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Oils ain’t oils

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Fiona, Callum, George, Liam and James Mann in the golden canola crop.

Tourists may be tripping over themselves to capture the perfect Instagram moment in yellow-splashed paddocks, but when it comes to dressing our salads, it’s fair to say canola oil suffers a serious image problem. While healthy oils are now embraced as part of a balanced diet, olive oil usually claims the limelight, while canola cowers in the fish and chip shop fryer, and – mostly – there’s good reason.

No one is more aware of canola’s popularity crisis than Fiona and Liam Mann, Eradu farmers who are changing the face of canola with their sustainably-produced, GM-free, boutique Block 275, which is pressed from canola grown on rotation on the property.

“I see the look of horror on people’s faces when I ask them to taste canola oil,” says Fiona, who was sharing the virtues of their enigmatically named Block 275 oil at Dowerin Field Day last month, where they received the Best Regional Business Award. “Luckily everyone who tastes it likes it!” she explains.

Block 275 is no ordinary oil, and its clean, fresh palate owes everything to a commitment to provenance and quality. From choosing a variety of canola with no genetic modifications – and growing it using sustainable farming practice – to the unique method of cold-pressing and filtering in specialty machinery imported from Germany, the Manns have invested heavily in the value of a single-origin product with 100% traceability.

Unlike commercial canola oil production, no solvents, hexane, or heat are used in extraction of Block 275. And no bleaches or deodorising agents are used to clarify the finished product —resulting in a 100% natural oil.

Fiona admits that taking the high road and choosing a fully sustainable pathway does come at a price. “We take a hit yield-wise doing it this way, but it’s a totally superior product, health-wise and in taste,” she says.

The canola oil pressing process leaves behind a by-product: canola meal. In mass production, the meal is heated and re-pressed to literally squeeze out every drop, whereas at Block 275, the meal is pelleted and used as feed. “We’ve been able to sell this to a local beef producer who uses it to finish his cattle. It is a zero-waste system,” explains Fiona.

The couple first came across the technique when visiting Liam’s native Scotland, where the cold-pressed canola oil industry is far more developed. Known as rapeseed oil, the product is touted by top chefs and even noted for distinctive terroir.

“We thought, we can do this at home!” says Fiona, whose research supported increasing consumer interest in knowing where food comes from, and wanting assurance that it has been cleanly produced. A value-added product also fit the couple’s criteria for diversification, to mitigate the seasonal risks inherent with large scale cropping.

With a small-by-local-standards 680 ha property, Liam and Fiona’s business includes contracting and commercial cropping, as well as the boutique Block 275, which is grown in the house paddocks.

“If we have a bad season, both take a hit,” explains Fiona. “We wanted something to help buffer those tough seasons.”
Their efforts were rewarded last year when Block 275 featured in both the Melbourne Age and Sydney Morning Herald, boosting online sales. “My computer started pinging at 7 am in the morning!” she remembers.

With excellent feedback from top chefs and foodies — who use it for everything from making mayonnaise to frying and as a finishing oil – Fiona is hoping to see the product gain more traction locally.

“Changing public perception is a big challenge!” she says. Making an effort to showcase Block 275 at events like Dowerin Field Day, Meet the Buyer, and local markets is proving productive, and this good oil can now be found at over 20 retail stores throughout the state, and on the plate at 13 restaurants and caterers.

“With a smoke point of 212°C it is really versatile — you can use it in salad dressings, roasts, cakes, and stir-frys, as well as shallow and deep frying. It is particularly enjoyable in its virgin state with sourdough and dukkah.”

You can taste and buy Block 275 at the Northern Valleys Locavore Store in Bindoon where it’s available in a 500mL bottle, 1L squealer, 4L tin and 20L drum.

You can also catch Fiona and Liam at Farmer on Your Plate in Fremantle on 4 November and at the upcoming Yerecoin Market from 8:30 – 1pm on Saturday 18 November.