Archive for July, 2010

Razor Review From Steenbergs

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

For many years, I shaved with a Gillette safety razor that used a classic plastic double-bladed Contour disposable blade until mid 2009.  However, I did not find the shave particularly close or satisfying, and I didn’t like having to chuck the blades in the normal trash can.  So I have been on the hunt for a better shave that also might have less of an impact on the environment.

My first blind alley was on the environmentally friendly.  I looked at a disposable razor from Preserve, but they were disposable, cheap looking and they didn’t offer a special blade, so you were advised just to use the normal Gillette razor blades.  What a waste of time.

So I decided to go back to the start.  I have had my Gillette basic razor for over 25 years and it has served me well, while my dad has been using the same classic Gillette Safety razor for 60 years.  The razor itself, therefore, lasts and has no impact on the planet unless you buy disposables but they are a terrible shave, so I reckoned that perhaps I should spend some money on getting a really good razor that has been engineered well and looks good, shaves well and glides well over the face.  So the search began.

Let’s start with the Merkur Razors.  These are made in Germany by DOVO Solingen, look good and are generally really well engineered, just as you would expect from a German product.

Merkur Razors 34C and 42

Merkur Razors 34C and 42

I began with Merkur 34C which is a good-looking shiny, closed comb steel razor, with a heavy weight and relatively short handle at 76g and 8½cm resepectively.  The handle has a useful cross-harch design that is good for grip and the end twists to release the top of the razor head to enable you to place the razor blade easily onto it.  The blade is then screwed down simply using the twisting knob.  As a razor, I found the handle of the Merkur 34C just a bit too short, but that’s because I am used to a longer handled razor, but the balance was good and it moved over the face well to give a decent shave.  I found that the razor head seemed to stick on my skin a bit as it moved around which meant that I had to tug a little as I went along; I could imagine that this could cause cuts on a bad day or for those less used to wet shaving.  But overall, I liked the look, weight, balance and shave, although I do prefer a lighter razor with a longer handle.

Following on from this, I tried the Merkur 42.  This was lighter than the others at a mere 65g and with an 8½cm handle.  The design is a hexagon with a fancy design but none of this helps as the grip is less sure than the 34C and uncomfortable.  The blade mechanism is difficult, as you need to twist the whole handle and then the top of the razor head comes off, yet it all was quite stiff and laborious.  As for the shave, it was fine, sticking a little as you move the head over the face rather than gliding; I reckon this must be something to do with the angle of the blade, the distance of the blade from the comb on the razor head and the skin which is off a bit, or at least wrong for my face.  All in all not as good as the Merkur 34C, feeling and looking cheaper as if it was going for style over substance.

Then, there’s the Merkur Futur Razor which is a gorgeous beast of a razor – it’s the Porsche to the Vauxhall Astra that’s the Gillette Contour razor.  The Merkur Futur comes in at a heavy 119g with a 10½cm handle, designed with a futuristic, curvaceous style like the Guggenheim in Bilbao or the Aston Martin One-77, but hugely cheaper.  The mechanism is simple and neat to use, you just flip the lid and off comes the top of the razor head, so you can slot on a razor blade.  Next, there is a neat function where you can adjust the distance between blade and edge between settings from 1 – 6, giving much greater accuracy of the shave and the ability to change the shaving style to suit your own face and way of shaving.  At 6 more of the blade is exposed, down to 1 which has less blade exposed and gives a safer shave.  The Merkur Futur gives a great shave, but like a fast car, it’s not really a razor just to casually have a go with, as you are likely to cut yourself a few times; this is for someone who is experienced with a wet shave and wants a bit of luxury.

I have, also, tried the Mühle R89, which is a German made three piece razor that you twist apart and then place the razor into the parts.  The Mühle R89 weighs 67g and has a 9½cm handle.  The design is good looking with a well engineered German finish, that has a great feel to it as these razors are well balanced.  While the three piece razor top is fiddly, all the pieces fit together perfectly, resulting in the razor blade sitting really snugly on the razor head. For me, the handle was just right, with a good grip from the knurled handle and the weight & balance is good.  As for the shave, it was great, moving over the face very well and giving a good clean finish and not at all aggressive, feeling a bit like the classic Gillette Super Speed razor.  For me, it’s probably the best looking razor of the ones I am reviewing here and has become my favourite shave of all those razors that I have tested recently.  The Mühle R89 would be good as a starter wet shave razor and for those who have sensitive skin.

