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Farming Thinking

How supermarkets ruined pork

21st March 2018
  • New campaign positions pork as healthy a chicken but a staggering 90% of all pork sold in the UK is intensively farmed.
  • Lizzie Rivera reveals the truth behind the pork we eat, the murky world of food labelling, and how supermarket dominance is at fault.  

Free-range pigs at Fernhill-Farm. This type of high-welfare farming is far removed from the reality of how much of British pork is made.

Pork is making a comeback. Its decline in popularity has been so slow you may not have noticed it – but farmers and supermarkets have. So a new campaign has been launched to rekindle our love of the majestic-sounding pork medallion, firstly by taking on chicken (whose popularity has soared) and secondly by taking on the Oxford English Dictionary.

Yep, a pig farmer hit headlines last week by formally requesting the phrases ‘pig-out’, ‘eat like a pig’ and ‘porker’ are removed from the dictionary because they are offensive to the animals that are, in reality, no greedier than any others.

In fact, British pigs are now 44% leaner than they were in the 1970s, while us greedy-hogs – oops! humans – are 30% fatter, according to the latest data from the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board.

Pork drops: how we fell out of love with pork

The new Love Pork campaign encourages people to eat more pork but 90% of all pork sold in the UK is intensively farmed.

Sales of pork fell by 8% between 2013 and last year, with around one million fewer households buying pork. Meanwhile sales of chicken, touted as the healthy white meat, soared by 18%.

A significant factor of this decline may have been the World Health Organisation’s warning in 2015 that processed and cured meat ranked alongside cigarettes as a cause of cancer.

The evidence that links a high intake of red and processed meat to poor health is growing according to the British Dietetic Association (BDA). It is not yet clear why this is, but one theory is the higher saturated fat or salt intake in foods such as burgers and sausages, and the typically un-healthier lifestyles of the people who regularly consume these foods.

The key point here is “high intake”. Dr Frankie Phillips, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the BDA, says the official recommendation is to eat less than 70g of red meat per day – about the amount in a pork medallion.

She also highlights how pork is also rich in protein and provides a source of a range of essential vitamins and minerals.

Hence the new “Love Porkmarketing campaign, which presents pork as healthy as chicken by highlighting that a pork medallion contains a whole 0.03g less saturated fat than a skinless chicken breast.

So, we can eat pork as often as we do chicken. Right? Well, not quite…

Telling porkies: health claims and intensive farming

As our last report on chicken investigated, there’s a lot more to the arguments for how “healthy” a meat is for you than the simplistic fat and protein content marketing message. And there’s a huge range of pork to choose from – from intensively reared to free-range and organic.

So, while “Love Pork”  is not telling outright porkies, they’re not telling the whole truth either because the way a pig is farmed has a significant impact on its nutritional value.

And that is another reason we’re seeing a decline of meat sales generally – consumer concern for animal welfare.

A report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism last year revealed that the number of intensive farms (housing 2,000 pigs for grown meat) in the UK has risen by a quarter since 2011. “Mega Farms”, which hold at least 2,500 pigs, are also increasing at a concerning pace with the largest UK pig farm able to hold a staggering 23,000 pigs.

Piglets suckling their mother on an intensive pig farm.

Intensive farming now accounts for an incredible 90% of all pork sold in the UK, according to Philip Lymbery, chief executive Compassion in World Farming (CIWF).

When it comes to pigs, what passes as acceptable is pretty horrifying. Piglets are born to sows in farrowing crates, which are so small the sows can’t even turn around.

The piglets compete with one another for teats that aren’t providing enough milk for them all, so they have their teeth painfully clipped to minimise damage when fighting to suckle.

“That’s not a pig, that’s a genetic monster who’s lived in a shed all its life.”

Unstimulated, their tails will have been docked by the time they are transferred to pens at three weeks old (without anaesthetic if they were under seven days old) to stop them causing serious damage when they bite each other as their boredom turns to aggression. The growing pigs live on hard slatted floors so the excrement they live in can conveniently be washed away.

