PRODUCE: RAPESEED OIL
DISTANCE TO TABLE: 8.89 MILES
I remember fields of rape from my childhood, vast swathes of yellow covering the countryside in the early summer. I never really thought about what it was used for until recently, when I started looking into local alternatives to my olive oil habit. While I’m not going to completely give up my mediterranean addiction, I did wonder if there was something more local that I could use alongside it.
A bit of research led me to rapeseed oil, and more specifically, cold-pressed rapeseed oil. I don’t entirely remember how I stumbled across Bath Harvest, but the locality of the production appealed to me instantly. I mean, a few months ago I didn’t even know cold-pressed rapeseed oil was a thing, and now it turns out to be made less than 10 miles from where I live. I fired off a quick email and Debbie instantly invited me out for a visit. Following her advice and packing my wellies, I set off to find out more about this golden liquid.
Getting to Wilmington involves driving down a number of winding country roads with varying amounts of grass growing in the middle of them. It’s a hamlet apparently, the lack of church not even giving it status as a village, and the farm dominates it and the surrounding landscape. Debbie’s husband is fourth generation on the farm, she explains, as we walk from the farmhouse down to one of the fields. Originally a dairy farm, they transformed over to beef, with a herd of around 350 Aberdeen Angus cattle. Their 650 acre farm is a Duchy of Cornwall farm (“Prince Charles is our landlord”, Debbie jokes), growing a mix of grain crops as well as pasture. They’ve been growing rape as a rotation crop for years, because as a brassica it's a great break crop.
“I didn’t have a clue about rapeseed oil until I heard about it on the radio,” Debbie confesses. “I had no idea that this was something we could do with a plant that grew on the farm.” That was a little over five years ago, and now she uses almost a sixth of their annual harvest, around 20 tonnes of seed, for her cold-pressed oil business. Planted in the end of September, the plants are about 6 inches tall when I visit. The famous flowers appear in May, and the small bean shaped pods develop after the flowers die off. They're left to dry on the plants before being harvested with a combine.
When we get back to the farm, Debbie shows me the oil press; a second hand press from someone in Northumberland. “It’s a slow process,” she explains. “Cold pressing is the most gentle way to get the oil from the seed, and it takes about 36 hours to fill the 400 litre tank.” Above the press is a wooden hopper which is filled with seed as needed. “We haven’t got the storage to press everything at once,” Debbie explains. “So as soon as I get low, the press goes on." A by-product from the pressing is known as ‘cow cake’. “It’s the husks of the seeds that are expelled from the press,” she points out, showing me below the press. “We put it into the cows feed as a supplement as it’s high in protein and all the omegas.” And it’s not just the cake that’s used on the farm; the stalks from the plants are used for bedding for the cows, helping ensure as much of the plant is used on farm as possible.
We go into the neighbouring room, and I admire the shiny stainless steel tanks in there, imported from Italy. “This is the raw oil,” Debbie points out, lifting the lid on one of the tanks. “It’s still got sediment in it, and so I leave it for a week or so to settle, then I use my filter that goes from the dirty to the clean tank, which sucks all the impurities out of it, and you get left with crystal clear oil.” I take a peak into the clean tank, and it’s full of beautiful golden oil, ready for bottling, capping and labelling.
We stop for a moment and have a chat about the benefits of rapeseed oil. “Refined oil goes through a heating and chemical process,” she explains. “Cold pressing doesn’t do that. You get less oil, but better colour, more nutrients and the beautiful flavour. As an oil, you’re actually healthier than olive; it’s got half the saturated fat, and 10 times the omegas, plus they’re in the right proportions.” She pauses for a moment. “And not only have you got a nice oil with nutty flavour balance, it’ll go up to a higher temperature than a light olive oil. Plus you can British produce it, so you’re onto a winner!”.
When I first tried the oil, I was amazed how versatile it was. In a single meal, I roasted vegetables in it, and used it to make a delicious salad dressing. “The one thing that customers always tell you about is roast potatoes; it sings and dances in a hot oven,” Debbie tells me. “But I use it in cakes and baking too; I’ve got a great brownie recipe.”
We move through into the store room. She distributes to about 40 different shops in the surrounding region, mostly independent and farm shops, along with some local restaurants. As well as her standard rapeseed oil, she also offers a selection of flavoured oils that she blends herself, apart from the chipotle and ghost chilli oils that are infused by the local Upton Cheyney Chilli company.
The end of the tour finds us walking across the farmyard and into the barn where the rapeseed is stored. Debbie scoops out a handful and brings them into the light by the door; hundreds of small black seeds. It’s hard to believe that they produce such a tasty and versatile end product. I for one am excited to test out its many uses further over the coming months.
Find out more: http://www.bathharvestoils.co.uk