Muhle R89 Razor

Muhle R89 Razor

Next, it’s the turn of Parker Razors which have been manufactured in India by JTC since 1973.  They have a retro feel about them and are generally pretty well made, and the packaging has recently got better, looking less cheap and plasticky.  The two Parker Razors that I have tried are the 71R and 90R. 

The 71R looks good with a long matt black handle that’s 10½cm in length while the weight is 80g.  The mechanism is a safety razor head that twists off with the whole handle and then the comb and razor top.  Unfortunately, the balance of the razor is not good with it definitely swaying to the head, giving you less control in the movement of the razor head over the face.  The razor head glides over the face pretty well, but the actual shave is not very close and does not leave a great finish.  All-in-all the Parker 71R was not great.

However, the Parker 90R is a different matter all together.  The Parker 90R razor has a similar long handle at 10½cm, but is much lighter at 73g and is much better balanced, although still a bit top heavy.  What I really like about the Parker 90R is the razor blade mechanism, which is a butterfly mechanism that you twist the base of the razor’s handle and the top moves, then opens out, allowing you to simply place the razor blade on top of the razor head easily and safely.  The shaving action is similarly easy, gliding over your face, giving a decent smooth shave.  The distance between blade and razor and face is well proportioned meaning that even new wet shavers should be able to shave without too much hassle.  I had been shaving with the Parker 90R since I stopped using my trusty old Gillette Contour of 25 years, but have just switched to the Mühle R89 for everyday shaving.

Parker Razors 71R and 90R

Parker Razors 71R and 90R

So for now, Steenbergs is selling the Mühle R89 and Parker 90R razors as entry level razors for those just starting with wet shaving, while the Mühle R89 is also great for those who have more sensitive skin.  The Merkur Futur is for men who prefer a more aggressive shave and want to invest into something really heavy and flash.

Ripon, Religion And Football

Monday, July 5th, 2010

For someone with little spirituality, I spent much of last Sunday at religious events.  Both of them were for Ripon Cathedral Choir School, which is celebrating 50 years since its foundation by Ripon Cathedral.  Proof that little old Ripon can be a great, visionary place.

Ahmadiyya Girls Singing Song

Ahmadiyya Girls Singing Song

The first was a really special event called “Building Bridges”, which was a curry lunch together with members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Bradford (note i).  I have to admit to not having a clue what this was going to be like, so was gobsmacked to find a packed marquee, including local Mayors from Bradford, Ripon and Pateley Bridge as well as at least 50 from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and over 100 from Ripon Cathedral Choir School, including the Dean and the Canon in Residence at Ripon Cathedral and lots of children.

Links to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Bradford were forged by the former headmistress, Tish Burton, and are a great and growing part of the School’s ethos.  I am not here to preach or even explain – you can find all this out at www.alislam.org and www.mta.tv – rather I simply want to say that peace, understanding and integration can best be solved through meeting together over good hospitality and talking together in the right mental space.  As a result, I talked about football and cricket, while have blagged some of the delicious recipes (which I will hopefully be emailed), and we have agreed that the Steenberg family and at least one other family will visit their mosque in Bradford during the summer holidays.

Football Game At Ripon Cathedral Choir School

Football Game At Ripon Cathedral Choir School

My enduring image of the lunch is actually not the food, although it was delicious, nor the speeches by Dr Iqbal and the Dean of Ripon Cathedral, which were both poignant, but of the children playing outside the marquee – the boys in a fully integrated football game and the girls all on the zip wire; my son says they were really good forwards as well as decent goalkeepers.  No racial barriers even considered.  If our children can have open eyes and have no prejudice then the world will be a better place.  It brings to mind possibly one of my top ten songs – Youssou N’Dour’s song with Neneh Cherry called “7 Seconds” (note ii) and the lines:

“And when a child is born into this world
It has no concept
Of the tone the skin it’s living in
It’s not a second
7 seconds away”

Which says to me that no child is born with prejudice and that it takes time for that to be instilled into them.  But that loop can be broken, and will be, if parents and adults prevent it from creeping into their psyche.  Events like Building Bridges, the World Cup (and football generally) and music showcase how all people are one and the same.  

The second event was Choral Evensong in Ripon Cathedral sung by the joint boys’ and girls’ choirs of Ripon Cathedral Choir School.  This was Ripon Cathedral Choir School at its musical excellence, with a full church and the beautiful sounds of a sung evensong, with the senior brass group playing Telemann’s “La Réjouissance” as the Choir and Clergy processed, finishing with the eerily spiritual Dismissal echoing out of the South Transept.  I found the complex musicality of the Anthem that combined words from Ecclesiasticus 1 with Psalm 119 to music by Philip Moore truly magnificent and baroque.

