Posts Tagged ‘lifestyle’

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

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)

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.

The Sound of Northumberland

Sunday, October 2nd, 2011

I have been to listen and watch Kathryn Tickell twice over the last month, once in Ripon and then at the Sage with her new show, Northumbrian Voices with her band and her dad – actually her dad, Mike Tickell, also came to the show in the Holy Trinity Church, Ripon.  She is a great virtuoso player of the Northumbrian small pipes and fiddle, plus there is a togetherness as the core of the Kathryn Tickell band is herself and her brother, so like all great traditional musicians they can move the set around, play different pieces and just wing it as they needed to do in Ripon with their accordion player not there.  And like all natural musicians who are completely confident with their instruments and repertoire, they are often best when they need to tweak, change and stretch themselves rather than just play the same old routine when they would rather have a glass of beer, wine or put their feet up and read a book!

I feel she plays her best when the songs are a bit darker and bleaker, or more frenzied and manic, than those that are lighter or the jollier dances.  Perhaps she laments, quite rightly, the loss of the traditional livelihoods that have shaped the North, whether it’s the fishermen, the pitmen or farmers that scratched a tough life from these beautiful, but unforgiving, lands, to be replaced by softer jobs in tourism or banking.  Somehow, the harder times made for better music, a deeper understanding and enjoyment in our landscapes and seascapes, as well as those times of rest and the spaces and gaps we used to have in our lives that were not filled with adrenaline kicking, speed filled modern media.  No time to reflect, no pauses and no spaces, as well as a detachment for the physical world we actually live in.  Also, perhaps a loss of contrast between the genuinely hard graft and relaxing down times makes it difficult to enjoy simple pleasures.

So her Wild Hills of Whannies is bleak, windy and wet like Steel Rigg, Haughton Common or the Cheviots up by Wooler, before you get the livelier and freer bubbling and flowing of the burns after the flood through the middle of the tune.  In contrast, Billy Pigg’s version has a more joyful, playful relationship to the same countryside.  And I loved the slow, mournful lament for Stonehaugh Community Centre that morphed into a livelier jig that brought back memories of functional community halls and dances, whether country dances or more often than not cheesy disco music.  Then later she played her version of Bill Charlton’s  Fancy.  The sounds were different but the function was the same, people came together from their farms, crofts and houses and had a good crack.  In the days before MP3 players, multichannel TV and digitised everything, that was the height of fun and it kept the mischief controlled and somewhere close by.  Innocent and largely without too much real badness.

But I love their sounds as her Northumberland is still my Northumberland, although for me a river always runs through it, the Tyne, and the smell of the sea is never that far away.  So whether I was swinging on a tyre swing over the North Tyne by Chollerford or swimming in the Tyne at Bywell, or holidaying by Seahouses, or playing kick-the-can in Bell’s Valley by Fredden Hill, her sounds have that doleful, dreich feel that is the bleakness and beauty of Northumberland.  But that’s its soul, my soul, and I wouldn’t have it otherwise.  Yes, there is, and always has been, much fun to be had, but it is hard won and deserved – especially for us who bear the cross of support for the Toon – and a laugh will be deep and unrestrained, but underneath there is not too much softness, more hard rock covered in moss.

This feeling for a land shaped by the hills, rivers and sea was even more closely followed with the Northumbrian Voices show.  For example, the Song for the North Tyne by Mike Tickell specifically told of the changes wrought to the Tyne and the valleys by the building of Kielder reservoir and forest.

This was a country music show that was pure Northumbria (except for the country sounds from Hank Williams’ Your Cheatin’ Heart) and was filled with stories and sounds shaped by hills, snow and sheep.  The music and songs were played by Kathryn Tickell, Julian Sutton (melodeon), Kit Haigh (guitar), Patsy Reid (fiddle and viola), Hannah Rickard (voice and fiddle) and Mike Tickell (voice).  Then there were words transcribed from conversations during the spaces in recordings, covering stories about traditional knowledge and ways of life that have gone or almost gone; whether these are how to look after sheep or how to look after the hill farms or passing down knowledge between generations in hefted flocks on where to graze. 

Yes, life is wealthier and there is more sparkle and glamour in towns and cities, where the shopping is way better, however I do agree and feel that somehow we are culturally poorer as we loose these simple bits of knowledge that have been learnt over 100s and 1000s of years, whether it is how to shepherd the hills or fish the North Sea, and how to dance a reel especial to a particular valley.  We have destroyed our communities, we have chucked away our local culture and replaced it with global media and music that has no connection back to the land.  I worry that there will come a time when we will need to go back to the land and our hands and heads will be too soft to know what to do and unlike the Pilgrim Fathers in America there will be no-one with the local knowledge to help us.  And as Clive Aslett in The Daily Telegraph wrote – who would want to bring up their children as country bumpkins – well, me actually.

