The story behind Hampshire-based Cold Pressed Oil Company
PUBLISHED: 11:41 10 July 2018 | UPDATED: 14:17 10 July 2018
Once destined for the chip fryer, we visit one north Hampshire business whose award winning single-estate cold pressed oil is giving Tuscan traditionalists a run for their money
There was a time, not so long ago, when the idea of using rapeseed oil for anything other than basic culinary purposes would be met with a rather sniffy response by professional chefs and home cooks alike. The faint whiff of cabbage, although due to the plant being a member of the brassica family, did little to distract from the more sun blessed olive oils with their romantic Mediterranean heritage.
Step-up the Crondall based Cold Pressed Oil Company, one of a growing crop of artisan producers who’ve taken the gastronomic world by storm with their locally grown, harvested and bottled extra virgin rapeseed oil. Launched five years ago by Charlie Gardner and based in a listed barn minutes from where he grew-up, the setting is the very picture of a rural idyll; although, on closer inspection, this is a very slick operation.
“I always wanted to start my own company but didn’t know what this might be,” says Charlie, who, having cut loose from former careers in banking and events, decided to pour all his energy into turning this arable mainstay – usually subjected to heat and chemicals before it hits the supermarket shelves – into a must-have menu item.
“The farmer here was a friend so I pitched him the idea. Because the rapeseed is grown in the surrounding fields, we can monitor how it’s coming along.” He adds: “Last year was a pretty good crop, although we always worry about cleaver plants and have to get these out or the oil will go bitter.”
With around 700 tons of the tiny brown ball-bearing-like seeds harvested annually in late summer, cleaning-up happens immediately after the barn doors open. Once dried and bagged the raw material remains stored until needed, eventually producing up to 350 litres of pressed oil; a transformation that sees a pleasing absence of additives. Charlie tells me that the seeds are simply dropped into a hopper before the press tears them apart. With the husks extruded as a solid ‘cake’ which is recycled as animal feed, the crude oil is squeezed out as a steady trickle, which passes into a tank within the so-called clean room. There’s not a rustic cobweb in sight as it re-circulates through a filter for approximately 30 minutes to remove any remaining particles of seed husk. The oil then enters a second tank where it’s filtered again, before being bottled, capped, labelled and packaged ready for delivery.
The golden oil gleams with natural goodness. However, it’s the smooth, nutty flavour thanks to the cold press technique which is so highly coveted.
“The taste sells the product. The colour of the oil is down to nature too, so year-on-year it can change.
“As we don’t bulk press, some of our restaurant customers have their oil pressed and bottled in the morning and it’s with them the same afternoon. This gives it a much longer shelf life. And customers are starting to realise it’s not like generic chip oil. When you look at how much you can do with rapeseed oil it’s far more versatile than olive oil is.”
Indeed, rapeseed oil’s higher smoke point makes it better for frying and roasting. And there are health benefits because it has half the saturated fat content of any cooking oil, as well as being rich in vitamin E and omega-3.
Building on the success of its core product – 2017 saw the company scoop a two-star Great Taste award, the highest given to any rapeseed oil – they’ve also branched out with a range of infused oils, dressings and sauces.
“We work with Heston Blumenthal’s former head chef Nick Geller, who helps us with tastings for these new products,” says Charlie. “Our rosemary and garlic oil is the out and out favourite. But the truffle oil is fast catching up.”
With orders flowing-in from over 50 shops, as well as numerous pubs and eateries including the Montagu Arms, the Four Seasons Hotel, and The Pig, building long-term relationships is key for the young entrepreneur.
“A lot of them come to the farm because they like to see a product’s provenance, and we don’t hide a thing.”
Speaking about their launch at the popular Fleet Food Festival back in 2013, he recalls: “I was so nervous because we were still finding our feet, but we pretty much sold out.
“We have a very loyal following in Hampshire having discovered that local people really want to buy local. I love selling at the markets because it’s a great way to see how the products are taken up by customers, and to build a range that targets different people; although I sometimes wonder if we need a bigger table!”
So, listening to their feedback remains paramount. In response to which, a smaller jerry can is coming out soon. And, as the business has grown during the past two years, a life-long friend who’s also returned to his roots has joined him as a fellow director.
“It’s a joy and pleasure to be working here,” says Bill Burnett. “It was such a good move to come back and to work with my old mate.”
Whilst Bill’s sales background is put to good use attracting new business, and Charlie’s penchant for engineering and design often sees him focusing on creative tasks, both pitch-in to keep on top of everything.
“Bill and I are usually here five days a week; although it increases to seven days when we’re busy,” Charlie admits. “Being a small company we need to be completely adaptable: one minute it might be production and sales, the next marketing and delivery.”
So what’s next for this burgeoning business? Plans are in place for a new bottling kit to enable the job to be completed in a quarter of the time. A deal has recently been signed with a national contract catering company, who’ll spread the word about their oil further afield. And there’s some interesting news on reducing waste, with another press on order that’s designed to turn the surplus rapeseed husks into eco-friendly logs, suitable for wood burners.
From the world of finance to farming, Charlie is the first to admit that “it’s been a learning curve”. But aside from having a heated office, he wouldn’t change things for the world.
“Owning your own company is so rewarding. There will be downs, but to think that you can affect people’s lives with your products really lifts you. Rapeseed oil has given me the lifestyle I wanted,” he says. “Here I am, out in the countryside and doing something for myself.”
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