Rapeseed oil can be the new olive oil

Bright yellow rapeseed and the blue sky near Whitsome
Bright yellow rapeseed and the blue sky near Whitsome

With summer has come the traditional blooming of bright yellow fields of oilseed rape, brightening the borderland countryside, writes Jim Milnes.

Now the yellow squares in our countryside’s patchwork are proving themselves to be a cash crop as well as eyecatching.

Rapeseed oil is fast becoming the latest culinary must-have, knocking back sales of olive oil, which has been a staple for nearly half a century.

Supermarkets such as Tesco are even predicting that sales of British rapeseed oil could even surpass olive oil in sales during the coming decade.

The oil also is a great option for healthy eaters. It is rich in omega 3, 6, and 9 and is a good source of Vitamin E, while only having half the saturated fats of olive oil. It is also one of the few oils that can be heated to a high temperature without losing its colour, consistency or flavour.

Rapeseed oil is also versatile, able to be used in baking as well as roasting, frying and even in dressings.

All this is not bad for a crop that was originally grown for cattle feed, or to be ploughed into soil that needed fertilizing quickly.

It was even used on the railways as a lubricant on steam engines. Rapeseed oil originally had a bitter taste that humans –as opposed to cattle – found unappealing.

But in the 1970s, new strains were developed that ‘grew out’ the acids that gave it this bitterness. This, coupled with large subsidies offered to farmers through the 1980s, meant that it was poised for a commercial breakthrough.

In the last 30 years, British production of oilseed rape has boomed, going from a few thousand tonnes to the more than two million tonnes that are grown today.

And consumers have driven the boom, with demand growing by 11.5 per cent over the last year alone.

There are now more than 100 suppliers across the country, operating from farm shop level to supermarket chains.

And Mike Baess of Tesco has said that “This could be very good for our agriculture industry”.

One of the first set-ups to take a chance on oilseed was a group of farmers in Berwickshire and north Northumberland, who trade under the name Borderfields.

The co-operative, originally consisting of 12 growers, was the first to get rapeseed oil in supermarkets, and the Scottish seed grown outside Coldstream, in Berwickshire,now goes towards supplying Tesco, Aldi and Sainsburys.

The growing popularity of its product has allowed Borderfields to attract more shareholders, and increase production from 100 cases to a predicted 1.75 million litres this year.

Tilly Fuller, Borderfields’ sales and marketing manager, admits that the changes in the market over the last three years have been “phenomenal”.

She has overseen much of the growth, and the diversification of a simple oil – there are now various dressings and infusions of it on sale.

“People talk about it being the next olive oil, and the potential is there,” said Tilly.

“It is still regarded as something of a ‘break crop’ by many farmers, who don’t think they can make any money out of it, but in the coming years an awful lot of oil is going to be needed to meet demand.”