotle chilli (or more correctly chile chilpocle): this is one of my all time favourite spices.  It is a jalapeño that has been ripened to a deep red on the plant and then smoked dry.  Its name derives from the Nahuatl chil (chile) and pectli (smoke).  They have a tobacco brown colour and are wrinkled with a smoky general flavour and aroma together with a very picante taste.  Great used whole to flavour soups or blended into a mole or a salsa or tomato sauce that’s got a bite, which you can then use as sauce for chicken dishes or even as a spicy base for a Mexican style pizza (now that’s serious fusion cooking).

Facing Heaven Chilli

Facing Heaven Chilli

Facing Heaven chilli (chao tian jiao):

what a romantic name for a chilli and comes from the fact that its pods grow upwards towards the gods in heaven.  These come from Sichuan in China and are the quintessential chilli of Szechuan cookery, and have that heat you would expect from a medium heat chilli, but full of the umami you would get from Sichuan peppercorns – they sort of fizz and fizzle on your tongue like space dust.  They have a rich red colour and pointed cone shape like a witch’s hat.

Habanero chilli: habanero chile is usually used fresh in Mexico (and traditionally from the Yucatán Peninsula), but we’re not set up for fresh products, so a dry version will do us just fine.  It was the hottest chilli until Naga chilli came along but it has an appetising flavour, although some of the depth of flavour is lost in the drying process, with a serious afterburn.  It’s heat rating is in range of 100,000 to 350,000 SHUs, which is damn hot.  One neat way to use habanero is to make a sauce, say a mole or tomato sauce and then infuse the habanero in it for a short while to give the sauce a light piquancy – in Mexico this is “to let the chile take a walk through the sauce.”

New Mexico red chilli: this is the staple chile of the United States and is used earthy red chile sauces and are an integral part of enchiladas, tamales, pozole, meat and egg dishes in southwestern states of the USA.  It starts as the dried long green chilli of New Mexico and has a light, sweet flavour, and then is field-ripened to a scarlet red and then dried to get the New Mexican red chile.  If you lived in new Mexico, you would find a range of chiles with rural names like Anaheim, Big Jim, Espanolas, Rio Grande and Sandia.  The main production areas are in the dry valleys of the Rio Grande River in the southern part of New Mexico and in the cooler north, where the heart of the biggest chilli growing region is from Hatch to Las Cruces in the south; in the north they are grown around Chimayo north of Sante Fe.

Naga Jolokia chilli (sometimes bhut jolokia): this a mega hot chilli and I mean mentally hot.  It was in the Guinness Book of World Records as the hottest chilli ever at 855,000 SHUs, so be warned this is dangerous.  We all togged up in latex gloves, masks etc to pack this one and lived to tell the tale.  It originates from Nagaland in the far reaches of India on the border with Burma; it’s a harsh climate for a harsh chili.  We used to get some of Assam tea from near here on an estate called Banaspaty but supply became difficult with kidnappings of the estate managers!

At Steenbergs, we also have a range of pure chilli powders – cayenne pepper, chilli powder, smoked paprika and paprika – and loads of blended chillis from nearly every continent of the world (I don’t think the Antarctic have invented a traditional blend yet), but especially our Mexican Chile Powder, Harissa and New Mexican Chile Powder. 

To help you with your home cooking of Mexican food, we have brought in oregano direct from Mexico to complement our European oregano.  Mexican oregano is Lippia berlandieri rather than Origanum vulgare, and is closely related to lemon verbena; it has a stronger oregano flavour than good, old European oregano.

Note: I apologise for the almost schizophrenic use of chilli, chile and chili, but this is blatantly to get coverage under as many different types of search as possible.

Recipe for Chicken Nuggets and Chips

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

The roads yesterday were like an ice rink – there was a thin layer of black ice outside our house that made the road treacherous.  No gritting of minor roads or housing areas seems to be being done.  We’re not that good in England at cold weather – our houses don’t keep in the heat and we cannot keep transport going in a cold snap.  What would happen if climate change resulted in a much colder Britain in the winter?

It set my mind wandering to simple warmer, summery food.  So I gave our children what they always think they want – chicken nuggets and chips – only because they have seen the toys advertised on telly by McDonalds or whichever other fast food chain.  The secret is never go to McDonalds but get the free toys in bulk for £1 from Oxfam and so avoid having to go to McDonalds and also to help a good charity.  No, Steenberg children get a homemade version.

