The ma­jor­ity of the pulses we eat in this coun­try are im­ported from farms across the world. In search of a lo­cal al­ter­na­tive, Steph Wetherell un­cov­ers a bean with an an­cient British his­tory that is mak­ing a big come­back

Countryfile Magazine - - Con­tents -

How the hum­ble field bean – grown for an­i­mal feed – has taken on a de­li­cious new lease of life due to the work of 2017’s BBC cham­pion grower.

The world is but a hill of beans,” so be­gins Ken Al­bala’s book ded­i­cated to beans. “Nearly ev­ery place on earth has its own na­tive species and nearly ev­ery cul­ture has de­pended on beans.” At the men­tion of a British va­ri­ety, how­ever, most peo­ple think of baked beans – navy beans stewed in thick, sweet, tomato sauce. But de­spite a can be­ing sold ev­ery 17 sec­onds, cen­turies be­fore the ad­vent of Heinz’s 57 va­ri­eties there was an­other bean that dom­i­nated the British diet. Thanks to one com­pany who are cham­pi­oning its re­vival, the reign of the fava bean might not yet be over.

You’d be for­given for never hav­ing heard of a fava bean; the three founders of the Suf­folk-based com­pany Hodme­dod hadn’t ei­ther, un­til a re­search project found them look­ing for sources of lo­cally pro­duced veg­etable pro­tein. They soon re­alised they didn’t need to look far as there were huge amounts of beans al­ready be­ing grown in fields across East Anglia. The fava – or field bean – is from the same Fabaceae species as its more com­monly avail­able cousin, the broad bean. But while broad beans are picked and en­joyed fresh in the late spring and early sum­mer, the smaller seeded favas are left to dry on the plant be­fore be­ing har­vested in the early au­tumn.

“We looked into the his­tory and learnt that fava beans have been grown in Bri­tain for thou­sands of years,” says Hodme­dod co-founder Nick Salt­marsh, pass­ing me a cup of tea and smil­ing warmly. His kitchen is stacked with jars, con­tain­ing seem­ingly ev­ery kind of pulse or grain, from tiny beige seeds of quinoa to crin­kled mar­row­fat peas.

The cul­ti­va­tion of fava beans orig­i­nated in the fer­tile cres­cent in the Mid­dle East, reach­ing British ta­bles in the Iron Age. “They be­came one of the main parts of the British diet; a pri­mary source of pro­tein that could be har­vested and stored year-round,” he says. A sim­ple bean stew, known as pot­tage, would have been cen­tral to the diet of most peo­ple in the Mid­dle Ages; the more af­flu­ent adding spices to flavour and vary the dish.


How­ever, the agri­cul­tural revo­lu­tion saw rad­i­cal changes in the British diet, and it wasn’t long be­fore the fava bean fell out of fash­ion. “Peo­ple could af­ford and ac­cess a lot more meat and dairy prod­ucts,” Nick ex­plains. “Beans be­came the stig­ma­tised food of the poor.” In fact, by the 18th cen­tury, fava beans were al­most com­pletely off the menu in the UK. This shift that wasn’t re­flected in global di­ets – in Egypt, the beans are still a key in­gre­di­ent in the dish ‘ful medames’, reg­u­larly eaten for break­fast, as well as fea­tur­ing in soups, stews and dips across the Mediter­ranean.

While the British may have turned their noses up at eat­ing fava beans, our farm­ers didn’t stop grow­ing them. “They fix ni­tro­gen, so they’re great for the soil and pro­vide a break if you’re grow­ing ce­real crops,” Nick says, ex­plain­ing how the roots host a kind of bac­te­ria that ab­sorbs or ‘fixes’ ni­tro­gen from the at­mos­phere into the soil. Re­al­is­ing the bounty of lo­cal pro­tein on their doorstep, Nick and his col­leagues Josiah and Wil­liam were

in­spired to re­visit the hum­ble fava. “We bought half a tonne of beans from one of the pro­ces­sors. They laughed when we said we were go­ing to per­suade peo­ple to eat them,” he read­ily ad­mits, a broad grin break­ing across his face. “We packed them up at the kitchen ta­ble into lit­tle cel­lo­phane bags and gave them out to peo­ple wher­ever we could; the feed­back was amaz­ingly pos­i­tive.”

They launched their com­pany, Hodme­dod, in 2012 and mar­keted their first prod­ucts to­wards the end of that year: ini­tially sim­ple pack­ets of dried whole and split fava beans, and two types of pea that were tra­di­tion­ally grown and eaten here.


He pours out a bag of their dried fava beans onto the wooden ta­ble. Each bean is a rich brown with a lighter ‘notch’ at one end where they were at­tached in the pod. They’re larger and squat­ter than the Phase­o­lus fam­ily of bean we’re more fa­mil­iar with: kid­ney, navy and can­nellini beans.

The beans I’m hold­ing and ad­mir­ing were grown by Mike Stringer, the third gen­er­a­tion of his fam­ily to farm an 11,000-acre par­cel of land on top of the rolling York­shire Wolds. He started grow­ing fava beans when the farm con­verted to or­ganic in 1999; what­ever he doesn’t sell to Hodme­dod gets sold to lo­cal dairy farm­ers as feed for the cat­tle, a com­mon out­let for the UK grown beans that aren’t ex­ported.

“The pods are left on the plant un­til they’re dry, but they have to be pro­cessed to pro­duce a good clean prod­uct,” Nick says, talk­ing me through the series of screens, sieves, grav­ity ta­bles and colour sorters they pass through. If you want to split them, they go into a big abra­sive tum­bler, which takes the skin off. Once skinned, the in­side of the bean or pea is nat­u­rally in two halves. Th­ese cream coloured, rough feel­ing, split beans are fa­mil­iar; I’ve used them be­fore to make hum­mus. “We recog­nised that we need to help peo­ple learn how to use them and com­mu­ni­cate the dif­fer­ent ways that they can be cooked,” he says.

A gleam in his eye, Nick rum­mages in his bag be­fore plac­ing a small bag of mot­tled green and gun metal grey lentils on the ta­ble; a sam­ple from the first com­mer­cial crop of lentils grown in this coun­try and the lat­est ad­di­tion to their range. Jump­ing up, he pulls out more pack­ets and jars from the larder: whole and split peas, pea and fava bean flours, quinoa, bar­ley flakes, roasted beans and peas. Soon, the kitchen ta­ble is cov­ered with an as­sort­ment of half-full jars, taped up pa­per bags and yet to be opened pack­ets. “What we do is work with prod­ucts from British farms and get more of them into British kitchens,” he says proudly. The fava bean is back and it’s here to stay. FIND OUT MORE Hodme­dods won Food Pro­ducer of the Year at the 2017 BBC Food and Farm­ing awards. hodme­dods.co.uk

“We need to help peo­ple learn how to use them and com­mu­ni­cate the dif­fer­ent ways they can be cooked”

ABOVE Farmer Mike Stringer with his 2017 crop, grown in the York­shire Wolds OP­PO­SITE 1 Fava beans, which closely re­sem­ble broad beans, swell in their pods over the sum­mer 2 The beans are left to dry on the plant 3 Har­vest­ing takes place in the au­tumn 4 The year’s ef­forts, safely stored

LEFT Dried fava beans – a me­dieval win­ter sta­ple. Ac­cord­ing to fa­mous fic­tional vil­lain Han­ni­bal Lecter, fava beans go very well with “… liver and nice chi­anti”

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