Cold and wet it might be, but time marches on and plants and crops are maturing. The countryside is either very green, as we expect, or very yellow, as we have come to expect. The yellow, of course, is the flower of the rapeseed plant, a comparatively recent arrival to English farmland, and, in some quarters, a rather contentious one. A typical letter on the subject to the nation’s press will lament the passing of the mellow golden tones of ‘traditional’ England, apparently supplanted by the vulgar upstart dazzle of this latest income. What is the truth? Today I walked from Charingworth to Hidcote Manor Gardens, a pleasant walk mostly across grassy meadows, with clear views westwards to Chipping Campden and beyond to the Malvern Hills. For every three or four fields of pasture or crop in its early green stage, there was one of brilliant yellow. At this stage of the year, I rather take to this show of ebullient colour – heaven knows, with a constant blanket of grey above us, we need it. And when the sun shines on it, it produces an agreeable sensation of heat and lassitude. Only later in the season, when the sun is warmer and the once heady rapeseed aroma turns sickly, like poor-quality honey, does one look forward to its demise.
Rapeseed is part of the mustard and cabbage family, the name deriving from the Latin for turnip, rāpa or rāpum, and is first recorded in English at the end of the 14th century. Rapeseed oil was produced in the 19th century as a lubricant for steam engines. In Britain, oilseed rape was barely known until the 1970s when the explosion in commodity prices and targeted support from the CAP raised the price to a sufficiently high level that farmers chose to grow it. Now, around 400,000 hectares are grown annually, roughly one-eighth of the area of wheat and barley.
The modern version is grown for the production of animal feed, vegetable oil for human consumption, and biodiesel. Furthermore, it provides good coverage of the soil in winter, and limits nitrogen run-off, after which it is ploughed back into the soil or used as bedding. Sometimes livestock such as sheep or cattle are allowed to graze on the plants. More recently, thanks to its low-fat content, it is becoming a fashionable competitor to olive oil and when cold-pressed provides a cooking oil with a grassy, “green” taste. As with olive oil, rapeseed oil contains Omegas 3, 6 and 9, essential fatty acids known to reduce cholesterol and maintain heart health, joint mobility and brain function. It is also a rich, natural source of vitamin E. Perhaps recognising that its image needed refreshing, it is now marketed in supermarkets and delicatessens as the homegrown and even healthier alternative to imported olive oil. There are, for example, Cotswold brands that emphasise local provenance and offer various levels of quality. Whether we will get used to its earthy, sometimes subtle flavour is another matter but I don’t see why not. For years olive oil was seen as only good for foreigners – now it is practically impossible to cook without it. And there is still plenty of wheat and barley around, rippling in the breeze, with its warm hues and familiar biscuity aroma.