250ml               Fine breadcrumbs
125ml               Steenberg organic dukkah
3                      Chicken breasts
1                      Egg, lightly beaten
6                      Decent sized potatoes, peeled
Some               Steenbergs organic perfect salt
Some               Mild paprika or smoked paprika

Preheat the oven to 180oC.  Lightly oil a baking tray/ roasting tin with some sunflower oil.

Boil the potatoes until just turning soft, or use some uneaten cooked potatoes that you have kept in the fridge.  Drain and cool a bit, then slice into thinnish slices of about ½ cm.

I mixed the dukkah with the breadcrumbs, then cut the chicken breast into small cubes and slithers of a nugget-size.  Next, you dip the chicken into the beaten egg and coat each of these in the dukkah-breadcrumb mix and place them onto the baking tray.  When finished, put them in the oven and cook for about 20 minutes until lightly brown at the edges; I turned them once after about 10 minutes.

While the chicken was cooking, I added a bit of sunflower oil and olive oil into a heavy bottomed frying pan.  I like to use a few oils mixed together as it creates a richer flavour when you’re frying something or roasting your potatoes; it’s one of those imperceptible twists that makes all the difference that I call “flavour layering”.

When the oil is really hot, turn the heat down and add the sliced potatoes and shallow fry.  I keep close by the frying pan while this is happening and using 2 forks, I carefully check the potatoes as they are frying to ensure that they are not burning and are cooking evenly; don’t worry about the quantity of frying potatoes as I always seem to have more potatoes that pan area so you need to jiggle them about and make space as you cook away.

I sprinkle a good finger scoop or ½ teaspoon of Steenbergs Perfect Salt onto the top of the potatoes while frying to give a delicious coating.  Then at the end I added a twist of paprika (you could use a smoked paprika or a very mild chilli powder) and it was ready to serve.

With luck the chicken dukkah nuggets and homemade chips should be ready simultaneously.  I served them with some fried garlic mushrooms and broccoli, which can be done as the potatoes are being fried.

It went down really well.

Winter Baking – Recipes for Bread Rolls and Jelly

Sunday, January 10th, 2010
An igloo in North Yorkshire

An igloo in North Yorkshire

Three weeks into the snow and whilst the children are still playing out a bit in terms of walks, sledging and igloo building – I kid you not someone in the village organised a team of five (including my son) to build a very impressive igloo – à la Ray Mears (or should it be au Ray Mears?).

However, the novelty is slightly waring off and I was greeted today with the recipe books, jars of spices, jelly crystals and a determined look in my daughter’s eye. Meanwhile, I was juggling childcare with cooking up a very traditional winter fare of vegetable soup and casserole.

Delicious white bread rolls

Delicious white bread rolls

So what did we create together à deux – delicious seeded rolls – we used sesame seeds, white poppy seeds, onion granules and nigella on the top – they worked really well and just needed time to rise near the radiator.  The kids favourite was the onion granules and the nigella ones which is really weird because they claim to hate onions (except that we hide it in nearly all their food – aren’t parents just so mean!).

Ingredients

  • 450g organic strong white flour
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 7g quick yeast (we used Doves)

    Organic seeded rolls fresh from the oven

    Organic seeded rolls fresh from the oven

  • 1 tbsp organic sunflower oil
  • 350ml warm flour
  • flour (plain or self-raising will work) for dusting
  • 1 egg, beaten for glazing

Instructions

  1. Mix the flour, salt and yeast into a bowl. Add the oil and water. Stir to form dough
  2. Knead dough on a floured surface for 5-7 minutes until smooth and elastic. We used a lot of additional flour at this point to make it smooth as it was too wet. Place in a bowl, cover with cligfilm and leave in a warm place to rise (we used just beside the radiator)
  3. When the dough has doubled in size (roughly takes an hour) knead on a floured surface until smooth. Divide into 8 equal pieces
  4. Either shape the dough into round balls or alternatively make into cottage rolls by making a small round shape on top of a flat round. Place onto a baking sheet.
  5. Cover rolls with a tea towel. Leave to rise for 30 minutes until it’s doubled in size again. Preheat the oven to 220 C or gas mark 7.
  6. Glaze the rolls with egg and the toppings. Bake inthe oven for 10-15 minutes until golden brown ( when cooked if you tap the base of each roll, it should sound hollow!)