Fed growth hormones to grow quickly, commercially reared pigs are ready for slaughter from five months old, twice as fast as higher welfare breeds which grow at a more natural pace.

They are fattened up on cereals and are fed routine antibiotics because diseases spread quickly in tightly packed conditions and they haven’t fed from their mother for long enough to build up immunity. In September 2016, a study by organic certification body Soil Association revealed 63% of pork samples contained antibiotic-resistant E. coli.

Farms Not Factories have campaigned against the intensive farming of pigs – a farming system which is heavily reliant on antibiotics.

“In Britain, a nation of animal lovers, most of our pigs are in factory farms in conditions that in my view can only be described as utter deprivation,” says Lymbery, who believes it’s supermarkets who have benefited from this centralisation of supply.

Intense competition between the supermarkets and their tiny margins mean that meat has become cheaper than ever. The farmers themselves have been forced into levels of efficiency that have never been seen before – and that includes pushing animals to grow at unnatural rates. As one farmer explains it: “That’s not a pig, that’s a genetic monster who’s lived in a shed all its life.”

But over the last decade supermarkets have also realised consumers want their animals to be treated better. This doesn’t necessarily mean they have to treat the animals better – just market them to suggest this is the case.

The word ‘fresh’ leads to 30% of consumers to believe products are more free-range than they are

Lymbery says: “Packaging on animal products can be designed to make consumers feel better about what they are buying. Pictures of animals happily grazing in rolling fields do nothing to inform people of the truth about how farm animals are actually raised.”

He points to research that shows simply adding the word ‘fresh’ leads to about 30% of consumers believing products are more free-range than they actually are.

Even worse, when I asked David Clarke, CEO of Red Tractor, which certifies 85% of pig farms, what are the advantages of “outdoor bred pork” (which means the pigs are born outdoors and raised indoors) his reply is: “The advantages are some people are prepared to pay more money for it because they think it’s better welfare.”

Happy as a pig…outdoors

A free-range, organic pig at Purton House Organics farm in Wiltshire.

At the other end of the spectrum a luckier 10% of pigs are raised in truly higher-welfare, free-range and organic conditions.

Pigs are very sociable animals and when given the chance they will happily spend their days grazing or rooting the ground with their sensitive snouts – or wallowing in the mud to cool down. If it’s cold, shelter with plenty of straw is their perfect hideaway.

Given the opportunity to behave naturally, pigs on these farms will automatically designate themselves a toilet area – away from where they live and eat.

This style of farming goes hand-in-hand with passionate and enthusiastic farmers fighting to keep the rarest pig breeds in existence – such as the Gloucester Old Spot, The British Saddleback and The Tamworth.

At Fernhill Farm, there are just two Saddleback sister sows, who each have the potential to produce about 24 piglets a year. These animals get to live as a family unit in eight acres of land and rotate around the woodlands and gardens to cultivate, fertilise, clear scrub and help to reclaim unmanaged woodlands.

One of Fernhill Farm’s two saddleback sows with one of her piglets.

“We consider them as part of the team, clearing up windfall apples, garden and vegetable waste, weeds and consuming large quantities of fodder beet throughout winter,” says owner Jennifer Hunter.

“To us they form part of our holistic approach to farming rather than a stand alone business. Pigs were my first love after studying animal behaviour and they sure do deliver on bringing a bit of joy into our lives.”

The Saddleback is one of the original British breeds of pig and is gentle and quiet perfectly suited to life outdoors, with great bacon potential.

Rare breeds have been phased out of commercial farms because they don’t grow quickly enough, but unsurprisingly the quality of the meat is incomparable. It will have depth of colour and be full of flavour, fry beautifully in its own fat and it won’t release grungy water.

Some British farmers are even turning rare breed meat into charcuterie – with impressive results. British Salami from Marsh Pig, for example, typically has a third less fat so you get all of the flavour without the greasy after taste.

