Posts Tagged ‘Environment & science’

A Walk Along A Country Lane In North Yorkshire

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

Last night whilst Sophie was playing tennis with our son, Jamie, I went for a walk along the River Ure with our daughter, Poppy.  It was a beautiful evening with swallows and sand martins out in abundance and only a few others around.  The river flowed sedately past while a father and son fished at one of the fishing piers.  At Boroughbridge lock, a boat was passing through.  But I had forgotten forgot my camera.

So this morning after a bike ride, I retraced some of the walk.

Why?  Because it was amazing to realise within only a couple of miles of walking, we had passed almost all the main types of crops (barley, oats and wheat), as well as cows around and about.  But we never really think about it, because it’s all we’ve ever known.  Then  along the hedgerows, the elders were forming their berries and brambles were developing.

Wheat Field

Wheat Field

Close Up of Wheat

Close Up of Wheat

Barley Field In North Yorkshire

Barley Field In North Yorkshire

Close Up Of Barley

Close Up Of Barley

Field Of Oats

Field Of Oats

Close Up Of Oats

Close Up Of Oats

Potato Field With Cows in Distance

Potato Field With Cows in Distance

Elderberries Beginning To Develop

Elderberries Beginning To Develop

Declining Cork Farms – The Price of Progress?

Friday, July 24th, 2015
Cork Trees

A copse of cork trees in Alentejo

We have just returned from a fortnight in the baking heat of Alentejo.  The temperature ranged around 35oC, reaching 40oC on a couple of melting afternoons.  But the pool was our saviour.

Everywhere we looked there were cork trees, growing individually, in small groups or large plantations.  Their ancient-looking, gnarled branches seemed like witch’s fingers pointing crookedly to the blue skies.

Many of their stems were a deep red-brown colour, similar to the rusty coloured rich Alentejan soils.  This was where they have been skilfully cut to remove the corky layer of bark from their stems.  Harvesting is done every 9-10 years, so it’s roughly 1 in 9 that have this rich brown trunk.

Apparently, half of the world’s corks come from here.  It’s an industry started by Dom Pérignon, the monk Champagne maker, in the seventeenth century.  While Dom Pérignon is famed for wine-making, he also introduced the cork as the stopper of choice instead of wood.

Cork is perfect as it’s inert, sustainable and biodegradable.  It also makes a nice plup sound when pulled out.

Bark growing on cork tree

Bark growing on cork tree

Cork bark

Cork Drying In Yard

But now we replacing these with plastic stoppers or screw caps.  These are promoted because they have no different taste impact versus cork, plus for screw-caps convenience is given as a plus point.

However, I now can’t help feeling this is a mistake.

Cork is sustainable, renewable and biodegradable.  Cork supports unique ecosystems in the Alentejo, as well as supporting a rural economy.

Whereas plastic stoppers are just that plastic.  They are not “green” – neither recyclable nor sustainable nor renewable – and do not help rural economies.  Screw caps are recyclable in theory, but they certainly don’t help the Alentejo.

The consequence is that cork farms are being abandoned or cut down or not replanted after forest fires.

Progress?

I’m going to stop buying plastic tops and screw cap bottles, now.

Cork Trees in Alentejo

Cork Trees in Alentejo

Cooking With A Wonderbag

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

Sophie came across the Wonderbag on the radio and then The Guardian, so one arrived several weeks thereafter.  Basically, a Wonderbag is a modern and green take on the slow cooker and that you find in books as far back as Mrs Beeton’s and even like the traditional way of cooking in a hole in the ground.  It is a highly insulated textile bag that comes in very homely patterns and is filled with insulating balls that you wrap around your boiled pot of food.  The key is to get them really hot and to have a pot that fits the amount of food you are making, rather than one with loads of space.  We have found it a great way of preparing a healthy, wholesome stew in the morning for eating when we get back with the kids after school later in the day; much better than whacking on the microwave for a “ping meal”.  Overall, it is a great and retro way of creating change in the world that works especially well with foods that do best with a slow cooking, for example pork ribs, casseroles and mince.

Wonderbags are so ethical in that for everyone you buy in the UK, one will be given for free to a family in South Africa.  They are so green that they are said to save 30% on fuel bills for those using them in South Africa and we can save here in the UK as well.  They have been hugely successful in South Africa and now are in over 150,000 homes (saving 50,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide) and Unilever is looking to distribute 5 million to people in poverty around the world.

In overview, the way to cook is summed up in the little booklet that comes with the bag:

“Just heat up your pot of food on the stove, kick-starting the cooking process, then place inside the Wonderbag.  Wonderbag’s incredible insulating properties allow food that has been brought to the boil to finish cooking while in the bag without the use of additional energy.”

