Lockwoods of Ambergate - behind the scenes at the 'home of mushy peas'
PUBLISHED: 00:00 19 February 2016 | UPDATED: 13:06 19 February 2016
Sally Mosley goes to Lockwoods Limited at Ambergate on the trail of an iconic national brand
Folk ‘up north’ are not generally known for their love of cooking time-consuming foods at home, most desire something that is quick to prepare, easy to eat and of a good-sized portion. We might occasionally serve up al dente mange tout or posh petit pois but let’s be honest and admit that having to chase little green balls around our plate before stabbing furiously or shovelling them together is a bit of a nuisance. So little wonder that we sometimes relish the delight of a dollop of good old-fashioned mushy peas. Add mint sauce or sprinkle with vinegar and you have the perfect accompaniment to fish and chips and bangers and mash or simply enjoy them as an essential ingredient of a traditional pea and pie supper – brain food for quizzers!
If you’re from Yorkshire, where they’re sometimes referred to as the ‘Yorkshire man’s caviar’ or from the Black Country, where they’re an essential component of the local staple ‘faggots and mushy peas’, you will perhaps be surprised to learn that the home of mushy peas is right here in Derbyshire. Lockwoods Limited of Ambergate (www.mushypeas.co.uk) is a family firm with a passion for Pisum Sativum cooked to a green semi-lumpy pulp that has been trading since the 1960s. It is proud of its natural, wholesome and healthy product that is free from additives and colourings. Mushy peas are high in protein and fibre, low in fat and sugar.
Following the introduction of ‘traffic light’ front-of-pack guidance labelling, developed by the Department of Health and Food Standards Agency, the key nutrients of mushy peas are mainly green (low) with only an amber (medium) indication for salt which is a necessary ingredient as a softening agent. Reputedly classed as ‘sin free’ for slimmers, an 80g portion constitutes one of our five a day.
Peas have been a part of many families’ staple diet for thousands of years. Originating in the Near East they became popular as a domestic cultivar before spreading throughout Europe and further east to India and China. Peas are popular in many cultures and can be cooked in several ways or incorporated into various dishes. This versatile vegetable is actually a small round green pulse which grows in a pod on a leguminous vine.
Many pea varieties are harvested when young and tender, often picked, podded and quickly processed into frozen peas. However ‘mushy’ peas are different, their harvest is driven by the weather as when fully grown they need to lie in a field for around two weeks to be dried by the sun. Not available until the end of August, their market price is then decided, based on the harvest yield and demand.
Over the years some long established UK pea farmers have been enticed by better profits to grow alternative crops, such as rape seed for oil, while the overseas market has been buying a massive amount of raw peas for wasabi snacks. In the last 10 years Lockwoods has had to source globally for a percentage of their base product. Between 2006 and 2015 the cost of purchasing dried peas increased dramatically, pushing up the price of manufacturing. However, they are still a cheap and wholesome food source, although often mistakenly considered to be a poor relation to other vegetables.
Father and son Frank and Douglas Lockwood started F & D Lockwoods in the early 1960s. They realised that if the product could be pre-soaked there would be a good chance of selling more peas. As a trial they soaked batches in washing up bowls and sold the rehydrated peas in bags on Heanor Market. This proved so popular that they were soon supplying peas to wholesalers. The business grew and the company moved into larger premises at Langley Mill where specially designed soaking tanks were purchased to replace the washing up bowls.
I can well remember years ago putting my dried peas to soak overnight in a large aluminium saucepan. After 18 hours they swelled in size and were ready to cook. I then boiled the peas until a frothy scum threatened to spill over the cooker before quickly turning down the heat and allowing them to simmer until the right consistency was reached. A tidemark stained my saucepan for a long time afterwards. On a bad day I would come downstairs in the morning to discover the unopened packet still on the side, resulting in a raid of the pantry for something tinned or a dash to the corner shop for a cabbage.
By the 1970s freezers were replacing pantries and frozen food was in fashion. Lockwoods installed a blast freezer and cold store and moved forward into the ice age. Nowadays consumers can have ‘ready to cook’, ‘ready to heat’ or ‘breaded and battered’ mushy pea products in their freezers.
