It was originally grown to lubricate steam engines and even when culinary strains were developed and found to have outstanding health benefits, it was said the name would kill it stone-dead. But rapeseed oil has survived both its chequered industrial heritage and its monicker to become the latest must-have in the pantry.
"I haven't cooked with olive oil for four years now, since I left Petrus," says Tristan Welch, who liked to keep no less than six different kinds of the rich golden homegrown alternative by the stove at Launceston Place.
He's not alone – artisanal versions of the produce of Britain's vivid lemon-coloured spring pastures are embraced by TV chefs from Nigella to James Martin, while Ollie Dabbous, the Michelin-starred Manoir protege whose signature restaurant opens this month, declares: "We should embrace it as enthusiastically as olive oil."
Talking of which, even olive oil's greatest devotee, Jamie Oliver, has been glugging the domestic stuff over his latest dishes on television and putting it on tables in his new restaurant, Union Jacks, begging the question of whether the fact that we grow our own is rapeseed's greatest selling point and if the hype is justified on its taste.
Not according to Rowley Leigh, who grumbles: "We have lots of grass, yet we don't eat that!" He finds the oil "slightly soapy" and believes the fact it's British is prompting chefs to indiscriminately wave the flag for it. David Eyre of Shoreditch tapas bar Eyre Brothers, who grew up in Mozambique, thinks he has a point: "Why would I want to replace olive oil with something that's inherently bland?" he asks, pointing out that rapeseed oil is more expensive, as well as less distinctive in taste.
Yet even in these austerity years, shoppers are forking out an extra £1 per bottle on average for the cold-pressed version, which is a world away from the rapeseed harvested to make cheap vegetable oil.
Many are drawn by the subtle, nutty taste they first encountered at food fairs, but first-timers with particularly sensitive noses might well recoil from some varieties. "Not everyone will like it," admits Sarah Loxton, product developer at Marks & Spencer, alluding to a faintly cabbagey smell, which comes with being a member of the brassica family: "Rapeseed is not one of those oils that has had all the aroma and flavour refined out of it like, say, sunflower oil and nor is it peppery or fruity like olive oil. However, it can have a lovely aroma; the one we sell, from a small producer in Northumberland, reminds me of corn on the cob," she enthuses. "After being so talked about by cookbook writers and television chefs, we felt we had to find one to offer to our customers and went for one of the more subtle ones we tasted."
Their faith seems to have been justified. Since introducing it last April, M&S has seen rapeseed oil sales increase by 10 per cent week-on-week. Waitrose, which is much further along, having pioneered it in supermarkets in 2005, has also experienced a boom, with two national and four further regional brands on sale: "We sold 150,000 bottles last year, a 31 per cent increase," says buyer Carla Smith. "It's just such a gorgeous colour," she says, echoing Selfridges buyer Lindsey Butler, who admits she fell in love with the rich gold of Cullisse, the trendy Highland-made oil on which the store has a London exclusive: "The power of television is such that people come in and ask for it by brand name," Butler reports.
Fortnum's has also seen a 30 per cent annual increase in its sales of Just, a chefs' favourite.
As for the generic name, had Duncan Farrington, who pioneered artisanal production in Britain in 2005, listened to "experts", we might not have a top-end rapeseed oil industry at all.
"When I first thought of growing it on the family farm because there was such an appetite for healthy foods and those with local provenance, I was told the name would make marketing it impossible," he recalls. "The 6,000 bottles we sold in that first year were marketed as Mellow Yellow, with the words rapeseed oil in small print. Now we bottle 6,000 per week and rapeseed oil has made it into prominence on the label."
Farringtons found favour early with Jamie Oliver and has put artisanal rapeseed oil – that which is cold-pressed and bottled on the farm – in the mainstream via the shelves of Waitrose, Sainsburys and Booths.
Yet there really is more to rapeseed oil than patriotism. Unlike olive oil, which can turn toxic when overheated, rapeseed oil has a high flashpoint. It will not overwhelm a mayonnaise as olive oil can. And the cold-pressed variety that makes such a delicate dressing will not burn or transmute when used to fry or roast. It makes wonderful golden roasties and sauté potatoes. It can even be used in baking as a butter substitute. The oil has considerable health benefits, with half the saturated fat of olive oil and lots of omegas – ironic considering the old industrial strains, which contained compounds associated with heart problems, originally gave it a bad name. Although rapeseed oil still represents only a small part of the market, the enthusiastic take-up by chefs looks set to boost our GDP.
And, given the proliferation of those fields of gold across the land, Britain could literally be sitting on a harvest with the potential of Tuscan olive groves.
HOW CHEFS ARE USING RAPESEED OIL
Ollie Dabbous combines it with home-made apple vinegar for a dressing at Dabbous and uses it to toast barley or roast winter fruits.
Tristan Welch uses it to fry home-made crisps before dinner at Launceston Place and also whisks it into a sea-beet pesto to serve with salt marsh lamb.
Ian Rudge of The Rib Room uses smoked rapeseed oil to confit fish.
Darron Bunn bases all the dressings and vinaigrettes at Quaglino's on rapeseed oil and uses it to complement foie gras.
Former MasterChef winner Mat Follas, now at the helm at the Wild Garlic in Dorset, makes a delicious duck-egg and rapeseed mayonnaise.
- More about:
- P Funk