Consider the legume: a neat, dense curl that holds all it needs to grow inside itself; feeds and regenerates the soil that is its bed; survives on little to no water; and is the heart of Japanese desserts, wild bird feed, and Northern English street food. Hodmedod’s is a British project that aims to bring the legume back into the local limelight but connecting with regional farmers and distributing beans, both dried and tinned, and homestyle recipes.
When I called Nick Saltmarsh, one of Hodmedod’s three founders, just before he set off from Bristol to check on their base in Suffolk, his tone was inflected with adoration and fascination as he spoke about their beans, how tasty and versatile they are. We discuss cultural hang-ups about beans, learning from one’s mum, agroforestry, and community resilience and adaptability.
The transcribed phone call has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity
What does Hodmedod’s do?
There are two sides to the work we do. Firstly, we work both by getting older traditional crops back into production and looking at opportunities to get new crops into production. We worked with farmers to get the first British grown quinoa, chia, chickpeas, and lentils into production while also working on crops like Naked Barley which would have been grown centuries ago. So, that’s one side of it. The other side is, through doing that, we offer as wide a range of possibilities for good healthy food from British farms to the consumer.
Why was Hodmedod’s founded? Were you pushed by an interest in environmental health or personal, bodily health?
Both, but probably more the environmental push, that came first and foremost. Three of us who founded the business in 2012, myself and two colleagues, William and Josiah, we’d been working together for a small not-for-profit organisation called The East Anglia Food Link that supported local and sustainable food in the East of England. And we did a little project for a community group called Transition Norwich, which is one of the transition town local groups established to find community-led responses to climate change. The Norwich transition town group wanted us to scope out to what extent a city like Norwich could feed itself from its local hinterland and whether that was, in theory, a possibility and what it would mean.
So we did some research and essentially came to the conclusion that it was possible given a shift in our diets, away from being mostly reliant on animal proteins toward more plant-based vegetable protein diets. Obviously, if we were going to do that, which drastically reduces the amount of land needed to feed a city like Norwich, or indeed any other city, then we would need to identify some suitable vegetable protein crops to be grown in the fields around Norwich.
“The bean essentially became stigmatized as “the food of the poor”
We started thinking about whether chickpeas or lentils might be grown but then actually had the realisation that there were lots of pulses, beans, and peas already being grown in the area; they just weren’t widely finding their way into local diets. Particularly the Fava bean, which is the traditional bean that’s been grown in Britain for thousands of years since the Iron Age farmers introduced it. It used to be a really important part of our diet -one of our main sources of protein- and then completely fell out of fashion when, about 200 years ago, we started eating more meat and dairy. The only people who had to keep eating the beans were those who were too poor to keep cows for dairy. The bean essentially became stigmatized as “the food of the poor” and it was shameful to be seen eating them.
Meanwhile farmers kept on growing them because, although people weren’t eating the beans widely anymore, they are a very nutritious source of protein and other nutrients for livestock. As a legume they’re also very beneficial to the soil for fixing nitrogen, contributing to sustainable crop rotations and more recently, as well as being used for animal feed, they also started to be exported to countries where they are still widely eaten. The main export market for British Fava beans is Egypt, where they’re eaten on almost a daily basis in foods like Ful Medames and Ta’amia, the Egyptian version of falafel.
“We then started to think about whether we could get over the centuries long, cultural hang up with eating beans “
We realised these beans were grown but we just weren’t eating them here and we then started to think about whether we could get over the centuries long, cultural hang up with eating beans and whether they could become part of our diet again. We did a small trial where we bought half a tonne of beans and put them in little bags and distributed them to people to ask them what they thought. The responses were overwhelmingly positive so we decided that we needed to do more to get these beans that were grown on British farms back into British diets and that, I guess, was the start of Hodmedod.
Encouraging people to eat beans seems to require a shift in cultural and behavioural practices?
Globally, they are still associated with class: in industrialised countries people moved from beans and pulses to eating meat and dairy, this is a very affordable way of eating foods that would previously have been essentially a luxury food. And when you get to a point where societies are rich enough to be eating luxury foods all the time, why would you choose otherwise? It is a deeply embedded cultural thing.
“We’ve been quite fortunate that since we founded Hodemdod eight years ago, there has been a real shift in diet, a huge shift towards more plant-based and vegan diets, and increasing recognition of the environmental reasons for eating less meat“
I guess we’ve been quite fortunate that since we founded Hodmedod eight years ago, there has been a real shift in diet, a huge shift towards more plant-based and vegan diets, and increasing recognition of the environmental reasons for eating less meat or for cutting meat entirely out of our diet. There has never been a better time to be promoting pulses and what we’ve also seen, which fits very neatly with what we’re doing is increasing interest in the provenance of food: where it comes from, how it is produced, and what and where the impacts are of what we choose to eat.
