What's Your Bag: 26 Grains
For the latest What’s Your Bag, writer Ellie Robertson met founder of Neal’s Yard café 26 Grains, Alex Hely-Hutchinson. They discussed making what was once Dickensian, delicious again; her journey from pop-up to World Porridge Competition and the Salem Witch Trials.
ER: The latest Ally Capellino campaign shows the AW17 Frances Ripstop Backpack pictured with a bowl of oats - whilst very fitting – I'm sure it isn’t how you’d fill yours. Can I ask what’s in your bag?
AHH: That actually has happened, honestly. I’ve had a bag full of grains. At the moment, I have my diary with lots of recipe ideas because as much as I love computers and online, there’s something so rich about brainstorming on paper and then formalising it on an electronic device. My bike lock would be in there as well - I ride my bike everywhere, that’s why I love backpacks and nearly always have one. I can’t just have a little bag with one thing in it.
Probably some leggings as I like the opportunity to always be able to move – whether it be cycling, yoga or running. Moisturiser. Keys. A lot of boring paperwork usually! I always have a book on the go and I listen to a lot of podcasts so always my phone and headphones. My team always joke that they’re going to get ‘So I was listening to this podcast and…’ written on my grave stone.
ER: You’ve been praised for kick-starting London’s love affair with porridge, can you remember the first time you ate porridge?
AHH: Porridge feels incredibly nostalgic to me and I think it does for a lot of people. It’s very traditional and everyone has an understanding or a memory of it. My mum’s not a very good cook but she used to make porridge because it was easy – especially with 5 kids – and she’d just make a big batch of it and then drizzle honey, brown sugar, or a little bit of milk, that sort of thing. So that was breakfast as a child.
Blueberry Porridge (Photo: Victoria Hely-Hutchinson)
Egg & Kale Porridge (Photo: Victoria Hely-Hutchinson)
ER: So what gave you the idea to make a career out of it?
AHH: I went to Copenhagen to study and I rediscovered it. They eat it every day, and in a way that I hadn’t had it before. Grains grow wild and in abundance in Denmark, and Northern Europe in general, so they were embracing these different grains (like spelt, kamut, wheat, barley and, of course, oats) and I loved all the different tastes and textures that they represented.
So I became really obsessed with the quality of the grains, and with using a lesser known variety of grains, especially ones which couldn’t be mass-produced on a genetically modified scale.
ER: And what were the next steps once you got back to London?
AHH: We opened a stall in Old Street station in July 2014, when I was 24. It was such an interesting experience because it made me realise that you really need to, for instance, toast off your cinnamon because people smell it and they’re drawn over; you really need to play good music so that people come over to ask what song you’re playing. Running a brand really means so many different things. But ultimately the most encouraging thing about building your own business is realising how much you’re making up as you go along and therefore how much everyone else is as well!
There’s no right way to do anything, you just have to go with it and trust your instincts.
After that I did lots of pop-ups, before being offered the site next door to where we are now for a year, and now here we are. I’ve got an amazing team and I’ve learnt so much, both from them and my customers. Even now, I’m still learning.
ER: What are your favourite restaurants in London?
AHH: I love Ducksoup, it’s always so good and they really celebrate ingredients. They have such amazing knowledge and confidence behind their dishes. I love Japanese food; I really like Koya and there’s a place in Camden called Asakusa which is really delicious. We’re so spoilt in London, especially around 26 Grains - Soho is on our doorstep. I live over in Hackney, which is just as good with places like Legs and their seasonal fare.
ER: Your first cookbook came out September last year (and it’s great!), what was it like working on that?
AHH: I found it quite overwhelming, but I was so lucky in that I got to work with my sister (photographer Victoria Hely-Hutchinson) and amazing to be given the chance to study the grains a bit more, having the room to learn and research. Oats, for example, are amazing! Oliver Cromwell’s favourite drink was an oatmeal caudle made of oats, ale, cinnamon and all-spice, and Hans Christian Anderson wrote a fairy-tale about buckwheat.
What’s cool about grains is that they have such a rich history across the entire world. In Asia, the focus is mainly on rice; in South America, it’s quinoa and amaranth; in Africa, it’s millet and maize, and in Europe, it’s oats and rye, and there are all these stories behind them.
Rye is the youngest harvested grain because it’s dark and a little bit green in flavour and they originally thought that it was a weed. It’s susceptible to a disease called ergot fungus which can make you delirious and it’s thought that when they first began to harvest rye, it was diseased and the hallucinations it caused may have been the reason for the Salem Witch Trials. They were all so loopy on rye!
ER: What’s the strangest road porridge has lead you down?
AHH: I competed in the world porridge competition. It’s in Scotland; there are about 16 people that compete every year, and there are two heats. One is just oatmeal, and you can only use oatmeal, water and salt.
There’s a real science to it- how often you stir it, what direction you stir it in. Then there’s the speciality porridge where people make meringues from oats and spelt pancakes and all sorts. I learnt how important the oats and the soaking and the exact amount of salt and the water to oat ratio all is. It’s very nerdy!
With photography by Jess Ellis.