Archive for November, 2011

North Yorkshire Beef Stew

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011
Yesterday, I had a cracking headache, so decided that a warm kitchen and some homely fare was what was needed.  I went out early to the Newby Hall Farm Shop and chose some decent looking braising steak that had a good colour, together with a lovely amount of marbling.  Then, I bought some cream, some shallots and some pears.  Back home, I put the radio on to listen to the football and cook.  It was a good listen as Newcastle drew with Manchester United – sometimes the luck falls the right way.

As for what to do with the beef, I decided to start with the idea of beouf à la bourguignonne, however our kids do not like onions, or at least they do not like to see the onions that they are given.  So a true beef bourguignon was not on the cards as these need some baby onions plus we need to dilute the winey flavours a little by adding some cream – that certainly does not make it less rich, but it does take some of the boozey notes out of the stew.

For those wondering about the pears, I stewed them in Madeira on the lines of my Pears In Rooibos, Vanilla And Saffron Recipe.

North Yorkshire Beef Stew

1.5kg / 3lb Braising steak, cut into 2cm cubes (the key is a decent amount of marbling on well-hung beef)
5 Slices streaky bacon, cut into 1cm cubes
25g /1 dessert spoon Unsalted butter
2tbsp Olive oil
250g / 8 oz / 5 large shallots, finely chopped
2 Garlic cloves, finely sliced
250g / 8 oz Button mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
4tbsp + 1tbsp Olive oil
5 Sprigs of thyme
2 Bay leaves
1 Handful of “proper” fresh parsley, finely chopped (not the flat leaved stuff)
10 Red peppercorns
1 bottle / 750ml Red wine
200ml / 7 fl oz Madeira
Salt & black pepper, to taste
200ml / 7 fl oz cream (optional)

Preheat the oven to 160C/ 300F.

Ina a heavy bottomed frying pan, melt the unsalted butter and olive oil together.  When hot, add one-third of the steak and brown off, turning when a side has become sealed.  When the steak is sealed, transfer with a slotted spoon or fork to an ovenproof plate and keep warm in the oven.  Continue to brown off the steak pieces until all have been sealed. 

While you are browning the braising steak, prepare the stock.  In a heavy bottomed casserole, add the 4tbps of olive oil and heat up.  Over a medium heat, sweat the escallions (shallots) and garlic until translucent.  When cooked remove with a slotted spoon and place on an ovenproof dish and keep warm in the oven. 

Add a little extra olive oil if needed and heat up the oil, then tip in the button mushrooms and sauté in the olive oil.  Fry until lightly browned.

Take the cooked shallots and garlic and return these to the casserole, mixing into the browned mushrooms.  Add the red wine, Madeira, herbs, salt and spices.  Place a lid on the pot and heat up to simmering point.

Transfer the sealed braising steak to the casserole pot and heat the stock until simmering.  Take the casserole off the hob and transfer to the oven.  Cook for 3 hours.  At the end of the oven cook, remove from the oven and stir in the cream; this is optional as real boeuf bourguignon does not contain cream, but I like it.

North Yorkshire Beef Stew

North Yorkshire Beef Stew

A Truly British Cup Of Tea

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Taking all the information in my previous blog, here is my stab at how to make a cracking cup of tea:

1.  Fill the kettle with freshly-drawn cold water which is well mixed with oxygen (boiled water has lost much of oxygen). Oxygen is vital to bring out the taste and aroma.  When drawing from the tap, let the water run a bit first, so you do not get the slightly flat and stale water that is hanging around in the tap near the end of the faucet.

2.  Ceramic, china or earthenware teapots are the best for making teas – they keep warmer for longer and do not taint the organic tea.  Never ever bleach the teapot, even though some older books suggest adding bicarbonate of soda.

3.  Fill the tea-pot with boiling water to warm the tea-pot and so prevent the brew from cooling too quickly then pour out as more water comes to the boil and add the tea leaves.  Alternatively, quarter fill the tea pot with water, then place into a microwave and heat at full power for 1 minute, then pour out as the water in the kettle comes to the boil and add the tea leaves.  If you are making a mug of tea, you should warm the mug in the same way as you would warm the teapot; in fact, it is even more important, since mugs usually have no lids so loose heat even more rapidly than a tea-pot with lid.  The art is timing the heating of the teapot with the spooning in of the tea leaves and the pouring over of the freshly boiled water; I tend to premeasure the tea leaves into a ramekin so you can just tip them all in at the right moment rather than hurredly measuring them out at the crucial moment and missing the pot with some of the leaves in the panic.

4.  For a 1136ml or traditional quart-sized tea pot, add 6 heaped teaspoons or 15g (½oz) of loose leaf tea to the pot; this equates to 1 heaped teaspoon per mug plus 1 for the pot, where a quart-sized tea pot does 5 mugs.  For a 225ml mug (i.e. a mug with volume of 1 cup), add a heaped teaspoon or 2.6g to the permanent tea filter.  A teaspoon roughly equates to a teabag, which is usually 2.5 – 3.0g, with the higher average weight compensating for the slowing down of infusion caused by the tea bag filter paper itself.