We had been working with local foods of various kinds in our previous work and are very aware that these dried goods and pantry foods was the category of food that was the most anonymous, other than very highly processed foods. If you buy a packet of pulses or a bag of flour it often says very little on where it comes from. We wanted to do something very different and start to offer those sorts of products with very clear provenance; not just being committed to them coming from British farms but also giving information about the particular farms that grow the particular crops we sell.
What has this period of covid-19 lock-down and separation made you think about?
First of all, it’s been an exceptionally busy time for us, so certainly initially we were quite overwhelmed with the sudden growth in demand and just worked flat out to keep up with that. But that eased off a bit over the last month or so and that’s given us a chance to reflect on where we can do more of what we’re already doing: work with more farmers, increase the range of products, or work with other food producers doing similar things to offer what is only now more in demand than it was before.
Just looking from the food perspective, I think what it’s done is pushed a lot of people in a direction they were already starting to go in, so it has made people question where their food comes from and how it’s produced. Not being able to easily buy food in a way that was taken for granted has raised those questions and forced people to look at other sources of food, going more directly to the producer, looking at alternative channels, and realising some of the wider benefits of doing so. And also just the simple step of buying food online, I think that was growing very fast anyway, but it’s just been given a massive impetus and we probably just jumped forward a couple of years in the direction we were already going in. From the food perspective I think it is a big opportunity to hopefully reshape our food supply in positive ways.
And what about Brexit?
Yes, so Brexit… it’s amazing how it went from being the only thing being talked about to being completely sidelined and put into the shadows. Coronavirus is a terrible thing, and I have never seen Brexit as a good thing either, but just in terms of how they make people think about food and where it comes from, there is at least a positive side for it. I think that we are being shaken up and forced to question many things that we had rather blindly taken for granted, like that food would magically appear on the supermarket shelf from wherever and we don’t need to worry about it. But we do need to think about it more.
In being more totally connected to farmers like we are with our shorter supply chains, I think it’s something that is more widely valued than it was previously. Global supply chains are more precarious and their weaknesses and lack of resilience has been hidden from us until now and suddenly they’re very much made clear [by the pandemic]. Because we do work exclusively with British farmers, in terms of the sort of challenges posed by Brexit we are very well insulated because our supply chains are entirely within the UK.
What does ‘hodmedod’ mean?
It’s an East Anglian dialect word, which reflects a forgotten part of our heritage a bit like the Fava bean is a forgotten part of our history. The word hodmedod, depending on where you are in East Anglia, can mean hedgehog or snail, it also sometimes means ammonite fossil, or it describes curly hair and what all those things have in common is that they are round and curled up, so conceivably, it reflects how beans and peas are round and curled up in their pods. We also just like the name, it’s distinctive and unusual and all rather pleasing.
Do you cook?
I would describe the three of us, William, Josiah and myself, as keen, amateur cooks. One of the things we realised when we first started was that, because most people were unfamiliar with Fava beans, we needed to provide recipes. First of all we were keen to cook them ourselves to check that they were actually a tasty bean and when we first realised that they were in fact being grown here but not eaten here we just assumed that it was because they weren’t tasty to eat, but having them ourselves we realised they are a really delicious and nutritious and versatile bean to cook.
We initially produced our own amateur recipe book and have since worked with professional cooks and food writers who developed recipes for us, but we’re always keen to cook and eat all of our products. That’s a very important part of it, that it is about what they are like to cook and eat, their nutrition, as well as the benefits for the environment.
I guess I learnt from my mum originally and then I just learnt to cook by myself, playing around. I’ve never had any professional cooking training but I picked up cooking from my mum and then went off to university and learnt to cook for myself, enjoyed cooking for myself. Then after university I volunteered on organic farms across Europe and enjoyed seeing how different people cooked in very different ways, picking up different approaches and gathering ways of cooking and recipes. I’m terrible at following recipes but I like to be inspired by recipes and see how the people cook, gleaning ideas and playing around with them. If I tried to follow a recipe it almost immediately goes out the window.
Another part of what living under coronavirus has done is give people the time to enjoy cooking and eating as a household.
What is the Black Badger Bean?
When we launched Hodmedod’s our first two products were just the split and the whole Fava bean but we very quickly realised just through talking to farmers -and to processors who took the crops from the farms and clean them up for human consumption- that there were a whole load of other crops that were already being grown but often for a very specific market.
The Black Badger -which is a dialect word for what’s more generally known as the Carlin pea, also known as the maple pea- was being grown on a few dozen farms across the country, and the main three markets that they were being grown for were for export to Japan, where they are hugely appreciated as a delicious pulse often eaten in sweet dishes, but it’s also grown for sale to the pigeon fanciers because apparently a pigeon’s pick of food it the Carlin pea. And the third is a very regional market in the North West of England where Carlin peas are still eaten as a traditional dish called parched peas. If you go to Preston market, well probably not at the moment, but there have until recently been stores selling little tubs of parched peas that you eat on the street, simply cooked up, served up in their own cooking juices with a bit of salt and pepper.
