I went to Suffolk and must write it all down before I forget, although much of the information was complex and hard to follow, compelling, beautifully described, but opaque. A bit like snooker, a game I love to watch precisely because I have no idea at all what is going on. I took a lot of photos. And if you want the science of it all, I would not be remotely offended if you went elsewhere.
I will however, as Noel Coward once advised, press on. This is a field of rape, and that is Sam Fairs, the owner of the field. It is mainly past flowering now (the spectacular yellow blossoms come in mid April to the end of May), so you are looking at the seeds housed in these long green pods. The seeds are the thing – they are pressed for their oil, on site. They are cold-pressed. A bit later, we went to watch this cold-pressing and the smell was interesting; yeasty, hops-ish, reminiscent of linseed. Sam and his family also grow winter wheat, winter barley, borage, marrowfat peas, but we weren’t here for that.
We were here for the rapeseed and its oil. I had already had an introduction to Hillfarm Oils (Sam and Clare Fairs’ extra virgin cold-pressed rapeseed oil) because I had been invited some months before to a meal where everything had been cooked using it. We even had the seeds speckled over custard for pudding – chalky, black things, tasting of dust and the outside. We had rape greens too. But I was amazed mainly by the colour of the oil – yellow, as if you could melt buttercups – and the flavour which everyone tells you is nutty and that is really the only word. Rich, nutty, warm, slightly grassy and always different, because like olive trees, there will be subtle differences in flavour based on the soil, the terroir, the weather. It’s our olive oil is probably the best way to look at it, we have it here and it grows brilliantly, though pigeons can be a menace.
The objective of any plant is to reproduce. This is apparently our objective too (As Sam put it, ‘growing more of me’.) When it comes to the rape plant, the oil is there to protect the seed, so it can do that, so it can carry on, so it can throw itself about. The farmer’s job is to capture it, harness it, pressing the seed to get the oil out. The way it was described it felt tantamount to murder. But in a good way. It made me think about what I was stepping on, what I might be killing mindlessly, where I am in the scheme of things. That plants are like me.
To return to the rape fields for a minute – they are presently green and house families of foxes that you can never see. There are butterflies, bees and insects. Come harvest time, the rapeseed pods will be brown and shatteringly fragile. But for now it is an endlessly waving green sea and all I wanted to do was run headlong into the midst of it, get lost and miss lunch.
Although I’m glad I didn’t because lunch was ice cream, scotch eggs, smoked mackerel and other exceptional cold collations, all locally produced, and later from the Cakeshop Bakery focaccia made with (actually doused is the word) rapeseed oil, speckled with crunchy salt, and an amazing root cake (below), made with beetroot, carrots, and the oil again. It was all really delicious. We ate it sitting in the Fairs’ garden. The tree behind us housed a family of little owls. There were bats living in an outbuilding nearby and house martins somewhere behind me, under the roof. The next day we even saw a murmuration of starlings as we passed round a Blythburgh piglet and the sky turned dark above us.
There are no motorways here in this part of Suffolk and no out-of-town supermarkets, no superstores. There are hardly any chains at all. The doughty and magnificent Caroline Cranbrook saw off Tesco more or less singlehandedly some years ago. So for two days it was like living in 1974, but with our modern sensibility for a flat white and the urgency for soya milk.
At the hotel, there was no internet reception – it was down for the whole evening – and we created our own murmuration, swirling around in the lobby trying to ‘find’ a signal. Until we gave up and gave in to the deliciousness of being untraceable for a whole evening and a whole night. In the morning, we talked about life before phones over scrambled eggs. What did we do? It is almost unthinkable now, a childhood with no signal, no texts, boredom, back at dusk or before dinner. What about work? People wandered off in singles or twos to take photographs or walk to Framlingham Castle, phones waving in the wind. Suddenly ten texts, endless vibrating, cheers etc.
Later we were deposited back to the station at Darsham, to the branch line taking us to Ipswich and then to London Liverpool Street where modernity, mobile phones, Boots and angry people in a hurry eating crisps awaited us. We said our goodbyes and dispersed into the melée. Tired and full of pork and cake, but happy.
Thank you to Polly at Food Safari for organising this wonderful trip.