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Pioneering partnership makes tofu from locally grown​ soya

PUBLISHED: 12:00 10 March 2018 | UPDATED: 08:22 12 March 2018

Tofurei co-founder Steve Lepper, and owner Jenny McCann, who are using Norfolk soya beans to produce soya milk and tofu, and cakes and cheesecake made from the tofu. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Tofurei co-founder Steve Lepper, and owner Jenny McCann, who are using Norfolk soya beans to produce soya milk and tofu, and cakes and cheesecake made from the tofu. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Copyright: Archant 2018

It might traditionally be something only seen on the shelves of Asian speciality shops and in the cupboards of vegans – but now a Norwich shop is stocking tofu made from Norfolk-grown soya.

Tofurei's tofu made from Norfolk soya beans, with some currywurst made from Tofurei's tofu. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY Tofurei's tofu made from Norfolk soya beans, with some currywurst made from Tofurei's tofu. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The growing popularity of meat-free meal choices can often come at the cost of high food miles – especially in the case of imported soya.

But now a farmer and a vegan shop have joined forces to produce Norfolk-made tofu made from Norfolk-grown crops.

Although the main destination for the soya bean in the UK is animal feed, several tonnes of Pulham St Mary farmer Richard Cole’s crop now heads to Norwich where it is made into tofu and soy milk at soy dairy Tofurei.

Mr Cole, who farms 850 acres at Pulham with a further 100 acres at Tivetshall St Margaret where he grows the soya, first experimented with the crop in 1999 but decided to stop growing it after three years. However, he said it had always rankled with him that he could not make it work.

The soya beans from Tivetshall St Margaret which have been soaked in water ready for Tofurei to produce soya milk and tofu. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY The soya beans from Tivetshall St Margaret which have been soaked in water ready for Tofurei to produce soya milk and tofu. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

With advances in varieties he decided to give it another attempt in 2016 – a fortunate coincidence as it led to a meeting with Tofurei co-founder Steve Lepper during an open day at his farm.

Now soya makes the short trip up the A140 to the Norwich Lanes where it is ground, boiled and turned into milk and tofu.

Mr Cole, the only Norfolk soya grower, said: “We import a large amount of soya so we need to be growing it ourselves.

“The animal feed is the biggest market but this year we will be growing for human consumption.

Farmer Richard Cole who is the only person growing soya in Norfolk. Picture: Richard Cole Farmer Richard Cole who is the only person growing soya in Norfolk. Picture: Richard Cole

“Everything we grow is not genetically modified, which a lot of the imported stuff is. And I am able to tell you which part of which field it has come from.”

In 2016/17 the UK imported 780,000 tonnes of soybeans, according to HM Customs figures, with only 5,000 tonnes produced domestically last year.

Despite soya not being widely adopted as a crop there are many benefits to including it within a rotation. Mr Cole, 50, said it helps control black-grass and fixes nitrogen.

He said: “It is good from a farming point of view because it is only in the ground for five months.

Soya growing at Tivetshall St Margaret. Picture: Steve Lepper Soya growing at Tivetshall St Margaret. Picture: Steve Lepper

“It is good for black-grass control because the field is out of production for seven months of the year.

“Ideally the weather would be a little bit warmer as it is more of a southern hemisphere crop, but from a farming point of view my only hang-up is the slightly later harvest.”

Drilled in April, soya tends to be harvested in late September but Mr Cole said in the last year of his previous attempt in 2001 he had been combining in November which had been far from ideal.

“Last year I grew 60 acres, the year before I grew 100 acres and this season I will do 70 acres,” he said. “Previously I had done it for animal feed but now we are doing it for human consumption. It doesn’t make a lot of difference in terms of the price but the market was there.

“I like to try new things and I was a bit annoyed that I hadn’t made it work before.”

The soy dairy

Tofurei was launched by Mr Lepper and Jenny McCann in October 2016 and became the UK’s first soy dairy and cafe.

Mr Lepper said although his production was relatively low, around 80kg a week of tofu, there were plans to increase production with a second shop and a new facility at Lenwade.

He said: “When we started out the only beans we could get were organic ones from China, which is a lot of air miles.

“I was keen to get some from within the UK and so I got in touch with Soya UK and they put us in touch with a local farmer just down the road.”

Buying the beans from a local farmer helps fit with the ethos of the business, Mr Lepper said, and gave an added unique selling point.

Mr Lepper has already agreed to buy five tonnes of soya this year and hopes with production increasing he could take more later in the year.

If he can secure equipment at a German trade event he hopes Tofurei can up production to 300kg of tofu a week and drive wholesale sales with several Norwich restaurants already using his tofu and ‘soy-sages’.

Benefits of growing soya

South Norfolk farmer Richard Cole said different varieties of soya have been introduced over the last 20 years which are finally finding their place in the English weather.

He said: “While [soya is] doing slightly better on the south coast, good yields are now being achieved here.

“My target is one tonne per acre. Last year I managed 0.85, so hopefully this summer will be kind.

“It is drilled in late April which gives the land a good rest over the winter which allows for some good blackgrass control prior to drilling.

“Soya is a very low input crop, with the bonus of it being nitrogen fixing for the following wheat crop.

“It is not ready for harvesting until the later end of September, so possibly its main downside. This is however done with a conventional combine, so no reliance on outside contractors or specialised machinery, just a bit of patience.

“Ideally the soya moisture needs to be below 14% at harvest, so it is quite likely that it will go through a drier after harvest to ensure safe storage.”

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