Pork ribs in sweet sauce

Sweet Pork Ribs cooked in a Wonderbag

Sweet Pork Ribs cooked in a Wonderbag



Ingredients

2 racks of pork ribs
2tbsp vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped finely
2tsp cornflour
400ml / 14 fl oz apple juice
2tbsp cider vinegar
2tbsp dark soy sauce
4tbsp dark brown sugar
2tbsp honey
1cm / ½ inch fresh ginger, grated

Prepare the pork ribs:  remove the thin skin on the underside by pulling this off with your hands (for more on this visit Youtube); then chop the ribs into thirds.  In a heavy bottomed frying pan, add the vegetable oil and heat until hot.  Add the pork ribs and fry until browned.  Set aside.

Fry the garlic and ginger in the vegetable oil, then remove then add all the other ingredients, except the ribs and cornflour, and stir together.  Put the cornflour into a small dish or ramekin, add a small amount of the sweet sauce and stir with a teaspoon until thoroughly mixed and without any lumps; add some more of the sauce and stir until you get a thickish paste, then add this to the sweet sauce and stir in.  Now add the ribs.

Put the top on to your casserole dish and bring to the boil.  Simmer with the lid on for 15-20 minutes, then place into the Wonderbag, close up and leave for 6 or more hours – the longer the better.  If you need to reheat it before stirring, simply place bag on the hob and heat to boiling, then serve.

Serve with plain boiled rice and some stir fried vegetables.

Slow cooked mince

Mince Cooked In Wonderbag

Mince Cooked In Wonderbag

Ingredients

1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, chopped into thin slices
500g / 1lb beef mince
2tbsp olive oil
1 glass of red wine
1 x 400g / 14 oz tin of chopped tomatoes
250ml / 8 fl oz water
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste

Add the olive oil to the casserole pot.  When hot, add the chopped onions and lightly fry for 5 minutes.  Add the carrots and fry for another 2 minutes.

Next add the beef mince and cook until browned all over.

Add the red wine, stir in and let it be simmered off.

Add the chopped tomatoes, water, bay leaf and season.  Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes until the sauce has reduced to your satisfaction.  Put the lid on and simmer for a few minutes to get the lid heated through, then place into the Wonderbag and leave for 2 to 8 hours.  Reheat if necessary on the hob before serving to get it piping hot.

Serve with rice or pasta, or some mashed potato.

Simple rice pudding

Ingredients

100g / 4oz pudding rice
50g / 2oz  caster sugar
500ml / 17 fl oz whole milk
10g / ½ tbsp unsalted butter
1tsp vanilla extract

Firstly, wash the rice in water.

Add the milk to the casserole pot and bring to the boil with the casserole lid on.  When it starts to boil, add the butter, caster sugar and vanilla extract and stir until the butter and sugar have melded in.

Add the pudding, bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes with the lid on.

Place into the Wonderbag, close it up and leave for 2 hours.  When finished, grate a little nutmeg over the top, grill for a few minutes to brown off the top, then serve.

Dosas – Southern Indian Pancakes

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

My parents have recently come back from a wedding in Southern India and they have been to one of my favourite regions, Kerala.  They were blown away by the delicious food and already miss the flavours of their staple, the dosa.  At about the same time, Sophie has been chatting with The Curry Guy and liked his Masala Mashed Potatoes.  So using some recipes from The Curry Guy, some recipes my parents brought back and Das Sreedharan, I made dosas at the weekend.

The dosas were pretty good, especially after I overruled the recipe I had come up with and added more water – I later realised from Das Sreedharan’s book that there is a mysterious and innocuous line that I had missed which basically said “add more water until you are happy with the mixture”.  I added to this some Masala Mashed Potatoes and a fresh Coconut Chutney.

The only other key thing is a really good pan for making the dosas, ideally the best pancake pan you have, which if you are like me has been lovingly nurtured and cured with oil for years and years and has excellent heat transfer properties.

Keralan Style Dosa With Curried Mashed Potato Filling

Keralan Style Dosa With Curried Mashed Potato Filling

Curried Mashed Potatoes

Dosa Masala

Curried Mashed Potato


Ingredients

700g / 1lb 8oz floury potatoes, peeled and quartered
¼ cup full fat milk
100g / 3½oz peas
3tbsp sunflower oil
1 medium sized onion, chopped finely
1 garlic clove, smashed and finely chopped
1 medium sized tomato, cut into eighths
1cm / 1 inch cube fresh ginger, peeled and grated
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp garam masala
1tsp black mustard seeds
Pinch of sea salt

How to make

Boil the potatoes until soft, then drain and mash roughly with the full fat milk.

