ISLAMABAD: It's that time of year when fields across Britain glow dandelion-yellow with rapeseed, the fragrant and familiar crop that is an irritant to hay fever sufferers and farmers alike. What was once grown merely as a "break" crop – used to suppress weeds and improve soil quality in fallow times, and fit only for animal feed – is now gaining a certain culinary respectability.
When cold-pressed, rapeseed provides a cooking oil with a grassy, "green" taste. Thanks to some eye-catching health properties, it also makes for a fitter fry-up. Little wonder, then, that homegrown rapeseed has been dubbed "the British olive oil".
There are various well-known converts to the rapeseed revolution. Chefs James Martin, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Tristan Welch are devotees of its gentle, almost dusty flavours. It is the oil of choice in the kitchens of The Dorchester, Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons and the House of Lords. But where rapeseed oil was once only available in delis and Fortnum & Mason, it is now widely stocked in supermarkets.
Apart from its local provenance, rapeseed oil's big selling point, say converts, is its health-giving properties. 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. High in mono-unsaturated fats, it is one of the few unblended oils that can be heated to deep-frying temperature without its antioxidants, character, colour and flavour spoiling. In short, it is one of best "good" oils.
"Rapeseed oil has about half the saturated fat found in olive oil, and a fraction of that in palm oil," says Kay Weijers of Border Fields, who produces a premium rapeseed oil cold-pressed from crops grown in the Scottish Borders and Northumberland.
While the French use rapeseed oil for dressings and dips only, Weijers argues it can be used in the same way as extra virgin olive oil. "Because it's got a high flash point, it's good for roasting potatoes, vegetables, and as a butter replacement in crumble mixes, Yorkshire puddings and mashed potato." It heats well in a wok, and can be used as a table condiment for dipping bread. And at £3.99 for a half-litre, it is not astronomically more expensive than olive oil.
So could an alternative challenge olive oil as our healthy fat of choice?
Elizabeth David first popularised the Mediterranean diet in the 1960s. Since then, olive oil (as well as lots of fruit, vegetables and fish) has been increasingly key to our ideas about healthy eating.
"There is a real culture around olive oil, and choosing your oil is a bit like choosing your wine," says Ian Marber, the nutritionist known as The Food Doctor. "But remember that in Britain 25 years ago we used vegetable oils and things like Crisp N'Dry. Olive oil was seen as exotic. I think that for social reasons – let's call it snobbery – it has become the benchmark. Rapeseed, on the other hand, is still off-radar. As a 'healthy' oil, it's perfectly comparable to olive oil."
The public is increasingly aware of the medicinal value of certain oils, says Christina Panayi, brand manager at Holland and Barrett. "Shoppers know that fish oils contain omegas 3,6 and 9, and that evening primrose is hormone-balancing."
But if a homegrown oil is ever to replace olive oil in the nation's larder, consumers will need to resolve the conflicting nutritional advice surrounding "healthy" fats.
"We are confused about fats," says Al Overton, who buys gourmet oils for the organic supermarket chain Planet Organic. "People are always asking me what to cook with. The simple answer is, keep a range of oils. Keep coconut or a similar saturated fat for heavy frying, olive and rapeseed oils for light frying and salads, and pumpkin and avocado oils for dressings and dips."
When it comes to cooking at high temperatures, rather than reaching for the gourmet oil, Overton believes we should be returning to the heavy fats traditionally used by our grandmothers.
"More and more, we are realising that the food scientists who scared us away from cooking with certain fats got it wrong. It was our grannies – who cooked with goose fat or butter, ghee or coconut oil, depending on where they came from – who had the right idea."