Rapeseed oil - one of Yorkshire’s fastest growing exports

PUBLISHED: 10:36 14 June 2013 | UPDATED: 10:36 14 June 2013

The brilliant yellow fields for rapeseed

The brilliant yellow fields for rapeseed

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Meet the family behind what is fast becoming one of Yorkshire’s most sought after exports. Annie Stirk our food and drink consultant reports.

Farmer Geoff Kilby inspects the cropFarmer Geoff Kilby inspects the crop

Eleven years ago, when they became the first farmers in Yorkshire to produce cold pressed rapeseed oil (and only the third in the country), the Kilby family would often take telephone orders while out on their tractors in the fields at Wharfe Valley Farm in Collingham. But those were the days when the family only produced around 300 bottles of their Wharfe Valley Cold Pressed Oil each week – today their bottling plant is now capable of producing up to 26,000 bottled daily.

Such is the burgeoning interest in this subtle, nutty oil, well known for its health-giving properties that British production of the golden liquid has doubled over the last decade, rising from around 3,000 tonnes in the 1970s to several million today.

Sallyann Kilby, who runs the business with husband Geoff and son Stephen, says the growth of the business has come as something of a surprise. ‘We never imagined it would grow so much when we started out,’ says Sallyann. ‘But more and more people have become aware that rapeseed oil is good for you, and that it’s a British food, a Yorkshire product that we can be proud of.’

While the Kilby’s have been traditional farmers since the 1960s, following a five-year crop rotation producing barley, potatoes and asparagus, it’s the rapeseed – first put in as a ‘filler’ in the rotation plan in the 1980s when nothing else could be planted – that has been their outright success.

Today, although the majority is harvested from their own farm, they have had to expand to keep up with demand. ‘Our cousin farms the land next door to us and he has begun growing rapeseed too so we can keep up with orders,’ says Sallyann. ‘But we are very careful to ensure it’s our seed, and it’s planted and harvested in the same way.’

The seed-to-bottle process begins with the brilliant yellow fields that light up the landscape in May or June. ‘When harvested in July, the plant yields these tiny, jet back seeds and we ‘swath’ the crop rather than desiccate it to ensure that we are not using chemicals close to harvest,’ says Sallyann. “Many farms will spray the crop with glyphosate to kill it before it is collected with the combine.’

After harvesting, the seeds are stored directly behind the press house from where they are fed straight into the hoppers and very slowly cold pressed to produce oil. ‘The process is very simple – you get the seed and you squash it, that’s it,’ says Sallyann. ‘We filter it to ensure we get the husk out but we don’t heat it, or add anything else to it – it’s a pure, unadulterated product.’

The oil is then hand bottled on site and labeled, and it’s this labeling that sets it apart from many other rapeseed oils. Many producers aren’t able to use the ‘extra virgin’ tagline, but Wharfe Valley cold press below 50c and only use the ‘first press’, in other words, they only press once. ‘When you’re in the supermarket, the key words to look out for are ‘cold pressed’ and ‘extra virgin’ as this shows that the rapeseed oil has nothing added. Cheaper rapeseed oils are distilled, bleached and deodorised,’ says Sallyann.

In traditional crop rotation, one field is left fallow before the next crop goes in, but today’s tight margins mean farmers need to grow something on this land to make ends meet and that’s why crops like rapeseed are so valuable.

Sallyann believes the rising popularity of rapeseed as a stop-gap crop among Yorkshire farmers has come about since the closure of the sugar beet factories. ‘Once the sugar beet factory in York closed, it became uneconomical for farmers to transport their crop across the country to the nearest processor, which was in Lincolnshire,’ she says. ‘Rapeseed has become incredibly important to Yorkshire farmers, because it gives them a livelihood and keeps them farming.’

Since 2006, when they bottled their first oil, the Kilby family now produce ‘Yor Oil’ – which stands for Yorkshire Original Rapeseed – as well as several flavoured oils such Rosemary, Red Chilli, Garlic & Sicilian Lemon (which was featured on the Great British Menu with Stephanie Moon) and Cracked Black Pepper.

With the help of friend and bespoke furniture maker Robert Thompson, the family also makes an Oak Smoked Rapeseed Oil, which is smoked on oak chips gathered from Robert’s furniture business and smoked in their farmhouse smokery.

The increasing popularity of rapeseed oil among chefs (many of them celebrities) and home cooks is in part down to is goodness-giving properties – it’s 10 times higher in Omega 3s than olive oil and has the lowest levels of saturated fat of all vegetable oils. ‘The health conscious French discovered rapeseed oil generations ago and the product is commonplace on their supermarket shelves,’ says Sallyann. ‘But while the British shied away due to the unfortunate name, today we’re at last recognising its benefits.’

Sallyann is quick to rebut claims that rapeseed can taste ‘cabbagey’. ‘It totally depends on the land you grow it on and the variety you use,’ she says. ‘The limestone fields around us give our oil a much more delicate aroma and lovely subtle flavour – it’s quite different.’

Rapeseed oil is also incredibly versatile. ‘It’s great for frying because, while olive oil has a smoking point of 180 degrees, rapeseed oil has a smoking point of up to 230 degrees centigrade, and it can be used for roast potatoes, chips, salad dressings, baking – or even massaging,’ says Sallyann.

For the Kilbys, rapeseed has completely changed their lives. ‘Farming can be an isolating job but through rapeseed oil we feel we’ve met so many amazing people, and really become part of the community,’ she says. ‘Rapeseed oil is also helping people reconnect with the land and learn more about where their food comes from. It’s so nice when people approach us at food shows and say, ‘you see that, that’s our oil’.

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