Of course, meat from these pigs is more expensive – and some cuts can cost the same price as a steak. It’s a tough sell to re-educate consumers who have lost touch with how their food is really produced. But, somewhat ironically, these pigs need to be eaten so they can continue to be farmed and ensure the survival of the breeds.

Going the whole hog

The rise in popularity of nose-to-tail eating means even a pig’s head now comes with a price tag of about £15, whereas butchers were literally giving them away a few years ago.

Yet, the head is still the most undervalued part of the pig, according to chef James Golding, who uses it to make Bath-chaps (cured and smoked pork cheeks), braised cheeks and crispy ears.

As chef director of The Pig ‘restaurant with rooms’, who rear their own pigs, you’d expect Golding to be a big fan of pork.

“It is so versatile and tasty, whether you’re roasting a shoulder for dinner or making a paté, every product is packed full of flavour,” he says. But there’s one condition.

“As long as it’s responsibly reared, it’s a beautiful meat.” To Golding, the difference between a quality piece of pork and a cheap one is huge.

“The depth of flavour is the biggest difference and the smell is intense. We finish our pigs on apples and it does transfer into the meat, it’s delicious.”

The message to eat less but higher welfare meat is no longer just about animal welfare but human health as well.

The difference between low-welfare and high-welfare farming also impacts the nutritional value. For example, the biggest nutritional difference between organic meat and non-organic is that organic meat contains around 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, according to a report published in the British Journal of Nutrition. Plus, organic meat was found to have slightly lower concentrations of two saturated fats linked to heart disease.

Organic and truly free-range pigs are reared without the routine use of drugs, antibiotics and wormers common in intensive farming. This is especially important in light of reports highlighting how the overuse of antibiotics in farming is undermining the treatment of infections in humans.

Suddenly the advice to eat meat less often so we can afford to eat better quality doesn’t seem so unreasonable, it seems necessary.

This is where buying cheaper, less common cuts can provide the best of both worlds. The meaty chump, from the rump, is easy to cook in a pan or under the grill. The cheek, from the other end of the pig, is fatty and great in a stew. Deboning, stuffing and rolling the loin can make it go further – and removing the skin to make a tasty crackling makes this go further still. Of course, the shoulder can be slow-roasted until tasty and tender, but it can also be minced for a delicious, slow-grown and slow-cooked ragu.

Lizzie Rivera is a journalist and founder of BICBIM, London’s ethical food and fashion guide, covering the eco-friendly and ethical brands that produce top-quality food, fashion and experiences. 

Shop for high-welfare and organic pork at

Discover more about the effects of factory farming on our food:


5 easy ways to eat wild garlic

8th March 2018

You know spring has sprung when the waft of garlic takes over parks and woodland pathways across the country. Wild garlic has a fresh, chive-like taste with that heady hum of mellow garlic and a mustardy twang.

A bunch of Wild Garlic

A tasty alternative bouquet perhaps…?

You can find it in wooded areas (they are a sign of Ancient woodland) from mid-March onwards, and usually you’ll smell it before you see it – so let your nose guide you. Its soft pointed leaves are at its sweetest in early spring. But if you don’t have the time to go out foraging, the green fingered folk at Chegworth Valley forage under the cover of the woods at their 100 acre Kent farm so you don’t have to. Wild garlic is, by nature, organic, so is grown with no harmful chemicals so it’s as natural as can be (and tastes all the better for it).

Once you’ve gathered your bunch and get it back to your kitchen, what to do? Well now’s the real fun part. Its leaves have a much more mellow taste than regular cultivated garlic, meaning it can be enjoyed raw or cooked. You can use both the leaves and the pale root – put your root to tip cooking into practice with our top 5 wild garlic recipes:

1. Wild Garlic Tear & Share Bread

Wild Garlic Tear and Share Bread

Everyone’s favourite Italian side gets a spring makeover. The mellow twang of wild garlic atop freshly baked soft bread is a thing of seasonal eating dreams. Get your friends around and dive into this easy-bake pull apart loaf whilst these leaves are still in season.

