Posts Tagged ‘green way of life’

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

Cinnamongate: is cinnamon safe to eat?

Sunday, July 19th, 2015

We regularly get asked questions about the safety of cinnamon, e.g. “is cinnamon safe to consume?” or “how much coumarin is there in Steenbergs cinnamon?”  There’s a lot of chatter about this issue in webworld and in blogs.

Cinnamon Quills_02

Cinnamon quills packed into boxes from Sri Lanka

Because of these queries, I thought it useful to investigate the situation and find out the levels of coumarin in some Steenbergs’ products.

In summary:

  • Cassia cinnamon and true cinnamon are very different spices but both are generally sold as “cinnamon”
  • Steenbergs labels and sells true cinnamon as “cinnamon” and cassia cinnamon as “cassia”
  • Cassia cinnamon contains high levels of coumarin, but true cinnamon almost no coumarin
  • Coumarin, so cassia cinnamon, should be ingested in limited amounts:

No more than 1 teaspoon of cassia cinnamon per day, based on EU recommendations for Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) of 0.1 mg of coumarin per kg bodyweight every day

  • Cinnamon (true cinnamon) is safe to eat in terms of coumarin and your health
  • Coumarin may cause liver damage in some susceptible people, but its effects usually appear to be  reversible and so overeating of cassia for short periods does not usually appear to be a problem

If you need further information, you should consult a doctor.  I have taken the data for this blog from official Government sources and current scientific papers, so it is up-to-date as of 19 July 2015.

MORE DETAIL

What is coumarin?
Coumarin is a naturally occurring volatile oil (benzo-α-pyrone), found in many plants, e.g. cassia, cinnamon, tonka beans, vanilla and woodruff.  It gives that pleasing and heady cinnamon aroma – a direct, sweet, fresh hay character.  It was first isolated in tonka beans in the 1820s and took its name from the old botanical name for tonka – Coumarouna which in turn came from the native French Guianan name for the tonka tree, kumarú.

Where is coumarin found?  As mentioned above, it is found in various spices.  However, the most important route of intake is via cassia or cassia cinnamon and this is the cinnamon that the various studies relate to.

This distinction is very important – true cinnamon (Cinnamon verum or Cinnamomum zeylanicum) contains much reduced levels of coumarin.  At Steenbergs, we only sell true cinnamon as cinnamon.  Also, we only use cinnamon as cinnamon in our blends, and if we use cassia it is labelled as cassia not cinnamon.  We do, also, sell cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia, a.k.a. Cinnamomum aromaticus or Cinnamon burmanii), but always label this as cassia and never as cinnamon.

You can tell the difference quite quickly – true cinnamon is a light tan and has a subtle woody aroma like box or sandalwood, with hints of cinnamon and citrus, whereas cassia cinnamon is a darker tan and has a more direct, blunter petrochemical aroma that is strongly “cinnamony” and reminiscent of German Christmas biscuits (Spekulatius or Zimtsterne) and Danish pastries.  As an aside, we are sometimes told Steenbergs cinnamon does not taste like cinnamon, but then find there has been confusion between cassia and cinnamon, because this is the more readily-found form of the spice.

The confusion arises because cassia cinnamon is quite legitimately, also, sold as cinnamon and is the cinnamon used in baking – hence, it’s other name “baker’s cinnamon”.

From a chemical view, cassia and cinnamon are noticeably different.  True cinnamon contains eugenol and benzyl-benzoate and no (or trace) coumarin.  In contrast, cassia cinnamon contains high amounts of coumarin.  Both cassia and cinnamon contain cinnamaldehyde.

In terms of levels of coumarin in powder versus quills, cassia quills have coumarin levels 75% lower than the powder.  For true cinnamon, quills have higher coumarin levels than powder, but both are still low.

Why is coumarin a concern? In high doses, coumarin can cause liver damage in small group of sensitive individuals.  However, only some individuals are susceptible to liver issues from coumarin, and those individuals would need to exceed the TDI for more than two weeks before liver issues might arise, then if they do occur the toxicity is reversible.  Maximum daily limits of coumarin have been set in the EU.

This issue originally arose with a report on cassia cinnamon in 2006 by the Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung (“BfR”), the scientific agency charged with providing scientific evidence for consumer health protection in Germany.  This showed that consumption of foods containing cassia cinnamon can result in the TDI of coumarin being exceeded, because of the high levels of cassia cinnamon used in some recipes.  Consequently, there has been a knock-on impact for bakers of traditional European bakery goods, e.g. cinnamon rolls (Danish pastries/kanelsnegle) and cinnamon Christmas cookies (Zimtsterne) within Europe, and people who use cinnamon to reduce their sugar intake by sprinkling it onto their cereal.

