Feeling morally satisfied with yourself for using organic, free range, farm reared ingredients is all very well but with just one grind of the pepper mill, a pinch of salt or a sprinkling of herbs, any effort to cook ethically can be jeopardised. In a world where you can track the movements of your free range chicken from organic farm to farm shop, and where you relish the fact that your home grown carrot has three ends, it seems strange that the origins of seasonings and spices are being taken for granted.
Spices and fragrances have enchanted the senses since the beginning of time with their alluring capacity to conjure up the unknown. But with faded colours and diminished smells, today’s seasonings are a far cry from oriental spice markets and Provencal herb gardens.
Trips to trendy farm shops and local farmer’s markets are being enjoyed by the most unlikely chefs. But although Brits have come expect top quality, ethically raised produce, up until now, herbs, spices and blends of a comparable standard have not been available.
However Axel and Sophie Steenberg think they may have found an answer, having spent many hours over the last few years wandering round the spice markets of southern India and Sri Lanka. On returning to England, they came to the conclusion that spices and herbs are poorly represented on the British high street: ‘We simply couldn’t find spices that taste like they do in India,’ says Axel, ‘All the flavour has gone out of the product on the shelf.’
After actively researching peppers and spices, by the end of 2003 the Steenbergs had decided to launch an organic pepper and spice range. ‘We wanted our products to recapture the buzz, smell and fun of a spice market,’ says Axel. They made several journeys to India and the New World: ‘Sometimes it took ages to get to producers,’ Axel said, ‘In one place we stayed with the local priest.’ But the adventure paid off.
The Steenbergs have now created a network of loyal small producers across the developing world: ‘We trust and like the producers and know where the produce is coming from’ says Axel. The majority of spices are still harvested in the way they have been for centuries, by hand so it is important to know that labourers are working in good conditions and are being treated fairly.’
And the flavours are definitely something new. Cooks across the country will have a field day when they see the Steenbergs’ range, imagining farm reared Exmoor lamb seasoned with Turkish rosemary, organic fillet steak rolled in Malabar black peppercorns and Hawaiin sea salt and mashed potato with Sri Lankan nutmeg.
But these same cooks will also have to get to know their new spices. These are not only stronger in colour, they are much more intense in flavour. ‘People are always surprised how strong they are,’ Axel comments, ‘You only need to use a little bit.’
Spices can be grouped into five basic categories: sweet, pungent, tangy, hot, and amalgamating. The way spices are used and the amounts added to cooking are governed by these characteristics. Examples of the different types of spices are:
Sweet: cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, vanilla
Pungent: cloves, star anise, cardamom
Tangy: ginger, tamarind, sumac
Hot: pepper, chile, mustard, horseradish
Amalgamating: coriander seed, fennel seed
Most of their herbs (such as thyme, sage, marjoram, oregano, bay leaves, mint and rosemary) are referred to as savouryand have varying degrees of flavour intensity.
Steenbergs organic pepper and spices are available by mail order from Axel and Sophie’s Yorkshire premises or at specialist retailers. Products can be acquired individually or in boxes. The Indian Spice box provides the six key spices required in Indian cooking as well a recipe card, and the Christmas Survival Box is full of ingredients guaranteed to spice up the frosty winter months. For more information on Steenbergs Organic Pepper and Spice, or to order visit www.steenbergs.co.uk or call +44 (0)1765 640088.
Kerala fish curry
‘This is the business. Kerala is where many of our best spices come from ? pepper, curry leaves, coriander seeds, turmeric etc. It’s the fabled spice coast. This recipe has become a family stock favourite ever since it was first cooked at my father’s 65th birthday party.’
400g of white fish fillets 4 tablespoons of oil 2 tomatoes, quartered 1 onion, thinly sliced 20 curry leaves 2 green chillis, slit lengthways 2½ cm cube of fresh ginger, grated ½ teaspoon turmeric powder ¼ teaspoon chilli powder 200ml canned coconut milk 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1 tablespoon vinegar Sea salt Freshly milled black pepper
Clean the fish and cut into 2½ cm cubes.