2. Asparagus, Mint & Wild Garlic Risotto

Asparagus, Mint & Wild Garlic Risotto

What grows together, goes together. That’s why springtime treasures wild garlic and asparagus are a match made in heaven in this creamy risotto.

3. Wild Garlic Chicken Kiev

Homemade chicken kievs are the ultimate spring comfort dish, made super simple with a few chef tips.

4. Rolled Lamb Breast with Wild Garlic Oil

Treat this slow-cooked, juicy breast of lamb with a fresh and punchy garlicky drizzle.

5. Wild Garlic Pesto 

Wild Garlic Pesto

This foolproof homemade pesto will complete all manner of dishes – stir through your favourite pasta or dot on top of torn bread, local tomatoes and mozzarella for a light and zingy panzanella salad.

1 bunch wild garlic • 2 packs basil • 50g of parmesan • 60g pine nuts • 1 lemon, zest & juice • 60ml rapeseed oil • 20ml olive oil • salt & pepper

In a blender, blitz most of the wild garlic and basil (if eating with pasta leave a handful for later to fold through the pasta at the end) with the grated Parmesan and pine nuts • Add the zest and juice of the lemon, then gradually add the two oils while the blender is on • Taste, adding salt and pepper.

Quick tip: I’d recommend always using two oils when making a pesto as using only olive oil can give it a bitter taste.

How do you use it? Share your tips below!

This article was originally published in May 2017 and has been updated.

Learn how to make a stunning apple cider vinegar, an easy mayonnaise, gut-friendly kombuchacreamy yoghurt and tahini at home in our DIY Pantry series.


Pullet eggs: what are they, why they’re hard to find and how to cook them

19th February 2018

There’s a mini egg scandal happening in Britain. Farmers are forced to throw away millions of smaller pullet eggs each year because they don’t make the size-grade. Thankfully, there is a way to pick up pullet eggs direct from the farm and save them from their food-waste fate.

Ordinary eggs vs. small pullet eggs

Ordinary eggs vs. smaller pullet eggs. Photo: Natale Towell.

One of the greatest pleasures of local food is the increased likelihood of running into unusual ingredients that you won’t find elsewhere. So familiar are we with what industrially produced eggs have to offer, you won’t find small pullet eggs in a supermarket and instead medium, large and even extra-large are the order of the day.

Pullet eggs are not found in the supermarkets because they are too small to conform to the rules set by regulators. This shortsighted approach to selling fresh eggs has meant that millions of pullet eggs are not reaching tables but are destined for liquid eggs, or even worse, the bin. Which is a real shame, because they’re a delight.

What are pullet eggs?

A pullet is a hen that is under one year old and has only been laying eggs for only a few months. Pullet eggs are the first eggs laid by hens at about 18 weeks old. These young hens are just getting into their egg-laying groove, meaning these eggs will be noticeably smaller than the usual eggs you come across. And that’s where the beauty in them lies – quite simply, they are delicious.

Chefs can’t get enough of them because of their brightly coloured yolks and a unique richness that eggs from an older hen simply don’t have. Pullet eggs also hold together beautifully (like little mountains) in the pan, so are incredible for poaching and frying. The smaller size of pullet eggs only last about 4 weeks before they get bigger. They’re not around for long and that’s why they’re not available all year round.

Rowie with her free-ranging hens

Rowie with her free-ranging hens. Photo: Nigel Akehurst.


Why is it so hard to find pullet eggs?

Outside of their incredible richness (we’ve definitely heard the words ‘avian caviar’), pullet eggs highlight economic and sustainability issues too. Up to 10% of every egg farmer’s stock is thrown away because the eggs are too small. By not selling these eggs, farmers are losing out. You may have seen us talking to Jamie Oliver about them on Jamie And Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast.

Jamie says: “They may be little but farmers say they’re the tastiest you can get. The great British public are missing out on a premium seasonal product and worse, farmers’ livelihoods are on the line.”

