Hodmedod's is pioneering the reintroduction of age-old British pulses like carlin peas and fava beans back into our kitchens to create a more diverse and sustainable food system. Wicked Leeks caught up with co-founder Josiah Meldrum to find out more.
How did Hodmedod’s come about?
Back in 2008, community group Transition City Norwich asked Nick, William and I to help them work out whether, with climate change in mind, the city could feed itself from surrounding farmland and how diet and farming might need to change in order for this to happen. We looked at various scenarios but what was striking about all of them was the need to grow and eat more pulses; not only because they are a great source of protein and other nutrients, but because they make a fantastic contribution to more sustainable crop rotations, 'fixing' nitrogen from the atmosphere and helping to improve soil quality.
We decided to see whether people in Norwich would be willing to eat more beans and peas and whether farmers might be willing to grow them. The thing that immediately became clear was that farmers around Norwich were already growing a lot of pulses, in particular fava beans – a small variety of broad bean that is harvested dry in August.
Why did British-grown pulses and legumes go out of fashion?
We'd always been aware of fava beans but had assumed they were just suitable for animal feed – it turns out that's a fairly recent view and one that's mostly confined to Western Europe. For most of the fava bean's 2000 year history in the UK, it formed a central part of our diets and in much of the rest the world it's still a staple, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East. It seems that in the UK, as we got richer, fava beans became stigmatised as poor people's food and over the last 200 years or so have almost completely disappeared from our kitchens.
Carlin peas are near forgotten but were still being grown in a few places for pigeon feed and for sale in the North East and West where they're traditionally eaten parched – that is, boiled and served with vinegar, salt and pepper.
What happened next?
We bought some beans that would otherwise have been exported and packed half a tonne into 500g bags at William's kitchen table. Every bag had a postage-paid card asking for feedback and we released the beans into Norwich. We were overwhelmed by the response, people who tried the beans couldn't believe they'd never heard of them – they sent us recipes, and asked when the beans would be more widely available. We formed Hodmedod’s that autumn to carry on the work, and to bring other forgotten and overlooked pulses back into kitchens and onto farms.
How does Hodmedod’s link to the wider issue of sustainable food?
When we started, lots of people told us that we were daft to try and sell UK-grown pulses in the UK when even mushy pea sales were declining. But there was an opportunity to tell the story of these versatile, nutritious and sustainable crops, and it was clear to us that diets and farming systems were going to have to change. We felt sure lots of other people would agree and that once they'd tried the beans they'd be won over. Over the last few years, a series of reports highlighting the impact of our diets on the environment and our health has really driven interest in what we're doing at Hodmedod’s.
How easy is it to grow pulses in the UK?
It rather depends on the pulse – the UK is uniquely well-placed to grow peas, we have a near perfect climate for them and British farmers produce some of the best quality peas in the world. We also produce excellent fava beans here. But both crops are trickier than cereals, and the commodity price farmers receive when selling onto global markets doesn't necessarily reflect the risk. Pulses that are generally not grown in the UK are harder – lentils, chickpeas and ‘New World’ beans (things like navy, haricot and kidney) are a real challenge as our climate isn't ideal and they require slightly different approaches to growing and harvesting, in some cases including equipment UK farmers don't generally have. We've been working hard on lentils with small group of farmers for a few years and it feels like we've almost worked out how to do it.
Recipe: Try Hodmedod’s Fava Bean Biryani
200g Whole Dried Fava Beans or 1 can Whole Fava Beans in water
150g Caerphilly cheese or similar (any crumbly cheese will do, such as Cheshire, feta or Wensleydale)
A generous handful coriander, basil or other fresh herbs
200g cherry tomatoes cut in half
Olive oil and vinegar to dress
Salt and pepper to taste
If using dried beans, put them in to soak overnight. Rinse the soaked beans, boil for 40 minutes then rinse again (this washes out the tannins in the skin and improves the flavour). At this point you might want to freeze a batch of beans for future use.
If using canned beans, simply drain and rinse.
Heat the beans in a little water and mash lightly with a fork.
Crumble up the cheese and fold it into the warm beans – it should melt a little but hold its shape.
Tear up the herbs and stir these into the beans with the tomatoes, season and dress with a little oil and vinegar.