I was also intrigued by the Old Testament Reading as read by the current Headmaster, Christopher McDade, poignant as it captured my thoughts from within the Northern Thornborough Henge the other day:

“Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise.  But of others there is no memory: they have perished as though they never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them.  But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten; their wealth will remain with their descendants, and their inheritance with their children’s children…Their offspring will continue forever, and their glory will never be blotted out.  Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name lives on generation after generation.  The assembly declares their wisdom, and the congregation declares their praise.” Ecclesiaticus 44

Enough said.

(i) Ahmadiyya Muslims are a minority and integrative strand of Islam that believe in peace.  They suffer persecution within Islam itself due to their peaceful and integrative outlook as well as their belief that their own founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was a prophet since the rest of Islam believes that Muhammad was the last prophet.  In May 2010, about 100 of their believers were killed in two mosques Lahore by the Taliban.

(ii) As an aside, I remember watching this video almost daily on MTV when staying in Dublin, while working on the flotation of the Irish Permanent Building Society.  My love of this song and all Youssou N’Dour’s works has grown every day since then and I never tire of N’Dour’s style.

June 2010 Food Blog Round Up

Monday, July 5th, 2010

At Chocolate & Zucchini, there is a delicious sounding recipe for sablés from Yves Camdeborde’s book Dimanche et Famille.  Clotilde Dusolier’s blog then sent me around various links on her site to several other biscuit recipes that sound fantastical, with amazing flavour combinations like Matcha Shortbread Cookies (which remind me I must do something about launching my green tea salt blend) and sablés croquants poivre et noisette (crisp hazelnut and pepper sablés), which has a wondrous flavour combination of pepper, rose water and hazelnuts that must be skirting fairly close to flavour and textural overload for the senses.  Finally, catching the end of the them of my update from last month, there is a recipe for a Rhubarb Tart With Lemon Verbena, combining another intriguing version of sweet pastry dough, plus my favourite early fruit - rhubarb – and then lemon verbena, which sounds great as a variant on lemon peel which is what I would usually use as the tart flavour for stewing the rhubarb.

At Cook Sister, there is a variation on the standard summer veg tarts that I have always cooked, called a Zucchini, Tomato Pesto Tart, which fits neatly alongside the French Tomato Tart that I found at David Lebovitz’s blog last month.  I will have a go and see if it will fit into my repertoire, even though I am not a fan of pesto, which I find tends to add an unnecessary hint of bitterness to food.  She also played with pesto for an Asparagus Salad With Pesto, which sounds an intriguing variation on the simple way we normally eat asparagus, sprinkled with a bit of salt and some butter.

At David Lebovitz’s blog, who seems to be suffering from the heat in Paris (my body temperature gauge falls apart when the temperature gets above 10oC, which is one of the reasons I failed to like living in London), he has a delicious and easy sounding Almond Cake recipe.  We like the words “easy” and phrase “hard to mess up”, but I’ll give that statement a run for its money.

Helen at Fuss Free Flavours is a women with my style of cooking, with a different way of preparing asparagus that I will definitely try next asparagus season.  A year, however, sounds a long wait for it, so I will try and rootle out some asparagus that’s still just about in season here in the north.  I think the mix of the slightly charred taste will go well with the bitter-sweet flavour of asparagus.  And she serves plain and simple with salt and butter; perfection.  And I love the idea of making your Elderflower Cordial on Midsummer Night like some sort of new age pagan ritual, plus it is basically free food that earths you to the soil.  And while never a fan of tofu, I am a fan of Ottolenghi so I will try the Black Pepper Tofu recipe although I might reduce the chile and increase the black pepper a bit as our kids will never survive that intensity of heat.

At just the food blog, there is a great and wholesome Cold Multigrain Salad that will make you a lifetime of food for lunches during the week.  And it has  next to no calories to boot.  It mixes three grains – pearl barley, wild rice and quinoa – and in the dressing melds together the umami kick of soy, with the uber sweetness of agave and cider with the heat from some chile flakes.  I reckon you could do a neat variation switching pearl barley for bulgur wheat.