EC Regulation 1334/2008 gives the following limits for coumarin, which specifically excludes spices and mixes of spices, herbs, teas and infusions:

Table 1: Limits for coumarin in particular food categories per EC Regulation 1334/2008


Compound food in which substance is restricted

Maximum level
mg/kg

Traditional and/or seasonal bakery ware containing a reference to cinnamon in the labelling

50

Breakfast cereals including muesli

20

Fine bakery ware, with the exception of traditional and seasonal bakery ware (above)

15

Desserts

5

The best technical information available is found at the BfR’s website.  There is an excellent FAQ that covers pretty much everything you need to know: http://www.bfr.bund.de/cm/349/faq-on-coumarin-in-cinnamon-and-other-foods.pdf, and their latest opinion includes the following on consumption of spices (see http://www.bfr.bund.de/cm/349/new-insights-into-coumarin-contained-in-cinnamon.pdf dated 2012)[1]:

“For cinnamon sticks and cinnamon powder as a spice for household use, no limit values have been defined, however.  If an average coumarin content in cassia cinnamon of 3000mg per kilogram of cinnamon is assumed, the TDI value can be exceeded by consumers who eat a great deal of cassia cinnamon.  For an adult with a body weight of 60kg, the TDI value is reached, if 2g of cassia cinnamon are consumed per day.  For an infant with a body weight of 15kg, this is the case if 0.5g of cassia cinnamon are consumed per day.  Overall exposure can be increased by other sources, for example coumarin-containing cosmetics.  Consumers who frequently and regularly eat cinnamon-containing foods should be aware of this.  The BfR still recommends that cassia cinnamon is consumed in moderation.  Consumers frequently using large quantities of cinnamon as a condiment should therefore opt for the low-coumarin Ceylon cinnamon.”

How much coumarin is there in Steenbergs spice products?  We have had some of our relevant spices tested for coumarin levels by Eurofins Analtytik GmbH, using high performance liquid chromatography.  The results are shown in the table below, together with results from peer-reviewed scientific papers.

Table 2: Coumarin content of cassia cinnamon, true cinnamon and spice blends


Name

Other names

Origin

Coumarin
mg kg-1

Coumarin
%

Cassia Baker’s cinnamon Vietnam

 2 900

0.3 

Cassia [2] Baker’s cinnamon, Chinese cinnamon, bastard cinnamon

4 167

0.4

Cassia [3] Indonesia, Vietnam

3 856

0.4

Cassia [4] Indonesia, Vietnam

2 239

0.2

Cassia [5] China, Indonesia, Vietnam

3 016

0.3

Cassia [6]

3 250

0.3

Cassia [7] Indonesia

4 020

0.4

Cinnamon True cinnamon Sri Lanka

 31

– 

Cinnamon [2] True cinnamon, Ceylon cinnamon Sri Lanka

68

Cinnamon [3] Sri Lanka

nd

Cinnamon [4] Sri Lanka

25

Cinnamon [5] Sri Lanka

nd

Cinnamon [6]

44

Cinnamon [7] Sri Lanka

64

Mixed spice   UK

 670

 0.1

Fairtrade mixed spice   UK

 22

 –

Pumpkin pie   UK

 22

 –

Tonka beans   Brazil

 52 000

 5.2

In conclusion, cassia cinnamon has coumarin levels of 2239 – 4167 mg kg-1, almost 100 times greater than levels in true cinnamon with the range of 0 – 68 mg kg-1.  Steenbergs spice mixes have low coumarin levels at 22 – 670 mg kg-1.  where one of the blends included about one-quarter cassia cinnamon.  In contrast, tonka beans have very high levels of coumarin of 52000 mg kg-1.

What does this mean in relation to safety to eat?  The BfR has issued guidance on the TDI that a person can eat daily over a lifetime without appreciable health risk and this includes those sensitive to liver damage from coumarin[1].  The TDI is 0.1 mg of coumarin per kg bodyweight every day.  An adult of 60-70 kg (9½-11 stone) can, therefore, eat 6-7 mg of coumarin per day safely for the rest of their life.  Further, for a 20-30 kg (3-5 stone) child, the limit is 2-3 mg coumarin.  The European Food Safety Authority has calculated the same levels [8].  Even if this value is exceeded for a short while, this does not appear to pose any health risks per BfR and EFSA.