5.  As for the tea, books and whole businesses are based on getting the right teas for the tea drinker.  In a nutshell, tea leaves are the best, rather than tea bags.  Orthodox teas are better than CTC style teas.  Blended teas, like an English Breakfast or Irish Breakfast, are also great as they provide consistency of general flavour and colour profile, enabling you to leave the problems of blending the appropriate flavours to others with more time on their hands.  However, if you get the chance to blend your own teas, have a crack at it as it is not as hard as most tea businesses will tell you; see my blogs on blending breakfast teas.  I, also, change the leaf size depending on the time of day, so would go for a small leafed blend of 2 – 3mm in the morning, but let the tea leaves increase in size as the day goes on to around 6 – 7mm; this gives me strength and colour in the morning, then more floweriness and flavour as the day progresses and my taste buds are able to understand the subtleties in tea; later in the afternoon, I switch to lighter teas like a Darjeeling, China or Ceylon tea and by late afternoon, I veer towards Darjeeling or green teas.

6.  Fill the kettle with more freshly-drawn cold water, pour away the warm water in tea-pot just as the water is coming to the boil.  Add the tea leaves.  Pour the new water into the pot as it boils, because off-the-boil water makes very dull tea.  At this stage, the water will be in the range of 96 – 98C (205 – 210F).

7.  Give the tea leaves a quick stir with a warmed teaspoon.

8.  Infuse for 3 – 5 minutes.  A quick brew never gets the full flavour from the organic tea leaves, whereas a long brew is astringent.  This part depends a lot on the type of tea leaves you are using as well as your own tea flavour preferences, i.e. I like a stronger brew, but use a tea blend with little astringency in the brew, so can steep for 5 minutes, but others recommend 3 – 4 minutes.  At the end of the brew, the temperature of the infusion should be in the range of 70 – 80C (160 – 175F), and ideally at the top end of the range.

9.  Add 25 – 30ml (1 fl oz) of milk per 225ml  mug (a mug with volume of 1 cup).  Make sure the milk is at room temperature then add it first (not second), because milk does not superheat as much if added at this stage, so keeping the taste and mouth feel of the milk right.  It must be real milk and should at least be semi-skimmed in standard, never homogenised, and if using classic milk, the cream should be poured off the top into a jug to leave the milk below.  Others, for example Tony Benn and George Orwell, say add milk afterwards because you can regulate the amount of milk you add much better that way.  There is no answer to this core disagreement amongst tea drinkers and never the twain shall meet, i.e. it is really just a matter of taste and habit.

10.  Leave to cool until the tea is around 60 – 65C (140 – 150F), then start to drink, but do not slurp as it is uncouth.  Do not leave until the tea becomes too cold, with an upper limit of 17½ minutes, and lower temperature limit of 50C (122F).

11.  Sit back, relax and enjoy!  The best place is where no-one will hassle you and annoy you, so you can have a little bit of peace.

Please note this is my template for making a good old cup of strong black tea and does not work for green or white teas, nor more delicate Darjeelings or oolongs.  Therefore, you should use it as a template and through practise learn how to make your cup of tea, as yours will always be the best, since it will take into account your favourite type of tea, your local water and your own taste preferences.  In other words, there is no perfect way of making tea, but there are some no-nos, and, as in most walks of life, practise makes perfect.

The Perfect Cuppa

Friday, November 18th, 2011

The other day I listened to James May chatting on Radio 5 Live about the new series of Man Lab and in it he discussed the perfect cup of tea. As in everything in life, I agreed with some of what James May said, but disagreed with other parts, for example he suggested using the same water for heating the teapot for reboiling and using to brew the actual tea, but I insist that you should use freshly drawn water for the tea. This is important as you need the best water possible to make an infusion of water. My suggestion is you boil the kettle as there is always old water in the kettle, pour that water into the teapot, then draw some clean, fresh water and boil that; pour out the water from the kettle, add the tea leaves and then pour over the just boiled water. James May’s chat then brought to mind a fun piece of research done by Northumbria University that claimed to have worked out a formula for the perfect cuppa – what a load of bunkum!

And also as anyone who likes The Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy knows that: “Tea is considered a delicacy in many parts of the Galaxy. However, the proliferation of Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Nutrimatic Machines has made it very hard to get a good cup of tea.” And tea is used to drive the imporbability drive of the Starship the Heart of Gold. So making a good cup of tea is of vital importance to the universe.

But the beauty of tea is that it is personal and how you make tea is best for you, i.e. there is no perfect way to make tea. That having been said there are some no-nos and some better ways of making tea. Then some of us have our foibles, for example I use a tea cosy – now that is seriously unmanly, but I insist it keeps the temperature up high enough to get the best out of your tea leaves. So for what it is worth, I thought I would review some old books and how they told you to make tea, then give you my own version of the perfect cup of tea.