Boil the peas until soft, then drain.  If cooking from frozen, simply bring to the boil, then drain.

While the potatoes are cooking away, prepare the masala.  Heat the oil in a frying pan, then fry the onions over a medium heat for 4 -5 minutes until they start to brown at the edges, then add the chopped garlic and fry for another 2 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and fresh ginger, spices and salt and cook over a low heat for 3 – 5 minutes, making sure it does not burn or stick to the pan.

Add the mashed potatoes and peas, and stir these into the onion masala.  Cook for another 3 – 4 minutes until thoroughly infused with flavours.

These curried potatoes can be eaten with nearly anything and are a great way to jazz up excess mashed potato that has been made.  They can also be used to make great curried flavoured potato patties for eating with breakfast.  I love this recipe as it is easily tweaked to whatever ingredients you have kicking about, just like bubble & squeak or colcannon.

A Basic Dosa Recipe

It is quite a long process, but actually does not take a huge amount of actual working time, i.e. it is just a matter of thinking ahead.

Ingredients

295g / 10½oz long grain rice
75g / 3oz urad dal – dark brown lentils (I used yellow split peas, so any lentil or pea within reason works)
½ tsp fenugreek seeds
Pinch of sea salt
Water
Sunflower oil (for frying)

How to make

Put the rice in one bowl and the urad dal and fenugreek in another bowl.  Cover them in water with around 3cm (1 inch water above the grains).  Leave for 8 hours or overnight.

Drain separately.  Believe me it is key to keep them separate as the grinding process just will not work if done together, even if it seems more efficient.  Place the rice into a blender and grind for 3 minutes, slowly adding 125ml / 4 fl oz water, giving the rice a smooth paste texture.  Put the rice paste into a large bowl.

Rinse the blender.  Add the lentils and fenugreek seeds to the blender and grind for 5 minutes, slowly adding 5 tablespoons of water.  Add the dal paste to the rice paste and mix together.  Add a pinch of salt and stir in.  Cover with a damp cloth and leave in a warm place for 12 hours, allowing it to ferment.

When ready to cook, add some more water to get the pouring consistency correct.

Dosa Mix At Pouring Consistency

Dosa Mix At Pouring Consistency

Get your best pancake pan and heat until very hot.  Having a good pancake pan is vital for this, as it is in making good pancakes or omelette; weirdly the most highly promoted are not the best as you want one that has good heat transfer properties like an old steel pan that has been well oiled and greased over the years.  When you have the right pan, you will know and keep it lovingly forever.

Lightly grease the pan, then pour over a ladle of batter, then using the bottom of the ladle spread over the pan; I use a jug and spiral it from the centre of the pan outwards then using the tip of a spatula spread the batter over the gaps to give a smooth surface.  This bit is probably the hardest part as it often gloops up and becomes a disaster, but a little practise and trial & error and you will work out the best way.   The Curry Guy suggests cutting an onion in half then using this to spread out the oil, which he says will help to stop the dosa from sticking plus giving some extra flavour – I have not tried this but I like the idea of the discrete onion flavour.

Cook for 2 to 3 minutes until crisp and golden, then flip.

Most books suggest that if you are making a filling put this onto the uncooked top surface, fold and serve, but I cook both sides of the dosa then filling and serving.

To fill the dosa, add some curried mashed potato to the centre of the dosa in a line, then drizzle over some Fresh Coconut Chutney, fold, serve and enjoy.

Prepare Your Dosa With Curried Mash And Coconut Chutney

Prepare Your Dosa With Curried Mash And Coconut Chutney

Coconut Chutney

Fresh Coconut Chutney

Fresh Coconut Chutney

Ingredients

100g / 3½ oz creamed coconut block
¾ fresh green chilli (or more for extra heat)
2½cm / 1 inch cube of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
3tbsp plain yoghurt
Smallish handful of fresh parsley, roughly chopped (should really be fresh curry leaves, but they are not easily available here in the sticks)
Pinch of sea salt
1stp black mustard seeds (ideally Indian ones for authenticity)

How to make

I began by preparing the green chilli.  As we were cooking for kids as well, I topped and tailed the chillis, then removed the seeds and removed the veins inside the chilli pod.  Next, I sliced it into medium sized slices.

I dry roasted the black mustard seeds in a pan, without any oil.  When the seeds begin to pop and hop about the pan, I took it off the heat and tipped them into a small serving bowl.

