Hodmedod’s co-founder and fava bean enthusiast Nick Saltmarsh on the fragility of food supply chains and why pulses hold the key to a more sustainable future.
Hodemedod’s is an independent business that works with farmers and processors, producing a wide range of British grown pulses and is a company that is constantly innovating. It was formed back in 2012 when Nick Saltmarsh, Josiah Meldrum and William Hudson came together with a mission: to bring British pulses back into British kitchens and create more sustainable diets. As it turned out, the long-forgotten fava bean shone through as the answer to their prayers.
To begin with, Nick, can you tell me about how Hodmedod’s all began?
Well, the motivation for starting the business began with the realisation that there were pulses in the UK that didn’t feature in the British diet in any significant way. We’d been working on a project for a small community collective called the ‘Transition Town Group,’ in Norwich, Norfolk, where we’re based. This community-led group looks at responses to climate change and how to live more responsibly, sustainably and resiliently in the face of ecological challenges. They had asked us to help them look at what an ideal, locally-produced, and sustainable diet might look like, and that could be produced from the agricultural land around Norwich. So, we looked at the dietary requirements and matched that up to what was being produced in that area.
It was a very fertile farming area with a lot of production, predominantly arable although with some livestock and dairy production. So, there was a good balance of crops and other foods being produced. However, due to the nature of our supply chains, a lot of the crops weren’t finding their way directly to the people of Norwich.
One key thing we identified was the huge benefits to be had from shifting to more plant-based diets and replacing some or all of the animal protein with more vegetable protein. We thought pulses would be a big part of the answer if we were going to do that. So, if we could get more pulses grown in the area around Norwich, that would be a big step forward to providing a complete diet with minimal environmental impact for the city.
How did you narrow down your search?
We started thinking about the pulses that were on offer. Most of the pulses that feature in the British diet are imported. Of course, the pulse we eat the most in the UK comes in the form of baked beans. That said, while one of Britain’s national foods, baked beans are always made with imported beans, typically from the US. We also eat chickpeas and lentils, which are all imported, too. Yet, the pulses grown on British farms, like dried fava beans and dried peas, don’t feature in our diet. So, having thought initially about whether we could get chickpeas or lentils into production around Norwich, we came to realise that there was a much more immediate and simpler answer. That was to get people to eat the pulses that are being grown here anyway: fava beans.
We then thought about why it is that these crops are not eaten. Fava beans, in particular, are the pulse grown in the largest volume in the UK. We assumed that if they’re grown in the UK but not eaten, there must be a good reason, perhaps they were disgusting. But, we got hold of some, tasted them, and realised that they were far from disgusting. They were delicious, nutritious and really versatile in cooking.
What did you learn about the history of the humble fava bean?
We looked into the history and learnt that fava beans have been grown in the UK for a really long time, thousands of years, all the way back to the very early Iron Age British farmers. For a long time, they were a really significant part of our diet and one of the main protein sources. This is because they’re ideal for harvesting, and can be harvested dry once a year, and are relatively easy to store. They would have provided a year-round source of protein and nutrition. But, this all changed as the UK started to become wealthier. As the country developed, agriculture progressed, and food storage improved, we were able to move our protein consumption from pulses to animal sources such as meat and dairy, a shift that happened all over the world.
So, what were once considered luxury feast food items started to become eaten every day, and if you can afford to feast every day, I guess why not. That tends to be what happens, and communities turn their backs on pulses, as they become stigmatised as the ‘food of the poor’ and are seen as low-status, undesirable foods that fall out of consumption. That’s what happened with fava beans, and to a large extent, dried peas, with the exception of marrowfat peas, which we still enjoy as mushy peas with fish and chips.
Having learned about the history, we thought it was time to get over this centuries-old stigma and start eating the pulses that we grow on British farms again.
So, how did you get the ball rolling?
We did a little trial, visited a processor who was processing fava beans for export and bought half a tonne of split fava beans. We put them into little packs and then made postcards that we slipped in the packs, explaining what the beans were, how they were grown on British farms, and included a website with instructions on how to cook them and some recipe ideas. On the back of the postcard was a reply page for people’s responses, so they could tell us what they thought of the beans and send it back to us. We took the packs to festivals and distributed them through the ‘Transition Town’ community group and other groups in Norwich and elsewhere.
We started to get the postcards back, and the responses were amazing. People were stunned that fava beans were being grown in Britain because almost everyone had never tried them before. When people tasted them, they really liked them and said that they wanted to be able to buy them and incorporate them into their diets. So, that’s what led us to start up Hodmedod’s, with the very simple aim of getting these British pulses back into British kitchens by working with local farmers and processors to source them, pack them, and sell them. Initially, we began distributing them through independent wholefood shops with the aim to get them more available and eaten more widely.
That was the catalyst for us working more broadly with farmers, growing a range of pulses and other arable crops, diversifying rotations and looking into the different things we could do with beans. We now make a wide range of plant-based whole food products that are tasty, nutritious and help support diverse and sustainable farming.
Can you tell me a bit more about the crops you produce?
While fava beans and peas grow best in the UK, one of the things we’ve done more recently - having started with crops that were being grown here anyway -, is a trial production of other pulse crops with farmers. We’ve done trials of both lentils and chickpeas. Having dismissed them as too challenging initially, we thought it was worth it to give it a go. We’re now in our third year of lentil production, and although we’re still talking small volumes, it’s a decent volume for us to handle. Chickpeas are proving to be more challenging. There’s much more variability from year to year. Both are still much more challenging to produce than the established pulse crops of fava beans and dry peas, which are clearly best suited, have the longest history and are the crops that farmers have a good experience growing.