Mrs Beeton On Making Tea (1861)

To quote from Mrs Beeton: “There is very little art in making good tea; if the water is boiling, and there is no sparing of the fragrant leaf, the beverage will almost invariably be good. The old-fashioned plan of allowing a teaspoonful to each person, and one over, is still practised. Warm the teapot with boiling water; let it remain for two or three minutes for the vessel to become thoroughly hot, then pour it away. Put in the tea, pour in from ½ to ¾ pint of boiling water, close the lid, and let it stand for the tea to draw from 5 to 10 minutes then fill up the pot with water. The tea will be quite spoiled unless made with water that is actually boiling, as the leaves will not open, and the flavour will consequently be colourless and tasteless,- in fact, nothing but tepid water.”

Comments: I have tried the Mrs Beeton method and the tea you come out with is strange in that it is much more bitter yet weaker than a good brew I would expect – I guess that the long brew pulls out the astringency in the tea leaves while the final dilution cause the tea to lose some of its body. I reckon this shows the change in our lifestyles as perhaps her recipe was based on making a breakfast tea with China tea leaves, like Kintuck, rather than the stronger Assam based tea blends.

Edward Smith on tea in “Foods” (1873)

Edward Smith writes some 29 pages on tea as a food compared to almost nothing written by food writers nowadays. He suggests for a fine thin tea to “infuse it from ten to fifteen minutes; but if common tea be selected the infusion should not stand more than five to ten minutes. In all cases the pot should be kept quite warm, and covered with a cosy.” This method brews a frighteningly strong tea that is really bitter, so while Mr Smith was regarded as a guru on food, this is a disaster of a way to make tea.

Jospeh M Walsh in “Tea-Blending As A Fine Art” (1896)

“In the proper preparation of Tea for use, therefore, the object should be to extract as little of the tannin as possible and as much theine and volatile oil as can be extracted without permitting the infusion to boil or overdraw.  To best obtain these most desirable results, put the requisite quantity of Tea leaves in a covered china or earthenware pot – all tin and metal vessels should be avoided – and pour in freshly boiling water that has been boiling for at least three minutes, and then allow the vessel to stand where it will keep hot, WITHOUT boiling, for from eight to ten minutes before serving, according to the variety of Tea used.”

“In moderate strength it requires about one teaspoonful of good tea to a half pint of boiling water and an ordinary half teacupful of leaves to every quart of boiling water, the latter making a fairly strong infusion for five persons.  China and Japan Teas require from eight to ten minutes to draw thoroughly, the former requiring but little milk and sugar…India, Ceylon and Java Teas generally should not be allowed to draw more than five to seven minutes at the outside after the boiling water has been poured on…, while the addition of an extra quantity of both milk and sugar greatly improves their drinking qualities.”

Comments: Mr Walsh’s teas are brewed very strong and for much longer than I would dare go for, resulting in a bitter brew.  However, his comments are interesting as it is the only book that I have found that tackles tea making in the 19th Century America.

Elizabeth Hughes Hallett “The Hostess Book” on “A Fireside Tea” (1937)

“But first of all make sure you can make a good cup of tea. When made properly it is most refreshing and stimulating, but when badly done it acts as poison to the system.

“The real secret is to have the water freshly boiled. Water which has been standing at the side of the fire for some time time is stale. The teapot must be kept clean and sweet, and an occassional scald with boiling soda water will ensure its freshness.

“The amount of tea to use depends greatly on its quality. One teaspoonful to each person and one to the pot is the old-fashioned rule, but with a good blend of tea a teaspoonful will be found to be sufficient for two cups.

“To make the tea pour a little boiling water into the teapot and let it stand for few minutes. When thoroughly heated, empty and dry it. Pour the required amount of tea into the pot and pour in boiling water. Cover with a cosy and let it stand in a warm place for 3 or 4 minutes. Do not allow it to stand too long, otherwise it would be bitter and harmful. Serve according to taste with sugar, cream or milk, and when one is especially tired the addition of a slice of lemon will prove most exhilarating, without milk.”

Comments: this is pretty much how I make my British cuppa, except that I would steep for 5 minutes and not 3 – 4 minutes, and would say go for freshly drawn water that has been freshly boiled, rather than “water freshly boiled”. It is interesting to note that more scientific analysis later agrees with Mrs Hallett’s brewing time.

George Orwell & The Perfect Cup Of Tea (1946)

George Orwell (this is the literary part of this blog) wrote about tea in 1946 for The Evening Standard.

In summary, George Orwell key points are: (i) Indian and Sri Lanka tea only, which I would agree with, although African tea is good as well; China tea is too weak for a general British/Irish cuppa; (ii) make tea in china or earthenware teapots; (iii) the pot should be warmed beforehand but as most of us do not have Agas or a range, it should be with boiling water and not on your stove; (iv) tea leaves should be straight into the pot, i.e. not tea bags or in infusers etc, although the big plastic infusers are great and really practical, but if you can free the leaves, let them float about free, happy and easy; (v) give the tea leaves a good stir; (vi) use boiling water; (vii) pour off the cream from the milk first; (viii) about 6 heaped teaspoons for a quart sized teapot, which equates to about 1 heaped teaspoon per cup, which is how we brew it at home; (ix) tea should be taken in a mug.

On the downside, George Orwell does not talk about the water, which is crucial to tea making, and he is of the “milk-in-second” school, which is the cause of much contention.