Mahanandi’s recipe for Bean Sprout and Peppers makes great use of the bean sprouts that we have been growing over the last few weeks, and does something more exciting than chomping on them raw or in a salad.  I reckon that I would put a few different types of bean sprout into the mix, for example sprouted fenugreek seeds and chickpea seeds to give it more variation in texture.  And I love the colours and taste of aubergine (a.k.a. eggplant or brinjal) and the recipe for Brinjal Cilantro will get on the list for our next full on Indian meal as we are always struggling with inspiration for new flavours, rather than being unadventurous and sticking to the familiar.  When our tomatoes come out, I will have a crack at the simple Green Tomato Chutney recipe.

At Not Without Salt, there is a great Perfect Pizza At Home recipe, which is great fun family food.  I usually start by making the pizza dough and tomato base, then let the kids finish it off, so you get a random flavour, but one also that the children cannot complain about as it was their creation in first place!  I would be tempted to use a 50:50 mix of durum and bread flour rather than 100% all-purpose flour (plain flour in UK).  At Dana Treat, there’s a perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe that’s worth noting as it was created with Ashley of Not Without Salt.

The theme for summer seems to be coming through as galettes and tarts, so at Smitten Kitchen there’s a gorgeous sounding Zucchini and Ricotta Galette plus some great links through to earlier galettes with the Wild Mushroom And Blue Silton one from 2006 winning a place in my dream for a new take on my classic summer tart recipes.  Her Lamb Chops With Pistachio Tapenade caught my hungry eyes and is tempting me to cook some up next weekend, yet I might be tempted to try a version with toasted pine nuts – maybe 50:50.

At The Pioneer Woman Cooks, I love the sound of Spinach With Garlic Chips as a variant on our stock in trades of Spinach With Nutmeg or Spinach With Toasted Cumin.  And The Best Coffee Cake Ever reminds me that I started trying to find the best coffee cake ever and stopped after one average attempt…laziness crept in and I must get back to it, although I was looking for a coffee flavoured cake not a cake for afternoon tea or coffee time, although the Mystery Mocha pud gets closer to the flavours I am after for my dream coffee cake.

Another great recipe from Ottolenghi was posted at The Wednesday Chef of a variation on potato salad – Potato Salad With Yoghurt And Horseradish.  Yotam Ottolenghi is certainly on message for recipes with everyone at the moment, and I love the idea of adding some tartness to potato salad which can get a bit samey.  We often use a mayonnaise-yoghurt-horseradish mix for smoked fish and crab salads and this sort of fits into that vein. 

As I wonder through [sic - I spelled this incorrectly first time round and I like the metaphor] the food blogosphere I am constantly surprised at the new ways of tweaking some of my old favourites in our kitchen, reinspiring me to recreate and revisit things like the summer vegetable tarts that I have make for years now, as well as to try and improve on the trusty old pastry recipes that I have made since my mum taught me how to bake oh-too-long-ago. 

But I am in awe at how beautiful everyone else’s creations look and how great their photography is, while my food looks like a dog’s dinner and the photos like some amateur hack from a one horse dorp (which I suppose I am).  We’ll get better at it, but I can never expect to reach the dizzy heights of the wonderful photos on blogs like Cannelle et Vanille, Mahanandi,  or The Pioneer Woman Cooks and The Wednesday Chef.

Walk Around Nosterfield Nature Reserve In Yorkshire

Sunday, July 4th, 2010
Silt Pits At Nosterfield Nature Reserve

Silt Pits At Nosterfield Nature Reserve

When I went to track down the Thornborough Henges, I parked initially at the Nosterfield Nature Reserve.  Nosterfield was formerly a sand and gravel quarry for Tarmac that has been restored to open water and shallow pits.  It has become one of the best places in North Yorkshire for passage and wintering waders and the birds were making a jolly, happy racket while swimming around on the waters.  It is claimed that there are 150 species of birds, 25 butterflies and 297 plants that are to be found on the site.  Perhaps even more lovely is that fact that when I visited the other day it was basically empty of visitors – there were 3 others tootling about.  They were all garbed out in proper twitching clothing with huge, showy cameras and binoculars and (as always) proper sturdy walking boots, while I had my camera, a notebook and a cheap pair of trainers on from Sports Direct.

There are black-tailed godwits, avocets, moorhens and ruffs (note to self: get bigger zoom lens).  I was particularly taken by the butterflies and some awesome small bee orchids that I came across.  The photos I managed to get of the butterflies included mainly common species but they are still beautiful as there is still beauty in the commonplace, which is one of my main campaigns in life, i.e. for people to realise that life is good and to see the beauty on your doorstep in the seemingly and supposedly mundane.  I saw cuckoo spit, ringlets (with very feint ringlets), speckled wood butterflies, burnet moths (really gorgeous), green-veined whites and small skippers and many more that just would not stay still! 

