Meet the Producers: Hodmedod’s Pulses

Hodmedod Ltd is a new business, founded by Nick Saltmarsh, Josiah Meldrum and William Hudson in 2012 and based on the Norfolk-Suffolk border. The partners share a belief in good, sustainable and local food, and have worked together on sustainable and local food projects over many years. Hodmedod sources beans and peas from British farms to provide a range of wholesome ingredients. The word Hodmedod is an old British word for hedgehog in Norfolk, or snail in Suffolk, and in Berkshire it means scarecrow. In 2013 they launched a range of Hodmedod’s pulses {split and whole fava beans, kaduki beans, black badger peas and Kabuki marrowfat peas, packed in beautifully illustrated boxes {illustrations by Carol Kearns}  .

We stock a range of them in our online shop. In a series of articles called “Meet the Producers”, I wanted to find out more about the creation of Hodmedod, and the background of its founders. Here is what I found out.

Q: Josiah, how did you all originally meet and create Hodmedod – were you all farmers-agriculturalists?

A: William, Nick and I had been working together for a number of years both as part of a regional NGO called East Anglia Food Link (promoting and supporting more sustainable food systems) and as partners in a consultancy called Provenance where we worked with farmers, community groups and government on projects around sustainable food supply chains and communication.

William is the only one of us who can lay claim to ever being a proper farmer, but Nick and I have worked for and on farms as well as for food retailers and wholesalers. Between us we have a real mix of experience that includes goat farming, professional foraging, growing strawberries for the supermarkets, planting vineyards, setting up community farms, running markets, shops and wholesalers, writing, speaking, cooking and campaigning… the common theme is food – access to good food, better production techniques, healthier diets and food as a lever for positive social and environmental change that supports livelihoods.

Q: How much research did you do in the history of British peas and beans before you started, and where did you go in order to find your information?

A: The whole process has been a gradual revelation and the information has come from everywhere – famers, books, the internet, gardeners and cooks to name a few. We started with a good grasp of the agricultural and health benefits of growing and eating legumes and knew a little of their history, but during our pilot phase, where we gave away beans and asked for feedback, we began discovering lots more. Collecting all this fascinating information is compelling and we’ve become magpies!

It’s a journey that’s taken us from the Fertile Crescent at the dawn of settled agriculture, through the classical Mediterranean civilisations and on to Iron Age Glastonbury. We’ve learnt about medieval cuisine, subsistence agriculture in the 14th century and picked up recipes in Middle English. We’ve discovered how the rise and fall and rise again of British peas and beans tells the story of economic and social changemarks the dawn of the industrial revolution and shows the impact of British colonialism on our diets. Along the way we’ve spoken to farmers who are acutely aware of when Ramadan falls each year, politely rebuffed the Egyptian army and become intimate with the life cycle of the bruchid beetle… and it feels like there’s still so much to learn – especially as we begin working with new crops.

Q: Are all the peas and beans grown and dried in East Anglia?

A: No, though they are mostly grown on the eastern side of the country where the weather is more favourable (Northamptonshire, Kent, Essex, Lincolnshire, Essex, Cambridgeshire and Warwickshire). Initially we’ve been working with farmers already growing these crops for export and the domestic bulk market but increasingly we’re working directly with farmers to grow crops that aren’t currently grown or are produced in very small quantities.

Q: Tell us your ideal year in terms of conditions that favour legumes, e.g. a little rain in the spring, heat and sun all summer, frost in winter?

A: Not too wet and not too dry, and lots of sun from mid-August through to early October when the beans, peas and quinoa are ripening and drying in the fields. Beans and peas are pretty forgiving, but cold wet soil at the beginning of the year and wet autumns are a problem.

Q: What does an average day at Hodmedod look like for the three of you?

A: We’re lucky; there really isn’t an average day! As a small business we do pretty much everything – so if there were an average day it might include working on the website, answering enquiries, writing copy for adverts and editorial, looking at (eating!) samples, accounts, visiting crop trials and liaising with our illustrator and designer on packaging and labels.

We all work in different places – William at Holly Farm in Norfolk, Nick in London and me in Bungay (Suffolk) and we spend varying amounts of time on Hodmedod – Nick is almost full time, I do a day or so a week and William steps in when there are agricultural questions to be answered.

Q: In the very beginning, when nobody knew who you were, how did you get your very first shop to stock you?

A: Finding our first shops was relatively easy. We were lucky and had some excellent early coverage in the Guardian and on the BBCs Great British Food Revival, in addition we all had connections with retailers and wholesalers. But better than that we began by selling on-line and asked our first customers of they could recommend shops we should approach – it wasn’t long before people started to approach their favourite shops for us and at their request we printed up postcards to help make this easier.

Q: Do you think that the success of your product is closely linked to timing, and the fact that many more people are now looking for sustainable ways of eating, and pulses are ideal for health and wealth?

A: Yes! There have been other attempts to revive fava beans and to raise the profile of pulses more generally, but none have quite worked – the timing hasn’t been quite right up until now. That said I think the work we’ve done telling the story and being creative about the way the beans and peas are presented has made it a lot easier to get a foothold.

It’s a much overused word that has been rendered almost meaningless by corporate marketers, but we’re genuinely passionate about what we do – between us we’ve probably got over 60 years of experience in growing food, selling it and helping to create better food systems (and we’re not that old!), being able to focus all our energy on a set of products we believe have the potential to be transformative is a real pleasure and I think people get that when they hear us talk about what we do and see the care we put into our products.

Q: What are your favourite ways for eating your own products – do you have favourite recipes?

A: A tough one! They’re all surprisingly different and versatile and have a rich culinary heritage that takes in most of the world’s traditional cuisines. That said I think we all have favourites – I particularly like two dishes that are central to Egyptian cooking and culture and that really show off the fava beans: Ta’amia, or Egyptian falafels and Medames, a delicious, spicy tomato stew.

Nick’s always been very keen on the mashed fava beans with potato and dandelion leaves, not least because allows him to express his love of Italy and for foraging! He’s also a fan of a recipe for curried black badger peas with squash.

William loves the black badger peas in anything (they are very good) and the Kabuki peas as a puree or wasabi dip.

Q: What plans do you have for the future of Hodmedod?

A: Short-term we’re launching a range of canned beans in January – initially organic dhal, British baked beans and fava beans in water and we’re currently working on simple snacks made with our beans and peas.

We’re in process of preparing to launch some Essex-grown quinoa in the new year and are looking forward to a bigger harvest of what we think will be an incredibly popular product next autumn.

Further ahead we’d like to add other British-grown field crops to our range, work more closely with more farmers and better tell the story of  the beans, peas, grains and seeds we can grow here and why we should be eating and growing more of them.

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