McGee On Making Tea (1984 & 2004)

In Harold McGee’s seminal work on “Food & Cooking“, Mr McGee devotes some space to tea and coffee. To quote, the key points: “In the West, a relatively small quantity of tea leaves – a teaspoon per 6 oz cup/ 2.5gm per 180ml – is brewed once, for several minutes, then discarded”; “The infusion time ranges from 15 seconds to 5 minutes, and depends on two factors. One is leaf size; small particles and their great surface area require less time for the contents to be extracted. The other is water temperature…black teas are infused in water close to the boil, and relatively briefly.”; “In a typical 3-5 minute infusion of black tea, about 40% of the tea solids are extracted into the water. Caffeine is rapidly extracted, more than three quarters of the total in the first 30 seconds, while the larger phenolic complexes come out much more slowly.”

As for serving tea, Mr McGee writes: “Once tea is properly brewed, the liquid should be separated from the leaves immediately; otherwise extraction continues and the tea gets harsh. All kinds of tea are best drunk fresh; as they stand, their aroma dissipates, and their phenolic compounds and components react with dissolved oxygen and each other, changing the color and taste.

“Tea is sometimes mixed with milk. When it is, the phenolic compounds immediately bind to the milk proteins, become unavailable to bind in our mouth surfaces and salivary proteins, and the taste becomes less astringent. It’s best to add hot tea to warm milk, rather than vice versa; that way the milk is heated gradually and to a moderate temperature, so it’s less likely to curdle.”

Comments: the idea of warm milk is curious, although I agree milk that is at room temperature is better than straight from the fridge. Also, some mention but not much detail about types of tea and origins. McGee does talk about water and suggests it should have a moderately acidic pH of 5, rather than the neutral to alkaline of most municipal water, and he also indicates that Volvic is a good source of mineral water for tea making. I will come back to water in a later blog.

Northumbria University & The Perfect Way To Brew Tea (2011)

Northumbria University was commissioned by Cravendale, the milk producer, to do some research into the perfect cup of tea, which unsurprisingly elicited quite a lot of PR (see http://atomicspin.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/hard-hitting-research-from-cravendale/ and http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/8577637/How-to-make-the-perfect-cup-of-tea-be-patient.html).

In overview, Northumbria University claims the best brew is as follows:

1. Add 200ml of freshly boiled water to your tea bag (in a mug).
2. Allow the tea bag to brew for 2 minutes.
3. Remove the tea bag.
4. Add 10ml of milk.
5. Wait 6 minutes before consumption for the cuppa to reach its optimum temperature of 60 degrees centigrade.

They even helpfully created a formula for all of this (which must make it right):

TB + (H2O @ 100°C) for 2mins BT + C (10ml) 6 mins BT = PC (@ OT of 60°C)

where TB = teabag, BT = brewing time, C = Cravendale milk, OT = optimum temperature and PC = perfect cuppa.

As senior lecturer, Ian Brown, explained: “When enjoying a cup of tea, our palette requires a balance between bitterness and sweetness. Milk quantities and brewing time were key factors studied throughout our investigation into the perfect brew.

“Prominent sensory attributes of black tea are its bitterness and its dry, ‘puckery’ mouth feel, also known as astringency. Our findings show that 10ml is the preferred amount of milk for our cuppas, due to its ability to balance natural bitterness and allow a smoother taste sensation.”

My comments are as follows: firstly, the best tea is not from a teabag, but from loose leaf tea leaves and this shows a similar social change as that between Mrs Beeton and Mrs Hallett, i.e. a shift from loose leaf tea to bagged tea and in their case from China to India-style teas; secondly, the tea leaves must be brewed for longer to get all the flavours to come out – 2 minutes is way too short and 5 minutes is about right; thirdly, Cravendale tastes metallic to my taste buds and I go for full fat milk and remove the cream first rather than semi-skimmed – Cravendale is homogenised which is the worst type of milk; fourthly, always brew your tea in a teapot then (in my opinion and the UK is divided on this) milk in first; fifthly, other than the quality of the tea leaves, water quality is probably the most crucial factor and where is the mention of that.

What I did find interesting was the idea of a limit on when you must drink your tea by 17.5 minutes, and the fact that 66% say they make the best tea, followed by your spouse at 16%, dads at 4.5% and lastly mums at 2.1%, which just proves the best tea is how you are used to having it brewed for you.

[PS: Supposedly, this unbiased piece of pretend research, which you can download via this link, says that Cravendale, which sponsored the research, makes the best milk for your cup of tea – well I never].

James May’s Perfect Cuppa (2011)

Within James May’s new book for his series Man Lab, he has a few pages on brewing tea alongside vital stuff like how to score a penalty and making a fish finger sandwich.

James May cites a piece of work by Dr Andrew Stapley of Loughborough University that suggests that George Orwell was overdoing his tea strength and that you should revert to the old maxim of “one teaspoon per person and one for the pot”, that milk should go in first and that sugar can enhance the flavour of tea so long as it does not dominate the flavour. However, we use a quart sized teapot and I put in 5 – 6 teaspoons, so I reckon George Orwell was on the money.

