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Cobnut oil arrives with a splash!

At last we can sample the delights of cobnut oil. This is not only a new product but made locally – the cobnuts come from Kent and the initiative has been led by Catherine Robinson of St Leonards. Kentish Cobnut Oil is thought to represent the first indigenous production of any kind of nut oil in this country for several hundred years. Nick Terdre reports.

Even UK nut production is in the doldrums, faced with intense competition from imported foreign nuts. The centre of cobnut cultivation is Kent, though even here production takes place only on a small scale.

Photo: Brian Rybolt 2011

The cobnut oil story starts at Hurstwood Farm in Kent, some 40 miles from Hastings, where St Leonards residents Catherine Robinson and her husband Geoff Sapsford have worked for several years. Until last year the harvest had been sold in its entirety as fresh nuts. Nuts of all kinds sell well in the run-up to Christmas, but hardly at all afterwards, so Catherine’s suggestion of making oil from the surplus fell on fertile ground. Even dried in their shells, nuts have a limited shelf-life, while oil will keep for months.

As it turned out, the oil has proved so popular that there’s no question of bottles being left on the shelf. With its strong nutty flavour, healthy content of vitamins B and E and good cooking qualities, not to mention its novelty value, the oil has proved a hit among chefs and restaurants, and is selling well both to the trade and individual consumers keen to incorporate a new product into their repertoire.

Official recognition for the new product came when Catherine entered Kentish Cobnut Oil in last year’s Great Taste Awards. “I thought, it’s the first nut oil to be produced in the UK for centuries, it’s quite a nice little story, and everybody is very keen these days on local foods,” she says.

Judging took place in two stages. Out of the initial 6,000 entries, 90 got the top award of three gold stars, including the cobnut oil, and were invited along to the grand finals which were held at Fortnum & Mason in London on 6 September. And here, in the final round of judging, all 14 judges unanimously voted Kentish Cobnut Oil as the 2010 supreme champion.

“It was amazing,” says Catherine. “We went along just delighted to be there and came away as supreme champion. The judges said the taste was so unusual – it’s different from normal hazelnut oil because we dry the nuts before we crack them and press them, so the flavour is more concentrated.”

Making the oil

Learning how to make the oil took a period of trial and error. First they tried crushing the whole nut, but this produced a clouded oil which would have required repeated filterings to make it clear.

So the nuts had to be shelled first. Fortunately the owner of Hurstwood Farm, Richard Dain, is an engineer – he had himself modified the nut-drying machine which was imported from Italy to work better. Now he got busy on the drawing-board and developed his own nut-cracking machine – the nuts pass through eight long triangular chutes during which the shell is cracked and the fragments sucked away. The process is not perfect, in fact smaller nuts may go through intact, and kernels with bits of shell attached, so a manual check is required. The team has been in touch with an equipment supplier in Birmingham which has a laser system for removing the shell fragments.

Dried and shelled, the kernels are now ready for pressing. At first this was done off-site, but now the team has acquired an oil press which will enable them to press the nuts themselves as from this year. “It’s a screw press with a long screw at the bottom,” Catherine explains. “You put the nuts in, they get screwed through a very tight hole, and out of one side comes a long sausage of fibre and out of the funnel comes the oil.” The oil has to sit for a week, is filtered and then left to sit again. It is then ready for bottling.

Nutty flavour and versatility

With its strong nutty flavour and versatility, cobnut oil has proved a hit among food enthusiasts. “There’s been a lot of interest in cobnuts anyway this year, and before we won the award I was asked to speak to food journalist Nigel Barden on Radio 2 about cobnuts,” says Catherine.

Cobnuts and cobnut oil“Suddenly, instead of wanting organic food or particularly fancy food, people want local food. And if you want local food, and you like nuts, and you live in the south of England, cobnuts are your best resort. The fact that we had just introduced the oil, and won this award, generated a lot of interest. We got a mention in The Sunday Times, and every time you get a mention in the newspapers, you sell a few more bottles.”

Orders for about 100 bottles streamed in after the oil was featured on The Good Food Channel’s Market Kitchen in February, when two chefs reported on their experiences of cooking with it, and suggested recipes based on it. An appearance on BBC 2’s Escape to the Country followed a few weeks later. In October Country Living magazine will carry a feature on the oil.

“Chefs like the oil because you can play around and do all sorts of unusual things with it. I’ve had a lot of interest from professionals. It goes really well with fish and with game. Rick Stein has asked if he can have some to try, and various chefs are using it, particularly those who want to cook with local ingredients. I supply quite a lot of hotels and restaurants in London.

“You can use cobnut oil in the same way as olive oil – to make salad dressings, or to drizzle on food. Wherever I would use melted butter or olive oil, I tend to use cobnut oil. And it’s lovely for roasting winter vegetables or potatoes. Cobnut oil seems to cook at a higher temperature so it doesn’t burn off as soon as olive oil does in an oven. The items cooked with it are actually a bit more juicy and succulent.”

In addition to its vitamin content, the oil contains linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid which is vital to healthy growth, but no cholesterol. There’s a good chance it has medical applications – for example, due to the vitamin E it seems to be appropriate for treating skin conditions, and for the same reason can also be used as a massage oil. Since it is such a new product, research still needs to be done to establish all its qualities.

New ways to enjoy cobnuts

Cobnuts can be enjoyed in other ways. “When they’ve just been roasted, they are crisp and lovely,” says Catherine. Coating the roast cobnut with dark chocolate makes a delicious sweet, so last Christmas she offered a seasonal selection of cobnut oil and chocolate-covered cobnuts.

Based on her love for peanut butter, she’d also like to try making cobnut butter. She has already looked into using the oil in cosmetics – hazelnut oil is widely used in this way. She had some soap made, but felt that more work was needed on the product.

“The oil is my passion and I love it. I’d be very happy to do lots more with the oil, I’d do cosmetics, I’d roast the nuts, do more with the nuts in chocolate, just do more things with cobnuts.”

And nut oil seems to have got into her blood. Back at Hurstwood Farm, newly planted walnut trees have just produced their first proper harvest, and Catherine wants to start making walnut oil. The initial pressings were delicious, she says. Watch this space.

Did medieval peasants make cobnut oil?

Cobnuts and filbert nuts are both a cultivated variety of hazelnut. The English have been consuming cobnuts for hundreds of years, but did they make oil from them in medieval times? Oil keeps longer than nuts, so making oil could have started as a handy way of making a preservable product.
The arrival of the Romans, bringing with them olive oil, might have inspired the English to see if they could produce oil from other sources, Catherine speculates. It is known that peasants made beechnut oil, but she has yet to find proof that they made cobnut oil.

How can one acquire a bottle of Kentish Cobnut Oil?

They’re sold at the Hurstwood farm gate and at Plenty on St Leonards sea front. They can also be bought over the internet at www.cobnutoil.co.uk. For retailers interested in stocking the oil, Catherine says she is happy to deliver it to other local shops or places within reasonable driving distance.

All photographs © Brian Rybolt, 2011

 

Posted 15:12 Wednesday, Jul 20, 2011 In: Food & Drink

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