I shall be back to look more closely as it is just on my doorstep by West Tanfield.

Pretty Pink Flower on Common Bindweed

Pretty Pink Flower on Common Bindweed

Bee Orchid Flower At Nosterfield

Bee Orchid Flower At Nosterfield

Cuckoo Spit By Footpath

Cuckoo Spit By Footpath

Small Skipper On Bramble Flower

Small Skipper On Bramble Flower

Speckled Wood Butterfly

Speckled Wood Butterfly

Green Veined White

Green-Veined White Butterfly

Ringlet Butterfly

Ringlet Butterfly

Two Burnet Moths

Two Burnet Moths

North Yorkshire Walk – Thornborough Henge

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

On Thursday 1 July 2010, I did one of Axel’s Random Walks near Nosterfield and Thornborough in North Yorkshire.  I recently bought myself an Ordnance Survey Explorer Map of Ripon & Boroughbridge (#299) and in the top left corner you can just find the outlines of the Thornborough Henge, somewhere I had always wanted to explore. 

The Thornborough Henge has been described by David Miles of English Heritage as “the most important prehistoric site between Stonehenge and the Orkneys”, yet hardly anyone has heard of it outside of enthusiasts like the Friends of Thornborough Henges, Timewatch and a small group of new age pagans – they celebrate an annual Beltane event in the central henge, camping at a nearby farm.  How unknown it is can be best shown by a search I did at The Open University Online Library, where there was 1 document mentioning Thornborough Henge, Avebury Circle has 190 documents and Stonehenge 963.  Even worse than this, local people have had almost constantly to fight a rearguard action against Tarmac who own much of the land and want planning to quarry for roadstone.  But we, the people of North Yorkshire and Riponshire, do ourselves no favours as the website for the Friends is not very complete and some of the links are broken on its site and that of Tarmac, including the microsite at Newcastle University on finds at the site.

While the Thornborough Henges site are now a national monument, this prehistoric site from about 5,500 years ago is on privately owned land.  No-one really knows why it was built, but our region of North Yorkshire is very rich in ancient history, including many prehistoric monuments, including the Devil’s Arrows at Boroughbridge and other henges at Hutton Conyers and Nunwick, Roman monuments at Aldborough and York and Viking archeaology at York; I even reckon that Ripon Cathedral was probably the site of something beforehand as it’s just too prominent a site to have been ignored by people for thousands of years prior to St Wilfrid turning up to build a monastery.  Some people do claim that the henges are aligned with Orion’s Belt, but that is only speculative.  However, the region has always been very fertile and the River Ure has an important place in the heart and soul of North Yorkshire, becoming the Ouse before York and flowing into the Humber.  The River Ure is equivalent to the power of the River Tyne for Northumbria and the Tweed for the Borders.  And the henges are located close to the River Ure and seem to mimic the shape of the river as if they are seeking to pull energy from the river’s curves; I think the power of rivers was just as important to people as the stars, so you often find prehistoric sites close to water.

I started by parking at Nosterfield Nature Reserve which is a wetlands and bird sanctuary built on reclaimed land that has been mined out by Tarmac for roadstone.  I will write about my walk there in my next blog.  I walked around the edge of the nature reserve on the permitted pathway and then walked out on the public footpath that would take you to Nosterfield, but doubled back and then walked off the road into the Northern Henge which is nowadays a copse.  It was planted up in the 1800s as a fox covert, meaning that ironically it is a wood whereas in prehistory it would have been open to the elements and covered in white gypsum to allow it to stand out in the green landscape.  I walked around and had a peaceful time, listening to the rustle of the leaves from the elder, beech and sycamore trees and the chitter-chatter of the birds singing away to themselves oblivious of mankind. 

I was alone with nature and sat and thought of life while sitting on a decaying tree trunk roughly in the centre of the henge.  I wondered about how blasé we are with the past, perhaps as an embarrassment of local riches, or just the fact that the north is ignored and unimportant to the political power that centres on the south and more specifically London.  I imagined the people who built these henges, tamed the countryside, drained the swamplands, built all the local villages and fought many skirmishes and battles to shape England as it is now constituted.  There was nothing to show that there was an important ancient monument nearby, no information, no signs and no access; if this was the south, it would have been bought for the nation and visitor centres would have been built.  All these forebears of the north have been forgotten, shadows in the past, for whom no-one sings their histories.  I apologise for my sentimentality but trees do this to me; they have a power that sends tingles down my spine – churches, mosques and temples do nothing for me as they are just stones, but give me trees and I connect to the earth, the planet.  Perhaps religions should start building their places of worship outside, sticking up a cross or mihrab in some copse and then I may believe in something bigger, some overriding power.  But stones are just cold and dead for me; sorry.