Dr Stapley’s research is published by The Royal Society of Chemical Engineers as their “official” way of chemically brewing a perfect cuppa. In it, there are a couple of interesting points: firstly, they talk about drawing “fresh, soft water and place in kettle to boil” as previously boiled water has lost some of its dissolved oxygen, which is needed to bring out the tea flavour, while hard water tends to give rise to tea scum; he suggests filtering hard water and avoiding bottled waters for the same reason (note that McGee advises Volvic as well as bottled waters even though these do tend to have a high mineral content); secondly, he suggests preheating the ceramic teapot in a microwave by adding a quarter of the cup of water to the teapot and placing on full power for a minute; thirdly, they address the touchy subject of the timing of the milk – Dr Stapley’s research suggests that if adding the milk second, the milk is overheated for a few seconds, so causing milk proteins to denature and clump together, so making for a less pleasant cup of tea – at this stage the tea temperature should have fallen to 75C. Then as regards sugar, this depends on 2 factors: (i) the tea you are drinking as some tea blends are much more bitter than others; (ii) taste as in the end it is your brew and your taste buds, so Dr Stapley suggests adding some sugar moderates the natural astringency of tea (the milk also dampens the natural bitterness of tea). Dr Stapley, also, explains that what you are seeking is to balance the polyphenolic compounds being extracted during the brewing process as these give the colour and some of the flavour in the cup, however longer brewing brings out the higher molecular tannins that have a bitter aftertaste; the caffeine infusion is largely complete in the first minute.

Finally, James May mentions that soft water is best, which I agree with and it is also the best for brewing beer, so this is why brewers used to clump together around good sources of soft water, e.g. Tadcaster. He also goes for a 3 minute brew, which is the minimum and I reckon should be increased to 5 minutes, but that is a matter of taste again. Then, there is milk in first, and drink at 60 – 65C which agrees with the Cravendale-Northumbria research (he actually writes 60C but I think he means to follow the Dr Stapley method of 60 – 65C). As for sugar, the suggestion is for white sugar only and not other types, which I guess is to keep the extra flavours being added reduced, but I use a natural caster sugar and that does not have too many molasses tastes coming through, so for me that is also fine.

My way of making tea will be explained in my next blog post.

Mint Choc Cupcakes

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

Weren’t we all brought up on the luxury of After Eights or Elizabeth Shaw Mint Crisps or Matchmakers, those quintessentially 1970s pieces of sophistication?  Or was it just me?  So using our new mintier Organic Peppermint Extract, I decided to create these Mint Choc Cupcakes that bring together the luxury of chocolate cupcakes with a 1970s feel of mintiness coming from the peppermint flavours in the cake, chocolate topping and then sprinkled Matchmakers over the top.

Simple, delicious and so retro.

Mint Choc Cupcakes By Axel Steenberg

Mint Choc Cupcakes By Axel Steenberg

Mint Choc Cupcakes

80g / 2¾oz organic butter (at room temperature)
175g / 1 cup / 6oz Fairtrade caster sugar
1 large free range egg (at room temperature)
170g / 1 cup / 6oz organic self raising flour
1tbsp Fairtrade organic cocoa powder
100ml / ⅓ cup full fat milk
1tsp Steenbergs organic peppermint extract
150g / 5¼oz Fairtrade milk chocolate
50ml / ¼ cup double cream
¼tsp Steenbergs organic peppermint extract
Some Matchmakers or other crispy mint chocolate

1.  Preheat the oven to 160C / 320F.  Line a cupcake pan with 12 cupcake papers.

2.  Using an electric hand whisk cream together the butter and caster sugar until light.  Add the large egg and mix well.

3.  Add the self raising flour and cocoa in two halves and mix in thoroughly.  Add the milk and Steenbergs Organic Peppermint Extract until well mixed in.

4.  Divide the batter evenly between the cupcake papers.  Bake for 15 – 20 minutes until firm to touch.  Allow to cool for a couple of minutes then cool on a wire rack.  They must be totally cool before putting on the topping.

5.  Over a pan of boiling water, melt the milk chocolate in a heatproof bowl.  Allow to cool a little, then thoroughly mix in the cream, the Steenbergs organic peppermint extract and allow to cool and thicken.

6.  Spread the chocolate frosting neatly over the cupcakes, then decorate with broken Matchmakers or other peppermint crisp.

Grants – What A Waste Of Time?

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

We have been looking at investing money in automating many of our currently manual processes to include filling, capping and metal detection.  As part of this plan, we had looked into getting some grant support rather than doing it all through external lease finance or debt funding.  As a microbusiness, this would have enabled us to invest more now rather than doing it in a piecemeal fashion and taking more time to complete the project.  However, having provided an expression of interest, the response is that the old Rural scheme is winding down and will be replaced by a new scheme that is yet to be launched.  While applications can be made in the new year, these will go towards a national appraisal scheme rather than local appriasal and it would be June/Jule 2012 before any contract could be provided, if successful.  That is a long, long time away, especially for something that is uncertain in any case.  Also, by making appraisal national, there will be a bias from North to South, rather than looking at each regional on its local merits.  If this is how the government aims to kick start the economy, it is a remarkably slow process, and I have not even explained the bureaucratic appraisal process.  We will scale back our investment plans, do it ourself and give a big thumbs down to the government’s plans.

