All across East Anglia, fields that until recently were a dull leafy green are now pushing up tall spikes of bright yellow flowers. On a warm day, you can smell the pollen with its distinctive sweet scent (loved by bees but dreaded by some hayfever sufferers). These are fields of Brassica napus – more commonly known as Oilseed Rape, Rapeseed or Canola.
Back in March, I took a trip down winding Norfolk lanes to meet a man who turns this colourful crop into a premium food product. My destination was a farmyard on the extensive Salle Park Estate. Here, in an old portakabin, I found the HQ of Crush Foods: one of Norfolk’s artisanal success stories.
When I arrived, co-founder and business manager Stephen Newman was hand-labelling bottles of virgin ‘cold-pressed’ Rapeseed oil for a local farm shop. As he explained, only 6-7 people work for the company full-time, so everyone helps where needed. I’m sure many micro-businesses will be familiar with that idea.
The term ‘cold-pressed’ seemed particularly appropriate on that bleak blackthorn-winter’s day, with sleet lashing the cabin windows. I was glad of my coat and the mug of tea Stephan quickly got for me – there is nothing cushy about working in a rural craft industry. That said, the welcome was warm and we were quickly chatting about the local food scene and the Rapeseed oil business.
The rise of a culinary superstar
As the Latin name indicates, Oilseed is a member of the brassica family along with cabbages, broccoli, and mustard (which is why the yellow flowers of both plants look so similar). Traditionally, farmers grew it as a cover crop between main crop rotations because it helped suppress weeds and, when ploughed back in, improved soil fertility. The seed made high protein animal fodder – but the oil was originally too bitter for human consumption.
Rapeseed is now the third largest source of vegetable oil in the world, (after Palm and Soya), according to US Department of Agriculture.
However, in the early 70s, Canadian farmers successfully developed new Oilseed strains that were palatable to people. The oil was healthier than other vegetable oils, with half the saturated fats of olive oil and high levels of unsaturated fatty acids. Its high heat tolerance also meant it didn’t burn when frying food – and this quickly made it a staple on supermarket shelves as a mass-market but heavily processed vegetable oil.
That’s where it might have stayed if it hadn’t been for some pioneering farmers and foodies who saw the potential for healthier, tastier oil. Those unsaturated fatty acids turned out to be what we now call ‘Omega oils’, which many consider an essential part of our diet. At the same time, plant breeders developed new strains of seed that produce not just palatable oil but positively tasty oil – with a nutty richness that chefs love.
According to the ONS and DEFRA, the oilseed rape crop was worth £684m to the UK economy in 2015, about the same as potatoes (£680m) and twice as much as sugar beet (£315m).
Norfolk grown – low food miles, high quality
The Oilseed name is distinctly functional. The seeds are 45% oil, giving them one of the highest oil yields of any crop. As Stephen explains, “one tonne of seeds produces 350 litres of cold pressed oil.”
Unlike many other producers, Stephen insists on only using a single variety of locally grown seed, called Fashion. “It’s not as high yielding as some of the latest strains but it more than makes up for it in taste. The seed merchants send me new varieties to test every year but I’ve yet to find one with the distinctive rich nutty flavour that our customers love.”
The way Crush makes its premium oil is straightforward: just cold press, triple-filter and bottle. No heat, no chemicals, and no additives: this helps preserve the oil’s natural flavour and health benefits. The team even bottles and labels the oil by hand – it’s labour intensive but it helps create local jobs.
“The simplicity of our process gives us full quality control from selecting the seed, to crushing and bottling,” explains Stephen. “As a result, we haven’t had a single return in the 2.5 years we’ve been supplying the East of England Co-op. We now send 2,000 bottles to their 131 stores each month.
“The EoE Co-op are great partners. If they like your product and believe it will sell, they’ll give you tremendous support and deal with you fairly. We are now working to develop a breakfast granola bar. There are not many retailers willing to work so closely with suppliers.”
Committed to sustainability
In addition to its original extra virgin, cold-pressed Rapeseed oil, Crush now has a range of five infused oils, three sauces (for dressing or dipping) and four flavours of Granola. “We only use UK ingredients in our granola, including our own oil. This means it has fewer saturated fats and more omega oils than many big brand granolas, which tend to contain cheap palm oil. As such, it’s not only better for your health but also has lower food-miles and doesn’t damage rainforests.”
As well as wanting to make a great tasting, locally sourced food, Stephen is passionate about reducing food waste. In fact, his ambition is to make Crush a zero-waste producer. He has already gone a long way to achieving his goal but is always looking for new ways to use Oilseed by-products.
“The stems and leaves can be fully composted after harvest or used as animal fodder. We are exploring ways to use the sediment left after filtering the oil. While the crushed seeds make energy-rich pellets, with twice the calorific value of wood, which are excellent fuel for bio-incinerators.
“We are even testing the pellets for use in modern domestic biomass boilers. These cost virtually the same as traditional oil boilers to install and benefit from government incentives to switch to renewable energy sources. A 25kg bag of our pellets could heat a 3-bedroom house for 3-5 days – which is incredibly efficient and great value.”
Partnering for growth
Crush started with little funding and the simplest of equipment back in 2011. Since then it has built a strong reputation locally and saw sales grow over 30% last year. This helped it secure growth funding from two local agricultural businesses: its landlord, Salle Farms, and its seed supplier, Dewing Grain.
“It’s vital to have investors who understand the business and share our ethos of sustainability,” says Stephen. “Salle and Dewing are ideal partners. Salle has an excellent reputation for environmental management and their farm director, Poul Hoveston, won Farmer of the Year in 2014.
“Salle grows, harvests, and stores all the seed we use. They then sell it to Dewing, who are experienced grain merchants. We then buy the 5-6000 tonnes of seed we need each year from Dewing – but only when we need it. This might seem strange but it reduces risk for all of us.
“Salle gets a guaranteed buyer at the start of the season, so they know what to plant. Dewing understands the market, how to reduce risk by agreeing a price that balances supply and demand. We have the certainty of a supplier who can provide us with the specific strain of Oilseed we require. While buying across the year makes it easier to manage cash flow and reduces storage costs.”
Supporting Norfolk’s food and drink community
Stephen is keen to build links with other local micro-producers, whether beer, bread or even soap makers. “As well as supplying local farm shops and markets, we already provide the same premium oil to Carol Goulding for use in her luxury Handmade Norfolk Soaps. But we are always looking for opportunities to develop new products with other local businesses.”
We can’t go into details, but Stephen is now working on a new health food that uses by-products from the brewing process. “The first step to reducing food waste is to change public perception. Rather than calling it waste, which sounds as though there’s something wrong with it, we talk about the source of the ingredient. What’s not to like about beer?”
After my chat with Stephen, I hurried along to the lovely Providore bread stall on Norwich Market and bought a bottle of Crush’s chilli infused oil. We’ve been using it ever since in all sorts of spicy dishes. As many chefs have already found out, it’s particularly good with stir-fried chicken and vegetables – and definitely worth trying if you enjoy cooking.
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Huw and Wendy Sayer