Third-generation poultry farmers Danny and Susie Macmillan of Mac’s Farm who featured on the show say they lose around £60,000 a year due to few people eating pullet eggs. The supermarkets may not want them, but the rise in public interest in our pullet eggs after the show aired showed us that you do. Which is fantastic news for our farmers Rowie at Purton House Organics and Andrew at Haresfield farm, who now have a home for pullets hens’ eggs.

Pullet egg on the bottom, ordinary egg on top

Pullet egg on the bottom, ordinary egg on top. Photo: Natale Towell.

How to cook a pullet egg

Our recipe developer and MasterChef semi-finalist Beth shares her tips for the perfect pullet:

You can cook a pullet egg in the same way you would a normal egg. However, using pullet eggs for poaching is much easier as they have a brilliant ability hold together more so than normal eggs. For soft boiled pullet eggs, cook for 3 to 4 minutes from a rolling boil and make sure you use eggs that are at room temperature.

To easily remove its shell, put the egg straight into iced water and leave to cool (for about 5 minutes). Gently roll the egg along a surface to get an even layer of cracks in its shell and you’ll feel it come away. Find a weak spot to get under the shell and gently pull it off.

Just how small is a pullet egg?

Got pullet eggs and can’t wait to get cracking? To help you use them in baking, here’s a quick size comparison guide based on EU weights:

Standard EU Egg Sizes

Extra-large (XL) 73g+

Large (L) 63g – 73g

Medium (M) 53g – 63g

Small (S) less than 53g

Average Pullet 35g – 40g

How do you use yours? Let us know in the comments below.

This article was originally published in May 2017.

Pick up your pullet eggs now available from organic farmer Andrew at Haresfield Farm. 

Keep your eyes peeled for availability from Rowie at Purton House Organics.

Here’s why we pay farmers double compared to supermarkets.

DIY Pantry

How to make yoghurt at home in 5 easy steps

10th January 2018

Yoghurt starts with yoghurt. Just a spoon of it. Then all you need are a couple of pints of milk, a thermos flask and eight hours of no work whatsoever, to get you a whole big lot of it. Thick, tangy, creamy yoghurt. No effort, less plastic and a few quid saved. Here’s our guide to help you.

How to make yoghurt at home from scratch in 5 easy steps

You’ll need….

Starter yoghurt

It might seem counterproductive to buy yoghurt to make yoghurt, but this is only necessary the first time. You can use the remaining yoghurt from your next batch to make the following one, and so on and so on. Most importantly, look for yoghurt that has the words ‘live’ or ‘active cultures’ on the packaging. This refers to the living organisms or ‘good’ bacterias which will convert your milk into yoghurt. One other thing to remember is to make sure it’s plain yoghurt – anything that’s flavoured will taste odd in your homemade batch.


You can use either raw or pasteurised milk, and semi-skimmed or whole milk. Whole milk will give you a thicker, creamier yoghurt.


You’ll need a thermos flask to keep your milk nice and cosy while the bacteria does its job turning it into yoghurt. A wide-mouthed flask is best. If you don’t have a thermos, use a heavy pot with a lid, and keeping it somewhere insulated and warm – an oven set at a very low temperature would work. You’ll also need a pan to heat the milk, a spoon or fork and some jars to store your finished batch.

5 easy steps to homemade yoghurt

Step 1

How to make yoghurt at home from scratch in 5 easy steps

Add 2 tablespoons of live yoghurt to a thermos flask.

Step 2

Heat 2 pints (1.1 litres) of full-fat milk over a medium-low heat until almost bubbling (85ºC), stirring often so it doesn’t catch on the bottom. Leave it to cool so you can stick your finger in it but it’s still pretty hot (46ºC). If you want to get specific with this, use a thermometer.

Step 3

How to make homemade yoghurt from scratch in 5 easy steps

Pour a good splash of the milk into the thermos and stir well to combine with the yoghurt, then pour in all of the remaining milk, stirring gently.