Translating this into teaspoons, an adult should not consume more than ½-1 teaspoon of cassia cinnamon a day and a child no more than ¼-½ teaspoon of cassia a day.

Another way of thinking about it is that an adult can eat 68-120g of cassia cinnamon biscuits a day (10-24 biscuits) and children 17-30g of cassia cinnamon biscuits a day (4-6 biscuits)[1][5].  For cinnamon Danishes or buns, this is roughly 4 for adults and 1 for children per day.

These levels are relevant through time, so a child who eats his/her coumarin limit twice in a week only reaches 29% of his/her TDI (assuming no other cassia cinnamon is ingested).

In contrast, an adult can consume 55-104 teaspoons of true cinnamon and children 24-45 teaspoons.  Therefore, the levels of consumption for true cinnamon are effectively unlimited in terms of coumarin.

What can bakers do about this?  Ideally, you should get your cassia’s coumarin content tested and determine the final coumarin content of your bakery products.  Also, whenever food authorities have tested for coumarin, quite a number of products seem to exceed the legal limits – probably because people are unaware of the regulations.

However, we have created a practical guide as below.  If we assume the safe limits for coumarin consumption are those listed in the EC Regulation EC 1334/2008, then maximum levels for use of cassia and true cinnamon can be calculated and practical limits determined for bakers and other manufacturers.

Table 3: Practical guide for maximum levels of cassia cinnamon or true cinnamon to meet EC regulations on coumarin for specific food categories


Food category

Max level of coumarin
mg/kg

Max level of cassia(i)
mg/kg

Approximate teaspoons of cassia per kg(ii)

Max level of true cinnamon(i)
mg/kg

Approximate tsp cinnamon per kg(ii)

Traditional and/or seasonal bakery

50

7.9

797.4

399

Breakfast cereals

20

3.2

1

319.0

159

Fine bakery ware

15

2.4

¾

239.2

120

Desserts

5

0.8

¼

79.7

40

Notes:
(i) Maximum levels have been determined as the average coumarin content plus 2.58 x standard deviation; this means maximum amounts will not exceed coumarin content in 99% of cases.
(ii) Based on level teaspoons for cassia of 2.8g and cinnamon 2.0g.

References

[1] BfR (2012), New insights into coumarin contained in cinnamon, BfR opinion No. 036/2012, 27 September 2012, Berlin, Germany (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[2] BfR (2006) Consumers, who eat a lot of cinnamon, currently have an overly high exposure to coumarin, BfR Health Assessment No. 043/2006, 16 June 2006, Berlin, Germany (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[3] Blahová, J., Svobodová, Z. (2012) Assessment of coumarin levels in ground cinnamon available in the Czech retail market, The Scientific World Journal, 2012: 2863851, 4 pp, Available online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3385612/ (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[4] Lungarini, S., Aurelia, F., Coni , E. (2008) Coumarin and cinnamaldehyde in cinnamon marketed in Italy: A natural chemical hazard? Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, Volume 25, Issue 11, 31 October 2008, 1297-1305, Available online but not free (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[5] Sproll, C., Ruge, W., Andlauer, C., Godelmann, R., Lachenmeier, D. W. (2008) HPLC analysis and safety assessment of coumarin in foods, Food Chemistry 109, 462-469, 27 December 2007 (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[6] VKM (2010) Risk assessment of courmarin intake in the Norwegian population – opinion of the panel on food additives, flavourings, processing aids, materials in contact with food and cosmetics of the Norwegian scientific committee for food safety (Rep. No. 09/405-2 final), Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food Safety, 12 October 2010, Oslo, Norway, Available online at http://www.vkm.no/dav/271c242c20.pdf (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[7] Woehrlin, F., Fry, H., Abraham, K., Preiss-Weigert, A. (2010) Quantification of flavoring constituents in cinnamon: high variation of coumarin in cassia cark from the German retail market and in authentic samples from Indonesia, Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry, 2010, 58 (19), pp 10568–10575, Available online (but not free) at http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf102112p (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[8} efsa (2008) Coumarin in flavourings and other food ingredients with flavouring properties, Scientific Opinion of the Panel on Food Additives, Flavourings, Processing Aids and Materials in Contact with Food (AFC), The EFSA Journal (2008) 793, 1-15, 8 July 2008, Available online at http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/scdocs/doc/793.pdf (Accessed 12/5/2015)

