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The hemp missionaries

Joanna Weinberg, The Times, 14th November 2005

Go into any supermarket and the range of olive oils that confronts you is staggering. From the fanciest for drizzling delicately over ripe tomatoes to the most workhorse in which to soften onions and garlic at the start of almost any cooked dish, olive oil is ubiquitous. In fact it is so much the basis of our cooking life that it’s easy to forget that only a generation ago olive oil was something you had to seek from the chemist, used more for dripping into infected ears than for drizzling over salad. So complete is the oil revolution that it’s virtually impossible to believe that almost all cooked dishes in this country 40 years ago began with a slab of butter or lard. Yet there’s a food revolution that began in a quiet corner of Devon a few years ago that could change our culinary language again.

Hemp oil, once an esoteric oil that languished on the back shelf of health-food shops, has slowly begun to find a place next to the olive oil bottle in the kitchens of savvy cooks.

“We were determined to get it off the shelf of niche products hidden at the back of the shop,” explains Henry Braham, who, with his wife Glynis Murray, farms 1,200 acres of hemp near Barnstaple. “It’s absolutely delicious and it is time that people started paying attention to it for its taste, not just its extraordinarily healthful qualities. We’re not great ones for being told, ‘ Here, take this, it’s good for you’,” he continues. “We like to be told, ‘Here, take this, it tastes really good’.”

So, the Good Project — organic hemp oil and seeds for cooking and eating — was born. The oil, called Good Oil, sits on supermarket shelves next to olive oils to be used in the same way. New products are ready-bottled salad dressings (Good Dressing), and chewy hemp seed and fruit bars (Good Bar). From early next year, sweet and savoury toasted seeds will appear alongside the current salted snacks (Good Seed), and chocolate bars are also in development.

Glynis, a dynamic redhead in jeans and a well-cut shirt, and Henry, dark, still, and quietly-spoken, make an unlikely pair of farmers. Only the shiny new 4x4 outside their mustard-yellow thatched farmhouse belies their urban weekday lives as cinematographer and film producer respectively — together they have made such high profile British successes as Nanny McPhee, Waking Ned and Shooting Fish. Yet their absorption and commitment to farming hemp — both in time and money — make their quest convincing. They are now the biggest hemp farmers in the country, and the only outfit producing it primarily for culinary use.

Hemp is one of the oldest crops in England. Like so much of the variety in our diet, hemp went out of fashion during wartime food shortages when all available land was put to farming staples such as meat and potatoes. “Our mission is to make it into a culinary staple,” says Glynis. It is delicious, particularly in salad dressings, or when paired with other nutty ingredients. Mash it into avocado with a little soy sauce and lemon for guacamole, or combine with walnut oil, lemon juice and lots of Dijon mustard for a spectacular dressing.

High-profile cooks have already made emphatic converts. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall drizzles it on to toast, adding a little salt, as well as using it for roasting potatoes which he describes as “the ultimate test”. As with all oils, including olive, much of the goodness breaks down with heat, but it can still be used simply for its flavour. “Jamie Oliver got hold of some Good Oil and rather thrillingly poured it over a bowl of ice cream. We thought it would be disgusting but it was delicious,” says Glynis.

The nutritional excitement attached to hemp seed is that it contains high levels of essential fatty acids, the essence of cell growth and crucial for the immune system and a healthy circulation, making it a “good” fat. These EFAs are known as omega oils and come in three types — 3, 6 and 9.

While olive oil has good levels of omega 6 oil and the fish oils are good for omega 3, hemp is extraordinary in that it is the only natural source of all the omega oils, and moreover, it contains them in perfect ratio for our needs, which makes it very easy for us to metabolise efficiently.

The list of goodness in hemp seed is hard to match in any other foodstuff — you could almost live off it and water alone. The seed shells are very high in protein and fibre, but it’s the de-hulled seeds — similar to a small pine kernel in taste and texture — that contain the magical oil. “Research has shown that they are very protective for hearts, reduce the risk of certain cancers and have a good effect on our joints,” says the Times nutritionist, Jane Clarke. “They’ve also found that children with problems like ADHD can have a deficiency in the omega oils and once you top them up the problems decrease — better concentration, fewer mood swings.”

