For much of last month, every time I looked out of my bedroom window I was dazzled by what seemed to be a very un-English colour scheme, with the purple flowers of our tall, gnarled old lilac tree set against the brilliant chrome yellow of the rapeseed growing in the field beyond.
It looked Mediterranean, a vivid oil painting rather than a muted English watercolour. This is (nearly) Constable country but the colours were closer to Van Gogh’s.
The picture’s faded now, as both the lilac and rapeseed flowers die back. But that just means that instead of painting the field yellow, the rapeseed will help give my cooking a golden tint instead.
I’ve become a convert to rapeseed oil – and by that I mean extra virgin, cold pressed rapeseed oil, not the mass produced vegetable oil made from rapeseed that’s sold in every supermarket.
Like a lot of converts, I can’t help evangelising a bit. Hold a jug of rapeseed oil up to the light and it’s like looking through a stained glass window.
Sorry, I’ll try to wax less lyrical and get practical. Rapeseed oil has half the saturated fat of olive oil and is rich in cholesterol-busting Omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids and vitamin E.
It also has a higher burn point, making it ideal for frying. It makes the most delicious roast potatoes – and I say that as someone who’s rather partial to roasties cooked in duck fat.
It’s good in dressings and dips and drizzled onto the surface of soups. But I’ve been experimenting with using it in lots of other ways. Most worked for me, some didn’t.
It has a pronounced taste, which I would describe as nutty and grassy, almost asparagus-y. Some people say it smells cabbagey – it is a brassica after all – but I can’t detect that myself.
It may be that some cold pressed rapeseed oils taste and smell different to others – after all, extra virgin olive oils have myriad different flavours depending on what olives are grown and where and how they’re processed.
I generally use an extra virgin cold pressed rapeseed oil from Hillfarm Oils, who, like me, are based in Suffolk.
I was keen to know more about the oil, so Hillfarm’s boss, Sam Fairs, kindly allowed me to have a look around their processing plant and made some time for a chat.
He told me that unlike Canadian rapeseed, the British crop is not genetically modified, although it took intensive (natural) breeding to turn what was originally a poisonous product into something humans could eat.
Before the 1970s rapeseed was little known in the UK. Today, it’s widely grown to make cattle feed, cheap vegetable oil, margarine, plastics and polymers and is increasingly popular as a bio-fuel.
But a few far-sighted farmers like Sam Fairs realised its potential as a premium cold pressed extra virgin oil and went into production for themselves. Now even the big supermarkets are getting in on the act and selling their own-brand versions.
Hillfarm’s processing plant fits into three big containers housed in a barn on the farm.
The process could hardly be simpler. The seeds, which look like lead shot or tiny black ball bearings, are cleaned, cold pressed (not heat treated) and filtered before being bottled. The residue is used to make cattle food.
Unlike olive oil, it can be made all the year round, because the seeds can be stored until needed.
The product taps into the zeitgeist for locally sourced food with low food miles and Sam Fairs is keen to push it as a British alternative to imported olive oil.
It’s easy enough to substitute rapeseed oil for olive oil in many recipes.
I really like a good slug of it in my pesto, I’ve used it in bread, it was brilliant for frying my salmon fishcakes and for dressing a recent lentil dish, and my sister in law Sarah swears by it for her special stir-fried greens – I’ll give you a recipe for that in a moment.
I wasn’t mad about using extra virgin rapeseed oil alone in a mayonnaise because I thought it was too strongly flavored – but then I wouldn’t use extra virgin olive oil on its own in a mayo either. A mix of 70-30 light olive oil or sunflower oil and extra-virgin rapeseed oil, on the other hand, is excellent. And the rapeseed oil gives it a fabulous golden colour.
Would I jettison my olive oils and cooking fats and use rapeseed oil alone? No. But it has a permanent place in my kitchen now and I’ll be using it on a regular basis. Watch this space.
Chocolate Almond Cake
Why not take on the Mediterranean stuff head on, I thought? The rapeseed oil tortas de aceite biscuits are a work in progress but this cake is adapted from a recipe using olive oil and it works a treat.
It’s dense, moist and fudgy and makes a fab dessert. If you omit the flour and increase the ground almonds to 150g, this is suitable for coeliacs and other gluten-intolerant people.
150 ml extra virgin cold pressed rapeseed oil (plus more for greasing)
50g cocoa powder, sifted
125 ml boiling water
1 tspn almond extract
130g ground almonds
20 g plain flour
1/2 tspn bicarbonate of soda
A pinch of salt
200 g vanilla sugar (or omit the almond extract and add 2 tspns vanilla extract)
Preheat oven to 170C/325F/Gas 3.
Grease a 23 cm/9″ springform cake tin with a little rapeseed oil and line the base with baking parchment.
Sift the cocoa powder into a bowl and whisk in the boiling water to make a thick, glossy but still slightly runny paste.
Beat in the almond extract (or vanilla extract, if using)
In another bowl, combine the ground almonds, flour, bicarb and salt.
Put the eggs, sugar and oil into a third, bigger mixing bowl and beat on high using an electric whisk until thick, aerated, pale yellow and creamy.
Turn the speed down and slowly add the cocoa mixture, beating as you go.
Then gradually beat in the almond mixture. Scrape down the sides and mix well.
Pour the glossy brown mixture into the springform cake tin and bake for 40-45 minutes, until the sides are set and the centre still looks slightly damp. A skewer poked into the cake should come out clean.
Let the cake cool in the tin on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then gently ease the sides loose with a small spatula and release the cake from the tin.
Dust with icing sugar and serve perhaps with fresh berries and some creme fraiche, vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. Eat warm or allow to cool completely. This cake freezes well.
Sarah's Stir-fried Greens
Sometimes the simplest recipes are the best.
A quantity of spring greens/kale/chard (it depends on how hungry you are but bear in mind they cook down a lot)
Rapeseed oil, about a tablespoonful
A pinch of chilli flakes
A pinch of salt
Heat the oil in a large deep frying pan or wok
Shred the greens into 1/8-1/4″ thick ribbons
Add a pinch of salt and a pinch of chilli flakes to the oil and fry for a moment
Add the shredded greens, toss well to coat in the oil and fry until the greens are just wilted but still have bite.
Excellent with dishes like slow roast belly pork or over a bowl of duck fried rice.