Life So Material

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

“For too long we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community value in the mere accumulation of material things.  Our gross national product now is over 800 billion dollars a year, but that gross national product, if we judge the United States of America by that, that gross national product counts air pollution, and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic squall.  It counts Napalm, and it counts nuclear warheads, and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our city.  It counts Whitman’s rifles and Speck’s knives and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.  Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play; it does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything in short except that which makes life worthwhile.  And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

Life does not seem to have changed much since Robert Kennedy, Jr, spoke these words in Kansas in 1968.  (There really is no speech that has the dreamy, idealistic quality of a good Kennedy speech from the ‘60s.)  In fact, if anything life in Britain is even more monetised than that and we glory more in the size of our GDP, how much we earn and how big our car or TV is?

In a similar vein, Sen argues that many things that cannot be exchanged for money have utility or disutility, so because they have no monetary value they are ignored in economics as “externalities”.  Some try and create a value to bring these into economic analysis, but this is just an artificial fudge that does not really work.  So a gorgeous landscape or sunset, or good friends, or a happy family have no economic value, but give a lot of utility, while crime, pollution and antisocial behaviour generate loads of disutility.  These things matter to people, but are not really captured in economics.  People value manners and cultured social behaviour, not because of some sort of rational economic analysis, but because society values social relationships.  People give their time to teach football, rugby or other sports or play music, creating much of great value to society, but never because of economic analysis and rarely because politicians tell us so.  In fact, the involvement of politicians usually destroys anything that is good like this as it brings power contestation into something that is beautiful in part because it is a safe haven from money and power relations.

Life is so much more than economics, money and politics…Enjoy that sunset, that cake and your friends.

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.

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

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.

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.

Two trips to the Farne Islands (18 & 19 July 2011)

Thursday, August 4th, 2011
View To Inner Farne Island

View To Inner Farne Island

Ticket Sheds For Trips To Farne and Holy Islands

Ticket Sheds For Trips To Farne and Holy Islands

Jay was desperate to go and see the puffins on the Farne Islands, so he insisted we went on Monday with its ominous, dark and brooding clouds.  Sure enough it began to drizzle as we drove out of High Newton-by-the-Sea.  We booked our tickets at Billy Shiels Boat Trips; we Steenbergs have always gone with Billy Shiels, while my Steenberg cousins now go with Serenity Tours.  The round trip with landing on Inner Farne cost £35 for 2 adults (£13 each), 1 child (£9 each) and various harbour fees.  There is free entry onto the Farnes as we are National Trust members but otherwise this costs extra; they generally have a good joining deal going so it is a good time to renew any lapsed memberships.  The National Trust look after the islands with quite a large number of wardens on the islands, protecting the chicks and seal pups.

Billy Shiels Glad Tidings Boat

Billy Shiels Glad Tidings Boat

We were late for the sailing, so had to charge down to the end of the pier as Glad Tidings was about to leave.  All Billy Shiels boats are named Glad Tidings and range from the original few which are open boats to the large Glad Tidings V, which is for the non-landing tour and is mainly covered.  We sailed on Glad Tidings III which is also partly covered but not so large.  The North Sea was quite choppy and we rolled with the waves, which I find quite exhilarating, but Jay was far less keen about.  By now it was windy, raining and the waves were getting up.

At this time of year, there were still kittiwakes with their nests perched on ledges on the cliff faces, plus a few guillemots and razorbills still either on ledges or strutting on the top of rock stacks jutting out of the sea.  Most of these can be found on the dramatic Pinnacles off Staple Island and if you come in May – June these are chocka with these auks.  As you drive past, you can see the black silhouettes of shags and fewer cormorants, breaking the skyline; often these can be see with their strange bat-like posture of holding out their wings to dry in the wind or sun as they do not have any oil on their feathers, so must hang them out literally to dry.  In the water, you will often see their snake-like heads poking out of the sea as they drift and fish along the island edges and further out to sea.  Puffins congregated on the cliff tops, huddling together against the wind that buffeted against the rocks, while kittiwakes seemed to move tighter into the nooks upon the crags where they nested. [Many more photos of birds at http://www.flickr.com/photos/steenbergs/sets/72157624111478125/]

