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On the Pulse

Pulses* are great.
Tasty, versatile, nutritious, cheap..
*[kidney beans, haricot beans, pinto beans, butter beans, adzuki beans, mung beans, lentils, gram, broad beans, field beans, split peas, marrowfat peas, chickpeas, cowpeas, black-eyed peas, blackeye beans, pigeon peas, baked beans…]
Vegetarians eat loads of them, but so does everyone else – imagine Middle Eastern cuisine without humous, China’s without beansprouts or the UK’s without baked beans. Rice & peas, refried beans, – every culture has its iconic pulse dishes.

It only recently occurred to me that ALL the pulses I buy, for cooking or sprouting, are imported. But I’ve been trying to watch my food miles (to save the world). Easy-peasy, just switch to UK-grown pulses. Start with split peas. Now peas have been staple fare here since the Romans introduced them, and it’s said that medieval England lived off little else. Yet all the split peas in my local shops are imported from China or Canada. So I looked online.. Where the country of origin was listed at all, I was only offered travel-weary organic pulses or very occasionally, non-organic UK-grown crops.

split-pea travellers

Many emails & phone calls later I was more puzzled. 
Lots of suppliers who pride themselves on environmental consciousness are surprisingly coy about countries of origin. Is it reasonable that I would care that a product was organic or fairtrade, yet not be concerned about its foodmiles? I don’t buy imported potatoes and apples, so why would I choose imported peas over local? I was told a few times that our climate isn't suitable for growing them. And that breathtaking ignorance was from people in the trade!
Case study - SUMA (I’m picking on Suma, but would like to point out they are a truly marvellous business in all other respects!). says their goods are "sourced with minimal environmental impact in terms of production, transportation and packaging". Here's a page about their green split peas. It tells me they’re gluten-free, vegan, packed in the UK and gives me detailed nutritional, allergy, cooking and storage information. Everything, except where they're grown. I called Suma Customer Information - all their split peas come from Canada.
It turned out I couldn't find organic UK-grown pulses anywhere, so I looked for non-organic. (See Local vs Organic?.) Is there a class divide? It looks like mushy-peas are the lowly remnants of centuries of UK pea cuisine. (See Food Snobbery.) They're not in my local healthfood shops but a farmer I contacted told me I'd find dried UK peas in supermarkets like Tescos. But supermarkets are destroying farmers and local economies and are utterly incompatible with sustainability (read Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets by Joanna Blythman) so I'm not going there …

Finally, thankfully, Kelly of Sustain guided me to friendly Franek Smith from Dunns, Seed and Pulse Processors of Lincolnshire, who helpfully explained everything I could wish to know about the UK pulse situation. That they don’t have organic pulses this year but sometimes have small quantities. That the reluctance of UK farmers to grow organically is because the price is not enough to risk the devastation of the Bruchid Beetle. (Well with so few of us clamouring for UK organic beans, it’s no wonder farmers don’t want to take risks.)
However Dunn’s minimum order is a pallet of 1000kg which is more than I could stomach.
Another supplier for large quantities is of NW2. Minimum order £600, and they weren't even interested in talking to me as I'm not in the food industry. We lesser mortals can buy their stuff from ‘Natural Connections’ tel 020 8208 8809, but it still comes in large quantities.

But best of all was discovering (Now called 'Hodmedod').  While I've just been moaning about the lack of UK pulses, they've been setting up a business to actually do something about it! "Great British Beans is a trial initiative to stimulate and assess demand for indigenous pulses, delivered by Provenance – a partnership of William Hudson, Josiah Meldrum and Nick Saltmarsh – for East Anglia Food Link as part of its Norwich Resilient Food Project." They send out samples and have an excellent website with lots of recipes & information. This autumn "the beans should be available to order online and to buy in selected retail outlets, in 500g and 2kg packs. We’ll also be launching a 5kg pack for caterers." They're talking of expanding their range to include peas too. [1/4/13 they have a much wider range already]
So we just have to persuade our local shops to be some of those selected retail outlets!
My local retailer is the Haelan Centre, N8. I had a chat with them but was told unequivocally that customers want organic and don't care about foodmiles. Well that will only change if all of us tell the shops that we do care!
Meanwhile, you can buy UK-grown pulses online from and I'm buying in bulk for anyone who wants to share (N10).

After a bit of culinary experimentation I’m positive that I can happily scrap imported pulses from my diet. There is nothing that chickpeas & lentils can do that UK peas and beans can’t do as well or better. And sprouted marrowfat peas have turned out to be the best sprouts yet. So I my diet is, if anything, enhanced!

Once the sourcing problem is solved, the only other obstacle to changing our diet is a natural reluctance to change tastes & habits. To deal with this, a few of us are getting together for 'Beanfeasts'. I'm looking forward to tasting my first Pease Pudding at the next. Why not hold your own? Or join us if you're happy with vegan food.

Want to read more about beans?

Originally written 6/9/12. Updated 1/4/13