Once again, I was drawn to the melancholic that seems to fit the sound of the pipes, so the Pipes Lament and the Carrick Hornpipe that told of cold winters and changes that continue to be wrought to the land, for better or the worse.  But perhaps, it was even better to just hear and sing some of the old songs that have no time to them but plenty of spatial context – Canny Shepherd Laddies of the Hill, Duns Dings A’, Hesleyside Reel and Small Coals and Little Money.

All in all, a bunch of really great shows and something we would be really proud of if we were in the USA, but here it is just so not mainstream and we prefer the fantasies of Britains Got Talent and X Factor than a more solid and honest local music.

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.

Starting Out – The Basics For A Simple Homemade Burger

Friday, July 8th, 2011

Some time ago, I started a quest for a great burger, then stopped that search as things at Steenbergs gave me less time than I had needed.  But I think I am ready to start that hunt again.

In the meantime, I have not been completely idle..well, a little perhaps…and have tweaked my core simple burger recipe, reducing the seasoning to let the flavour of the meat come through more.  However, it is completely a matter of taste as to how much seasoning you want to complement the beef flavours, plus an element of how good the meat itself is, where the better the flavours in the meat, the less seasoning you should be adding.

So here is my amended Simple Burger recipe:

450g / 1lb ground chuck, rib eye, rump, silverside or topside beef
1tbsp grated or minced onion (optional especially for top notch 21+ days’ beef, but ideal for shop bought mince), lightly fried then cooled
½tsp sea salt
¼tsp cracked black pepper

If doing the onion, fry gently in ½tbsp of sunflower oil until clear, then cool until chilled in the fridge. 

Next, clean your hands.  Then, in a clean stainless steel bowl, mix together all the ingredients using your hands, making sure all the ingredients are spread evenly through the mix.  Leave in the fridge for at least an hour and ideally overnight (or 6 hours).  Form the burger mix into patties that are 2cm (¾ inch) thick with your hands or in a burger press.

Season With Mince With Salt & Pepper

Season With Mince With Salt & Pepper

Shape The Burgers In A Pattie Press Or By Hand

Shape The Burgers In A Pattie Press Or By Hand

Homemade Burger Patties

Burger Patties Made At Home

Lightly brush with sunflower oil on each side, then either grill them over a barbecue or in a good cast-iron frying pan over a medium-high heat to the desired degree of doneness – around 4 – 5 minutes per side for medium rare; 5 – 6 minutes for medium.  However, the degree of doneness is not an exact science and depends a lot on the actual temperatures used and the meat, so be flexible rather than rigid in these guides.

Burger Press From Weschenfelder

Burger Press From Weschenfelder

To shape the burgers, I just use my hands.  However, Lakeland have a burger press that would do the job if you do not like the feel of meat, or you could try Twenga where there seem to be loads of alternatives over a wide price bracket.  Better still there is a range of burger presses from £7 – £300 at one of my favourite web secrets, Weschenfelder.

If you find that your burgers are falling apart, you may find that the meat you are using is not moist enough.  Alternatively, you could add some breadcrumbs, which will help to bind the meat together more.  In my homemade burger recipe via the main Steenbergs website, I use these in a more involved burger recipe.  The other possibility is that the burger is being turned too much or you are pressing it down, so releasing the juices that would bind the meat together, as below.

If you wish to barbecue them, a charcoal fire is much better rather than a gas grill, but obviously comes with more of a hassle factor.  Here are some basic burger cooking rules:

  1. Turn the burger only once – flipping might make the burger fall apart, while turning it back and forth will dry it out without letting the burger cook through.
  2. Don’t squash down the burger while it is cooking.  It does not speed up the cooking time much and squeezes out the juices, so ensuring your burger will become dry and solid rather than succulent & delicious.
  3. Finally, make sure your frying pan or grill is hot before you start cooking, but you don’t want a mega hot flame that chars the burgers to a crisp, cinder, better to be white hot charcoals than big flickering flames.  Impatience will not help the best flavours to develop.

But the key to any burger recipe is the meat.