Step 4

How to make homemade yoghurt from scratch in 5 easy steps

Put the lid on immediately, then set aside for at least 8 hours. It’s important it is not moved at all during this time, so keep it well out of the way.

Step 5

How to make homemade yoghurt from scratch in 5 easy steps

And there you have it. Tangy, delicious, creamy yoghurt. Store in jars in the fridge. It’ll keep for as long as the regular store-bought stuff.

Enjoy with fresh fruit and yoghurt, or try it in this banana bread or on top of your favourite pancakes.

Caught the DIY pantry bug? Learn how to make a stunning apple cider vinegar, an incredibly easy mayonnaise at home or a go-to paneer cheese at home. Or head to the larder for more store cupboard essentials.


8 farm stay holidays guaranteed to beat winter blues

9th January 2018

The farm stay encapsulates the holiday many of us crave: an unfettered getaway, remote from the mundanity of office life, that narrows the divide between food and plate. Question is, what most takes your fancy?

Brushing elbows with a farming family in the Italian countryside, or getting lost (but not, hopefully, too lost) in 4,200 acres of lush Tennessee wilderness? Here are a few picks of the best farm stays around the world to get you started.

1. Coombeshead Farm, Cornwall, UK

Tom Adam’s Pitt Cue has been a huge part of London’s charcoal-fuelled barbecue and grilled meat movement since he started with a trailer pitch on South Bank. So it was with great intrigue when Adams and British export and New York restaurateur April Bloomfield joined forces to open a B&B farm stay in a rather remote part of Cornwall. A large portion of ingredients used in the restaurant kitchen are grown and reared on site, including the Mangalitza pigs that made Pitt Cue famous.

2. Ca ‘de Memi, Veneto, Italy

Ca ‘de Memi, a 40-minute train journey from Venice, is a family-run operation: Ottorino, who helped establish the farm in its modern incarnation, works the land, while Michela, with her daughters, works the breakfast table. The family’s 14-hectare plot is run on the principles of slow food, growing vegetables and herbs and rearing Paduan hens, Muscovy ducks, and rabbits.

3. Serenbe, Georgia, USA

Here’s one for the sustainable-minded adventurer. A 900-acre farm ­– one that’s part of an environmentally conscious community, no less ­– with 15 miles of footpaths among untouched forests, wildflower meadows, waterfalls, and all the wildlife that comes with it. There’s plenty of opportunity for exploration, while tours of its working farm are available for those more comfortable with someone who knows where they’re going.

4. O’Vineyards, Carcassonne, France

Somewhere between Toulouse and Montpellier is the town of Carcassonne with an imposing 13th-century citadel, complete with watchtowers, battlements and all. O’Vineyards and it’s working winery is found just north of here and guests are free to wander the Syrah and Sauvignon vineyards before taking full advantage of the produce made on site. Five-course dinners and an ample supply of wine provide the main draws.

5. Royal Mail Hotel, Dunkeld, Australia

Views of Grampians National Park, close encounters with endangered animals, and tucked-away colonial lodges are abound in and around Royal Mail’s estate. As extraordinary a location as this is, most of the focus at this farm stay is on food and drink. Chefs lead tours of the kitchen’s organic garden, picked clean by resident ducks (rather than maintained with industrial pesticides), the restaurant is headed up by Robin Wickens (regarded as one of Australia’s best chefs), and the cellar, decades in the making, houses around 26,000 bottles.

6. Blackberry Farm, Tennessee, USA

Given its 4,200-acre estate, Blackberry Farm is a farm stay with more than enough variety and intrigue in its natural bounty with which to furnish the bellies and curiosity of its guests. The farm has become a favourite for visiting chefs and producers, not just for the raw materials grown here, but for what’s for lunch too. To top things off, the farm has an on-site World Beer Cup award-winning brewery concocting saisons, pilsners, and pale ales for its guests and the wider market.