These rolls are ideal for adding ingredients to them as well such as tomato flakes, caraway seeds, cumin, onion, cheese etc. Experiment at will.

The ingredients

The ingredients

We also decided to experiment with the Just Wholefoods vegetarian jelly crystals that we sell at Steenbergs and some of our edible flowers – namely the Marigold petals and cornflower flowers. We layered different coloured jellies – raspberry at the bottom, lemon in the middle and strawberry at the top and flowers in the middle layer.

Having had a few slight hiccups in terms of moulds and jellies (the traditional Chivers cubes) recently, we put in a little less water than recommended and melted all the crystals with boiling water rather than some boiling water and then cool. We left them to cool to room temperature before putting them in the fridge – they had already set by then.

These jelly crystals are less sweet than the sickly sweet jellies that you normally get and work really well with the layers and the flowers – we were  all delighted with the results…

Multicoloured multilayered jelly with flowers

Multicoloured multilayered jelly with flowers

Staving off winter blues with summer flowers and baking – cannot think of a better day to spend snowed in with the kids…

Recipes – Oranges And Lemons For Really Great Homemade Biscuits

Friday, January 8th, 2010

While snowed in in the cold countryside of Northumberland, we enjoyed some warming chai as well as delicious mulled wine using our organic Fairtrade mulling wine spices.  I also concocted a couple of citrus based biscuits, with one of them coming from the Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall’s great cook book for Granny’s.

Snow covered Northumberland - New Year's Day 2010

Snow covered Northumberland - New Year's Day 2010

Here they are:

Classic lemon biscuits

Carefully measure out your biscuit ingredients

Carefully measure out your biscuit ingredients

75g/ 3oz softened butter
75g/ 3oz Fairtrade caster sugar
150g/ 6oz Sunflours plain flour
¼ tsp sea salt
Grated peel from 1 unwaxed lemon
1 egg yolk from a free range hen
Some cold water (this may be needed)
1 tbsp Fairtrade icing sugar

Pre-heat the oven to  165oC/ 330oF and lightly oil 2 – 3 baking trays.

Cream butter and sugar together, then add the rest of the ingredients to the bowl and stir together with a wooden spoon.  It will be slightly crumbly, but with a bit of kneading and perhaps a teaspoon or two of cold water, you will get a light paste.

Rolling out the biscuit pastry

Rolling out the biscuit pastry

Lightly flour a surface and roll out to about ½ cm thick and cut into shapes.  We used all sorts of shapes including using some oval shapes from my great grandmother.

Cutting out Christmassy biscuit shapes

Cutting out Christmassy biscuit shapes

Put the shapes on the baking trays and bake for 7 – 10 minutes, but watch them carefully as they will suddenly be cooked.  We used an Aga and found that the back of the tray cooked very quickly and some got burnt the first time around.

Remove from oven when just turning golden, then leave to cool a bit before carefully transferring to a wire cooking rack.  Sprinkle with icing sugar in a tea strainer.

Snowy lemon biscuits

Snowy lemon biscuits

Orange biscuits

Grating an orange

Grating an orange

115g/ 4oz  sliced almonds
115g/ 4oz Fairtrade caster sugar
85g/ 3oz softened butter
55g/ 2oz self-raising flour
Grated peel and juice from 2 oranges (you may only need 1½ of these)

Pre-heat the oven to 165oC/ 330oF and lightly oil 2 – 3 baking trays.

Mix all the ingredients together except the orange juice.  Now add juice from 1½ oranges and stir together.  Check the consistency which should be like a sticky batter.

Drop a teaspoon dollop onto the baking trays and set them apart as they will spread out very thinly.

Cook for 7 – 10 minutes and remove when just turning golden brown at the edges. Then leave to cool a bit before carefully transferring to a wire cooking rack.

Orange jumbles

Orange jumbles

The lemon biscuits are classic firm biscuits like a harder shortbread, while the orange biscuits are wonderfully chewy and moreish.  All-in-all they lasted about 20 minutes.

The Three Wise Men Give Gold, Frankincense And Myrrh

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

We went to the pantomine at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle last weekend, and as usual it was fantastic with good songs, amazing costumes and some great contraptions – a flying pegasus that pulled Cinderella’s coach was a highlight.  Then there were the normal slapstick scenes and great local humour, led along by Clive Webb, Danny Adams and the Dame (Chris Hayward), who as last year were a complete hoot. 

Anyway, having parked in Pilgrim Street, we made the traditional detour via the Fenwick’s Christmas display which this year was of the Nativity Story. 