Trees In Thornborough Northern Henge

Trees In Thornborough Northern Henge

Tree Swing And Graffiti Etched Into Trees At Thornborough Northern Henge

Tree Swing And Graffiti Etched Into Trees At Thornborough Northern Henge

Diggers At West Tanfield Landfill Site

Diggers At West Tanfield Landfill Site

From here, I drove past the West Tanfield Landfill Site, parking just beyond there and walking along the road towards Thornborough.  Here you can see the cursus running along a North-South axis with the Central Henge in the middle.  I left the road and snuck into the field where the Central Henge is located and sat on the edge of the earth mound edges, sharing the day with rabbits who have made the earth embankments their home.  It is in this site that New Pagans celebrate their modern version of Beltane.  I measured the diameter of the circle as about 150 medium steps and the embankments are about 2 metres high; the official diameter is 250 metres and the circle of the henge has 2 entrances facing North and South.  Looking Northwards, you can see the Northern henge as trees in the distance, while the fields have been left to become wildflower meadow which was very pretty; there was a cock pheasant that flew away in alarm as well as 4 partridges that came out of some gorse.  It was peaceful sitting on the bank, even with the throbbing sounds of the digger in the distance and the regular rattle and crash of the trucks coming to collect the earth.

I will need to go back another day to find the Southern Henge as it isn’t easy to access (well you shouldn’t really access it at all).

View From Central Henge To Northern Henge

View From Central Henge To Northern Henge

Top End Of Central Henge At Thornborough Near Ripon

Top End Of Central Henge At Thornborough Near Ripon

Southern Curve Of Central Henge At Thornborough

Southern Curve Of Central Henge At Thornborough

View From Central Henge Towards Southern Henge

View From Central Henge Towards Southern Henge

I Just Don’t Get Ocado Business Model?

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

I am fascinated by Ocado and its upcoming flotation.  Why you might ask?  Well, it is because Steenbergs is having a go at becoming an online retailer, but obviously on a micro, mini scale compared to Ocado.  But also, I just don’t understand their business model at all, because to me they are a courier business pretending to be a retailer.  And a courier with one big customer, who can also compete against them.

I will try and explain what I mean. 

The first thing we decided when we started was to outsource transport as it’s a commodity business with few barriers to entry and adds no value to your brand/business.  Obviously, bad delivery service can be a problem (and occasionally is for us), but I am glad we do not have to worry about routing vans, filling empty vans on their return journeys and optimising routing.  If we were involved in delivering chilled or frozen products we might need to consider it, but we have also steered away from those for the moment, while there are third party distributors who provide frozen deliveries and might (I suppose) do chilled if the volumes were right.

By ignoring transport and just seeking to get that cost down, we were able to focus on the core parts of retailing which are buying and merchandising.  The buying process allows you to build an image of how you look to the customer and the world out there, and (perhaps even more importantly) work on your retail margins by working on your volumes and (if you are Tesco or Sainsbury or Waitrose) your suppliers to squeeze out better margins. 

Secondly, you can work on your merchandising, including developing your own branding, so for example 98% of chilled sales on the high street come from own label and 40% of Sainsbury’s sales are own label, while the discounters have an even higher percentage.  And for Steenbergs, our own original core of Steenbergs Organic spices, herbs and teas remains what brings people into our site.

But Ocado does not do this side of retailing, outsourcing much of it to Waitrose and then agreeing to limits on how much non-Waitrose it can buy in.  So it misses out most of what real retailing is about.

Further, there is no obvious exit strategy for Ocado shareholders, as John Lewis is sitting there as a poison pill.  If you take over Ocado, Waitrose can walk and would probably want to walk (assuming that the buyer is another retailer) and you would have the headache of needing to rebuild your supply chain.  Similarly, John Lewis is never going to pay big bucks to take the whole business in house.  Then on top of this Waitrose has its own online shop and has been allowed to compete directly for customers within the M25 region, leaving Ocado with the whole of the rest of the UK to cover.

So what is Ocado?  I think it is a glorified courier business that is masquerading as a real retailer, and one that has a single major customer, which is not fully tied into supplying Ocado.  Plus if you want to buy Waitrose products, you can still go and visit a Waitrose anywhere in the UK and even buy online then collect in store. 