Alongside this, omega oils are said to help with eczema, asthma and high blood pressure, and evidence suggests that they can improve memory and relieve depression. From a cosmetic perspective, they are excellent for skin and hair. Incorporate one or two daily tablespoons and you’ll see a difference after a couple of weeks. Traditionally, we have consumed our omega oils in oily fish but now the combination of toxins found in the same fish, alongside worries about overfishing, make hemp a healthy, harmless and tastier alternative.

Glynis and Henry take me to the enormous hangar-like barn where the seeds are dried, conditioned and pressed. Like any ingredient, the flavour of hemp seeds is at its best while still on the plant, so it’s important to get the oil pressed as quickly as possible. The oil press is surprisingly small: a couple of metal tubes feed the seeds from a funnel and crush them. The oil, a rich khaki green, comes out drip by drip at an average of 29C (84F), cooler than any mechanical olive oil press, to preserve the fragile structure of the omega oils.

A special feature of hemp is that not one bit of the plant is wasted. “There’s something enormously satisfying about that,” says Henry. Seeds that are rejected for being too small, young or green, are sent to specialist food bar-makers; the husks left over from the oil-pressing are very high in protein and used to make high-quality animal feed. The pair first became interested in farming it for its fibre, used traditionally to make sacking, uncomfortable clothes and very strong rope. “People lost interest in it as a fibre when the plastics industry was growing, and it was reintroduced for fibre only 12 years ago,” Henry says. The fibre they produce is now used to make incredibly strong but light door panels, while the core is shaved into high-grade animal bedding that is used by the Royal Mews among others. Henry points proudly to the mound of dust left once the seeds have been thoroughly cleaned, “Even that goes to a local worm farm,” he says. So useful was hemp that in Elizabethan times a law was passed that made every farmer devote an acre of his land to it. “The word ‘canvas’ derives from ‘cannabis’,” he says.

Hemp’s appearance is identical to its groovier cousin, marijuana, though it contains barely a trace of THC, the chemical in marijuana that makes you stoned, so doesn’t have the same effect. However, prospective hemp farmers still need to apply for a special licence from the Home Office to grow it. Henry admits that the endless fields of cannabis plants 8 to 10 feet high in mid-summer make a pretty strange-looking crop. “We’ve only been reported to Crimestoppers once,” he says cheerfully. “That was a hilarious episode.”

In general, though, the Good Project has brought the best out in people who have come into contact with it. “The goodwill has been amazing from all angles,” says Glynis, “be it Christine, our neighbouring farmer’s wife, who looks after everything in our absence, or friends who have pitched in to help from a design and marketing perspective.”

All that remains is for the rest of us to get in on a revolution with no downside. “It takes time for people to change their buying and cooking habits,” she says. And with the farm growing exponentially year-on-year, their quiet confidence in the project may well be rewarded.

Good Oil is available at Waitrose, Tesco, Harvey Nichols, Selfridges and Fresh & Wild at £6.99, Good Seed at Waitrose for £2.49. Good Bar at £1.19 and Good Dressing at £3.19 will be at Waitrose from mid-November.

HEMPY RECIPES

Parsley, walnut and hemp oil pesto
2 large bunches of fresh, flat leaf parsley, stalks removed
2 peeled garlic cloves
20g crushed walnuts
75g pecorino, finely grated.
2 pinches sea salt
1 pinch ground black pepper
150ml hemp oil
Juice of half a lemon

Toast the walnuts in a dry frying pan for a few minutes and put into the bowl of a processor with all the ingredients, apart from the hemp oil and lemon juice. Pulse till fairly fine, adding the oil and lemon juice at the end. Eat with pasta, potatoes, chicken or white fish. To store, cover with a film of hemp oil and keep for up to two weeks in the fridge.


Hempy salad dressing
1 part hemp oil
1 part olive oil
1 part lemon juice
1 part Dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste

Beat the ingredients together until they emulsify and toss well with spicy leaf and peeled cucumber salad.

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