7. Asara Wine Estate, Western Cape, South Africa

Stellenbosch. Arguably one of the prettiest wine regions in the world. Asura Wine Estate, along with its hotel, bumps up against Stellenbosch with some vineyards of its own ­– 104 hectares of mostly red grape varieties are grown here, from Malbec to Petit Verdot. The whole mise en place means it’s a wine lover’s dream with wine tasting, wine tours, and bike rides through local vineyards.

8. Brown’s Field, Chiba, Japan

Embedding yourself in the Japanese countryside among rice fields, traditional bathhouses, and Ewok-style treehouses sounds almost subversive to Japan’s affinity for the high tech. But there lies pleasure in the simple things. At Brown’s Field, a small farm run by an American ex-journalist and his Japanese wife on the east Chiba coast, everyone from local volunteers to hotel guests are invited to muck in with daily life at the farm. Sound a bit feudal? When rewards of a day’s work are shared at the communal dinner table, you’ll realise maybe Japanese peasant life wasn’t so bad.

Bitten by the travel bug? Visit these great food markets of the world on your way.

Prefer closer to home? Don’t miss these six deliciously idyllic UK farm breaks.

Cooking Farming

What are ancient grains and why should we eat them?

1st January 2018

Ancient grains are back in popular favour. A trend that we reckon will only continue to rise. But what even is an ancient grain? And why should we care? Here’s our guide to why we’ve gone crazy for them, their benefits and how to cook them.

What are ancient grains and why should we eat them?

Grains make up more than half of the world’s daily calorific intake. Not to mention the vast amount that also goes to feed livestock – which, in turn, we eat too. It goes without saying that without grain we’d have very different eating habits. And if the world’s grain supply were to suddenly stop tomorrow? We’d be in big trouble.

What are ancient grains and why should we eat them?

“We eat wheat that is dead”

Wheat, corn and rice are the main players – the ones we humans eat the most of. These are crops that have been selectively bred for thousands of years, developed for their resistance to disease and ability to produce high yields. The problem lies with how intensively these main crops are grown, designed to rely heavily on fertilisers and herbicides to grow – damaging not just for our health, but our soils, water and environment as a whole – and to last longer on our shelves. Rather than breeding these crops for their flavour or nutrition, our main source of energy has been bred simply for the quantity it yields, and the economic return it provides big agro-business.

“The problem is we don’t eat true wholewheat. We eat wheat that is dead and denuded so it’s shelf-stable. We lost the taste of wheat and all its health benefits. And for something we eat so much of, it really is a true disaster. If we’re going to change the food system, we have to change how we grow and consume wheat.”

– Dan Barber

What are ancient grains?

And that’s where these so-called ancient grains come in. These refer to grains – like, spelt, barley and millet – and pseudo-cereals – like, quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth – that have been little changed by selective breeding. Meaning, they are genetically very similar, both in terms of flavour, nutrition and yield, to the grains our ancestors would have eaten centuries ago.

Forget superfoods, it’s all about diversity

What are ancient grains and why should we eat them?

Naked Barley growing at Wakelyns Agroforestry – a research farm run by Professor Martin Wolfe a couple of miles away from Hodmedod’s HQ in Suffolk, it’s the perfect place for organic trial plots. This enables the team to try out new and ancient grain varieties on a very small scale and to look at how existing crops might work in different systems.

It’s not because they’re ancient that they’re better – if anything that tag is meaningless – it’s their diversity and what this can bring to our diets and farming systems that’s the key”, stresses Josiah Meldrum, co-founder of Hodmedod’s, the pioneering British suppliers of unusual and underused grains.

“More genetically diverse farm systems, that include a range of cereals in a long rotation, tend to be more resilient to disease and pests. These older varieties also have deeper roots and are better able to draw more of their water and nutrients from the soil than the input-hungry short rotation monocultures we’ve come to rely on”.

What are ancient grains and why should we eat them?

After a global search for seed, a couple of years of trials and several months working out how to flake and mill it, Hodmedod’s have welcomed organic naked barley into their range.

These ancient grains are often more nutritious (a little more exciting) too. A good example is naked barley. Named so because unlike normal barley, the grain falls from the ear without the need for polishing. This also means that, unlike polished or pearled barley, when you eat naked barley you’re eating a whole grain.

