We meet the British farmer working with Pret A Manger to fly the flag for homegrown quinoa.
Here’s an unusual quiz question. What do daikon, wasabi and quinoa have in common? The obvious answer is that they are all grown traditionally in either parts of Southeast Asia or South America, but what might sound more surprising to some is that each one is also grown by farmers in the UK.
One example is Stephen Jones, the founder of The British Quinoa Company and the UK’s largest producer of quinoa. Jones supplies catering companies and fanatics around the country with the fashionable grain, as well as stocking Pret A Manger, which gets through 2.2 tonnes of it every week. This means that every time anyone buys a hot sweet potato and cauli quinoa rice pot from the high-street café chain, the quinoa helping has likely come from an 80-year-old family farm in Shropshire, which has sown it, harvested it, cleaned it and overseen it being bagged up in order to get it ready for sale.
But why should we care about this? Well quinoa, for the uninitiated, is a grain that has been grown and eaten in the Andes, specifically Bolivia and Peru, for thousands of years. Sometime a few years ago its superfood status hit the limelight – it is one of the most protein-dense foodstuffs around, rich in fibre, zinc, calcium and amino acids, not to mention being gluten-free and a versatile cooking aid. Since then it has enjoyed a frantic rush to stardom in the west, as everyone from carb-free celebrities to vegans, and fitness fanatics to chefs, incorporated it into their diets or their menus.
Currently the majority of quinoa is harvested in the Andes, but reports in recent years have suggested that the surge in popularity in the West led to an equivalent surge in cost, making the staple food too expensive for local Andean farmers.
Martin Morales, owner of Shoreditch-based Peruvian restaurant Andina, thinks it’s time that we re-address the stories. “The problems of Peru are much wider than that, and they’re not as a result of the mother grain not being available in Peru,” he argues. Believing that the media reports were largely misrepresented, he hopes that we will continue to support those quinoa farmers who are trading in a consistently open and sustainable fashion.
As such, while at least three major UK supermarkets do not disclose where their quinoa is harvested, Andina serves sustainably sourced Peruvian quinoa in dishes including porridge, croquettas, burgers and smoothies. This November, Morales will start selling 2kg bags of it to London chefs and the hospitality industry. A commercial product will be on sale next year.
“From the very beginning I established a direct contact with different suppliers in Peru as well as third parties, and we’ve been working with them for the last four years,” he says. “I work with them because the way they work with the farmers is transparent. The way the farmers work with the land is good… there are no pesticides, and it’s done in an organic way.”
Meanwhile in Shropshire, Stephen Jones and his father Edward believe they can also offer an excellent product closer to home, while keeping buyers informed at every stage of their farming process.
“It is nice to sell quinoa to the end user,” says Stephen Jones. “With our wheat, it just gets sold to a faceless grain trader, who will buy and sell it and I think that puts you on the very bottom rung – whereas if you’re actually growing it and marketing it, then you’re in a much better position.”
“Large companies now want to know where their product is coming from and want to have the continuity,” adds his father.
But while the Joneses are enthusiastically committed to the project, farming the grain in this country is no easy feat, as there is no guarantee of good weather either during the sowing months of March and April – or for a late August or September harvest.
On the farm, a combine harvester is gently crunching grain heads in its mechanical gnashers as the Joneses and their team are busy attempting to harvest the rest of the year’s crop before the autumn rainfall.
Having previously used these fields to successfully grow rapeseed, the idea to replace them with quinoa came in 2005, when Jones was writing his dissertation on crop varieties at Nottingham University. Having tasted the Andean grain, he wondered if it might be possible to grow it here. In 2010, after various failed attempts using some bought from supermarkets, Jones contacted a professor in the Netherlands who had successfully managed to breed some in the moderate climate. He ended up securing the UK growing rights for it.
Today, the Joneses are happy with the yield so far, and admit that “now we have fewer failures. We’re increasing year on year. It’s a low yield compared to wheat, which is 8.5 to 9 tonnes to the hectare, so we’re happy with getting a tonne or two of quinoa.”
The process has led not only to the development of the European Quinoa Company – the same grain is also grown in France, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium – but also a number of other UK farms growing it under the British Quinoa Company brand. Together they make enough to support Pret and smaller buyers, about half of which is sent to the sandwich chain.
“It keeps for three years, so when Pret say they want it, we can give it,” says Stephen Jones. “On this farm it’s all Pret, because then I can keep an eye on consistency. But we have 16 growers in total and we’re always trying to keep up with demand. It’s excellent.”
The grains themselves are, where possible, “nice big large ones. I mean, ours aren’t going to be as big as the South American ones – that’s a given… and we really want a nice, bright looking grain. We try where we can to get the best crop possible.”
To achieve this, the Joneses also plant mustard seeds in the soil during the winter rest period, in order to soak up nitrogen, which would otherwise be leached into the environment. And while the crop is not organic – some of the guest growers sell organic quinoa for those that want to buy it – they use no pesticides or herbicides.
In terms of cooking the grain, Stephen Jones advises not over-boiling: “I cook it with a lid on so it steams. I look for it turning translucent. The little dot in the middle that isn’t quite fully cooked is where you get your bite from. Ours is nuttier than the South American varieties.”
And does he serve his like the South Americans do? While he positions it is as a replacement for rice and cous cous, he also uses it in a variety of meals. “I use it in soups, yes, but a lot of people still don’t know where to use it,” he says. “For newcomers, I tend to do a salad. But for me the tag line is: anywhere you use rice or cous cous, replace it with quinoa. I know a lot of Indian restaurants would say that it [having quinoa with curry] isn’t allowed, but for me it’s a lot healthier… There’s not a lot of nutrition in rice, and quinoa is a great replacement. I know people in South America would find that weird, but I like mixing it.”
So, while Stephen Jones may have started growing quinoa “for the love of a challenge”, it has since become a passion, both for the growers themselves and for their biggest customer, who make regular trips to the farm. “When Pret visit they get so excited,” Caroline, a family friend who is very much a part of the operation, tells me. “We’re helping them and they’re helping us… We’re going on this journey with them.”
Originally published in Foodism Magazine