I added all the other ingredients – coconut, chilli, ginger, yoghurt, parsley and the sea salt – into a blender.  I whizzed all the ingredients up for 3 – 4 minutes, then tasted the flavours.  You may need to up the chilli content or add a tad of sea salt.

This is the scooped out into the serving bowl and mixed in with the toasted black mustard seeds.  This is lovely kit that adds a delightful freshness to your dosa and would go with most Indian curries.

Pretty Little Rich Cake

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

It was Sophie’s birthday the other day.  We went out en famille for a Chinese meal at Sweet Basil in Kirk Hammerton.  Sophie wanted a strawberry cake, so I felt like trying something a bit old-fashioned.  Before Bird and Dr Oetker independently came up with the idea of baking powder to put the fluff into your cakes through a bit of basic chemistry, cakes were made with more eggs and the air was physically put in through some hard grafted whisking.  Cakes were generally less light, but had a lot more body to them.  I also think that these old-fashioned cakes tend to soften over time rather than dry out as much as more modern cakes.

This little cake looks pretty, dressed in fluffy white cream and gorgeous pink strawberries, and is full of that extra rich taste from a profusion of eggs.  I like it much more than your typical sandwich type cake, and it is not much more complicated to make.

Strawberries & Cream Vanilla Cake

Ingredients

125g / 4½ oz / 1 cup organic plain flour
125g / 4½ oz / ½ cup organic caster sugar
4 medium free range eggs, at room temperature
1tsp organic Fairtrade vanilla extract
75g / 2¾ oz / ⅓ cups / ⅔ sticks butter, melted then cooled a bit
2tbsp strawberry jam/conserve
4-6 decent sized strawberries, quartered
125ml / ½ cup whipping cream
½-1tbsp vanilla sugar

How to make

Start by preparing two 20cm/9 inch round cake tins: lightly grease the tins, then line with base with some baking paper.

Preheat the oven to 180C/355F.

Sieve the plain flour then set it aside.

Add the caster sugar, eggs and vanilla extract into a heatproof bowl.  Boil a kettle of water and put into a pan, then reheat it until simmering.  Put the heatproof bowl with egg-sugar mix over the simmering water, using a hand-held electric whisk at the highest level for 5 minutes.  This will increase the volume to around three times the initial level and the colour to a creamy yellow colour.

Scoop about one-third of the sieved plain flour over the egg-sugar mixture, then using a big metal spoon fold the flour into the mixture.  Repeat for the remaining two thirds of plain flour.  Next drizzle the cooled liquid butter into the mix in thirds again, folding in carefully each time.  The key is do the minimal of folding to keep the air in the egg-sugar mixture as much as possible.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tins and then bake for 25 minutes.  Leave in the tins for a few minutes before turning out the baked tin, and allow it to cool down fully.

This cake is delicious on its own, but I wanted to make it into something a bit fancier for Sophie:

  • Firstly, I spooned some strawberry jam onto one of the cakes – not too much, but enough to stick the two cakes together.  Then I put the two cakes together.
  • Secondly, I whipped some cream with the vanilla sugar – pour the cream into a mixing bowl, then whisk until getting harder, when you should sprinkle over the caster sugar; whisk some more until the cream makes soft peaks.  Scoop and smooth over the top of the cake, then arrange the chopped strawberries in the whipped cream.
Strawberry & Cream Cake

Strawberry & Cream Cake

Enjoy on its own, or with a delicious cup of Earl Grey tea or First Flush Darjeeling.

Time Please

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

For those who have suffered my thoughts on time before, you will know that time is something that concerns my little brain. In fact, what exactly time is has concerned much brainer people than me. And perhaps reconciling time with the two main paradigms in theoretical physics is key, for in the Einsteinean world time merges into space-time and is relative and has no standalone life, while in the standard model of the quantum world, time is fundamental to the theory. So in one, there is no “real” time while in the other there is. This anomaly needs mediating.

Anyway, what I have been pondering on for some months this year is a thought experiment: take an electron now, then consider where it is in the future, but also where it was in the past.

Now, in the quantum world, we do not know where that electron is in the future. In fact, it is everywhere in the universe, but that smearing of the electron throughout the universe collapses down to a point roughly where it was now at that point a nanosecond in the future. That is pretty much understood since Bohr proposed it in the early 20th century and then others like Heisenberg, for example, expanded these ideas further with his uncertainty principle and Feynman later with his diagrams. However much we do not like it, this idea works and has been tested by loads of scientists and shown to work.

But what perplexed me more was no-one ever mentions the past. If we take that electron and move backwards in time, do we know where it was?

