What, quinoa made in Britain?

A traditional South American staple, quinoa is fast-becoming a store cupboard essential in British kitchens. We find out why.

Known as the ‘Gold of the Andes’, quinoa (pronounced ‘keen-wah’) is an edible grain native to South America. Until relatively recently, this crop has been exclusively cultivated in Bolivia and Peru, where it is a staple food, particularly among the poorest populations of Andean peasants. Between 2012 and 2014, exports of quinoa to the United States and Europe jumped 260% and as demand increases, there is a growing community of farmers producing this nutritious crop in Britain.

“Obviously it started to make economic sense to grow more of it closer to home,” says Nick Saltmarsh, co-founder of Hodmedod’s, founded in 2012. He now works with two quinoa farmers to produce the whole grain, quinoa flakes which are a great alternative to oats, and quinoa puffs which are great as a breakfast cereal.

Andrew Williams at Home Farm in Suffolk produces 25 tonnes of organic quinoa a year for Hodmedod’s and 75 tonnes of non-organic quinoa is grown by Peter Fairs at Warren Farm in Essex. Nick describes Peter as the pioneer of quinoa production in the UK: “Since the 1980s, Peter has grown quinoa here to provide seed to feed wild birds and as a cover crop for game birds, and only recently started to trial other varieties more suitable for human consumption.”

Peter-Fairs-016Peter Fairs with his quinoa plants at Warren Farm in Essex

Peter told The Guardian recently: “I’m the old one in the family and I like fiddling around with new crops. A professor friend of ours brought some quinoa seed back from Peru in 1985 and we tried growing it. At the time, we knew about the nutritional benefits of the plant, and thought we were on to something.”

Since 2013, the World Organisation for Agriculture and Food (FAO) has promoted the cultivation of quinoa in 27 developing countries, including Somalia and Iraq, and farmers in the United States, China and across Europe are starting production for the local market.

Nick of Hodmedods believes that this recent global quinoa boom is the result of improved varieties of quinoa: “Older varieties of quinoa have a bitter coating of naturally occurring soapy-tasting chemicals called saponins – these are the plant’s natural defence mechanism to make quinoa seeds unattractive to birds and other pests. But saponins also make the seed unpalatable to us, so the older varieties either have to be polished to remove the outside layer of the grain or very thoroughly washed. More recently, quinoa has been grown from newer varieties bred to have a low saponin content, so suddenly it’s become easier to produce and has grown in popularity.”

Quinoa is actually a pseudo-cereal, so it is eaten like wheat but it comes from a different family of plants which includes the British native ‘fat hen’. Nick explains: “It is an annual plant that grows from seed every year, flowers and then produces the edible grain.” It’s protein content (15-20%) is higher than that of cereals and unusually it also offers the full range of essential amino acids required by the human body, so every component of protein is present in the right quantities in just one food source.

As a new crop to British farming, people often seem surprised that quinoa is grown in this country. But perception is changing and Nick compares it to the arrival of couscous on our doorstep: “Couscous isn’t a traditional British food but over the last 20 years or so has become a thoroughly normal part of our store cupboards and our cooking. Quinoa is very similar to couscous in that it is easy to cook, convenient, easy to store and very versatile. You can use it in salads, in soups and stews and even in baking and desserts.”

quinoa-tabboulehHow do you like to cook your quinoa?

“In Britain we are now much more open to other foods from ethnic cuisines and different ingredients so things can change quite quickly and that is exactly what we’re seeing with quinoa,” says Nick. “There are food fads that come and go, and some things come into our diet and establish a firm place like couscous and houmous. Quinoa is so versatile and has all the requirements to become a good basic food and an ordinary part of our diet here in Britain.” And of course, it’s an ideal, sustainable crop solution for the developing world too.


Anna Turns

Anna Turns

Since graduating with a biology degree from Oxford University, Anna has worked in TV and magazine production. She now works as a freelance journalist based in Devon, specialising in sustainability, food and marine issues and is an ambassador for Zero Waste Week in September.