History is synonymous in farming and for one Northern Ireland couple, it inspired an award-winning enterprise producing rapeseed oil from their fields. Barbara Collins visits the home of Broighter Gold.
The presence of real gold on a Co Londonderry farm was the inspiration behind the rapeseed oil known as Broighter Gold.
Owned by Richard and Leona Kane, the name comes from the Broighter hoard of gold which was found on the fields of the family farm in 1896.
The story involves two ploughmen, who came across a number of items of jewellery, which are now on show in the National Museum, Dublin.
This same history is now part of the authenticity featured within Broighter Gold rapeseed oil, despite the fact the product came about as a matter of co-incidence.
One evening in 2006, Leona was preparing dinner and had ran out of olive oil.
Richard brought up some of the unfiltered cold-pressed rapeseed oil, which Leona used to cook their two fillet steaks and make a salad dressing.
It was the smell of the rapeseed oil and the way steaks did not burn in the pan which caught Leona’s attention.
Leona says: “The taste was not bitter and it had no aftertaste like olive oil. We joked it was our Broighter Gold.”
It was not the first time the couple had thought about diversifying.
Leona says: “Richard had been growing oilseed rape for biodiesel and I had heard of a few farmers in England pressing seeds for oil, but it was a new concept.
As well as pure rapeseed oil, there are a number of infused Broighter Gold Rapeseed Oils on sale, including a limited edition one with real 23-carat gold flakes which has received interest from chefs in Dubai.
“I wanted to do it as a diversification project, so we tried it in 2009, but then put it on the back burner.
“Because Richard was pressing the oilseed for biodiesel, he brought the oil for me to cook with that night. We both loved it and decided to make a go of it. It was 2011 when we first put it in the bottle.”
They started having it contract pressed in England, sending seeds over to allow them to test the market before investing in an expensive press.
Leona says: “It was Richard’s family farm, so it was a big decision for me to work from home. I did not want to let Richard or the family name down.”
Initially, Leona took the oil to local farmers’ markets and, encouraged by positive feedback from customers, targeted some chefs who also praised it.
She credits her attendance at the IFEX Catering Show for helping to catapult the business into the spotlight, after it won Best Overall Product and Best Packaging at their first show.
Leona says: “This was when more chefs started noticing us. Twitter was good in getting the word out there.
“I was a mum, sitting there with a three-year-old and a newborn baby, so I had time to dedicate to it and it suited me well. I enjoyed it.”
Leona used this time to send samples to high-end restaurants and secured a contract with The River Room restaurant, Galgorm Manor, Ballymena, then the Mourne Seafood Bar and Belfast Cookery School.
She started to research a few different varieties of seeds and blends, before settling on just the one type of seed.
She says: “We never reveal the variety we use, but it is the best one for the land around this area.
“Soil is all loam, reclaimed clay loam and silt grade 2. It has been tested and is quite unique to this area.
“There is a band of particular soil which stretches from a place called Campsie to this area.
“The oil we produce is milder than a lot of other rapeseed oils and the seed we use makes it come out a lot more golden.”
The crop is rotated according to the area’s micro-climate.
Richard, who is the sixth generation of his family to work the land at Broglasco, says: “We plant every three or four years for the oilseed, then we plant wheat afterwards. There are always high yields for the wheat, which is sold for animal feed.
“Pigeons and slugs seem to love the plants – slugs eat the leaves and pigeons the heart of it.
“We use slug pellets, but also try to plant oilseed in a fine seedbed to discourage slugs. Swans are another pest.”
Richard has just installed a liquid fertiliser kit on the drill, enabling plants to grow earlier and become stronger for autumn.
Planting takes place during the last week in August and first week of September. The crop is harvested 50 weeks later in the middle of August, with average yields at 0.6 tonnes/hectare (1.5t/acre) to more than 0.8t/ha (2t/acre).
Richard says: “The earlier you sow the better, but harvest has been late this past two years, so you have to plant after winter barley, which is at start of August.
“It gives you time to get fields ready. The biggest challenge is always getting it planted in time. We try to use as few nitrates as possible on soil, because Leona is now a beekeeper.”
Once seeds are harvested, they are brought in to dry on gas-drying floors. About 400t are spread on each side.
Leona says: “We were fortunate, as Richard’s dad had put in cold air gas dryers because, unlike diesel, gas does not change the colour or nutrition of the oil.”
After it has dried, it is brought down to a massive sieve or cleaning machine. It sieves out the different grades of seed, then it is placed in hessian bags to remove chaff and dirt for the press.
It is stored to use continually throughout the year and means a bag can be taken out and used as and when it is needed. It gets to the pressing room and goes through the press slowly.
Leona says: “We bring the crop ready for the cold-pressing method, then we filter it and bottle it off ready for market.”
As well as a pure rapeseed oil, there are now a number of infused oils on sale.
She says: “Infusions all made in-house from flavours I like cooking with. I also carried out a Twitter questionnaire about what flavours customers like and got about 90 responses.
“I narrowed them down to four favourites and tested them with members of the Belfast Cookbook Club.”
The ones chosen were chilli, lemon, basil and rosemary and garlic. Since then, Leona has added plain garlic, Thai-infused, black truffle and black truffle and wild porcini mushroom to the range.
The two key investments in the business have been the pressing machines and the time spent on production and marketing.
Leona says: “I would say we have spent £40,000 on machines. Marketing is all about time. I do it all myself, but you have to make sure the quality of the product is consistently good or marketing will not work.”
When they started up, the couple received a Processing Marketing Grant for £5,400 from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
She says: “Our lack of knowledge of the system meant we did not put in for building works or tables and some machinery we had already invested in, but you live and learn.”
The business has grown from what was intended to be a part-time job for Leona to a full-time career.
She says: “In the last three years, we have had to take on full-time childcare and two hard-working ladies.
“I needed to help set things up in the business. I decided to work really hard for the first five years and if it was not a success by then, I could chalk it up to experience.”
Their market covers chefs, restaurants, shops, farmers’ markets and events. They have also just scored a new contract with Musgrave Group for supermarkets across Northern Ireland and made progress into the food service sector and high-end shops in the Republic of Ireland, which is a market they are keen to grow.
To mark five years in business this month and celebrate Northern Ireland’s Year of Food and Drink, the couple have launched a special edition ‘liquid gold’ version of the oil.
Leona says: “It has real 23-carat gold flakes in it. There are lots of health benefits to rapeseed oil, such as lower saturated fat than olive oil, more vitamin D and omega 6s and 9s.
“Gold itself is also great for arthritis, heart and circulatory problems and even some cancers.”
The limited edition is sold for £9.99 and has received interest from chefs as far as Dubai.
Leona says: “I think the reason the oil is doing so well is because it tastes good, but also because of the health benefits of it.
“Rapeseed oil has 10 times more omega 3 and half the saturated fat of olive oil, as well as the omega 6s and 9s, essentially fatty acids, which you do not get in olive oil.
“It has lots of vitamins D and E and, for chefs it is great, because it cooks to 220degC, whereas olive oil can only heat up to 180degC.”
As well as making a consistently good product, Leona credits their personal approach and direct contact with chefs and shops as the main reason for their success.
She is a massive fan of social media and its power to reach potential customers for free.
Such has been their success in the awards arena, from the Great Taste to the Blas na hEireann Irish Food Awards, they have a dedicated wall to showcase their accolades.
Looking to the future, plans include growing the Republic of Ireland market, but there are no plans for any more flavour infusions.
Leona says: “It took months to get the Thai one right, so we will stick with what we have, at least for now.”