At first, I decided that the inherent uncertainty worked both ways, so we could only be certain of a point in time now, but, because we had not measured (or observed) the electron in the nanosecond beforehand or a minute or year previous, then its past would also be uncertain and it would exist throughout the universe. So in this concept, the present is a unique point in time with uncertain existence on either side, and you can only be certain about that which you have measured and so brought into existence.

But I am not so sure now and think this idea is wrong. I now believe that the past is very different from the future.

Even if we have not measured or observed a particle in the past, its position/existence/velocity etc are effectively known (or at least knowable) and so the past is not uncertain in a theoretical sense, even if we do not actually have the evidence or answers or data measured.

But so what?

Well, it would mean that the past is fundamentally different from the future. For example, in the past, the world would be deterministic, so a particle has definite momentum and position at any point in time. In this classical Newtonian world, cause leads to effect. In other words, this is the world and universe of our experience, and does fit with our understanding of how the world seems to us to work. However, the future is more mysterious and a particle does not exist until it is measured, while between measurements such a particle does not exist anywhere specific but everywhere in the universe. This world is one of probabilities and possibilities, where cause does not lead necessarily to effect but to a whole array of different probabilities of outcomes.

So when it is said that an electron is a wave or a particle, is the difference in result how you are measuring it, i.e. when you are measuring in time rather than what you are observing? This is close to the Copenhagen Interpretation which effectively said energy quanta were a particle or wave, but not both, and what it was depends on how you set up your experiment. However, it gives no interpretation of why the how of setting up an experiment changes the answer. My suggestion is that it depends on what time-frame you are looking at.

As I have argued before scientists are very focused on “what” they are looking at and “how” they are observing, but perhaps not “when” they are looking at, yet Einstein was very interested in what time really is. For me, the present is a strange chimeral zone that is not quite the past nor the same as the future and is full of kooky mystery, and this is the strangeness that quantum physicists are looking at.

What Is Not?

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

E = mc2 (and so m=E/c2) is the iconic scientific equation. But what happens if you put E = 0, or m = 0, into the equations. In the first, the answer becomes E = 0 and also in the second m = 0. In other words, if there is no mass, there is no energy and vice versa. We are bounded by this idea that matter and mass are just parts of the same thing.

However, is this everything? I wonder whether the equation explains reality and so is complete, or rather whether it indicates the edges of our perception and so what can be observed, experimented on and experienced. It precludes objects that are mass without energy or energy without mass, things that are not both particle and wave. But why cannot there be particles that are particles but not waves, and waves that are just that: waves? The retort is simply that is the way it is, so shut up, deal with it and calculate, because it works. It does actually work.

But still I wonder whether this equation only explains what we can see, and whether there is more out there that we cannot? Are we created to experience only those things with wave-particle duality and mass-energy equivalence, and to be incapable of experiencing those things that are simply not paired up? In physics, for some bizarre reason, everything seems to need a pair, or a partner. But even if this reality is correct, it only explains the 20% (or less) that we can see and observe, but ignores the balance that we cannot see: the dark side, which just like the dark ages of medieval history means the stuff we do not comprehend because we do not have the data.

Perhaps we must accept that our universe is a limited and bounded experience that can only be perceived as things defined by the equations of theoretical physics. However, this feels just so limiting. I cannot believe that more is not possible, and that there is not a reality that exists without us, some equations and maths.

So ask what and where is the energy and matter we cannot define, i.e. dark energy and dark matter? Why can a wave and a particle not separate themselves?  Why cannot there be energy-less matter and vice versa? Why cannot two bodies of mass interact with each other faster than the speed of light? Why don’t planets and stars influence us on earth in real-time instantaneously rather than in astronomical time? And so on…

Recipe For A Thoroughly Modern Vegetarian Balti

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

Once in a while, I really need to go without meat of any form and I am going through one of those patches at the moment.  So I have tweaked my Chicken Balti Recipe from earlier this year to be more tofu friendly and so usable as a vegetarian dish. At the same time, I have simplified the spices in the recipe to make the whole thing a bit quicker; if you want to mix the spice blend from scratch, I have put the spices as a note to the whole recipe. Now it is something that you can whizz up quickly at the end of the day and keep the whole family happy – for a short while as well.

Vegetarian Tofu Balti

Vegetarian Tofu Balti

Stage 1: the smooth Balti tomato sauce

3tbsp sunflower oil
1 medium onion (125g / 4½oz), roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
2cm fresh ginger, grated finely
2tsp Steenbergs Balti curry powder
150g / 4½oz chopped tomatoes

Firstly, we need to make the base balti sauce. Add the sunflower oil to a heavy bottomed pan and heat to sizzling hot. Add, then stir fry the onion and garlic until translucent which will take about 3 – 4 minutes. Add the fresh ginger and stir once. Add the Steenbergs Balti Curry Powder and stir in, turning for about half a minute, making sure it does not stick to the pan. Finally add the chopped tomatoes and simmer gently for about 5 minutes.

