|UPDATE, May 2021: since our first lentil harvest in 2017 we've continued to trial lentil production in the UK and the fifth year's crop is now growing. We now have good year-round availability of Whole Olive Green Lentils with smaller crops of other lentil varieties and organic lentils available from time to time.|
|After three years of research and crop trials we started harvesting the first commercial crop of British-grown lentils at the end of August 2017. Over the next few weeks six farms in Suffolk, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Hertfordshire and Sussex will harvest a range of organic and non-organic lentils.
Since we founded Hodmedod to bring more British-grown pulses into British kitchens, we'd hoped to start producing lentils alongside traditional UK crops of fava beans and dried peas.
But we were repeatedly told it just wasn't possible on a large scale, although we had success with them on a garden scale. Then we met some inspiring German lentil farmers in Sweden (where else?) who told us to just plant them and see what happened. We did, and it turns out lentils grow well here, though keeping them weed-free and successfully harvesting them is much more challenging, requiring particular techniques that we've been developing over the last few years.
Lentils are a notoriously difficult crop to harvest and have never been grown widely in the UK. They are low-growing and not especially vigorous; they need a warm, dry autumn to ripen for harvest and - even if all that goes well - are not very high yielding. Yet, aside from tasting wonderful, they are also a useful low-input crop for less intensive farming systems - they fix their own nitrogen and suffer few pests and diseases and require less water than many other crops. So we have persisted.
We've been working on trial crops at Wakelyn's Agroforestry in Suffolk since 2015, leading to 24 acres of organic and non-organic lentils being grown this year. We started harvesting this larger 2017 crop in late August - see this short BBC film of the harvest in progress. The cleaned lentils will be available for sale from early October on our website and through independent retailers.
Lentils come in different colours and sizes; from red split lentils, to speciality Puy lentils which hold their shape and have a wonderful earthy flavour. All our lentils are for eating whole and we've grown a number of varieties including the variety grown in Puy. These lentils retain a firm bite after cooking and delicious peppery flavour that is often missing in lentils grown for the commodity market.
Hodmedod's British lentils, harvested and ready to cook
Lentils are easy to prepare and fresh, new season lentils cook in just 15 minutes, they can be added to stews, soups, salads or vegetarian Bolognese or burgers. Lentils are high in dietary fibre, which helps eliminate blood cholesterol. They contain Vitamins A and C and rich in folates, iron and manganese as well as other minerals.
As far as we know lentils have never been commercially grown in the UK before. Believed to be on one of the earliest cultivated legumes, remains of lentils have been found at prehistoric sites in Europe. There is historic evidence of lentils being grown all over Britain - even as far north as Scotland - but most British farmers and gardeners would tell you it wasn't worth trying to grow them here.
In autumn 2014 autumn, Josiah Meldrum, one of Hodmedod’s co-founders, visited Sweden to meet farmers growing bean and saw their successful lentil trials and heard about a continuing tradition of lentil growing on the island of Gotland. Josiah and the Hodmedod team believed it were possible to grow Lentils in Sweden, then why not in the UK. You can read more about these visits to Sweden on Josiah’s blog >
We worked initially with Professor Martin Wolfe at his pioneering farm, Wakelyns Agroforestry, in North Suffolk, close to our headquarters. Professor Wolfe is one of the UK’s pioneers and experts in intercropping, a technique recommended by the Swedes for overcoming some of the production problems associated with lentils.
India is the primary producer of lentils, closely followed by Canada, which is the largest exporter.
In Europe some varieties, such as the French Verte du Puy, have become a speciality ingredient, with a premium price tag. Puy Lentils are grown in fertile soil, formed by volcanic lava, of Puy-en-Velay in South West France and are protected in the European Union by a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and in France as an appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC).
Lens Culinaris, is a small bushy annual plant of the legume family which grows to about 40cm tall. The lens-shaped seeds develop in short odds typically containing two seeds, which vary in colour and size depending on the variety.
The name, lentils, derives from the Latin lens, which also gives us our word lens, or double convex glass.
Next to soya beans and lupins, lentils have one highest protein contents of all vegetables (just on 25%). Lentils have a low glycemic index (GI), are a good source of dietary fibre and are low in calories. Other nutritious components found are molybdenum, folate, tryptophan, manganese, iron, phosphorous, copper, vitamin B1, and potassium.
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Last year (field scale chickpea production year 2) was a real struggle: drought through much of the season, intense heat in late May, then extraordinary rainfall in August. This year (chickpea year 3) hasn’t started much better to be honest: a cold start and prolonged wet conditions are not what chickpeas like.