|Jenny Linford's book The Missing Ingredient: The Curious Role of Time in Food and Flavour explores the critical part that time plays in food production and cooking. In this extract from the Hours chapter Jenny talks to Hodmedod co-founder Nick Saltmarsh and considers the history of the British relationship with pulses.|
For centuries in Britain the word ‘peas’ – which today makes us think instantly of the small round bright green vegetable – was synonymous with dried peas, used in hearty, traditional dishes such as pease pudding or pottage. In British cuisine, however, pulses fell out of favour a long time ago. As we became a wealthy, industrialized country, the pulse became stigmatized as the food of the poor, which indeed it was. People replaced this cheap source of vegetable protein with protein from meat and dairy products, a move which has been reflected in every pulse-eating nation as it becomes more affluent. In today’s age of quick fixes, the idea of the pulse – this humble, fundamental ingredient, which requires time to soak and cook – lacks appeal. The gentle pleasures of pulses – their subtle flavours and textures – are often overlooked, even by people who enjoy cooking and eating.
Nick Saltmarsh, a tall, thoughtful man who talks about pulses with a quiet but evident passion, is determined to change that. His company, Hodmedod, which he co‑founded with Josiah Meldrum and William Hudson in 2012, was created to promote and sell British pulses, reviving our relationship with our native ones, formerly an essential part of our diet, now barely acknowledged. The starting point for Hodmedod’s was a sustainability project in Norwich with the Transition Towns Group, looking into locally grown sources of vegetable protein. Saltmarsh and his colleagues realized with astonishment that fava beans are grown widely across Britain, but are simply not eaten here, exported instead to Egypt where ful medames, made from dried fava beans, is a national dish. ‘We tried them and thought they were very good,’ says Saltmarsh, ‘and wanted to bring British beans back to the kitchen.’ Britain’s relationship with fava beans is, he tells me, one stretching back millennia. Fava were one of the very first crops to be introduced by Iron Age farmers. ‘They would have been one of the main crops grown here, as a bean that was harvested dry which could be stored as a source of year- round protein. And, alongside dried peas, it would have been pretty much the main source of protein in the British diet.’
Fava beans, in contrast to New World beans such as kidney, borlotti and flageolet, introduced to Europe from the Americas, grow admirably in Britain. Being tolerant of frosts, they are able to be planted either in September/October or February/ March and harvested in August. ‘Beans and peas were historically almost entirely harvested dry. We’re remarkably out of touch with the fact that all pulses dry on the plant,’ Saltmarsh muses. ‘They may need just a little more drying out. From harvest, you can store them for a year or even longer. They last almost indefinitely really, although the longer they dry, the harder they become to cook, though it’s only after 3 years that that becomes noticeable.’ Dried on the plant, straightforward to harvest and requiring little work to store, pulses, it seems, are a food where nature does a lot of the work. Furthermore, harvesting the pea or bean when it is dry means you are harvesting a food at a stage when it is very nutritious indeed. ‘Around the time we stopped eating so many dried pulses, we began to eat the immature peas and beans as a fresh crop. Because they are immature a lot of the sugars inside them haven’t gone through the process of converting into starches and the protein content hasn’t developed as it has in the fully ripe pea or bean.’
With the emphasis on promoting the eating of mature peas and beans, the Hodmedod range has expanded to include such little- known British pulses as the Carlin pea, strikingly dark brown or reddish-brown in colour, and whole blue peas, which are the same peas used for split green peas but with the skin left on. We discuss the question of soaking pulses before cooking, often seen as a ‘nuisance’ when it comes to using them. Pulses, Saltmarsh tells me, come in either the whole form, with their skin on, or the split form, where the skin is taken off and the pulse, as a seed, naturally falls into two halves. ‘All the split pulses can be cooked from dry without soaking.’ Whole pulses, however, do require soaking, with a good rule of thumb, I am told, being 6 hours as a minimum period. While the process requires time, it is, of course, simple and unlaborious. ‘If you soak them for a long time, they will start to sprout, because they are alive. They are seeds and they want to grow.’ There is a tradition in some countries, he tells me, of allowing pulses to partially sprout before cooking them, this process improving the availability of some nutrients. ‘We tend to think of pulses in very binary terms – you either cook them unsprouted or you sprout them and eat them raw.’ Saltmarsh’s fascination with pulses as a valuable source of protein – and, through their nitrogen- fixing properties, a crop that remarkably puts fertility into the soil rather than extracting it – is clear. ‘When we started we had’ – he pauses and laughs gently – ‘and still have, the challenge of developing awareness and understanding of these British pulses, which as a country we’ve lost contact with. There is a resistance; a lot of people don’t think of cooking with dried pulses. Once you’ve soaked them and cooked them a few times, however, and just got into the rhythm of what you need to do, it becomes very easy.’
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2020 was a difficult year in many ways and for many people. At the Bean Store we struggled with long hours, uncertainty and anxiety. But we were also incredibly lucky. We continued to trade and had our health where others were less fortunate, and we had time to reflect, re-group and make new plans. We’re really looking forward to 2021.