Naked barley was a popular crop among Bronze and Iron Age farmers because it’s easy to prepare for milling and eating immediately after harvest, but by the mid 20th-century it had practically disappeared, with wheat taking its place. However, naked barley is a crop that requires half as much water per tonne as wheat and needs far less fertiliser. It’s high in complex carbohydrates, especially beta-glucan – a soluble fibre that has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol. Also when compared to wheat, it’s higher in protein – around 15 or 16% as compared to 10 or 12% for wheat.

“It might have been forgotten by modern farmers and millers, but it can really fit into today’s farming systems, and while it doesn’t produce as high a yield as many other cereals, what you do get from it is far more beneficial to both our health and the environment”, says Josiah.

Enter the UK’s first home-grown crop of quinoa

What are ancient grains and why should we eat them?

Sandoval quinoa crops being grown in East Anglia for Hodmedod’s.

The trick is in getting people to buy it. In the UK, farmers rotate their crops. Meaning, they alternate between crops that exhaust the supply of soil nutrients with those that replenish them. When it comes to grain, however, many farmers struggle to grow and sell any that aren’t wheat at a profit, simply because there isn’t a big enough market for them.

Thanks to Hodmedod’s and a handful of other pioneering farmers and chefs, change is happening to promote the benefits of unusual and under-used grains, encouraging people to use their purchasing power and incentivising farmers to diversify the grains they sell. Hodmedod’s are selling the UK’s first-ever crop of quinoa, Gilchesters Organics grow and mill grains from einkorn to rye, and Sharpham Park’s organic spelt is sold as flour, porridge and grain.

As consumers, the key is in varying what we eat and supporting the farming systems that enable us to do that – farming systems that are moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach, and rethinking what they grow so it’s more in tune with agro-ecological principles, precisely by introducing a diversity of plants to the land. Helping them to do that could start, simply, with the grains we eat.

Here are a few to start.

5 ancient grains (and a pseudo-cereal) to try in 2018


What are ancient grains and why should we eat them?

Spelt is an ancient member of the wheat family and a hybrid of emmer wheat and goat grass. It grows five-feet high whereas modern wheat has been bred down to a more machine-friendly waist height. Nutty in taste, it’s full of fibre and a tasty addition to stews and soups. Pearled spelt is made by bouncing it over five rotating stones which remove the outer bran so it can absorb water and flavour when making risotto. Try Sharpham Park’s organic whole or pearled varieties, grown in Somerset.


What are ancient grains and why should we eat them?

Einkorn is the earliest type of wheat that humans grew and ate. Einkorn production completely disappeared in the UK until 2008, when Doves Farm started working with a small group of organic farmers to re-establish the production of einkorn. Higher in protein than commercial wheats, einkorn flour has a nutty flavour and makes great rustic style breads and pizza bases.   


What are ancient grains and why should we eat them?

Quinoa is actually a seed, not a grain, but it’s used in much the same way. Grown in Peru, Chile and Bolivia for thousands of years, quinoa formed the staple diet of the Incas. It’s a complete protein, which means it contains all nine essential amino acids, and it’s gluten-free. Try its black, red or white varieties in salads, use it to bulk out casseroles or as an alternative to rice or couscous. Try Hodmedod’s pioneering British quinoa.


What are ancient grains and why should we eat them?

Millet has a mild, sweet, nut-like flavour. A staple for a third of the world’s population, it’s most commonly eaten in India, China and Africa. It’s another gluten-free seed, a good source of protein and is high in fibre and B vitamins. Use it in place of oats to make porridge!


What are ancient grains and why should we eat them?

These tiny seeds are yet another great protein source and are also naturally gluten-free. You can use it much like quinoa, or in place of other grains in salads and soups, or try toasting them in a dry frying pan for added crunch to salads or breakfast bowls.

Intrigued? Here’s everything you need to know about amaranth.

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