“They’re getting a wider audience who appreciate them and, like us, are amazed that they weren’t more widely available beforehand.”
Other than that they were an almost completely unknown ingredient, an unknown variety of pea. They are unusual for peas in that they are dark brown, or some variety are more reddish brown colour, and they are just the most delicious pea, they eat like a chickpea and keep a firm texture with a bite and have a delicious almost chestnut-y flavour. We couldn’t believe that they weren’t more widely known because they are so delicious. We very quickly added Black Badger Carlin peas to our range so they were our fourth product and they’ve proven very popular ever since.
Was quinoa farming possible before global heating and climate change?
Our climate is changing alarmingly fast and that presents both challenges for farming and also opportunities; some crops will become much harder to grow while other crops will become more suited and easier to grow in our new climate. Quinoa is a slightly odd one in that it has successfully been grown here for almost thirty years, obviously climate change was already happening thirty years ago just not to the extent that it is now. The farmer who grows quinoa for us was the very first farmer to start growing it thirty years ago and initially it was used as a seed for wild bird conservation and game bird seed mixes. It was very bitter and unpalatable without being thoroughly washed and wasn’t good to eat, so it’s only more recently that he has selected varieties that don’t have the bitter saponins on the seed case.
“I think diversity is really important here. If we have a bigger diversity of crops and a diversity of farming methods, then there’s more resilience.”
There are references to quinoa having been grown on a small scale back in Victorian times. The Victorians were great plant collectors and brought plants back from all over the world to try growing them. Because quinoa is grown at altitude in South America, it doesn’t actually need as warm a climate as people often assume.
Chickpeas, for example, grow best in a pretty warm and very dry climate and as our springs are warmer and drier than they used to be they are definitely more suited to growing chickpeas now. The farmer who grows our chickpeas worked on a Spanish Farm when he was young so he had seen them grow and was advised by the Spanish farmer he lived and worked with that chickpeas should only see water twice: once at their birth and again at their death. The birth is when they are first sowed in the field and you want a little bit of water just to start them off, but ideally it wouldn’t get any water all year until after they are harvested you boil them, that’s the water at their death. So, I think chickpeas probably couldn’t have been grown a few decades ago, certainly not reliably, and probably will become more suited here.
The weather we’ve had this spring has been really challenging for almost all crops – other than chickpeas, which would have been perfectly happy – if we hadn’t had the rain we’ve had over the last week or so now there would be a lot of crops that would be threatened by this lack of water. This spring has been hotter and drier than all but three of the summers since records began, so in spring we have effectively been through one of the hottest and driest summers on record. That is extraordinary and pretty worrying because it is a huge change, this makes it difficult for farmers and their crops.
I think diversity is really important here: If an individual farmer, or we collectively, are relying on a very narrow range of crops, some unexpected circumstances, like the weather or a particular pest, can really threaten all or most of what we grow. Whereas if we have a bigger diversity of crops and a diversity of farming methods, then there’s more resilience because even if one product doesn’t survive you’ve got others to fall back on.
Are the farmers you work with working to increase diversity?
Lots of the farmers we work with are keen to increase diversity at every level, so it’s not just a question of the number of crops that are grown but also looking at opportunities to co-crop by growing two crops together in the same field; looking at things like agroforestry where plants are grown between aisles of trees so you get biological diversity between the fields.
One of our mentors was an experimental farmer called Prof. Martin Wolfe who really pioneered agroforestry in the UK. He was a professor of plant pathology who retired in the late 1990s and in his retirement bought a farm in Suffolk and established it as an agroforestry farm. Sadly he died last year, but in the last few years his work has finally been widely recognised and inspired a good number of farms to follow his model and established agroforestry farms in the UK.
One of the other things Prof. Wolfe did was to develop a population of wheat where, instead of having a genetically uniform crop of wheat, he crossbred forty varieties and obtained every possible combination. This established a population where every plant is genetically unique instead of every plant being genetically identical, so he called that his YQ crop, standing for ‘Yield and Quality’. We now have several farmers growing YQ wheat.
One experiment with it really demonstrated this incredible resilience: when populations YQ wheat were grown alongside crops of monoculture in different years, different monoculture varieties would do better each year but the YQ population was very consistent in that it would, because of its genetic diversity, within itself adapt to a very dry or wet year or different pressures from pests in one particular year. So it really is quite exciting and innovative work that goes against the thrust of mainstream farming, which is all about having single varieties that are identified as in theory “the best yielding” or having particular characteristics. The danger of making things efficient and streamlined is that you are susceptible to the wrong kind of conditions and you don’t have any diversity to fall back on
Farming diversity and resilience really deserves to be more widely known and understood and anything we can do to spread that message is a good thing.
After our phone call, Nick sent us an ample box of beans, peas, and snack crafted out of Hodmedod’s bounty of pulses. If you’d like to order your own sample array of beans, or are a chef looking to cook with local, traditional beans, get in touch with Hodmedod’s: https://hodmedods.co.uk/