Blitz the sauce either with a hand held blender or take out and pulse in a Magimix until smooth. Set aside until later.

Stage 2: the Balti stir fry

3tbsp sunflower oil
500g / 1lb 2oz Quorn or tofu, cut into 2cm x 2cm cubes
1 red pepper, deseeded and chopped into 1cm x 1cm pieces
150g / 5oz onion, finely chopped
150g / 5oz button mushrooms, chopped in half or quarters
3tsp Steenbergs vegetable curry powder
2tbsp chopped tomatoes
1tsp Steenbergs garam masala
100ml / 3½ fl oz / ½ cup water
Handful chopped fresh coriander leaves

Heat the oven to 100C / 212F. Add half of the sunflower oil to a wok and heat until smoking hot. Stir fry the Quorn or tofu in batches until lightly browned. Put the cooked Quorn and tofu into the warmed oven. When complete, clean the wok.

Add the remainder of the sunflower oil to the wok and heat until hot and smoking. Add the green peppers, chilli and button mushrooms and stir fry for 4 – 5 minutes, stirring constantly, making sure it does not burn and is fried well. Tip in the vegetable curry powder and stir through twice, then add the smooth balti tomato sauce and mix in plus the 2 tablespoons of chopped tomatoes. Heat until simmering, then add the water and reheat to a simmer, mixing all together. Cook on a gentle simmer for 15 minutes.

Add the cooked Quorn or tofu pieces and mix together. Add the garam masala. Cook for a further 10 minutes. About 2 minutes before the end add the chopped fresh coriander and stir through.

Serve hot with naan, plus we like dhal with it.

Spice blends for those doing the spices from scratch:

Spice mix for Balti sauce (1)

½tsp cumin seeds
½tsp coriander seeds
¼tsp fennel seeds
½tsp chilli powder
½tsp Fairtrade turmeric

For these, mix together then either grind iun an electric coffee grinder or break up in mortar and pastle.  Alternatively you could use powders rather than whole seeds.

Spice mix for Balti stir fry (2), instead of vegetable curry powder

½tsp cumin powder
1tsp paprika
¼tsp fenugreek powder
1tsp turmeric
¼tsp cinnamon powder
¼tsp cardamom powder

Blending Breakfast Teas (1)

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

I have been doing some research while trying to create a range of Breakfast Tea blends to complement our very popular English Breakfast Tea.  This has partly been a matter of curiosity as I like, in a slightly anoraky way, reading old books on tea, so have acquired small pamphlets on tea and tea blending from the Victorian period through to the mid 1930s.  What they give is a window into a completely different world, plus it makes me realise how much more interesting people’s palates must have been in olden times.  Also, it raises some historical anachronisms that I have sought to address in my range of retro tea blends.

The first thing is that tea blends contained a complex mix of flavours in everyday teas that mingled the simpler black teas with scented teas like lapsang souchong, jasmine green tea and osmanthus or gardenia oolongs in your everyday teas.  So tea must have been really quite exotic and not the strong malty, astringent black tea flavours that I had always imagined were being drunk.  Prior to then in the Regency times and before, teas were more likely single teas or simple mixes with more green teas and oolongs were being taken; smoky lapsang souchongs were perhaps the most popular teas in olden times, with it being written in the 1894 that “the old fashioned lapseng [sic] souchongs are also shipped from Foo Chow [Fuzhuo today], and the finer grades keep up the old characteristics and give us an idea of the sort of tea prized by our grandfathers; they still find their way into some of the best of the blends going into consumption.”  Lapsang souchong was still popular in the finer blends in the 1930s, but by the post WW2 period these type of blends appear to have fallen out of popularity.  Where general mixes are mentioned earlier, papers from the East India Company in 1730 suggest “if you mix Pekoe and Congo [sic], you shall have an admirable tea; you have all the goodness of the last in the first two waters, and of the first in the last two or three, but even then the water should not stand long.”

