Cotswold Gold

Oilseed Rape Story

Oilseed Rape Story

As soon as we arrived at Church Farm for Open Farm Sunday I was captivated.  At the entrance there were Shetland ponies and goats to pet, as well as a great display of crops and posters giving information about oats, barley and oilseed rape.  It was like the best nature table you could possibly arrange!  As a primary school teacher many years ago, I would have loved to put on a display like this for my pupils.  But even as an adult I found it fascinating.  What appealed to me most was the opportunity to learn about the oilseed rape.

I love to see the fields of gold that stretch across the Cotswold in late Spring each year.  I go out and take photographs and take the grandchildren to admire them.  I usually say something simple like, “It’s used for cooking oil”, but I honestly hadn’t a clue what really happened to those gorgeous yellow plants.

Well, having chatted to the farmer and a seed merchant, I now know a great deal more.  Rapeseed belongs to the Brassica family of plants like turnips, cabbages, Brussel sprouts and cauliflower among others.  In fact the word Rape comes from the Latin, Rapum which means turnip!  Who knew?  Natural rapeseed has been grown, and used to produce fuel, for centuries.  In fact Brassica are some of the oldest plants around.  There are records of Brassica oilseed varieties being grown in India 4000 years ago, and China and Japan 2000 years ago.   It is likely that the Romans introduced it to Britain.  It was found to be a useful ‘break crop’, which means that it keeps down weeds and helps enrich the soil in between growing other crops.  By the middle-ages rapeseed oil was being used as fuel for lamps.  But it was not until the Industrial Revolution, when steam power came to the fore, that machinists discovered its suitability as a lubricant.

During the Second World War huge quantities of oil were needed to keep the engines of naval and merchant vessels seaworthy, but because of blockades it was difficult to source from Europe and the East.  So Canada greatly increased its rapeseed cultivation.

The original, natural strains of rapeseed had been used for centuries to feed animals, but not people.  It had a bitter taste and was high in erucic acid, which is toxic to young children.  However, following research and development in Canada, a strain was developed that had low levels of erucic acid and a pleasant nutty taste, making it suitable for human consumption.  The Canadian climate was good for growing it, so in 1978 a company was set up to produce Canadian Oil, Low in Acid, hence the name Canola!  Although this was a brand name it is now accepted as a generic term for oilseed rape.

I have used Rapeseed Oil for years at home for frying and roasting food, as well as baking carrot cakes and biscuits.  It is also suitable for bread and pastries, and of course, it makes delicious dressings, marinades and mayonnaises.   A knowledgeable doctor told me years ago that Rapeseed oil is high in Vitamin E and contains less than half the saturated fat of olive oil, which helps to keeps cholesterol down.  Rapeseed oil is also rich in omega 3, 6 and 9 and contains no preservatives or additives, making it a healthy alternative to butter or other vegetable oils..   I buy the locally produced ‘Cotswold Gold’ rapeseed oil as it is made in small batches by methods which preserve the goodness of the oil and it is not genetically modified as some mass produced or foreign oils are.

In recent years, celebrity chefs have made rapeseed oil very popular, which is one reason why there is so much grown in this country now.  Another reason is its use in the biodiesel industry.  In fact over 60% of the rapeseed grown in Europe now is used for fuel.  This would be a worry if it was taking up land which could be used for food production.  But apparently it can be grown on ‘set-aside’ land, which would otherwise not be used.

I was very pleased to learn that not a single bit of the rapeseed plant is wasted.  Once the oil has been pressed out of the ripe black seeds, the left over pulp provides a rich feed for the animals on the farm and the rest of the plant goes into the forage which provides food for the animals in winter.

If you would like more information or facts and figures, the website ukagriculture.com  produces a wonderful poster called The Story of Oilseed Rape.  And, you can watch a short video on the oil extraction process in Ireland here on youtube.

Oats and beans and barley grow,

Oats and beans and barley grow,

Not you, nor I, nor anyone know,

How oats and beans and barley grow.

First the farmer sows the seed,

Then he stands and takes his ease,

Stamps his feet and claps his hand,

And turns around to view the land.

Oats and beans and barley grow,

Oats and beans and barley grow,

Not you, nor I, nor anyone know,

How oats and beans and barley grow.

First the farmer sows the seed,

Then he stands and takes his ease,

Stamps his feet and claps his hand,

And turns around to view the land.

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