We've been privileged to work with Essex quinoa pioneer Peter Fairs over the last few years to develop supply of some of the very first British-grown Quinoa. Last year we harvested a first crop of organic quinoa, grown at Home Farm Nacton in Suffolk using Peter's quinoa seed selections.
As drilling of this year's crop approaches we've been getting nostalgic re-reading this article by journalist Craig McLean on the launch of our first trial batch in 2014.
If the weather forecast was correct and the rain gods are smiling, as you’re reading this, a food revolution is underway in Essex. On freshly-tilled fields outside Colchester, a so-called “mother grain” from the other side of the world is being sown. In London and Manchester, meanwhile, the small Mother Earth wholefoods chain and Unicorn Grocery will start selling the first fruits of farmer Peter Fairs labours: British-grown quinoa.
Simultaneously, the small artisan supplier responsible, Hodmedod’s, will throw open their online commerce doors and offer quinoa at a competitive purchase-point and with an ethically local provenance.
Those vertiginous value hikes on imported quinoa and alarming reports about South American peasants being priced out of their millennia-old staple by western gastronistas? Across the country, metropolitan foodies can toss their recipe books in the air and sing Ottolenghi-hosannas. Given that the price of quinoa has doubled in the past two years – it’s roughly twice as much as couscous or barley or bulgur wheat – this is better news for the middle classes than a George Osborne Budget break on organic wine and micro-brewery beer.
Quinoa is the seed that roared, even if everyone mispronounces it: it’s keen-wah. The tiny grain is, unlike wheat or rice, a complete protein. It’s gluten-free, contains all nine essential amino acids, and is stuffed with fibre and minerals. The United Nations has duly classified this dietary magic bullet as a superfood. The organisation even anointed 2013 as The International Year of Quinoa.
Danny Boyle may have been unavailable to direct the opening ceremony, but no matter – British and American foodies were already firmly onboard. Roll over, goji berries, and tell chia seeds the news: quinoa is the buzz ingredient in salads and vegan recipes. And now, it seems, gourmands’ spring suppers might be light but their purses won’t be.
“We founded Hodemdod’s initially to get British-grown beans to market,” says Managing Director Nick Saltmarsh. He’s a London-based father-of-two whose CV encompasses a long career working with farmers and food cooperatives in the east of England. He and two colleagues founded Hodmedod’s (named after the old East Anglian word for hedgehog) in summer 2012.
“We recognised that they’re grown here but not eaten here,” he continues. “Most of our fava beans, for example, are exported to Egypt.” Hodmedod’s unveiled their first product, a carton of split fava beans, 16 months ago. At the start of this year they began selling tins of baked beans.
To date Hodemod’s have sold ten to 15 tonnes of dried beans and some 10,000 tins of beans. Heinz won’t be losing any sleep: so far for Saltmarsh’s start-up, beanz meanz profitz only on a small scale. But the company’s move into quinoa – “a fairly natural step as, like beans, it’s also a rich source of protein” – might change that.
Through his contacts in the farming community in Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk, Saltmarsh knew about Peter Fairs’ and his arable interests. Fairs has been working the land near Colchester all his life, following both his father and his father before him.
“My grandfather was a cobbler in the village,” Fairs tells me when Saltmarsh and I visit him in his farm office in Great Tey. “I think he was owed some money so he got paid in a bit of land. That was the start of it!” Now Fairs owns 700 acres, and manages crops on an additional 5000 acres on behalf of other farmers.
British Quinoa seedlings in an Essex field
The 69-year-old doesn’t look like a foodie trendsetter. But this hearty, passionate grower has long experimented with “unusual, niche” crops. On the walls of his office are photographs of fields of echium (“high in stearidonic acid”), lunaria (“has a very long chain fatty acid with has been used to treat MS”) and borage (“offers similar benefits to Evening Primrose Oil”). Indeed, he’s been growing quinoa for 28 years.
He recalls initially sourcing seeds from Bolivia, “and we went to the Food Research Institute, as it was then, in Norwich, and did all sorts of trials. But the big problem with quinoa is that it has a bitter, soapy substance on the coat, saponin, which is basically a bird repellent.”