In the 1980s Lockwoods moved to larger premises at Ambergate where they installed the latest equipment, enabling mushy peas to be produced at the same high quality but on a much larger scale – at their height churning out some 5,000 tons a year! However, the mushy pea market has shrunk somewhat in recent years due to eating trends, a wider variety of food products being available and a constant battle for dwindling freezer space as chillers take over in supermarkets.
My tour of Lockwoods began with a friendly chat. Debbie King (a company director) is a third generation family member and explained, ‘I was brought up in a world of mushy peas. As a girl I spent much of the school holidays packing in the pea factory with my brother Robert Lockwood, who is now Managing Director.’
Nearly all Lockwoods’ employees are long serving, most members of the workforce having been simmering along for more than 10 years – Scott, Paul, David, Joy, Arthur, Andy and Pete, to name just a few. Ian ‘Bobby’ Wild, Production Manager, is passionate about peas and has 25 years of managerial skills and mushy pea tasting under his belt. Mark the Health, Safety and Compliance Manager and Hannah the Quality Representative have also worked at Lockwoods for several years now.
Lockwoods Limited is accredited to the highest achievable BRC Standards (AA*), a globally recognised food safety certification meaning stringent testing, strict food manufacturing safety measures and extensive records have to be taken of each aspect of production.
The dried peas arrive in huge sealed bags and are checked into stock for quality attribute testing. Samples are pre-cooked in a normal kitchen environment using standard size equipment before any peas are used in production. ‘I taste test mushy peas most days,’ said Bob, ‘sometimes we mix different batches together to get the best flavour and overall colour, a bit like blending whisky!’
Bags of peas are emptied into stainless steel hoppers, numbered and bar coded for traceability. They pour down chutes into a row of huge tanks holding a soaking agent where they remain overnight. By morning they are rehydrated and have magically doubled in size. Like a theme park ride they are sent wriggling along a water flume ride which washes them before excess pea water is pumped away.
An army of peas then marches up an elevator to the stone trap and metal detectors where reject peas are removed along with any foreign bodies. ‘On occasion we have found lead shot in peas from Lincolnshire which is famed for its game shooting,’ said Bob, ‘but these detectors can pick up even the tiniest ferrous, non-ferrous or stainless steel object.’
The perfect peas proceed to the cooking area where they are boiled in huge vessels for half an hour. Some of the resulting ‘mushy peas’ are sent to packaging, others are put into moulds and set into ‘cores’ which are coated in breadcrumbs or batter and sold as mushy pea fritters and bakes, or bagged in bulk and sold as an ingredient for ready meals.
Beyond this the bagging and packaging process becomes high tech with Japanese made Motoman robots, installed a decade ago. Two robots, affectionately named Ann and Jackie operate within a caged area. Bob explained, ‘When the robots were installed it was a bit of a nightmare getting them set up correctly and I had many sleepless nights dreaming of them fighting with each other or lunging out of control like dinosaurs in a pen, throwing peas all over the place. But they turned out to be good little workers, just like the girls we named them after.’
Now neatly packaged and clearly labelled, pallets containing mushy pea products are taken to the blast freezers which operate at minus 32 degrees – not a part of the factory I lingered in for long!
Lockwoods mushy peas are generally sold to wholesalers and supermarket chains such as Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury, Co-Op, Brakes, Iceland, Frozen Value and Heron Foods, whilst locally the company supplies Holdsworth’s of Tideswell, various public houses throughout Derbyshire, Spondon Cheese Company and Wrights Pies at Crewe, to name just a few of their regular customers. Derbyshire County Council serves up Lockwoods mushy peas in school dinners and the NHS in hospitals.
A few years ago Lockwoods used an interesting marketing idea, inventing the character Mushy Malc. A couple of staff wearing adult-sized outfits paraded at various events, including Derby County FC, which the company sponsored and supplied. Mushy Malc also ran in the pancake race at Swadlincote. In November 2015 a pea green Mushy Malc pumpkin with the support of the fluffy Mini Malc’s was included in the Hallowe’en display at Crich Tramway Museum. I was told that sadly Mushy Malc doesn’t manage to get out as much as he would like to.
Dear to our hearts and as familiar in Derbyshire as the phrase ‘ey up’, mushy peas are without doubt a tasty form of nourishing northern sustenance. If you haven’t sampled any recently, then why not take up my challenge and try them today!