Although it pains me to say so, the Tesco model is much, much better.  Here, Tesco Direct complements its supermarkets with deliveries in any catchment coming out of the local store.  As a result, local store managers and workers can see Tesco Direct as boosting local business and widening their retail catchment, i.e. Boroughbridge and Ripon do not have Tescos but you can still get deliveries from Tesco Direct which will come from stores in Thirsk or York or Leeds.  Whereas Ocado actually do the opposite as it competes against your local Waitrose, as the distribution chain is separate, so why would the store manager of Waitrose in Harrogate or Hexham want you to go to Ocado?  They wouldn’t would they, so they are not going to genuinely promote competition that would effectively reduce your annual John Lewis bonus.  Note that Warren Buffet has increased his shareholding in Tesco in the last few months – what does that mean?

In fact, if you put HG4 5GZ into the Waitrose web site it tells you can shop online and pick up from store (in Harrogate) for groceries and home direct kit, while it says the delivery service is not available in our area.  There is no linkage or push to Ocado, which cannot deliver to us but Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury do.  If you are in London, say Moray Road, it does push you to Waitrose stores first and then Ocado for now, but from next year Waitrose can deliver direct within the M25; is the float being done now before any cannabilisation in sales from Waitrose next year?

Of course, Ocado will get away with it and it will eventually make a small profit, but (in my opionion) it’s investing money in the wrong part of retailing, i.e. distribution rather than buying, supply chain and merchandising.  It’s a southern phenomenon that shareholders and investment bankers in the south will see day in day out in vans parping around London looking busy, but it isn’t really out here in the styx; it just doesn’t really exist in the heart of England and Scotland where much of the nitty-gritty profits of retailing are being made.

Steenbergs already makes a real cash profit and its retail site is growing strongly year on year, but we are doing that by using internally generated cash to build the business; it will take longer, much longer to make us any money, but it does seem a more solid way to try and make money out of retailing.

Recipe – Chocolate And Nutella Tart

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

England’s football team were abject last Sunday, but the Chocolate And Nutella Tart recipe from the French patisserie chef, Pierre Hermé, was the perfect compensation – sweet, rich and complex in taste that left you just wanting more.  In one of my personal quests, to get better at making pastry, I treated myself to Pierre Hermé’s “Chocolate Desserts”.  I appreciate I am so behind the times as this was published in 2001, but us country folk take a little longer to catch up with you fast and quick city folk; anyway, I got there in the end. 

Nutella Tart By Pierre Herme

Nutella Tart By Pierre Herme

We had some friends around for sunday lunch yesterday, and, with England playing Germany and it being forecast to be the hottest day of the year, I decided to make roast beef, roast potatoes, Yorkshire puddings and green beans then top it off with a chocolate tart, raspberries and cream.  The roast was spot on, while the Chocolate And Nutella Tart was a revelation – the sweet pastry is a soft, delicate, marzipan affair while the filling is a glorious melding of the sweet, nutty familiarity of Nutella and the rich, dense velvety texture of pure chocolate.  We served the tart with rasperries and cream, which were a perfect combination, as you got the slight tartness of the rasperries to offset the pure sweet richness of the chocolate ganache.

For me, it was the sweet pastry that was the real excitement, even if the chocolate was pure joy.  It’s lucky I made enough for three sweet tarts, so I can next try his other chocolate masterpieces.

For those without Pierre Hermé’s book, here’s the recipe which has been slightly tweaked, for better or worse:

The crust

1 fully baked 22cm / 8¾ inch tart shell made from Sweet Pastry Dough, cooled to room temperature (see separate blog)

The filling

200g / 7 oz Nutella or other chocolate & hazelnut spread
140g / 4¾ oz  dark cooking chocolate, broken into pieces
200g / 7 oz unsalted butter
1 large egg, lightly whisked (at room temperature)
3 large egg yolks, lightly whisked (at room temperature)
2 TBSP caster sugar (or other type such as granulated)
50g / 1½ oz toasted hazelnuts, skinned and chopped 

1.  Preheat the oven to 190oC / 375oF.

2.  Spread the Nutella evenly over the base of the baked tart crust and set aside while you make the ganache.

Nutella Spread Into Baked Crust

Nutella Spread Into Baked Crust

3.  Melt the chocolate and the butter in sperate bowls either over simmering water or in the microwave.  Leave to cool until they feel just still warm – he suggests 40oC / 104oF, but the touch test worked fine for me.