But they persevered. He shows me magazine clippings from 1989 editions of Farmer’s Weekly and Here’s Health, hymning the potentials of this “Ancient From The Andes” crop that was a staple of the Incas. “Quinoa is region’s newest food crop,” reported the East Anglian Daily Times at the time, “a delicious new grain product which is easy to prepare and can be eaten hot or cold in savoury and sweet dishes…”
“The only trouble was, the stuff we got proved not to be delicious at all!” Fairs remembers with a chuckle. “Hard as we tried, we couldn’t get rid of the saponin. It wasn’t practical to do what they do in Bolivia, which is wash it five or six times in fresh water from a river, then throw the water back – we found that that poisoned the fish. Then they dry it in the sun. These things obviously can’t be done here.”
But then Fairs discovered that this brightly-coloured crop, a metre tall at its full bloom, was attractive to pheasants and partridges. They like the cover, and they like the seeds once they’ve dropped and the rain has washed them.
“So we then we started to market it for game [bird] cover crops, and that’s what it’s been used for over the past 25 years. But then three or four years ago, it started to become obvious that quinoa was getting more and more on people’s agenda as a foodstuff.”
Fairs and his team began experimenting with different varieties. Having trialled sweet quinoas – which have less saponin – he then partnered with Hodmedod’s a year ago to, in Saltmarsh’s words, “get the crop properly cleaned and tested”. Their first crop was harvested from 15 acres last September. The opening batch of that 4.5-tonne yield is available today on Hodmedod’s website and in those select health shops, with a wider commercial availability following in May.
Swathing quinoa for harvest in September
The company’s restaurant outlets, long enthusiasts for their fava beans, hope to follow suit this spring.
“We’ll certainly trial the quinoa,” says Gelf Anderson, Head Chef at River Cottage HQ near Axminster in Devon. “It’s a very popular thing, but it tends to be in the slightly more specialist, nutritionist market. We have a lot of meat-free customers and people with allergies, both of which quinoa is ideal for. And we use it in our specialist gluten-free courses, so there is a demand.
“And the reason we use Hodmedod’s in the first place is to get away from imported beans and pulses like chickpeas, which grow in places in Turkey and China. So for reasons of sustainability and the environment, it’s great to now have that option of not using quinoa that’s grown in South America.”
With his background in food co-ops, Saltmarsh is hopeful that Hodmedod’s UK-grown quinoa will have a trickle-down benefit back along the food supply chain.
“The global market for quinoa right now is out of control,” he acknowledges. “There’s an imbalance of supply and demand, and it’s causing all sorts of negative effects in the traditional producing countries. And if demand continues surging in the west like it is now, the market is actually going to kill itself off by becoming too expensive. So it seems to make sense to meet that demand on a more local level. If we can produce in Britain some of the quinoa that we eat in Britain, that has to be a good thing.”
Fairs is quietly confident that, after his failure a quarter-of-a-century ago, he’s on to a winner. He sells wheat, his key “mainstream” crop, at £160 per tonne. “And quinoa at the moment is somewhere around ten times that. But,” he cautions, “you get lower yields – with crop breeding, wheat yields perhaps four tonnes an acre, whereas with quinoa we hope we might get a tonne an acre. And you’ve got a lot more costs – development, cleaning, fiddling around… You can’t compare like with like, but quinoa is going to be more expensive in the shop than other cereals.”
British-grown quinoa grain, ready for cooking
“Also,” adds Saltmarsh, “it's nutritionally very different. Wheat or couscous are primarily a source of carbohydrate. But quinoa is protein-rich food that’s much affordable when you compare it with meat or dairy products.”
So, it’s salad days ahoy for those quinoa-keen. But food fads come and go. Isn’t Ethiopia’s teff the new quinoa?
“Well!” begins Fairs with a laugh. “It is going be on our trials this year… But at the moment I don’t see teff working very well. It’s a tiny, tiny seed, almost like a grass seed…”
What, then, is he more excited by?
“Essential oils are probably more interesting than some of the actual foods.” He slides a packet of small black seeds over the table. The bag is unmarked. “I can show you but I’m not going to tell you what it is!” he smiles. “But I’ve been fiddling about with that for a couple of years. I know it’ll grow. And that was cut with a combine [harvester], so I know it’ll combine. And,” Peter Fairs says with a twinkle born of a lifelong passion for nature’s more obscure bounties, “it’ll be useful in the health food market…”
Watch this superfood space.
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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.