Secondly, the anachronism is that I often read something that goes along the lines of “research shows that Keemum was the original English Breakfast tea from the 1800s”, as suggested for example by Harney & Sons in the USA and Wilkinsons of Norwich.  However, in the 1800s, the Keemun region only made green teas and not black tea, so Keemum could not have been the basis for English Breakfast tea.  By 1883, Keemun is being suggested as a “one of the newest tea descriptions of China tea”, by which time Indian teas were already being grown and imported in quantity and forming around 50% of each tea blends.  Further, while we now would choose a Keemun over a Kintuck in the the 19th century and early 20th century, Kintuck was rated more highly than Keemun – tastes change, we all change.  Then by 1894, tea blends were pretty much using only Indian teas.  Prior to the late Victorian period, the core of blends was black teas, or Monings, like Ning Chows and Oonfas mixed together with red teas, Kaisows, like Ching Wos and Tseu Moos.  In fact, a blend of black and red teas still formed the basis for many blends in the 1930s, with Keemuns joining Kintucks as the Moning teas of choice, with Ching Wo  and Panyong teas being the popular Kaisows.  I don’t disagree that the original breakfast teas would probably have been made with China teas as Indian teas only started being produced in sensible quantities during the 1870s, growing from 6,750 tons in 1870 (10% of UK consumption) to 22,000 tons by 1880 (22% of UK consumption), however there was a switch from tea being a posh items to being everyday as pricing came down and perhaps sociologically as tea became a drink of men and women and not just the ladies – a polite way of saying men reduced their intake of booze as livelihoods became more industrial and less agricultural or artisanal.  Notice also that black teas and red teas were actually different categories of teas that have become merged into one by the 21st century – perhaps as we have become less discerning about the subtle differences between the various regional teas within China.

As you can see, there was a mindblowing array of different names given for teas with different names given to China and Indian tea grades.  Also, names change, so originally all black tea was called Bohea, then it became the lowest grade of black tea, before being more correctly attributed nowadays to lightly fermented oolongs.  Even more confusingly, Bohea is an anglicisation of Wu-I, which is a mountainous area of Fukien, from where China oolongs originally came from, i.e those that were lightly and up to 60% fermented.  Finally, teas were often sold as different things to they were and some were adulterated, for example, the leaf of [Canton Scented Capers] was “faced with soapstone, &c” and other books suggested these were “highly faced with gypsum, Prussian blue, magnesia, and other colouring matters.”  So getting down to what people actually blended together is fraught with difficulties.

Blending began in earnest when the Indian and Sri Lankan teas began arriving into the UK.  This was in part for pricing reasons, i.e. trying to make a decent, consistent blend from as cost-effective ingredients as possible, and the fact that the new teas from India especially were much more astringent and strong than the flavours that consumers were used to, so you needed to use Indian teas for bulk and strength and China teas to smooth out the flavour edges and add some character.  Therefore in 1883, it was written “the greater proportions of the English people like in every blend at least half China tea.  The reason is that most Indian teas have a sharp acrid taste, not to be found in the teas of China.  This acrid taste tea-drinkers rarely like, unless it is tempered by the softer milder flavours of some China varieties.”  However, by the 1930s, most tea blends were cheaper mixes with Ceylon, Indian and Indonesian teas making the blends.  In the post war period, especially, African teas took over from Indian teas, however the balance has shifted back towards India with many of the UK household brand names now owned by Indian tea groups, e.g. Tata Tea owns Tetley Tea and Typhoo belongs to Apeejay Surrendra Group.

Actually, I think tea blends and the growth in tea had more to do with class than anything else.  Prior to the late Victorian times, tea was a luxury item and its growth was defined by snobbery and the fact that it was expensive – as taxes on tea increased it only served to drive up sales further.  Blends were expensive and tea was a posh item for the afternoon for those with time to spare.  However, as wealth became less concentrated in the upper classes and so tea became more available with increased supplies arriving from India and Sri Lanka, tea became more of a general household item, hence blenders needed to create cheaper, more consistent brews for sale through the general tea shops set up by Lyons and later multiple grocers such as Sainsbury and Tesco, which had begun by selling tea in 1919.

However, tastes change and people become accustomed to different flavours.  Old tea blends would have been smokier in flavour and lighter in colour and taste than modern blends, as Kintucks and Lapsang Souchong have a strong smokiness, whereas Ching Wo and Keemun are much lighter but still have that hint of smoke; this comes from the process of making Chinese black and red teas which includes a roasting stage.  Then nowadays, we find that some tea blenders of fine teas actually blend in these bitter flavours either by using particular Assam teas as in Ringtons’ 1907 Blend and English Breakfast tea or by adding green teas as in Dallmayr’s and Eilles’ English Breakfast Teas. or Fauchon’s Siva Afternoon Tea dating back to the 1910.  All of these could do with milk and sugar, which perhaps reflects how classic English Breakfast teas were originally drunk, i.e. strong, with milk and sugar, in the early 20th century.  However, at Steenbergs, we like our tea to be smooth and capable of drinking without milk or lemon when brewed lightly or with milk if you want to take it strong, except for the very strong brews like an Irish Breakfast tea.