Heat oil in frying pan. Add the tomatoes, onion, curry leaves, green chillis and ginger. Cook over moderate heat for 5 minutes or until lightly browned. Add the turmeric and the chilli powder and mix well. Add 200ml of water, raise the heat to high and boil for 2 minutes.
Then lower the heat right down and carefully stir the coconut milk into the curry. Simmer gently for a further 5 minutes. Add the cubed fish and cook over moderate heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Mix in the lemon juice and vinegar, and remove from the heat. Serve with plain boiled rice.
Peppery Indian chicken
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped 2½ cm fresh ginger, peeled and grated 4 tablespoons vegetable oil 2 medium onions, finely sliced 10 curry leaves 1 green chilli, slit lengthways 1 teaspoon ground coriander ½ teaspoon turmeric powder 500g chicken, cubed 1 teaspoon garam masala 225ml water ½ teaspoon freshly milled black pepper Sea salt
Pound the garlic and ginger to a fine paste in a pestle and mortar.
Heat the oil in a large frying pan, add onions, curry leaves and green chilli and cook until onions are brown. Add the garlic-ginger paste and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the coriander, turmeric and salt. Mix well and cook for 5 minutes. Add the chicken to the frying pan, stir, ad the water and garam masala.
Mix well, cover and cook for 5 minutes on a low heat. Stir the ground pepper into the mix.
A wonderful meatless pasta meal served with crusty bread. The herbs give great flavour to the dish, and the combination of tomatoes, feta and olives can’t be beaten.
50ml olive oil 1 tablespoon fresh parsley 1 teaspoon dried rosemary 1 teaspoon dried sage 1 teaspoon fresh or basil ½ teaspoon marjoram 500ml cherry tomatoes, quartered 150ml good black olives, coarsely chopped 1½ tablespoons balsamic or red wine vinegar 225ml feta cheese, crumbled ¼ teaspoon chopped red peppers (optional) 500g vermicelli pasta
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. While the water for the pasta is heating, mix olive oil, parsley, rosemary, sage, basil and marjoram together and let stand for 5 minutes. Wash, then quarter the cherry tomatoes, and chop the olives if you have whole ones.
Cook the pasta according to the package directions, which is usually only 5 minutes or so for angel hair pasta.
When the pasta is almost done cooking, add the vinegar, feta cheese, olives and tomatoes to the oil and mix lightly. Drain the pasta and rinse briefly. Toss the pasta and sauce together.
Sprinkle with chopped red peppers if desired. Serve with crusty French bread.
Vanilla and saffron pears
8 pears, peeled but leaving on stalks 1 litre water 250g sugar 1 vanilla bean, cut lengthways and seeds scraped out 1 pinch of saffron ½tsp ginger ½tsp grated lemon zest
Place all the ingredients in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Cook over a gentle heat until the pears are soft, turning them occasionally ? this should take 30 to 40 minutes depending on how ripe the pears are.
Serve in bowls with the vanilla and saffron poaching liquid and a really good vanilla ice cream or double cream.
This is a great gooey cake – if you buy all the ingredients as organic, you can also feel good about eating it.
275g caster sugar 225ml sunflower oil 1½tsp baking powder ½tsp ground cloves 225g carrots, finely grated 75g cream cheese 3tbsp caster sugar 3 free-range eggs 175g plain flour 1½tsp ground cinnamon ½ tsp sea salt 100g chopped walnuts 40g unsalted butter
Grease a 10cm cake tin with a pastry (or paint) brush; turn the baking tray upside down after greasing to allow any excess oil to drain away. Line with baking paper. Heat oven to 175°C.
Sieve together the plain flour, baking powder, spices and salt into mixing bowl. Put sugar in a large bowl and stir in oil with a wooden spoon. Beat in the free-range eggs, 1 at a time. Continue to beat, adding in the flour mixture as spoonful at a time. Now stir in the walnuts and carrots ? keep back about 1 tbsp of carrots for decoration).
Spoon the mixture into a cake tin and bake for 70 ? 80 minutes, or until top springs back when pressed lightly. Cool on a rack before cutting.
For the frosting: use a blender and beat the cream cheese until smooth. Add butter a little at a time, beating it into the cream cheese until fully blended. Then add sugar and beat again until smooth. When cake is cold, smooth this frosting over the top with a knife