Webinar no. 2: The absolute importance of peas and beans


Colin Tudge talks to JOSIAH MELDRUM and NICK SALTMARSH, co-founders of HODMEDODS, and arch developers and promoteRS of pulses.

Pulses have long been key players in agriculture and the human diet and in almost all the world’s cuisines – fixing nitrogen, rich in protein, and the basis of some of the world’s most popular and classic recipes. As staples they are second in importance only to the cereals, which as bread, pasta, pastry, batters, puddings and dumplings, porridges and gruels, thickeners of soups, and in fermented form as beer, supply about half our food energy and protein. For good measure, the amino acid spectrum of pulse protein complements that of cereals, so that cereal and pulse protein between them is, literally, just what the doctor ordered and the theme of pulse-plus-cereal runs through almost all the world’s cooking. 

But, say Josiah Meldrum and Nick Saltmarsh in this interview, we, humanity, don’t make as much use of pulse as we could and should – and the modern technologies that turn beans into ersatz (substitute; imitation) meat are fundamentally absurd, since pulses are wondrous food in their pristine state. So in 2012, together with William Hudson who has since moved on, Nick and Josiah founded Hodmedods, Suffolk-based, and dedicated to the exploration and promulgation of pulses, both in farming and in cooking, worldwide in scope but focused on Britain. Quite simply, they say, Britain’s farmers could be growing a far greater variety of pulses than they now do, and Britain’s cooks could be making far more use of them, to everybody’s benefit: agronomic, nutritional, gastronomic, and economic. Among Hodmedods’ early triumphs is the re-discovery, cultivation, and marketing of carlin peas and of lentils, both traditionally grown in Britain but now much neglected. 

For my money, the promotion of pulses of all kinds in farming  — not least and perhaps particularly in small farms – and in nutrition, and cookery, with an eclectic mix of appropriate modern tech and traditional know-how, is one of the most important lines of research in farming and food that is now being pursued. Josiah and Nick are true pioneers and this discussion is truly a worthy successor to the splendid contribution from Ann Pettifor with which we kicked off our new series of webinars and podcasts. 

Our thanks are due also, once more, to Brett Price, who very kindly did the filming and recording; to Andrea Barbieri, who makes this website work; and, as always, to Ruth, who holds the whole thing together. And here is a checklist of botanical and other recondite terms that crop up in the conversation: 

Pulses include various genera of big-seeded plants within the rosid family of flowering plants now known as Fabaceae. The Fabaceae were previously called “Leguminosae” and the Fabaceae in general are still informally called “legumes”. Besides the various pulses, the family also includes clovers and a host of shrubs and trees including gorse and the many species of acacia. Leguminous trees are hugely important in tropical forests, not least because the Rhizobia bacteria lodged in their roots turn atmospheric nitrogen into ions that plants can use as nutrients. 

Vicia is the genus of the vetches. Edible kinds include Vicia faba, known as “fava beans”, which in turn include broad beans and others now grown mainly for animal feed such as tic beans and horse beans.  Also classed as Vicia these days are the lentils, in all their variety. Previously they were placed in their own genus, Lens (so-called because they have lens-shaped seeds) but now they are known as Vicia lens. Lentils were grown in Britain in earlier centuries but at least in its early days, industrialized farming could not cope with them.  The technology has improved however and become more subtle and more and more British farmers are beginning to grow them – inspired not least by Hodmedods. Here then is huge and largely untapped potential for farmers and cooks and all who appreciate good food.  

The beans in the genus Phaseolus originated in the Americas, particularly meso-America, but they have long since been grown worldwide. Most important is Phaseolus vulgaris which includes the kidney beans in all their forms, and haricots and butter (or lima) beans, and the variety that in Britain is commonly known as the “navy bean” – most famously made manifest as the baked bean. Some beans too are generally eaten pods and all – including French beans (another variant of P vulgaris) and runner beans (P coccineus).  Again, there is much to be done. 

Briefly, too, we discuss soya beans in the genus Glycine – a difficult crop in Britain. 

Instead, Nick and Josiah stress the potential of peas, in the genus Lathyrus with about 160 species including some important human foods. Best known and most widely grown is the garden pea L oleraceus (which was previously given the generic name Pisum). But the one that has made the most impact at Hodmedods is the carlin or black pea, a variety of L sativum – again once widespread in Britain but of late largely neglected. Hodmedods sell carlin peas in dried form and in cans. 

We also mention cowpeas in passing, of the genus Vigna. Black-eyed beans are varieties of Vigna and are popular in Britain but are best grown in the semi-arid tropics, although some forms are grown in the US and Asia. Pigeon peas, too, of the genus Cajanus, are best grown in the tropics. Chickpeas, genus Cicer, are highly desirable and are grown in Europe, not least for hummus, and could feature more in Britain as the climate grows warmer  (which is one small compensation for the upset that is already well upon us). 

Finally, we briefly discussed lupins, genus Lupinus, with nearly 200 species that include ornamentals and food plants. The big and very protein-rich seeds of some lupins are favoured as animal feeds but as human food, as Josiah and Nick discuss, there are problems.

It is all very intriguing and, if seriously care about the future of the world, hugely important. 

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