Youth Unemployment – The Real Issue

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

In amongst all the fantastical numbers that economists bandy around at the moment, there are some frightening figures that get lost in amongst the other seemingly more pressing numbers.  Amongst these, youth unemployment is the most worrying and is perhaps the biggest issue of all.

In the UK, youth unemployment is 21.3% against a total rate of 8.1%  (September 2011).  In Italy, youth unemployment is 29.3% with a national figure of 8.35% (August 2011).  Youth unemployment in Greece is 36% against a national level of 18.4% (August 2011) .  In Spain, youth unemployment is 46.2% with a national figure of 22.6% (September 2011). And this is not just an issue for those in Southern Europe, so in Sweden youth unemployment is 4 times higher than for workers aged 25 – 54, while in Ireland youth unemployment stands at 31.5% against a national level of 14.4% (October 2011) with 100 people emigrating every day at the highest levels since the Great Famine over 150 years ago.

Studies in the UK suggest that the cost of youth unemployment is £4.7 billion a year and £8.1 billion a year from reports by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation Taskforce as well as the London School of Economics.

This is a waste of the young peoples’ lives, dreams and hopes, as well as a mammoth waste of capital resources.  Even more than that it creates a very unstable structure for the welfare state:

  1. Failing to secure employment for a large proportion of young, let all the underemployment of many of those that find employment, is a failure of the education system, because expenditure on teaching is being frittered away by not getting graduating pupils into useful employment.  This means the wealth of the nation is being gradually eroded away through education that has no economic or intellectual value.  Apprenticeships could start to treat this scar.
  2. Then there is the structural issue for the welfare state.  At its simplest, the welfare state is pyramid scheme that relies on enough new employees entering the tax system to finance those who are retiring, needing geriatric care or other benefits.  However, if employees are not starting young and so failing to start paying taxes, then the whole structure will perhaps become irreperably destabilised, while at the other end employees are looking for more benefits from state funded pensions and geriatric care.  With high youth unemployment, the welfare machine cannot function for long before it will simply grind to a halt.  The simple truth is that the pension schemes written for public sector workers in the UK and across Europe cannot be funded as there are not enough people generating new money in our economies to finance them, and without getting the young to start creating real wealth we have not a hope of paying me a sou of my state pension, while my small private pension has shown no growth in years and will not keep me living for longer than a few days, so I expect that I will need to work until I drop.  Incentivising businesses to start recuiting the youth or schemes that will find the entrepreneurs of tomorrow are vital.

Every year more young people leave school, yet with funding cuts more will fail to find university courses to meet their needs and so exacerbating youth unemployment.  While older workers no longer need to retire and as pension schemes fail to provide people with the retirement they crave, job blocks will be created, preventing young people even starting on the employment process.

Unless this issue of youth unemployment is tackled head on and quickly, not only will there be a dangerous restlessness amongst the young unemployed, but the whole edifice of social welfare is liable to topple over under its own grandiose ambitions.

These are dangerous times and we ignore this issue at our peril.  Who will speak for the young?  Not the main political parties, not employers, not the unions, not religious leaders, so they will speak for themselves with protests without care for the consequences for the nation states of Europe, as we do not worry enough for them.

Update 16/11/2011: youth unemployment in the UK rose to 1.02 million or a rate of 21.9% for 16 – 24 year olds against a national rate of 8.3%.   This is a waste of our young, energetic and resourceful youth – who will stand up for them, rather than speak platitudes to them?  What is frightening is how the unemployment rate has grown strongly since 2000, so it is the collective failures of both previous Labour and now the current Lib-Con Governments rather than something that should be used for party politicking being any of the sides, i.e. they have all been pretty useless in addressing this issue.

Updated 19/11/2011:  Sara Blecher’s film on train surfing shows the nihilism that can enter the soul of the young when there is no hope and no father figures, or male role models to bring them into manhood.  It could be a bleak future, a Lord of the Flies’ world.  Let us all work to give the young back their dreams and hopes for the future and fight back the bleakness of self-destructive nihilism.

European Bailouts And The Structure Of The Financial System

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

There has been a lot of news recently about European bailouts, sit-ins and protests around St Paul’s (there is also an anti-capitalist camp by Grey’s Monument in Newcastle and probably elsewhere, but as usual London-Centric news of the UK largely ignores all those in the rest of Britain) and austerity measures in Greece, then maybe Italy, Governments changing in Greece and Ireland, soon Italy and so on.  But strangely very little is made of where all this money has gone – trillions of pounds, Euros and dollars have vanished, but where have they gone to.  I know that capitalism is about creative destruction but that is destruction on a colossal scale.

In any case since the crisis commenced in 2007 when the world woke up to bankruptcy at the heart the banking system and then later to poor credit of nation states like Greece, I have been pondering the causes and the solutions to the issues.  And while I have very few answers, I have changed my mind on a number of things and one of the main ones relates to the structure of the system, and in particular regulation.

