Monday, September 24, 2012
The British countryside is covered with it and their markets and even some leading restaurants are determined to promote it. In Ireland, meanwhile, our small handful of producers have been exploiting the brand opportunities of this specialty by-product to great effect, and have won the backing of some prominent chefs in championing it as a great local food.
To date I’ve been on the fence about rapeseed oil. I’m glad to see Irish farms diversifying and creating their own consumer-facing brands – an exercise that would greatly benefit the many thousands of small and medium farms currently tied to commoditised farming for major processors while invisible to the Irish punter. However, I gotta admit I’ve not been the biggest fan of its, at times, bitter and, dare I say it, slightly rancid flavour. I get that it’s good for shallow frying but its ability to work in dressings or other culinary uses is questionable. And it ain’t a cheap option.
I’m pleased to say though that a recent trip to Newgrange Gold in the Boyne Valley swung me on to team rapeseed. Now this – if they can get it to turn a profit in the next five years – could be an interesting proposition for the Irish agrifood sector.
Barrister and part-time beef farmer John Rogers took the decision a little over two years ago to reduce his beef production from 40 head of cattle down to 30 and to dedicate his farm business to seed oil production. The property consists of approx 90 acres of rape – yielding approx one and a half tonnes of rapeseed per acre – and a smaller parcel camelina in North Dublin which produced approx 4000 litres of pressed seed oil last year and almost twice that this year, with 3000 litres in July alone.
At full capacity the farm could produce 300,000 bottles (500ml) of premium cold pressed rapeseed oil, as well as their flavoured rape range in 250ml bottles and their specialty camelina oil (I’ll explain this wonder plant later). All going to plan, they’ll expand production to two presses and will reach capacity and profit-making within five years, and possibly more. On paper it sounds like a good artisanal business plan.
But what of its marketability? Well, most importantly they’re making a product you’d actually want to put in your mouth. From the flavoured range, the Garden Herbs rapeseed oil – a sprightly parsley, sage, thyme and lemon concoction – has just been short-listed for a Blas na hEireann award. Their original rapeseed oil is nutty and lacking in that stinky animal feed/silage/cabbage-y whiff that some rapeseed oils are bangin’ of, and their camelina oil – the only one produced for food in Ireland currently – has the aroma and flavour of freshly ground pine nuts but with a delicate earthiness that works wonders with tomatoes and spices (as we learned from a refreshing shooter prepared for us by the good folks of Eastern Seaboard). Product viability – check.
Inputs and outputs are cleverly managed: sludge from the settling tanks are used to fertilise the plants; husks left behind after the seeds have been cleaned are used for bedding; and ‘cake’ produced after pressing (dry pellets of pressed seeds) make a nutritional animal feed which apparently is in high demand among dairy farmers. Production is clean and involves no adulteration, deoderisation or manipulation of any kind, which lowers input costs and produces a more natural, regionally typified product. Sustainable production – check.
Best of all, without the help of a marketing consultant, Rogers has devised a marketing platform based on a two-fold USP: a Boyne Valley product – Boyne Valley being a region of exceptional quality food production; and a true specialist in seed oils, with a unique product that only they are producing. Camelina is in fact a relative of rape, with a more complex taste and twice the omega-3 content. Its omega-3 and omega-6 content are actually in the highly desirable ratio of 2:1, which according to nutritionists is the optimum for good heart health. Rather than making their camelina oil as a ‘health product’ though, they’ve opted to release it for retail as a pillar or their range. They’re already stocking at specialists and small retailers in Dublin, Louth, Meath, Cavan, Cork, Galway and Sligo, and are in talks with major retailers for national distribution. Marketability – check.
Newgrange Gold has been on shelves since March and only formally launched in September. While Rogers clearly has other irons in the fire, the seed oil business is so far self-funded and going to plan. Rogers says: ‘We are where we want to be.” And by that he means genuinely regional, artisianal, moving towards their potential, and tasting pretty damn good.