Pete Thompson is a third-generation farmer who has had to adapt with the times and has taken a very inventive path. Taking the plunge initially into producing specialist Chinese vegetables for the Chinese catering industry, he has developed his offering through apples and pears, apricots and plums to producing spirits, and has recently launched the first home-grown British-made baijiu (a very alcoholic traditional Chinese spirit pronounced bye-joe). You can buy his produce as a restaurant here.
Not many people have had the pleasure of being served baijiu unless they have travelled to China, but if they’ve travelled there on business it would have been fairly unavoidable. I spent a year living and working in Shanghai for a German ship component manufacturer – don’t ask, all I can say is food and drink is much more my thing! But it did provide plenty of opportunity to enjoy Chinese food and drink and specifically baijiu.
I travelled to lots of the Chinese shipyards with the Chinese sales team and every meeting would end with a dinner at our expense that inevitably involved multiple toasts of baijiu. It is an integral part of doing business in China. Their philosophy goes something along the lines of in vino veritas. Reciprocal toasts and “bottoms up” or 干杯 (gan-bei) are also important signs of respect – or perhaps that’s just a means of pressurising the other side into reaching in vino veritas more quickly. Unfortunately for them I was a bit of a wild card. They weren’t used to women drinking much at all and they certainly weren’t used to a British girl straight out of university. Needless to say I drank all the men (because they were always only men) under the table pretty much every evening and was the only one who could remember the dinner conversation the following morning. My ability to drink vast quantities of baijiu is not one I’m particularly proud of, but it certainly did come in useful. I doubt I’d be able to replicate it now though!
Thompson’s baijiu hit the market just in time for Chinese New Year 25th January in celebration of the Year of the Rat. I couldn’t resist talking to Pete about it and understanding how he had come up with the idea to create it in the first place.
SD: What made you decide to specialise in Chinese vegetables?
PT: The farm was started by my grandfather in 1948 as a market garden supplying London markets with over 20 different vegetables. Then the 80s-90s came along and we weren’t big enough to get into bed with the supermarkets. We’d been primarily selling into a wholesaler, but we realised that a lot of our produce was being bought by Chinese restaurants. One day one of these Chinese restaurant owners came to us with a proposition. He was setting up his own specialist Chinese wholesale business and asked us to join him. Originally, we said no out of loyalty to the wholesaler we’d been working with for years, but when he said he’d have to find someone else instead, we decided it would be a good move to go with him.
SD: Which Chinese vegetables do you specialise in?
PT: Spring onions and TL or Thompsons Leaf. I know spring onions don’t sound specifically Chinese, but they don’t want the normal kind you find in British supermarkets. They way they cook with them means the white bit has to be cut lengthways – over crispy duck for example. They like them bigger than normal so there is less chopping to do, but often the bigger they get the tougher their texture. They can also get a bit sticky. Our spring onions are bred to be soft. The green bit needs to melt in the pan.
SD: Is Thompsons Leaf just a coincidence or is it named after you?
PT: No, it was named after us because we developed it to cater for Chinese cooking practices. It’s great to have our name associated with the vegetable itself! Essentially it’s just spring greens, but bigger. We only realised our clients wanted it this way when we were in the process of ploughing up an old crop that was a bit oversized to plant a new crop, and my dad was on the phone explaining to one of them how this would be great for them as they’d have the new, succulent crop instead of the big old one. The customer exclaimed in alarm that that wasn’t what he wanted. The bigger the better he said. My dad rushed out the door after the tractor that was ploughing up the field to stop it in its tracks and save what was left of the old crop to supply our customers until the new crop had developed to the same size! In the world of vegetables, the Chinese want everything big. They like “donkey” carrots and onions bigger than cricket balls. It all comes down to speed in the kitchen and limiting their cutting time. Thompsons Leaf is used for crispy seaweed and we bred it as a variety specifically for this purpose.
We’re also about to merge with another producer that grow other Asian vegetables such as pak choi, thai basil, choi sum, kai lan and ong choi.
“In the world of vegetables, the Chinese want everything big.”
SD: It’s interesting how you are developing varieties specifically for chefs. The chef Dan Barber created the honeynut squash with a seed specialist this way. I find it fascinating. Are you working on any new varieties?
PT: Yes, we have an innovation project with Belazu and Fresca, which gives us carte blanche to explore new varieties. I actually went to Dan Barber’s farm a while ago. Upstate New York is a good hunting ground for heirloom varieties and luckily I have family out there, so it’s a good excuse to go. I thoroughly recommend Dan Barber’s book The Third Plate if you haven’t read it yet.
“John has a doctorate in biochemistry and has been distilling all his life. He’d try to distill anything! It’s the mad scientist in him.”
SD: Ok, so how did you get from vegetables to baijiu? That’s quite a leap, isn’t it?
