Can you just revive a whole foodstuff? If you’ve ever wanted to know, keep an eye on what happens to the humble fava bean over the next year.
The cause of the bean was taken up by Nick Saltmarsh, Josiah Meldrum and William Hudson when they realised that we grow half a million tonnes of fava beans here every year, and then just export them. “We used to eat loads of them here,” explains Saltmarsh, who was studying food connections around Norwich for the local Transition Group, when he noticed that farms there were growing enormous quantities of the stuff.
“It’s one of humanity’s earliest crops, starting in the fertile crescent with wheat and barley.” (The fertile crescent is the name that archaeologists have given to the historic area in the middle east where agriculture first began – it covers a bit of Egypt, Turkey, Iraq and Kuwait.) “They were over here in the iron age and were a huge part of the British diet for many centuries, but then meat and dairy became larger and larger parts of our diet, and fava beans got stigmatised as being what poor people ate. We just stopped eating them.”
They are, however, a crucial part of our agricultural crop rotations, and so our farmers still grow them. “But then we export them to Egypt and the middle East. It’s crazy because they’re really delicious, and also incredibly healthy and a very sustainable foodstuff.”
Saltmarsh had been obsessed with food from his childhood, “I used to go off foraging when I was at school – the school food was not really up to much, so I’d supplement it with whatever I found in the grounds. And then when I was studying maths and philosophy at university, I’d go off to work on farms in the summers. That was where I found what I was really passionate about and I’ve been working on local food and sustainability ever since.
He went straight into working with farmers, retailers, schools and hospitals on creating stronger local food links. Eventually Saltmarsh, Meldrum and Hodson came together to form an organisation called Provenance, which focused on supply chain management, sustainability audits and supporting businesses in tendering for public sector contracts. They focused on raising sustainability levels in commercial production, wholesale, food service and retail, but they had never been involved in the retail side themselves.
The fava beans were an interesting puzzle, and Saltmarsh, Meldrum and Hudson decided they would run The Great British Bean trial to find out what people thought of them. They talked a farmer into selling them a tonne of beans, and then packed them up on the kitchen table and asked a couple of shops around Norwich to start selling fava beans again. “We asked for feedback, and were just amazed by the response,” says Saltmarsh. “85% liked them a lot, and 15% liked them a little, and people said they were just incredibly tasty and easy to deal with. So then we thought, okay, lets try to bring them back.”
The trio decided to set up Hodmedods (the word is Norfolk dialect for snail) and are just starting to market the beans a little more widely. In the process they’ve stumbled across a few other ancient british pulses; the kabuki pea, and a little known variety of pea called black badgers. “Eventually we hope to be able to sell in enough volume that we can start growing them organically ourselves,” says Saltmarsh.
Hodmedods have also put some effort into collecting recipes for these beans – after all they’re unfamiliar to most of us. The beans are actually surprisingly easy to cook, even if you’re not used to using dried pulses in the kitchen. You can soak them the night before if you want – it will speed up the cooking process – but it’s not essential. And then you can try out Moroccan Bessarra – a kind of humus, where you cook the beans with a few cloves of garlic, and then puree and add some olive oil, some cumin, paprika and salt, and a squeeze of lemon. There is Egyptian ful medames – a bean stew that is apparently traditionally eaten for breakfast. Or you could try Italian mashed beans with potatoes and greens, a particular favourite of Saltmarsh’s. “I love the bitterness of the greens combined with the earthiness of the beans. It’s a very comforting dish.”
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