In praise of pulses

beansHaving grown up in Madagascar, I have plenty of time for pulses. You could buy a dozen varieties on the local markets, all lined up in baskets and sold by the tin-full. There was a wide range of colours and sizes, and some multi-coloured ones that were really quite beautiful. When we were small, my Mum even had a big mixed jar of them for us to tip out into a tray and play with.

So I was interested to hear this week’s edition of The Food Programme on Radio 4, which was all about pulses. Apparently we don’t eat many of them in Britain. Besides our fondness for baked beans, we really don’t eat many beans and pulses. The programme was out to change hearts and minds, as the UN has declared 2016 to the Year of the Pulse, which is the first I’ve heard of it.

We used to eat them. Pulses are a staple food in many parts of the world, and they were in Britain too in the past. As the country developed and people began to eat more meat, eating beans became associated with poverty. We ate fewer of them, and even stopped growing many traditional varieties. Hippy culture has not improved the standing of beans and lentils either.

It’s a pity, because there’s a reason why pulses are a staple in so many traditional diets. They’re low-fat, contain plenty of fiber, and they’re all round nutritious. They’re versatile and cheap, and can be served in dozens of different ways. They are also a very sustainable form of protein. Beans also fix nitrogen, playing an important role in agriculture when incorporated into crop rotation. So there are plenty of reasons to eat more of them, especially if they replace some of our meat-eating.

One of the guests on the show was Nick Saltmarsh, who used to work in food policy. He was involved in a Transition City Norwich project which concluded that pulses offered one of the best ways to make our diets more resilient and sustainable, but noted that we don’t grow many any more. The Great British Bean Project ran as a trial to try and source British grown beans and encourage people to try them. Since it was a success, Nick and some friends went on to found a company, Hodmedod’s, to take it further.

Hodmedod’s now sell British grown fava beans, quinoa, and a whole variety of beans, pulse flours, and pea and bean-based snacks. They’ve also revived some traditional varieties. We used to eat Carlin peas as a snack, and outside of a very few areas, they’re almost unknown now. The small amounts that we do grow are, strangely enough, exported to Japan as ‘maple peas’. Hodmedod’s are attempting to bring them back. I also like the look of their blue peas, and surely it wouldn’t be difficult to persuade children to eat Gog Magog beans.

I’d come across Hodmedod’s before, but I hadn’t heard the story behind the company. I like their activist origins, the rediscovery of lost food heritage, and the practical response to a sustainability issue. I will look out for them in future.

“There’s a broader awareness that we’re going to have to change our diet in some way over the next 30 or 40 years” says another of the founders, Josiah Meldrum, in this interview with Rob Hopkins. “There are pressures from population growth, pressures on land. Beans are going to play a part in that as a very low-tech solution to dietary change.”

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One Comment on “In praise of pulses”

  1. Gordon Ferguson August 1, 2016 at 10:01 pm #

    Yes we do indeed need to get much more protein from pulses, and learn how to cook them for satisfying taste and texture. Thirty years ago our local wholefoods shop sold British ‘Field Beans’, but have not sold them for years.
    My biggest complaint about dried pulses is that they are so often old and so take ages to cook and have a lousy texture and poor taste. We buy the premium range from a large continental grocer with a high turnover. Sometimes they are cooked in as little as 20 minutes, and come out really creamy and full of flavour.
    I also flavour the cooking liquid with vegetable offcuts and fresh herbs in a silicone mesh steaming bag and add olive oil to ‘capture’ the flavours. I cook 500g dried weight at a time – equivalent of four tins – and cook them up into dishes through the week.
    The Hodmedods website is great and they are doing good things – their Horseradish Roasted Green Peas is awesome – but they don’t have my two favourite recipes: Bruschetta di Cavolo Nero e Cannellini and Pasta e Fagioli – Italian ‘Cucina Povera’ at it’s very best.

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