Meet East Anglia-based Hodmedod's. It’s on a mission to reintroduce to consumers the joys of Britain’s pulses, grains and seeds - once staple foods in the UK, but ones that the nation suddenly stopped eating and then forgot it ever did.
Beans are a hell of a lot more interesting that people think, Hodmedod’s managing director Nick Saltmarsh tells FoodNavigator. The story begins when Saltmarsh, then of the East Anglia Food Link, set out to discover the ideal sustainable and resilient diet for the East Anglian city of Norwich.
"We quickly identified there are huge benefits environmentally and nutritionally in shifting some of our protein consumption from animal to vegetable protein,” he explained. Then came a sudden realisation: “There were already vegetable protein crops being grown quite widely across East Anglia but for the most part they weren't being eaten by local people - particularly the fava bean.
“This was being grown quite widely across farms in East Anglia and the rest of the UK but was almost entirely going for export for consumption in Egypt and the Middle East, and for animal feed. Barely any of them were being eaten in the UK.
“So we looked at the history of the bean and realised that they were introduced to British farming very early on, around 3,000 years ago, and they would have been a significant part of our diet and one of the main sources of protein through most of our history up until the Industrial Revolution.”
As Britain became wealthier, he continued, people were able to get most of their protein from meat and dairy and the humble fava bean became stigmatised as ‘food for the poor’ and fell out of the nation’s diet.
Meanwhile, farmers kept growing them because they are an excellent crop. “They facilitate the soil; they are very nutritious and full of protein, so ideal for feeding livestock,” enthused Saltmarsh. “Later, the export market developed - particularly to the Middle East and Mediterranean.”
Hodmedod’s mission to get the ‘fantastically versatile, tasty and nutritious’ fava bean back into British kitchens and diets was thus formed.
‘We couldn't believe it when we discovered them…’
The company launched with just four products, including fava beans and some other intriguing discoveries.
“We quickly realised was that there were also different varieties of dried pea that were being grown in the UK that were either not widely eaten here or, in the case of marrowfat peas, eaten but in a limited way as mushy peas. We felt there was a lot of potential to make more of both the taste and versatility of these products.”
Another was the Carlin pea – again a British crop, but one largely grown for export. “The Carlin pea is a fantastic dark brown dried pea that’s really British,” explained Saltmarsh.
“When we discovered the Carlin pea, we were amazed that such an interesting and tasty crop could be grown in Britain. Outside Lancashire, where they are a traditional dish, they are barely known at all. They're like chickpeas but they have a much more interesting chesnutty flavour… We couldn't believe it when we discovered them and found that they were growing largely for export. We couldn't believe that these beans didn't have a proper space amoung the foods we eat in this country.”
Since launching in 2012 Hodmedod's has expanded to create a diverse range of British grown wholefoods.
“We quickly found farmers who were interested in growing a wider variety of crops and increasing the diversity of arable cropping, whether through growing crops that are new to British agriculture like quinoa, chia and lentils, or looking at crops that we've grown on the past but that have gone out of fashion like naked barley and other rare wheats and cereals.”
Finger on the pulse
The idea, he elaborated, is to offer a range of “store cupboard foods with real provenance back to British farms. That's something that's come to be expected from fresh produce but most store cupboard foods are still largely anonymous in terms of where they come from and how they are produced.”
Hodmedod's has expanded into other products such as a fermented fava bean umami paste, a kind of British equivalent to a miso paste. All this, agrees Saltmarsh, taps into current ‘on-trend’ consumer shifts, with shoppers increasingly demanding sustainability, health benefits and provenance from food products.
“Since we started the business eight years ago public awareness has increased about cutting meat consumption and the need to eat more vegetable protein. If we are eating more vegetable protein then we should be looking at local production rather than importing soya or other products from half way around the world. The marrowfat pea and fava bean and other British health foods can play a key role in that.”
Last year, for example, the company launched what it claimed was the first ever British grown chickpea.
Among its bestselling items is British-grown quinoa. “Quinoa was becoming more familiar to people, but people were aware that there were issues with imported quinoa from South America. So when we launched our British grown quinoa there was a big surge in interest.”
It’s also looking to trial different types of bean to see if production can be developed in the UK. For instance, the Dutch brown bean is widely grown and eaten in Holland, “but as far as we know has never been grown in the UK and yet we have a similar climate and conditions to the Netherlands.”
What’s a 'hodmedod' anyway?
The company’s name is also aiming to tap into the trend of provenance and locally grown produce. Hodmedod is an East Anglian dialect word for something curled up -- like a hedgehog or a snail. “We liked it because we thought it reflected part of that forgotten heritage of East Anglia in a way that some of the crops we work with are an also forgotten part of our heritage.”
What’s next? “We're seeing strong growth without really pushing aggressively into bigger markets,” said Saltmarsh. “We’ve stayed focussed on the independent retail sector and online and we're seeing a strongly increasing interest from chefs and caterers. We're staying focused there but we're beginning to focus on opportunities to get some investment to take advantage of the opportunities that are there.”
The pulse and grain market has developed into a ‘good niche market’, he observed. "The general attitude to pulse foods has really changed. When we started the business we did have to work very hard to convince people, even at food festivals, of the benefits of pulses. But particularly in the last two or three years, we've just seen a real change. People seem to have a much more self-generated interest and they’re delighted to find what we can offer. So it’s a growing niche rather than a mass market product yet.”