Puffins On Wall On Inner Farne

Puffins On Wall On Inner Farne

Arctic Tern Coming In To Land

Arctic Tern Coming In To Land

Puffin A'flying

Puffin A'flying

Then, you drive further out to Longstone Island and the lighthouse that is famed for Grace Darling.  Famously, on 7th September 1838, Grace Darling and her father rowed out twice to Big Harcar to rescue nine survivors from the paddle steamer, the SS Forfarshire, which had run aground.  Their amazing daring made her a national heroine.  I do find it odd that you are still told all this in spite of exciting waters – some of the boats did not go out today and there were certainly few takers for the tour on the Monday!  I remember many a trip out when a child in rough waters – once we went out with my aunt and cousin from Germany when the waves were vast to the eyes of a small child, then the boatman asked us to haul a tarpaulin over us for protection from the spray.  However, whenever someone moved water coursed all over the unlucky person at the end, plus passengers were being sick over the edge.  But we got to shore safely in spite of what seemed a scary trip.

We were so wet through, with frozen hands and wet feet that we took shelter in the Pinnacle Bazaar and bought some cut-price trousers and changed into these there and then.  Oh the joy of being dry!  We nipped next door to the Pinnacle Fish & Chip Shop and sat to eat cod and chips with mushy peas (£6.25) with a warming mug of tea, with scampi and chips (£7.95) for Jay with a cup of water.  Slowly life came back into frozen hands, feet and stomach.  The batter was light, the fish fresh and succulent, the peas just right and the tea spot on.  The hunger was talking, but it was still a delicious lunch.  Afterwards, the rain had abated and we had ice creams from Coxons opposite – a 99 for me (£1.75) and a Refresher for Jay – or you can get ice creams at Pinnacles which tasted suspiciously similar to those at Coxons but cheaper at £1.20 for a 99.  Through rose tinted spectacles, this could even have been summer.

Pinnacle Fish & Chips

Pinnacle Fish & Chips

Coxons Ice Cream

Coxons Ice Cream

On Tuesday, the day was different: no wind and a blue sky.  We decided to go again and enjoy a dry trip to the Farnes.  This time the crossing was faster and smooth, but on the downside all the boats were out so there were more grockles like us and the birds were out on the water, so on Inner Farne there were less birds onshore. 

We watched the puffins bob on the water, then either skim across the water as our boat (Glad Tidings IV) approached or break the water clumsily, running on the surface then taking flight like torpedoes flapping furiously in the air.  Puffins are the little comedians of the seabird world, with oversized feet that waddled along like clowns whacky-quacky shoes and they fly with a style that Charlie Chaplin would have approved of.  Shags and cormorants floated closer to the islands, darting under water every so often to catch a fish.  Gannets flew past in small flocks of 5 or 6, with large wings moving in slow motion elegant against the skyline, so different from the puffins.  A few guillemots patrolled the top of the stacks, while kittiwakes every clung to ledges.  [Many more photos of birds at http://www.flickr.com/photos/steenbergs/sets/72157624111478125/]

Kittiwakes On Ledges At Inner Farne

Kittiwakes On Ledges At Inner Farne

Off all the islands, but especially Northern Hares and Wamses, grey seals lazed on wrack covered rocks.  Every so often they barked at each other and a few would waddle, then slide into the water, switching from overweight clumsiness on land to fleet swimmers in the sea, poking their curious and mischievous heads out of the water, watching us looking at them.

Grey Seal At Farne Islands

Grey Seal At Farne Islands

Then again to Inner Farne where you could enjoy the puffins again and watch the Arctic terns and their acrobatic flying and gaze at their elegant shapes.  Mothers protected nest by dive bombing and screeching a nasal kee-arr.  We enjoyed the view which shows the importance of this area to early Northumbrian power: Lindisfarne and the Celtic Christian church to the North on Lindisfarne, then the rock that was the base of Northern thanes, jarls and kings of Bamburgh Castle and the holy retreat of Inner Farne, with Dunstanburgh Castle to the South.  And of course the Inner Farne was the refuge for St Cuthbert, the most important Northern Saint, and where St Aidan came for contemplation every Easter (the Celtic Easter).

Back in Seahouses, we ate fish & chips at Lewis’ where we have eaten for many years.  The batter was light, but the fish less fresh, though the chips were good.  The peas came whole rather than mushed and my tea was forgotten.  Good but not as good as Pinnacles, which was not helped by a sign saying fresh crab sandwiches outside that were not available – we were told tomorrow, but I think it was the never reached mañana.  I did not try Neptune which is the other choice, but my sister went with her family and said it was excellent.