4.  Using a hand whisk, stir the egg gently into the cooled melted chocolate, taking care not to add air as this is not meant to be airy and fluffy.  Next, stir in the egg yolks slowly but surely, then the sugar.  Finally, stir in the melted butter – this takes a little bit of patience at first, as the butter really didn’t feel as though it would be miscible, but it got there, eventually.  Pour the chocolate ganache over the Nutella in the tart shell.  Sprinkle over the roasted hazelnuts.

5.  Bake for 11 minutes, then remove the tart from the oven and leave to cool.  Allow the tart to cool for at least 20 minutes or until it reaches room temperature. 

6.  Eat on its own or with cream or with raspberries and cream, but whatever, enjoy a moment of pure, divine decadence.

Baked Hazelnut And Chocolate Tart

Baked Hazelnut And Chocolate Tart

Herme's Chocolate & Nutella Tart

Herme's Chocolate & Nutella Tart

Inspired And Humbled By Jennyruth Workshops

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

Sometimes you visit some people, who really are so good and wonderful that it shames you a bit.  The people at Jennyruth Workshops are some of those unsung heroes that underpin every society in the world; they just get on with it, doing good work, day in day out and neither expect nor want any huge praise.  About a fortnight ago, I had been driving through Ripon as I do almost every day, but this time I had my eyes open when I stopped at the traffic lights on North Street and there was a display in one of the windows about Jennyruth Workshops and I thought I wonder whether they could craft us some spice racks.  So I arranged to meet with them and wow were they lovely, amazing people.

Jennyruth Workshops is a wood and metal craft workshop that provides people with disabilities the opportunities and skills to make things for sale.  Currently, there are about 16 colleagues with disabilities and 30 carers, most of whom give a little time here and there, but some are more permanent like Mark, one of the permanent helpers, who showed us around yesterday with Jonathan, one of the disabled workers, who has been there since the start as his father founded the place.  Jennyruth Workshops is based at Red Farm on the Newby Hall Estate in a large building that looks nondescript on the outside, but has been well built and finished inside with help from prisoners and soldiers.  Although Jennyruth Workshops has been around for some time, having been founded about 15 years ago by Jonathan’s father, it was opened in this new complex in 2004 by the Countess of Wessex

At Jennyruth, they make all sorts of items from bird and bat boxes through to meditation stools, as well as rainbow crosses and wooden clocks; they also make cards and sew products including some brilliant shopping bags from empty, hessian coffee bags donated by Betty & Taylors in Harrogate, who are big supporters of theirs.  They also do a lot of one-off items, for example there was a wooden sign for a toy library in Sharow in progress that was shaped as a giant teddy bear with each letter for “Borrowers Toy Library” being individually cut out and painted.  And Jonathan proudly showed us a farm that he had made with buildings and animals all cut from wood, pieced together and painted; I was awed by Jonathan’s pride, skill and enthusiasm for what is being done at Jennyruth Workshops.  Yesterday, there were also 2 teenage boys from The Forest School in Knaresborough (another amazing place) who were working on a week’s work experience and were busy screwing in the hinges on the kneeling-style meditation stool. 

What I love about the concept of what is being done at Jennyruth and many other similar places is they are trying to ensure that all the disabled workers get involved with every stage in the process from the cutting, through to the piecing together, the painting and varnishing, the packing up and dispatching, so there is no Smith-style division of labour.  It is, therefore, a fun and meaningful place to work.

I was humbled by them all and hang my head in shame that I never help enough, getting so wrapped up in our own relatively mundane and small problems of the daily grind.

What Sophie and I would like to do is start by selling a few of their items on the Steenbergs web site, such as bird and bat boxes and perhaps meditation stools and hopefully spice racks.  We would simply sell them at Jennyruth’s retail price, so making not a penny on these ourselves, and see what happens.  If it becomes popular, then we may add a few extra items, but more importantly we would seek to widen the circle of other great places that also work with people with disabilities and bring their products to our customers on the same “no profit for Steenbergs basis”, since we are all concerned that customers are aware that making such products takes time and that neither Jennyruth Workshops nor places like Botton Village up at Danby are factories but wondrous, traditional crafting places for people with disabilities who should be treated respectfully.

I think it is sad that we as a culture are great at buying ethnic products from the developing world that are fairly traded, but that there is not such a great network for selling products made by people in our own country whether with learning disabilities or just trying to get started and out of a poverty trap.  As they say, charity starts at home, so let’s see if we can develop this more. 

What do others think?