A decade ago rapeseed oil was virtually unheard of, now there are around 100 small and larger suppliers across Britain selling it
The swathes of yellow that have been blanketing the North East countryside for the last few weeks are slowly beginning to fade.
But while the golden rapeseed flowers that have become an increasingly familiar sight across the UK in late spring may be dying back, work on a crop that was originally only grown to improve soil quality, as cheap animal feed and for lubricating those lost leviathans of the industrial age, steam trains, is only just beginning.
It is now that producers will begin the task of turning those lemon coloured pastures into cold-pressed rapeseed oil.
It is a process that is growing increasingly more demanding, not in terms of the challenge involved but concerning the consumer side.
For the home-produced oil is becoming so popular with shoppers that some are predicting it could match sales of olive oil in the next decade.
And there are those that believe the lurid crop so long reviled by allergy sufferers, conservationists and country dwellers alike, could even be the much needed fillip the UK’s beleaguered agricultural industry has been waiting for.
A decade ago this oil was virtually unheard of.
There were only a handful of concerns – including Borderfields set-up at the start of the rapeseed oil boom in 2006 by a group of like-minded farmers in Northumberland and Berwickshire – that were willing to take a risk on what was then an untried and unknown culinary ingredient.
Now there are around 100 small and larger suppliers across Britain (including Yellow Fields near Morpeth) selling rapeseed oil through farmers’ markets, independent specialist shops and the high street multiples.
So popular has it become that Tesco reports it’s knocking back sales of imported extra virgin olive oil for the first time.
It’s hard to imagine now, but 20 years ago Mediterranean-produced extra virgin olive oil was seen as something new. Only available from chemists and specialist shops, it came to prominence after being endorsed by celebrity chefs.
The potential market for cold-pressed rapeseed oil is huge and fans say there is no reason why it can’t take a bigger share of the consumer market.
Indeed, despite the recession (the oil is a premium product and shoppers can expect to pay £4-£5 per 500ml for a top brand names) volume demand for bottles has grown by 11.5% across all sellers in the last year, according to retail analysts Kantar, while extra virgin olive oil has fallen to minus 0.9%.
At Tesco – which stocks Borderfields – sales have grown by a staggering 60% in the last year. Such is the demand that the grocery giant now sells 21 varieties, including ones infused with chilli, ginger, garlic and lemon.
Mike Baess of Tesco says all the signs are that “it could catch up with extra virgin olive oil in the next 10 years”.
He adds: “It is going to be very good for our agricultural industry.”
There are many reasons why has surged in the last three or so years.
Mike believes in these straitened times more people are making a conscious decision to support their local economy and there is an increasing awareness of indigenous products.
He says the oil’s quality “also stands up very well against extra virgin olive oil”. Then there are its health-giving properties. It contains omegas 3, 6 and 9, essential fatty acids known to reduce cholesterol and maintain a healthy heart, brain function and joint mobility.
It is also a good source of vitamin E and has half the saturated fats of olive oil. And it is one of the few unblended oils that can be heated to a high temperature without its antioxidants, colour, character and flavour spoiling.
It’s also incredibly versatile. Because of its high flash point (the stage when a cooking fat begins to smoke or burn giving food an unpleasant taste) it’s great for roasting vegetables and potatoes. It can even be used as a butter replacement for baking as well as for dressings and dipping.
No wonder celebrity chefs are endorsing it – Borderfields’ is championed by among others Tom Aikens and Valentine Warner – and rapeseed has gone from the bad boy of British farming to big business.
Borderfields was initially a co-operative of 12 farmers from Northumberland and the Borders. It was among the first producers of the oil to be stocked by Tesco in 2007, and is now also available in Sainsburys (Borderfields’ biggest client), Asda and Aldi.
The collaborative now boasts a total of 17 shareholders – five from the Midlands have come on board – and has gone from producing just 100 cases of oil to a predicted 1.75m litres this year.
Tilly Fuller, Borderfields’ sales and marketing manager, says after initial slow growth, the “last three years has been phenomenal”.
A mixture of demand, canny marketing and innovation – Borderfields has added dressings and infused oils to the range – has helped the company maintain its place as one of the UK’s top three producers alongside Mellow Yellow from Northamptonshire and Hillfarm from Suffolk.
Tilly is understandably excited by the progress.
“People are talking about it being the next olive oil and the potential is there,” she says. “It is just a case of educating the consumer about why they should change from olive to rapeseed oil.
“I certainly wouldn’t disagree with predictions that in the next decade it will outstrip sales of olive oil. It has come from nothing 10 years ago and now it is on every supermarket shelf in the country.
“There is no denying it has been a long slog, but it feels now like the tide is turning.
“It is still regarded as something of a ‘break’ crop by many farmers who still don’t think they can make any money from it, but if it continues to increase market share and does take over from olive oil in 10 years’ time, that is an awful lot of rapeseed oil that is going to be needed to meet demand.”
Hence the assertion that rapeseed could be the crop that helps pull British agriculture out of the doldrums.
Yellow Fields was launched five years ago. A partnership between farmer Selby Potts and his friend Alan Brewis, they too have seen rising sales. Selby says there is no reason why the oil can’t compete with olive oil: “It is just as good”.
Yellow Fields is stocked at independent farm shops and delicatessens across the region and Selby has noticed more of the area’s chefs are turning to it.
“We are finding that once people start to use the oil they are switching. It’s versatile, has the health benefits and is very light. We have also been widening our range. We do infused oils like jalapeno, lemon and ginger alongside the straight oil.”
Gemma McIvor, Tesco’s local sourcing manager, thinks more farmers will be tempted to grow it and more shoppers will consider buying it. There is also the added incentive for ethical shoppers that because it is produced locally it cuts down on the carbon footprint of imported oils.”
Due to the growing demand Tesco now stocks rapeseed oils produced in Somerset, Suffolk, Hertfordshire, Yorkshire, Northumberland, Staffordshire, Suffolk, Hampshire and Aberdeenshire.
These local varieties are sold in stores in and around the areas where they are produced. Each has its own regional flavour and look.
Ben Guy, managing director of Hammond Food Oils, Borderfields’ parent company, says: “Cold-pressed rapeseed oil has reached an important milestone as it’s now a mainstream product. This is an amazing transformation, especially when you think that only seven years ago, it was essentially non-existent in the UK.
“Building awareness of its benefits has been a big part of driving growth over the past few years. It is now our responsibility as manufacturers to capitalise on the likely increases in olive oil prices by making our offerings as competitive as possible and encouraging more to try this great British alternative.”
There is no denying it has been a long slog, but it feels now like the tide is turning