Smells But No Bells

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Since time immemorial, incense has been used for religious purposes and to cleanse the air in homes as well as in places of worship.  Much of the incense is based on fragrant gums like frankincense and myrrh and come from Arabia and India.  When you go to India, places like Bangalore almost seem infused with the rich smells of sandalwood.

At Steenbergs, you can get the practical benefit of incense sticks from India that come in a huge range of flavours.  I particularly like frankincense and sandalwood, but you can have more exotic aromas like patchouli and ylang-ylang.  I burn them every so often to cleanse the house and burn them over our fish shaped incense stick holders.

Incense Stick On Fish Shaped Holder

Incense Stick On Fish Shaped Holder

Incense Burner For Gums

Incense Burner For Gums

But what I really like are the incense burners and the charcoal that comes in handy 10 briquette packs that are remarkably good value.  These charcoal circles can be made hot over a candle or a gas flame to get to a burning temperature, then placed into the beautiful clay burners – we have the Mysore shape.  You can then drizzle over some pieces of frankincense for a sweet, turpentine-like smoke or myrrh for a bittersweet flavour.  Or you can mix them together into an aromatic base, where I use a ratio of 2:1 of frankincense to myrrh.  Then perhaps you can make a truly cleansing aroma by breaking some cinnamon or sandalwood bark over these resins to add another flavour to the whole.

Frankincense On The Burner

Frankincense On The Burner

Myrrh Gum Burning On Hot Charcoal

Myrrh Gum Burning On Hot Charcoal

Mysore Burner With Frankincense Smoke Erupting

Mysore Burner With Frankincense Smoke Erupting

For more recipes of do-it-yourself incense mixes, you could do worse than go to http://incensemaking.com/incense-recipes.htm or http://www.scentsofearth.com/how_to_make_incense.htm .

It’s A Mad World, Sometimes

Monday, February 28th, 2011

We are developing a vanilla paste to complement Steenbergs organic Fairtrade vanilla extract, rose water etc. 

However, today I was sent the Specification and Material Safety Data Sheet by the guys who are going to do “the making it into a paste bit” for us.  Within this, it stated that “If Ingested: Induce Vomiting”.  On thinking this a bit extreme for a product that is already sold for human consumption to the public in shops and restaurants around Europe and the USA, I queried this statement.  The response was simple that if you ingested too much then this might be bad for you and then you should induce vomiting. 

I suspect that eating/ drinking too much Divine Orange Chocolate or smoked salmon or Mrs Kirkham’s delicious Lancahsire cheese or Coca-Cola or even our teas and so on and so on might be bad for the health and one should then induce vomiting, if it has not already started of its own accord; so why not then put health warnings on all foodstuffs that you eat this at your own risk.

It is just another symptom of our form-filling world where it is more important to tick some boxes rather than engage the brain and really think things through, i.e. businesses and bureaucrats are becoming ever more interested in covering their legal backsides than actually adding any real value.  So I am now going to buy a product that I am being told might cause “nausea and dizziness” if ingested specifically to sell to the public to ingest, so now the risk has shifted from the manufacturer to me, so it is lucky that my shoulders are broad enough to take on a bit more theoretical business risk.

Countdown To Christmas

Saturday, December 11th, 2010

It is that time of the year again when I start panicking that I have not got everything ready for Christmas.  What have you forgotten?  No presents bought that is for sure, but the thought and desire is there.  Soon, I feel myself say, there’s still plenty of time. 

The organic turkey has been ordered from Copas via our local village shop, The Smithy in BaldersbyChristmas cake made, but I must make the marzipan and also ice it.  Christmas pudding made for us, my parents and good friends.  Recipe for mincemeat tweaked and new batch of mincemeat made and stirred last weekend with heavenly, boozy smells.  The crib scene has been put out.  I must remember to get the Christmas tree this weekend otherwise we will end out with a scraggly twig like the last few years.  Our daughter’s nativity play watched and enjoyed, where Emily played the part of Mary, which she has been bursting to have forever.  Pantomine booked and to be watched in New Year at Newcastle Theatre Royal: Robin Hood with the fabulous father-son team of Clive Webb and Danny Adams. Lebkuchen from Schmidt & Co in Nuremburg ordered and received.  Treats from Forman & Field ordered and received.

I think I will just marzipan the cake now and try and stop worrying about it.

Wooden Crib Scene

Wooden Crib Scene

Beautiful German Biscuits From Lebkuchen Schmidt In Nuremburg

Beautiful German Biscuits From Lebkuchen Schmidt In Nuremburg

Forman & Field Box Of Christmas Food

Forman & Field Box Of Christmas Food