The M40, flanked by rape on the way to Oxford
Acres of rape, along the A1(M) toward Peterborough
It's not my imagination: this year, there is more rape covering England than ever before. Everywhere I go—into East Anglia last week, to the Midlands on Saturday, and through Oxfordshire today, I see field after field glowing florescent yellow, bright as a highlighter marker on a once-green page. The pungent odor, the scent of sweaty old ladies, wafts in through car windows, making you wonder which of your companions forgot to bathe.
Farmers are planting rapeseed, known in America as canola, not because the country has suddenly developed a taste for the healthy cooking oil, but because rapeseed oil is being used for biofuels. I read a headline that predicted beer drinkers would protest when they realized the cost of beer had gone up, due to barley fields being turned over to rape.
You won't find rape in any quaint Victorian paintings. You won't read of rape farmers in Thomas Hardy's novels, or in Betjeman's poems. Rape, a relative of mustard, used to contain toxic levels of erucic acid, until the wily Canadians figured out how to cross breed plants that contained healthful oleic acid instead of erucic acid (and then rebranded it as canola oil). Better yet, canola oil—still known as rapeseed oil here—contains monounsaturated fatty acids and around 9 percent omega 3 polyunsaturated oil (ALA), making it one of the healthiest oils you can cook with.
Sadly, despite the omnipresence of rape plants (brassica napus) in southern England, it is still a relatively rare sight on grocery shelves. (Tesco does carry an organic brand at some of their stores.)
Aside from its health benefits, rape is one of the most beautiful crops grown. I love to see it highlighting the countryside, though I've heard some people complain that it's a garish sight. But I love to round a curve and see fields of bright yellow, pieced together by green hedgerows.
This year rape is blooming about a month earlier than usual, as are all our spring blossoms. (We've just finished up the hottest April since records began in the 17th century.) I don't know if fueling our cars with rapeseed oil is the answer, but it sure makes me want to get out and enjoy the countryside.
Fortunately, I'm not allergic to rape. If you are, you might want to avoid England in April and May.