PT: Well, we didn’t go directly from vegetables to baijiu. In 2009 we planted small-scale orchards as a means of giving our fields a rest from constantly growing vegetables. We quickly realised, however, that while it’s possible to make a profit on grade 1 apples, grade 2 apples are impossible to sell at a profit, so we started making juices. With our low grade apricots and plums we turned them into gins and eau de vie. It was through working with the distiller, Dr. John Walters from English Spirit Distillers, that we came to the idea of creating a baijiu. John has a doctorate in biochemistry and has been distilling all his life. He’d try to distill anything! It’s the mad scientist in him. When he realised that the majority of our customers were Chinese caterers, he suggested making a baijiu. Initially I said no. I had too many painful memories of been force-fed baijiu to be keen on the drink! But John persisted and suggested we use red sorghum as the grain, which was already grown for bird mixes in the UK. It was the opportunity to bring red sorghum into the mix of crops that swung me. That would help us shift towards more regenerative agriculture, which I was keen to do. I just needed a means of doing it profitably.
SD: Interesting! Before I ask you about the regenerative agriculture, though, just tell me a bit more about your baijiu. How is it different to other baijius? Were there any challenges you faced in creating it?
PT: Yes! It’s a pretty difficult process especially when you get to the qu (pronounced “chew”). There’s the milling, mashing and fermentation. The qu is like a yeast starter for sourdough bread. It starts the fermentation and is a key part of the flavour profile. There are different ways of fermenting baijiu, but the most popular style involves mixing the qu with grains and water in mud pits. Unfortunately, this method can risk fairly lethal consequences if you don’t get the fermentation right – not something we were prepared to risk, especially with food safety regulations in the UK. Instead we opted for an enzyme-led fermentation that used the same enzymes as in a typical qu, but in a cleaner bacterial environment. It’s a slightly quicker process, but it does lose some of the earthy flavours of traditional baijius. John always produces very smooth spirits. It’s his signature. The result is a lighter baijiu that doesn’t burn your throat in the same way the Chinese ones do. It still has all the tenets of a Chinese baijiu and much of the complexity of flavour, but through the British distillation process is an easier introduction to those who aren’t use to it and slips down much more smoothly. It took us a while to get right. You’ll notice on the labels that it says Year of the Pig as we intended to launch it a year ago, but now we take that to mean made in the Year of the Pig in time for the Year of the Rat! We’re a year late, but we got there and it’s been going down very well with customers so far.
“The only way I can see to become fully regenerative is to introduce livestock into the mix….We need to be looking at more ways of mimicking nature in this way. Every time we do something without nature it comes back and bites us on the arse.”
SD: And have you seen any improvements as a result of shifting more towards regenerative agriculture?
PT: Yes, just planting an arable field with an orchard you see an immediate uptick in biodiversity – everything from birds and insects to mammals. It’s too early to say yet if we are seeing an improvement in the soil, but I think we are making progress. Without the sorghum we only really have two crops on any scale. We’ve already introduced wheat rotation and now with sorghum in the mix we can start to put hummus back into the soil. As a farmer, if you calculate your carbon footprint, typically you’ll see a great big lump which relates to fertiliser. Fertilisers are dependent on fossil fuels, which is one of the reasons they have such a big impact. The only way I can see to become fully regenerative is to introduce livestock into the mix. We need to get that hummus, bacterial and fungal material back into the soil and you get that from the bellies of livestock. Mob grazing behind crops is a very effective way of increasing the bacteria and fungi population in the soil. It’s a form of grazing that mimics the way that grazing animals would have moved in the wild – sticking together in tightly packed herds and continuously moving to protect themselves from predators. We need to be looking at more ways of mimicking nature in this way. Every time we do something without nature it comes back and bites us on the arse.
In the current climate with price deflation, rising costs and the need to do things more sustainably, it’s hard to make a profit from growing vegetables. Trying to amass the capital needed to invest in switching to regenerative agriculture is difficult when we only just about have enough to invest in becoming more efficient so that we can at least stand still. Some of the stuff we’re putting in the ground now, I might not benefit from, but it’s remarkable how quickly nature comes back when you get it right, so you never know.
SD: I know the UK government has plans to increase our self-sufficiency in vegetables. How do you see the future of vegetable farming playing out?
PT: To be honest I don’t see much changing. There isn’t the economic framework to support self-sufficiency. We are looking to become a higher minimum wage economy, but that won’t be reflected in supermarket prices. I’ve picked up from speaking to government that they are quite fond of letting the market decide, which could mean there might even be more imported produce coming in. Government always says a lot, but I don’t see how they will achieve greater self-sufficiency unless they incentivise it with more diverse, small-scale production. As it is, I see the industry becoming perhaps even more commoditised than it already is.
“It’s remarkable how quickly nature comes back when you get it right.”
SD: What about robotics? Do you think that will help make smaller-scale, more diverse farming easier to manage?
PT: It’s certainly something I’ve looked at. It’s definitely coming. Micro field robots are already being trialled for fruit and vegetables. The problem is that they have to learn how to look at the other side of the apple, pick it gently, assess the quality and the grade, and, of course, learn how to move carefully to avoid puddles. We do use some degree of automation and robotisation already. It has enabled us to significantly mechanise our spring onion weeding and harvesting, but all of those things push you into being bigger scale.