There's a lot of potential to further grow the area of pulse production in the UK. Pulses are between 5% to 10% of arable rotations, probably closer to five, but there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be up to 25%. That would bring huge advantages in reducing inputs and adding fertility through the nitrogen-fixing that those crops provide. With a growing demand for plant-based proteins, there is a great potential to increase that production, and produce more of our vegetable protein domestically, rather than relying on imports.
Drawing from that, what do you think Brexit and Covid-19 have revealed about food supply chains in the UK?
Brexit and Covid-19 have definitely revealed some of the fragilities in our supply chain and have prompted a broader questioning of our reliance on imports and ‘just-in-time’ supply. The changes to farm subsidies have also got us to look at what we produce in the UK and how that fits our demand, rather than thinking very globally about growing for export and importing what we need.
There is definitely more thought being given to developing domestic supply chains and domestic production from farms. It’s also important to make sure that the value returned to the farmer allows them to grow in a viable way. With farm subsidies due to significantly reduce and disappear in the coming years, it’s essential that farmers are growing crops that work in themselves and give them the return that allows them to carry on growing.
Beyond that, Brexit and Covid-19 have also led to increased costs in farming inputs - quite dramatically so -, both in terms of fertiliser costs and agrochemicals. That’s prompting farmers to question how they produce. Obviously, the equation changes as the cost of inputs increases, and it becomes potentially more viable to reduce inputs and produce a lower but higher value yield. I think there are many opportunities to do that, and pulses can play a big part there, as a relatively high-value crop with less reliance on inputs than many other crops.
The UN Food Systems Summit was recently held and discussed ways to transform the world’s food systems. What are your reflections here?
I’m certainly aware of some of the questions raised by the summit, particularly by smaller-scale farmers, who I think, to some extent, were excluded from what would have ideally been a very inclusive process. I think we need to be looking at all scales of farming if we’re going to have a food system that really sustainably meets our needs.
That said, I think the summit was a positive thing, and it did bring people together, albeit with the caveat that certain groups were excluded. We really do need to collectively question our food system and how it works. We need to look at the fundamentals of what we’re producing, what we’re eating and how that needs to change in the face of all the challenges we’re encountering, particularly climate change, biodiversity and population growth. There are increasing demands alongside increasing pressures on the environment and planet.
I saw that you’ve teamed up with the restaurant Wahaca’s to provide them with locally-grown organic fava beans - could you talk about this and the innovative applications of pulses?
Yes, so, from the very beginning of Hodmedod’s, we’ve worked really hard to get the message out about British-grown fava beans and other British pulses, to encourage people to use them in as many different ways as possible. When we started, fava beans were virtually unknown to the general population. Some of the people we initially sent out fava bean packs to included chefs, food writers and bloggers. We asked them what they thought and encouraged them to publish and share recipes for the beans to raise awareness of this forgotten British crop.
We got a good response, and lots of them came up with great recipes. However, when they pitched them for a recipe book, newspaper article, or magazine column, they were just told they couldn’t publish a recipe for fava beans because they weren’t generally available and they’d be publishing a recipe for an ingredient people wouldn’t be able to buy. At the same time, when we went to our regional cooperative and asked them to stock the beans, they said they loved the fava beans but couldn’t sell them because no one would know what to do with them. So, it was a catch-22.
We’ve been trying to address that ever since and with some successes. One of those successes is Wahaca, a restaurant that has been using British grown fava beans to make Wahacamole, an alternative to guacamole. It’s fantastic because it shows the potential of fava beans, raises their profile and demonstrates one of the many innovative ways fava beans can be used. It’s also really pleasing because Tommy Miers, the executive chef at the restaurant, was one of the first people we sent samples to nine years ago. She’s used them in lots of different ways since, but this is the first big way. I think it’s also an example of how it can take a long time to get an unfamiliar ingredient into the mainstream.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen more and more recipes published for fava beans, and we’ve had lots of support from restaurants such as the River Cottage Canteens and Poco Tapas in Bristol.
We’ve also been working with a fermentation business for the last five years. While they primarily produce fermented soy-based products, we asked them to trial some fava beans and other British-grown crops as alternatives. They’ve produced some amazing products, including a fermented fava bean umami paste, which is quite similar to miso. It’s a fantastic source of flavour, which is brought out by fermentation. It’s just fava beans, water, and the live cultures from fermentation, but the flavour that’s unlocked is just incredible. We sell that ourselves, and other manufacturers are also using it as an ingredient in further processed products.
There's a lot we can do with fava beans, and we're always exploring different innovations. We’re seeing a lot more pulse-based snacks too. We started producing our own roasted fava beans around six or seven years ago. This has seen amazing growth.
What lies ahead for the business, and is there anything exciting on the horizon?
We’re always working on new and exciting things. Right now, we’re working on more fermentation. Having had the initial fava bean umami paste, we think there’s a lot of potential to develop a tamari, a soy sauce alternative made with British fava beans rather than imported soya. We want to get that into production and then take that and other fermented products to a wider market.
There’s a big opportunity to reach wider markets, and having built up the place of fava beans in the independent sector, we now feel we’re at a point where we can approach more mainstream markets with them. We’re also working with peas in different ways, for example, pea flour and looking and its different applications, for example, crackers, making a largely pulse-based bread with it, and pasta products, too. At the same time, we’re working with farmers to get new crops into production and further diversify the arable rotation and the crops we can produce from British farming.