Firstly, let me dispel an important myth.  At its heart, banking and investment banking is not a difficult area and is not that complex, nor is it that interesting and exciting.  Overall, it is a low risk and rather boring type of business activity; I expect some will take issue with that point of view however real banking is prudential and understated.  It does not make anything, but serves to facilitate other people to do things whether it is a government to build a school, or you or I to buy a house, or it looks after our wages until we can do the weekly shop or so we can save for our pensions.

This underlying dullness is perhaps the start of the problem as bankers and investment bankers have sought to make their lives more interesting, so they changed the nature of their business by taking on extra risk to make an excruciatingly boring way of life much more exciting.  The question then becomes how and why were they able to increase systemic risk within the financial system and so bring nation states to their knees with their reckless financial engineering.

I think the answer lies with the regulations put in place by governments, together with an unwitting collusion between governments, regulators and those in the financial sector.  What has happened is that unregulatable monopolies have been created by the regulations themselves; financial businesses appear complex because of the regulatory environment and as the regulations become more complex, financial institutions (whether investment bankers, bankers or auditors) work at ways to get round or benefit from the regulatory environment.  It is a bit like computer hackers and creators of viruses who are constantly trying to beat the firewalls and security systems that exist, appearing one step ahead as they seek mistakes and flaws in the Microsoft or antivirus programs.  And similar to the financial sector, because we (the uninitiated) do not know the language or understand the rules or know the players, therefore we cannot simply go up to them and say quite simply “stop messing with our computers” or “don’t use my savings or taxes as collateral for that”.

So my view is simple – reduce and simplify the regulatory environment for financial services, so that normal people can (a) understand what is going on; and (b) have a voice to be able to say “don’t use my money for that”.

Now most regulators and investment managers will pat me on the head and say “now, now, you simply do not understand the complexities, so why not go back to your day job”, but I say the problem is that those who are meant to be scrutinising the systems are actually part of the system nor do they own the money that is being used as capital, which belongs to depositors whether direct or indirectly via pension schemes or taxes etc, but benefit in terms of wages and salaries from keeping a complex status quo.  And to those who say it is complex – no it is not, investors are simply making judgments about what shares to buy when and where, or bonds or whatever – that is pretty basic stuff and is really a matter of investment quality, an understanding of human behaviour and, frankly, a good old punt*.  But it is a bet with other people’s money.  For example, MF Global collapsed because it made £4 billion in big bets on Eurozone sovereign debt that went wrong, while Bear Stearns collapsed due to overexposure to sub-prime mortgages.  The clue is that regulatory systems does not stop these investment banking collapses nor does it pick up credit issues due to poor loan quality with commercial banks until after the event like at Dexia, HBOS, Royal Bank of Scotland or the need for extra capital like at ING or WestLB – just as a few examples.  They are simply too close to the action, in fact they are part of the system itself and are not independent from it.

Will anyone change the system.  Of course not, because it would mean losing many highly paid and important people losing their jobs!  And also, because governments need these systems to create “money” for them to finance their own pipe dreams.

*  There are parts of the industry that try to minimise risks by manufacturing insurance-style instruments that seek to mitigate downside risk for some business areas or hedge, but most of these instruments are purely used within the financial sector to create extra return, or to use the flip-side of extra return to increase systemic risk.  It is that link between return and risk that most people seem to just ignore – to increase the profits of an essentially boring and low return business sector (accounting, banking, insurance) you need to increase the risk level, then the question is who gets the profits and who bears the increased risks, and it is this basic division between who has the upside and the downside that has created the problem we suffer from.

Lamb Stew With Rosemary & Lemon

Sunday, November 6th, 2011

I was pottering around the shops the other day and their was some good looking shoulder of lamb.  They called out to me “Cook me, take me”, so I asked the butcher for them and popped them in the basket.  Back at home, I found some lemons that need using up, picked some rosemary from the garden, then set to it. 

The key on this versatile stew is to cook long and slow, which gives time for the collagen and tougher bits on these cuts of lamb to break down, while the fat keeps the meat deliciously moist.  It  tastes even better if you cook it slowly one day, then come back to it the next night, when the flavours really do infuse throughout the meat.  The other thing is the temperature of 160C, since as the lamb gets to this temperature the collagen liquifies into gelatin, giving the meat that “melt-in-the-mouth” tenderness, as well as killing off any bugs that might be in the meat.

Lamb Stew With Rosemary & Lemon

2kg / 4½lb stewing lamb, ideally on the bone – shoulder is good
6tbsp olive oil
Juice of 3 lemons
1 glass of dry white wine
2tbsp fresh rosemary, roughly chopped
2 cinnamon quills
Salt & pepper

Prepare the lamb if it is shoulder by cutting off most of the meat and chopping into 2cm x 2cm (1 inch x 1 inch) cubes.  Keep some of the meat on the bone as this will become easy to cut off after cooking.  Put the meat pieces and bones into a large pot.

Add the olive oil, juice of the lemons and glass of white wine to the meat.