Lewis's Fish Restaurant

Lewis's Fish Restaurant, Seahouses

Walk To Low Newton – Stinking Newton (17 July 2011)

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011
Bodyboards In A Line

Bodyboards In A Line

Today was a glorious northern beach day, with sun, thunder & lightning but no wind.  Having bought wet suits at the Farne Islands Gift Shop in Seahouses (it used to be called Mackays when I was a kid), I ran into the North Sea on Beadnell Bay, as did my son and daughter.  We swam and played jump the waves and body boarding.  It really is still as cold as it always was, but neoprene does stop the wind-chill when you get out and keeps you warm when in the sea, however unsexy you look.  Beadnell Bay is a great place to play in the sea, swim, jump the waves, body board or even surf, then there are the rock pools at Snook Point to potter around in looking for hermit crabs and crabs.

After supper, my mum and I walked in the evening sun across the dunes from Links Farm in Newton-by-the-Sea to Low Newton.  On the way there, we took a pretty direct route along the path which was functional and boring, although we looked at Football Hole Cove where a chap was going through his yoga positions on a mat as the sun went down – alone on the beach.  We left him to it.  No one seems to know why it is called Football Hole Cove, but I like to think that Bobby and Jackie Charlton, with their Milburn relatives, came here on trips when they were young and kicked a football around on the beach watched on by the matriach, Cissie Charlton (née Milburn).  Probably, it is more to do with the shape of the bay that curves as if a football was kicked high and landed plonk on the beach.

View Across Newton Haven To Dunstanburgh Castle

View Across Newton Haven To Dunstanburgh Castle

As you get two thirds of the way, you have one of those views that you must see before you die: as you crest Newton Point you get your first glimpse over Embleton Bay south towards Dunstanburgh Castle.  Dunstanburgh Castle has that gothic feel of ruined stone jutting out into the cold, grey sea, but from a distance it looked warm in the sun’s last rays, a becoming viewpoint.  Down the hill, you see St Mary’s Haven with fishing and sailing boats shining in reflected rays. 

View To Low Newton

View To Low Newton

Low Newton is a tiny hamlet centred around a rectangle of white painted small houses.  Low Newton has one of best seaside pubs, The Ship Inn, famed for its locally caught crab, lobster and fish and run by the delightful Hertfordshire landlady, Christine Forsyth, who we met walking three flat coated black retrievers over the dunes while on the walk.  My mum had walked there earlier in the day and it stank of gaseous sewerage which is actually the sun working on the seaweed that gives off nauseous odours, giving Low Newton its nickname of Stinking Newton.

On the way back, we walked over the dunes by the coast, which was much better if a bit longer.  There was no one else out walking, so we had the coast to ourselves and the birds.

Hyper Energetic Sanderlings At Football Hole Cove

Hyper Energetic Sanderlings At Football Hole Cove

At Football Hole Cove, the oyster catchers (about 9 of them) were busily chattering amongst themselves as they walked through the rock pools and wrack hunting for food with their Geordie black and white clear against the dark greens of the seaweed, and then a curlew towering above them just visible in its mottled brown camouflage and huge curved beak.  Sanderlings frantically skittered along the shoreline, charging frenetically into the wake of the outflowing waves, full of nervous energy; they danced a funny dance with furiously jiggering black legs.  An eider duck family was playing in the waves by the shore with a medium sized baby.  Everywhere there were Arctic and Common terns flying back and forth with small slivery and glittery fish to nests on Beadnell Bay or perhaps over to the Farne Islands; every so often you could see shags, kittiwakes or gulls flying over the black & blue sea.  Along the dunes, swallows and larks can be seen flying hither and thither with that beautiful lilting tsirrup tsirrup.

Sunset Over Beadnell Bay

Sunset Over Beadnell Bay

The sun was setting across Football Hole Cove.  Then we went over the dunes rather than around Snook Point and down onto Beadnell Bay where we were all on our own.  This is perhaps my favourite beach in the world – a long curve round to Beadnell at the north.  Empty except for a few intrepid souls.  I could stand on the shoreline and watch the waves in perpetual flow in and out, such energy and that roar of pure physical power.  Sometimes there is a sea fisherman at the edge of the waves or out on Snook Point, pitting their wits against nature and sometimes winning.  In the distance, you may see sailing boats or windsurfers’ sails around Beadnell Bay and in the distance the odd fishing boat or on the horizon a commercial vessel.

Further south you have the beauty of Embleton Bay and Dunstanburgh Castle or north to Bamburgh Castle, and down south there may be a better climate, but as a beach Beadnell Bay cannot be beaten.