It was beautiful with amazing puppetry, delightful scenes and some hidden humour, such as the wife with a rolling pin carved into the Roman sculptures of a temple in the background, as well as directions to Caesar’s Palace (as in the one in Los Angeles).  Two of the scenes included the Magi – one with King Herod and one giving their three gifts to Jesus – and it got me to thinking about these gifts. 

I apologise for the length of the next quote, which is taken from St Matthew, Chapter 2, verses 1 to 12 from an old St James’s Bible that belonged to my Great Aunt, Elfie Steenberg, and is signed by her and dated “Nov 10 1903”; however, it is the best and almost only way to introduce the concept of “gold, frankincense and myrrh“. 

So here is the story of the three wise men, which must be one of the most famous passages within the Bible and one that all Christian children and adults learn from a very early age:

“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

When Herod the king heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.

And they said unto him, in Bethlehem of Judæa: for thus it is written by the prophet, and thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.  And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

The three magi giving gifts in our crib

The three magi giving gifts in our crib

And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.”

What remains interesting in this familiar Biblical passage?

The key things for me in the passage despite its familiarity are: 

(i) they are not kings but wise men or magi in spite of the Christmas carol “We three kings of Orient are” etc;
(ii) we do not know their names or where they came from save that they came from the east;
(iii) we don’t actually know how many wise men their were except that they gave three gifts and so it has always been assumed that there were three;
(iv) they gave gifts of “gold, frankincense and myrrh”.

The names of the three wise men have become in my mind “Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar” as whenever I went on holiday to Bavaria when I was young you would see chalked above the door frames of the main rooms the date and the initials “C  M  B”, so for 2010, you would see “20 C M B 10”.

When I asked what it meant, I was told that on Twelfth Night (Epiphany), which is the traditional date for the arrival of the wise men and the old date for Christmas Day, the Catholic priest would come and would bless the house with holy water and write the initials above the doors.  I read on the web that some people say that it actually means “Christus mansionem benedicat” (Christ bless this house), but that’s not what I was told nor what the people we stayed with believed.

It is also the traditional date for adding the three wise men to your crib and for taking down your Christmas decorations.

Twelfth Night is also the old date for Christmas Day and the day when the Holy thorn of Glastonbury, faithful to the old Calendar, is said to blossom exactly at midnight.  

Nowadays, it’s not much of a day, but in older times it was a festival of great importance.  In Gloucestershire, 13 fires were lit in the fields in honour of Jesus and his 12 Apostles, with the fire named for Judas stamped out immediately while the others were left to burn right down.  In Herefordshire, the wassail-bowl was taken to the cow-byre and the cattle were toasted.  Sometimes a cake with a hole in the middle was hung on the horns of an ox; if he tossed it behind him, the mistress of the house had it, if in front, it went to the bailiff or headman of the farm.

In Somerset and Devonshire, on Twelfth Night (and in some places on old Twelfth Night i.e. January 17th) the apple trees may be “wassailed” with bands of men going into the orchards at night and fire guns through the trees; cider is poured round the roots of the trees and cake or toast soaked in cider is set in the fork of the tree.  The object of this ceremony is to urge the apple trees to greater efforts in the coming year.  Sometimes, they would even be sung to:

“Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou mayst bud, and whence thou mayst blow,
Whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps full!
Three score bushels full!
And my pockets full, too!
Huzza! Huzza! Huzza!”

For more on wassailing, follow this link.

And then there are the gifts of “gold, frankincense and myrrh”, but why these gifts and why are these gifts so important for an important “young child” who shall become “a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.”

Gold – the metal of kings

Gold still evokes the riches of kings and seems a good thing to offer the Lord Jesus.  Even in its rather more debased form of nowadays, gold still holds some allure – it’s the store of wealth that people turn to when times are bad.

Aztec Gold Xipe Totep Mask

Aztec Gold Xipe Totep Mask

But gold still looks fabulous and conjures up the wealth of ancient kingdoms.  For example, the death mask of Tutankhamun from 1325BC or the fabled gold of the Aztecs pillaged by Cortes such as this Xipe Totep Mask which is pure gold.

Gold is said to represent the divine, immortality and purity.  All of these seem sensible symbols of something that the Magi might wish to give Jesus.

Frankincense and myrrh

But what of frankincense and myrrh?  I shall come to those in separate blogs.