The local foodies that want to change the way we eat
Welcome to the food revolution: it’s happening right here. With sustainable food systems more important than ever, we spoke to three local businesses who are doing their bit from the ground-up.
Hey, we all love avocado on toast but the whole food guilt thing leaves a bitter taste. The science is telling us that if we want to save the planet, address the climate crisis, and have a sustainable food system, we have to rethink our diets.
But before you start brewing that nettle soup, we have some good news: hope is here. Right here in Oxfordshire, in fact. Bold Bean Co., Hamblin Bread, and Norton and Yarrow Cheese are just some of the radical businesses making delicious products without a cost to the Earth.
Bold Bean Co.
Founded by Amelia Christie-Miller in 2020, Bold Bean Co. aims to get people passionate about eating beans by bringing them the best, or as she likes to say “beans to brag about”. Amelia sources her beans from Spain after spending an eye-opening, bean-eating year there. Bold Bean Co. beans are all heirloom varieties (i.e. they prioritise flavour over yield), seasoned throughout the cooking process, and produced in gorgeous glass jars – so they even look pretty in your pantry. Unlike tinned beans, Amelia’s beans don’t have to be cooked quickly at a very hot temperature, killing both nutrients and flavour, but rather can be cooked slowly, keeping in the good stuff. They’re creamier, tastier, and completely different to what we’re familiar with.
But why beans in the first place? From a health perspective, beans are full of protein, fibre, and vitamins, but it’s their sustainability credentials which can really get us bragging. Beans are nitrate-fixers, which means they take nitrogen from the air and replenish it into the soil, where other crops might strip nutrients away. They are also a ‘cover crop’, meaning they protect the soil from erosion. With scientists predicting that, at the current rate, we only have sixty harvests left before we’re running out of topsoil to farm from, it’s safe to say that we need to consider more sustainable crops.
Realistically, people aren’t going to eat beans unless they enjoy them. Amelia recommends treating her beans like pasta, since both foods are filling vehicles for flavour. Her favourites are a tomato and mascarpone sauce, or a dish of beans cooked with pancetta, petit pois, and fresh basil. You can find Bold Bean Co. beans online, or at The Granary in Watlington.
Hamblin Bread is a neighbourhood bakery in Oxford that only uses stoneground, locally-grown British heritage flour. Owners Hugo Thurston and Kate Hamblin will be the first to admit that initially this was just because of the flavour: bread made from stoneground flour is in a different ballpark to bread made with roller-milled, imported white flour. (Kate compares the difference to using freshly-ground black pepper instead of dusty, pre-ground stuff.)
Conveniently, flour that makes really good bread is flour that’s good for the environment, too. 50% of the bakery’s flour is grown by heritage grain farmer John Letts, with the rest supplied by other farms within fifty miles. Using heritage grains can be thrown around as a buzzword, but here’s why it actually matters: modern wheat is a monoculture, which means you have a whole vast field of only one variety, draining the same nutrients from the soil. Worryingly, monocultures are also highly vulnerable to disease. (See why this is a very real issue for bananas, too).
By contrast, John Letts grows in a way that would have been recognisable hundreds of years ago: you sow lots of wheat varieties in your field. Depending on the weather conditions, some will thrive and some won’t, so you re-sow the ones that worked. This is repeated the next year, and again some types thrive while others fail: over time, you get a population that’s designed to cope with local conditions.
It also makes really delicious bread. Case in point: Kate’s favourite savoury bakery item is their Oxpop bread, made from a mixed population of wheat that’s adapted to the Oxford conditions, grown about six miles away. If you want to try it (or any other fabulous products produced by the bakery), you can find Hamblin Bread on Iffley Road in Oxford.
Norton and Yarrow Cheese
Makers of award-winning, artisan goat’s cheese, Fraser Norton and Rachel Yarrow aimed from the start to make the creamiest goat’s cheese they could in a way that works with, not against, the planet. Working on a farm owned by the charity Earth Trust, they currently rear 130 Anglo Nubian goats (“the Jersey cow of the goat world”) in South Oxfordshire.
Somehow doing a masters in sustainable agriculture as well as looking after 130 goats (and her children), Rachel considers sustainability in every decision. The goats’ diet and grazing patterns mean lower greenhouse emissions, and soil enrichment is a priority. Earth Trust manages wildflower meadows, and since this involves making hay, the hay is fed to Rachel and Fraser’s goats over the winter. When Rachel and Fraser shared their farm with another local pig company, they were able to feed whey (a byproduct of the cheesemaking process) directly to the pigs; they’re now looking at feeding the whey to the goats instead.
As well as sustainability, the couple also put a big emphasis on animal welfare. UK dairy goats are generally not grazed at all, but Rachel and Fraser keep theirs outside as much as possible. They also keep kids with their mothers, rather than the standard process of separating mother and child immediately. Instead of killing all male kids, as is usual, they raise their males for meat, or for pet homes / farm parks.
The couple see our food system as something that can only be solved by government or supermarket action: most people will always have to choose based on price, and shouldn’t be shamed for it. In the meantime, if you have the means to make ethical choices, you can find Norton and Yarrow Cheese at stockists throughout Oxfordshire (including Hamblin Bread!), or through Neal’s Yard Dairy.