Add the cinnamon quills, chopped rosemary, one or two grinds of black pepper and a pinch of salt.  Give it all a stir around.

Lamb Stew Before Cooking

Lamb Stew Before Cooking

Put the oven on to 160C / 320F.  Put the lid onto the pot, then heat the meat over a gentle heat on the hob, and simmer for 30 minutes.  Open the lid, give the stew a stir, then replace the lid and put into the oven.  Cook for 2 – 3 hours.

Lamb Stew With Lemon And Rosemary

Lamb Stew With Lemon And Rosemary

Either eat straight away or the next day.  Serve with rice (we had saffron rice) and vegetables, then use some freshly baked bread to soak up any of the dripping on your plate.

Gorgeous and so, so very simple.

Chocolate Ambassador

Friday, November 4th, 2011

At my father’s 75th birthday bash at the weekend, our children could not get enough of the Prinz Regenten Torte nor the Chocolate Ambassador.  Chocolate Ambassador turned out to be a rich chocolate mousse with raisins and biscuit within it.  As we were to have some friends around, I though I would have a go at mimicking it, but with a couple of tweaks that Jay thought about at the weekend – adding crunched up Crunchies or Maltesers.

Chocolate Ambassador

Chocolate Ambassador

North Yorkshire Chocolate Ambassador

255g/ 9oz dark chocolate
120g / ½ pint / ¼ cup full milk
1 pinch of Fairtrade cinnamon powder
2 large egg yolks
50g / 1¾ oz Crunchie, crunched up (or cinder or honeycomb toffee pieces)
6 large egg whites
65g/ 2oz / 3tbsp caster sugar
50g / 1¾ oz Maltesers, crunched up (or malted honeycomb pieces)

Break up the dark chocolate into smallish pieces and place into a small heatproof bowl, then melt these dark chocolate pieces over boiling water.  When melted, set aside to cool.

Put the milk and cinnamon powder into a small milk pan and heat until bubbles start to form at the edges.  Take off the heat and add to the melted dark chocolate, mixing in with a rubber spatula.

Make sure that the chocolate mixture is warm rather than hot, then add the egg yolks, stirring with the rubber spatula until just mixed in.  Mix in the crunched Crunchie pieces.

Place the egg whites in a separate mixing bowl, then with a hand held electric whisk mix up until the egg whites form stiff peaks.  Then slowly add the caster sugar and mix until all the caster sugar is mixed in.  The egg whites should still form stiff peaks and have a glossy finish.

Add half the egg whites to the milk-chocolate and fold in.  When just folded in, add the remaining egg whites and fold in gently until just mixed in.

Place in the fridge for at least an hour to let the mousse set.

Just before serving, crunch up the Maltesers and sprinkle evenly over the top.

A Couple Of Simple Recipes Using Steenbergs Peppermint Extract

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

Using Steenbergs relaunched organic peppermint extract, I made a few peppermint flavoured sweets the other evening for a Diwali meal that we were treated to by some good friends.  They are really simple and quite delicious; the hostess loved the Peppermint Chocolate Biscuit Cake the most, but none of these sweets was left over by the end.

Peppermint Creams

Peppermint Creams

Plate Of Peppermint Creams

450g / 1lb organic icing sugar, sifted
125ml / ½ cup condensed milk
4-5tsp Steenbergs Organic peppermint extract
200g/ 7oz dark chocolate

Sieve the icing sugar into a mixing bowl, then add the condensed milk.  Mix the condensed milk thoroughly into the icing sugar.  To mix it in use a spoon and your fingers to mix it through.

Then add the Steenbergs Organic Peppermint Extract and work the peppermint flavour thoroughly through the mix.

Roll the peppermint cream mix out on a clean surface until about 4mm thick.  Using a small circular cutter of around 1.5cm in diameter, cut out circles and leave these on a plate or piece of baking parchment.  Leave to dry out for about 1 hour.

Melt the dark chocolate over a pan of boiling water, then dip the peppermint circles into the melted chocolate to half cover the peppermint.  Place onto some baking parchment to let the peppermint creams cool down and harden.

Peppermint Chocolate Biscuit Cake

Peppermint Flavoured Chocolate Biscuit Cake

Peppermint Biscuit Cake

160g / 5½oz butter
4tbsp golden syrup
16 digestive biscuits
200g / 7oz milk chocolate
1tsp Steenbergs Organic peppermint extract

Grease a small baking tray then line the base with some baking parchment.

Break the digestive biscuits into crumbs (easiest to do this in a plastic bag tied at end, then bash with rolling pin).

Put the butter and golden syrup in a heavy bottomed pan and melt together over a low heat.  Add the broken biscuit crumbs to the butter syrup and mix well.  Scoop into baking tray and press into the tray.  Chill in fridge.

Break the milk chocolate into a bowl and gently melt them over a pan of simmering water.  Remove the bowl from the pan carefully (it will be hot).  Allow the melted chocolate to cool for 5 minutes, add the Steenbergs Organic Peppermint Extract and mix into the chocolate and then spread over biscuit base.  Chill in fridge.

Turn out the biscuit cake, then cut into 2cm x 2cm squares.