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Beans and curds: handmade tofu from Yorkshire

Beans and curds: handmade tofu from Yorkshire

Clare Finney 23 February 2018

It might have its roots in Asia, but inside a small factory in Malton the Knibbs family is creating tofu that’s just as good as anything you’d find in Japan or China. Clare Finney pays them a visit to find out more.

‘We can’t stop, that’s the thing.’ Though grinning broadly from beneath his hairnet, Dave Knibbs is frazzled, fighting against the clock. We’re still stood in his factory office sipping a cuppa before hitting the factory floor, but the managing director of Tofoo hasn’t bothered removing his hairnet or overalls. No point asking him if he’s hands on. The outfit, streaked with crushed soy beans, speaks for itself. ‘Last week we did an overnight shift, just to help meet the orders,’ his wife and business partner tells us. Veganuary might be over and the first signs of spring are in the air (and spring lamb in the shops) but demand for the Knibbs’ brand of tofu continues apace.

Their orders have grown exponentially. The number of staff has tripled. From a thirty-year-old cottage industry run in an ex-bakery by an ‘old-school hippy’, Ron, Lydia and David Knibbs have turned Clearspot (as it was previously known) into a business supplying major supermarkets as well as whole food stores. They’ve rebranded; selling their tofu not so much on its nutritional or ethical value but for its flavour and versatility. ‘Tofoo’s not the soggy, tasteless stuff you might be thinking of, and we’re on a mission to show the world that tofu is really rather brilliant’ runs their mission statement – and while initially thrown by the snazzy, modern, carefully marketed tone of their website, the authenticity of their claim becomes apparent the moment we step out onto the factory floor.

‘The secret traditional Japanese recipe Ron was using – we’re still following that,’ says David. The battered copy of the Book of Tofu Ron followed religiously was the template for their factory floor. ‘This was handmade tofu when we bought it, and we want it to remain handmade. We’ve just upscaled.’ At the entrance, huge sacks of organic soy beans, imported only from those countries where soy bean agriculture does not threaten rainforest areas, wait to become tofu. Holding one in my hand, it’s hard to believe these little, lentil-like numbers are the world’s most popular alternatives to meat.

‘The process starts with soaking the dried soy beans. We wash and rehydrate them in water, then we grind them up,’ David points to what, to all intents and purposes, is a gigantic coffee bean grinder, ‘so that we can cook them.’ The ‘coffee’ which spurts out, splattering the steel basin, is a shade of creamy mashed potato. From there it’s transferred to three cauldron-like cookers and heated up to 100°C.

The process isn’t pretty. As it cooks, the purée bubbles over, lending a mad scientist’s lab look to this part of the factory. Cleaning these at the end of the day can’t be an enviable task – yet the smell emitting from the cauldrons is curiously comforting, like roast nuts or malted milk. ‘Once we have it at 100°C, we can separate the soy milk from the fibre,’ says David. Though Ron, the ‘hippy’ who founded the business, did this bit by hand, the Knibbs automated it when they took over. ‘Those bits where it doesn’t matter whether a machine or a person is in control we have automated, where possible. This machine presses out the fibre, and we give that to local farmers for animal feed. It’s the milk we’re interested in,’ he continues, moving toward the heart of the factory where a team of blue-hairnetted people stand over steel vats wielding long wooden spoons.

‘This is what I call the art form end,’ explains David, peering carefully into each of the vats. Inside is the junket: the soy milk which, thanks to the addition of a coagulant, is slowly separating into curds and whey. The coagulant David uses is nigari, but bigger tofu makers invariably use calcium carbonate, otherwise known as plaster of Paris. ‘That makes it taste chalky, and while nigari (a natural extract of sea salt which David sources from the Dead Sea) doesn’t get as a good a yield, it makes for a better flavour.’ Meanwhile, the art of stirring this mix – getting the right curd formation and spotting the precise point at which to drain the whey off – is the difference between firm tofu with bite and texture, and the jelly-like slop which historically gave the curd such a bad name.

‘This here is getting quite nice.’ Dave seizes a spoon and pokes gently at a vat’s custardy contents. ‘You’re looking for a scrambled egg texture. A fairly solid curd should form after twelve minutes – but you have to watch it.’ Too soon, and it’s soggy; too late, and you’ve the soy bean equivalent of an in-flight cooked breakfast on a budget flight. ‘Now we can press out the whey,’ – a laborious processes involving one man, a colander and a lot of heavy lifting to transfer the whey from the vat to a drainage system. ‘We are working with the Bio Renewal Centre of York at the moment to see if there’s a way of concentrating the whey to make it a worthwhile ingredient. At the moment we are just throwing it away, and it is such a shame as it still has protein content,’ laments David, whose sense of environmental responsibility remains admirably unshaken by the pressure he’s under. Next year he’ll start recycling water and looking into alternatives to plastic packaging. Right now, his priority is his bulging order book.

The next step is one even the most intermittent of tofu eaters will have heard of: the press, responsible for transforming loose curds into a block that’s recognisably tofu. For centuries this took the form of heavy bricks or wood blocks, placed on top of the muslin-wrapped curds for hours; these days even smaller producers like Tofoo have resorted to a machine. The muslin cloth remains however: there are some things technology can’t better, and the muslin allows the whey to seep out without affecting the curds’ taste or texture. After cooling down – an optional phase, but one David firmly believes helps the tofu hold together – the finished product is hand-cut into portion sizes and packed up in thermaform. ‘Most tofu you see in the supermarket comes in a water bath, which can be a bit off putting. Ours is firm – there’s no need to press it further – and ready to use.’

Unlike Ron, the business founder, the Knibbs are not vegetarians or vegans– nor do they want to confine their sales to non-meat eaters. ‘We want everyone to enjoy it.’ Meat-free Mondays and Veganuary, for example, have done wonders for their outreach amongst flexitarians. ‘The biggest barrier to selling tofu is people understanding what to do with it,’ David continues. They’ve worked hard to overcome this, slotting tip cards into their packs and encouraging customers to share their recipes, but Tofoo is also swimming with the tide. Our appetite for Southeast Asian cuisine and for meat alternatives is growing. Our awareness of environmental and ethical incentives to curb our meat intake is, slowly, rising. The secret to Tofoo’s success is not clever marketing or social media, but the quality of their product: and that, in a soy bean shell, boils down to how it is made.

Photography by Joseph Fox.

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