Sustainability and some final thoughts

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

In the end, politics, economics and perhaps even environmentalism are practical matters dressed up as intellectual theory, following on from my previous blog on the theory behind sustainability.

Economics is good at analysing what happens at the point when things of value are exchanged, but is not much good at anything else.  Real economics cannot tell you how to sustain you or your family.  For example, were you have a budget of £100 to spend on your weekly shop, it cannot tell you what is the best way to spend that money on in terms of your health, or taste or what you have in your cupboards or what takes your fancy as you walk around the store.  It cannot tell you why you prefer one brand over another or why we buy olive oil from one country of origin over another, because none of us really make rational decisions based on utility, however neat a theory.  In fact, many of our decisions are decidedly irrational – for example, it is cheaper and quite easy to cook meals from scratch yet we buy, for example, fish pie or pancakes ready-made rather than make them ourselves.  A rational economist might say that we do this because we can use our labour or time more effectively elsewhere, but how many actually do redeploy that small amount of money or time rationally to optimise their wage earning potential – very few, methinks.

For me, I think the best way to think about sustainability is to think of families rather than economics, or at least money economics.  To keep a family going into the future, you first need to have children, which is rarely an economic decision, because under most cost-benefit analyses there is no rational economic justification in having children, but our desire to continue and sustain our genes into the future simply overrides and ignores any financial considerations.  Then you need to consider how you equip your children to sustain themselves in the future and the key things are to give them the capabilities to navigate their way through their own futures, with all its ups and downs, twists and turns.  So we educate them formally to enable them to open up their minds and get employment, and informally we teach them a moral code of what is good and bad and that hard work, honesty, fairness and good manners will get them pretty much anything they desire in time, or at least laziness, dishonesty, unfairness and bad manners will not get you far in life.  We might try and give them some seed capital to buy a home, but they may not get much financial support until they themselves have had a family and we can bequeath them something after death.  Finally, throughout all of this we nurture and love them as best we can.  And so it is in real life with economic sustainability, we must focus on the means of giving people the capabilities to navigate future generations through future uncertainties rather than get bogged down with numbers, which are but meaningless figures on a page or spreadsheet – one can create almost any set of numbers or scenarios that you desire to justify any position you want but to what useful end.

But while Governments, quangoes and international bodies like the World Bank or the United Nations can help with this in certain areas, they are not the best placed to act as custodians of economic sustainability.  Firstly, they have no long term perspective as their terms of office are short and their times of influence are probably even shorter.  Secondly, Governments are remarkably bad custodians of peoples’ money, even as they need that money as it is their lifeblood.  They tax and spend with impunity because they are dealing with other peoples’ money rather than their own.  Milton Friedman perhaps explained this best as he wrote in his book “Free To Choose” – “There are four ways in which you can spend money.  You can spend your own money on yourself.  When you do that, why then you really watch out what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money.  Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone.  Well, then I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost.  Then, I can spend somebody else’s money on myself.  And if I spend somebody else’s money on myself, then I’m sure going to have a good lunch!  Finally, I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get.   And that’s government.  And that’s close to 40% of our national income.”

These capacities of Government to tax and spend are the root of their power and without this ability to take and then distribute with seeming largesse, Governments are nothing.  Hence, sustainability becomes another self-justification for why Governments must tax and spend, even though individuals and private collectives may be better at optimising humankind’s response to sustainability.  This takes the environment out of sustainability and it simply becomes a matter of power and control over capital.  For me, economics and environmentalism are different ways of looking at resource allocation, where money has been hugely successful at getting people to organise themselves to do things they do not want to do for a cash reward and also to exploit the natural capital resources (but note per my previous blog that money does not buy happinness or well-being beyond $10,000, while people will do charity and community projects for little or no finacial reward).  Conversely, environmentalism explains that there are limits to the natural capital available and we must all be mindful of this.  They are different, but overlap where the externalities from the economy degrade nature and where natural capital is available for exploitation.  However, they are not the same thing and do not overlap at all times.  Hence, they are different ways of looking at the world we live in, and we must be careful in merging them together.

So we must keep sustainability away from economists, Governments and politicians and per Ostrom focus on personal and community selflessness over selfishness, and look to our children and future generations rather than just the here and now.  Similarly, I would argue money is economics, and that money and sustainability do not mix.  However, I expect politicians, economists and everyone to argue that they all mix perfectly happily together, so the future will be a great and wonderful place.