Originally a humble South American staple, quinoa has blossomed in popularity recently, in large part to its rising status as a nutritional superhero.
This nutty little ‘pseudograin’ is, in actual fact, a seed and is now in such high demand in the UK from health-conscious foodies that it’s received a quintessential British makeover thanks to a couple of innovative farmers in England’s Midlands.
Sam Barker is third generation organic farmer in the lush English countryside on the bank of the River Severn, close to the Welsh border. His family’s farm is hidden down a veritable warren of narrow winding lanes bordered with wild hedges and fields of green in every shade imaginable.
The Barker’s started growing quinoa just four years ago after their neighbour, Stephen Jones from The British Quinoa Company, introduced them to the unique crop. They now pass their organic quinoa onto Stephen to clean, package and sell alongside his own harvest.
According to Sam - who lives on the farm with his wife, Claire, and their two young children - this quiet, rural corner of England is ideal for growing this versatile seed.
“We’ve got a special climate here,” Sam said. “We’ve got the Welsh mountains to the right that protect the crops and we’re in a river valley with quite dry, sandy soil that drains well.”
“We also have a lot of grass that we have cattle on and they produce nitrogen which is perfect for quinoa as it’s a nitrogen-hungry crop.”
The Barker’s grow two varieties of quinoa - Duchess and Atlas - both of which, despite looking similar to their South American counterparts, have one subtle variation that makes a world of difference when it comes to their taste...saponin.
Saponin is a bitter soapy coating that South American varieties have to deter birds from eating the seeds and also prevent fungal growth but, because the birds in England don’t eat the quinoa crops, there’s no need for saponin on varieties grown in this part of the world.
“All quinoa has a fibrous layer on it; the ones in South America have the saponin on top of this so, to remove the saponin, you also have to scrub away the fibre,” Stephen from The British Quinoa Company explained. “We don’t have the same problems with birds in this country so we don’t actually need saponin. This means, because we’re not removing that outer layer, we’re able to keep all the fibre on.”
“It also gives us a much richer flavour. The South American grains are pearly white – and maybe they look a bit more beautiful – but in terms of flavour, we always win hands down.”
The Barker’s quinoa is picked using a conventional combine harvester, but the preparation of the soil before planting is anything but conventional. Because the farm is organic, they can’t use sprays to kill weeds off so Sam said he essentially tires the weeds out before planting his quinoa.
“We plant our quinoa in the spring; we do a sterile seabed where the weeds are knocked out [cut down] several times and then we plant the quinoa and – fingers crossed – it grows really fast and outcompetes the weeds,” Sam said.
Without the help of chemical sprays, growing quinoa is harder and means more manual work but Sam said it was more than worth it and nature was always helping out to keep things in balance.
“Our soil is alive; it’s full of bugs, it’s full of seeds,” he said. “We encourage wildlife here [on the farm] so you get a really good balance of insects and beetles, which then means you don’t get aphids. We also have butterflies that come along and chew some of the weeds down to help control them.”
The hedges running through the fields serve as a happy home for larger wildlife and – on the sunny August afternoon that we visited – were bursting with sloe, which is unusual to see because hedges on conventional farms are usually cut back too often for the fruits to flourish.
The Barker’s farm is also considerate of the bigger environmental picture, with solar and green energy produced on the property and used for all the family’s heating, electricity and power.
“Running the farm like this [organic and environmentally-friendly] is hard work but it’s very very satisfying,” Sam said. “You get the freedom to do what you want, when you want and you get to see what you produce from the very start.”
“We eat as much of our own produce as we can – our own beef, quinoa, eggs and vegetables.”
On the day we visited, Claire had baked some delicious homemade muffins using blackberries she picked the previous day and flaxseeds grown in the field behind their family home. Served with a steaming pot of tea, our welcome to the farm could not have been anymore British!
Sam and Claire have created a lifestyle that’s healthy and wholesome and they hope their children will be one day take over the family business to continue this way of life.
“We’ll give them the choice, obviously, but I think it’s under the skin,” Sam said. “They love it here so much I don’t think they’ll want to go anywhere else!”
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