It’s 6am and there is an unusual hustle and bustle in my little country cottage. In between finishing some packing of ingredients into large metal cases and chasing two little children that have no intention to attempt any type of breakfast, (considering the ungodly hour I did fetch them out of their beds), I step outside for a moment to breathe in the still night air.
It is still very dark outside and I am sure I read somewhere recently, that this particular time, is referred to as ‘morning twilight,’ – not, by the way to be confused with dawn, that occurs just before sunrise. It’s peculiar how a string of random thoughts can pass your mind in a fleeting moment of reflection. I don’t need to tell you, but my country is famous for it’s sunrises. From a perfect capture in the infamous Lion King to a string of great Hollywood hits, this is where artists are inspired by one of nature’s most awesome performances.
I can feel the air is just beginning to shift and melt, with the first stirrings of life in the trees as birdcalls commence in their own private operas. The dawn breaks in Kenya with spectacular theatrics. From my home, not far from the Ngong hills, I peer out to the skies as we load our four wheel drive – readying ourselves for a trip up north. Within the next few minutes, there is an avalanche of hues and tones of colour , husky ambers, cobalt yellow, cerise and coral that start to tumble across the sky – wave after wave of color – an artists ballet almost, until sunrise and we are ready to leave…
Everytime I write about a trip within Kenya, I try and capture some of that energy, the excitement and the thrill of heading out on a roadtrip. It’s a new adventure each time – with new scenery to drink in all the time, even though you might make the same trip over and over again.
Remember, the landscape changes with the communities that live in it and this is a country that is on the move….a fast paced youthful generation with their hot slogans and modernist views all encased within a geographically historic country – all this staged alongside the juxtaposition of village life that is still deeply steeped in tradition and cultural practice.
The great outdoors in Kenya is truly the real thing…the Great Rift Valley is truly magnificent, our lakescapes are extraordinary and on this trip – I’m heading up to one of my favourite regions – Mt Kenya and specifically Timau to visit a dynamic duo that are the first to bring truly artisanal harvested Canola Oil to our shelves. I’m meeting with a very special group of producers that have cultivated their life in the charming ‘hamlet’ of Timau…growing Rapeseed and producing the country’s first pure Canola Oil – known as the ever popular growing Mountain Oil…
I was completely enthralled about the idea of an artisanal oil being produced in the highlands of Mt Kenya, almost romantically equivalent in my mind of the Tuscany of Africa, rolling fields of the most glorious bloom that cover acres of land, where pure and golden oil is harvested from. Pure Mountain Farm Oil is produced by a farmers group – a project that is entirely focused on improving the long term sustainability of farming in the region..
The farm is set within spectacular view of Mt. Kenya. It is the pristine pure, hard and raw savage beauty of nature that dominates this landscape and I am in absolute awe of the clear view we have of the summit this morning, the majestic rockface – that appears in full grandeur in a cornflower blue cloudless sky.
This is a side of Kenya – the dramatic vistas that take your breath away. I’m already feeling those well familiar stirrings in my belly, that pull of the countryside life, as I walk through the farm and up to the buildings where the oil is harvested …that this is a life that can be chosen to be lived as you please. The choice to live in this part of the world and pursue your passion as these producers have clearly and very successfully done – is a very real possibility.
These are the stories I’m interested in – these are the artisanal suppliers that build their lives and homes in the heart of their produce, closest to the source. It is the communities that they become part of – a close knit network of farming families that share information, stories and there is a clear sense of comraderie that make me envious of the a simple life created in such an incredible natural setting.
Dreams are being pursued here in Kenya, and I take great pleasure in my tour of the factory space that has been built in typical upcountry Nanyuki style – large sheds reminiscent of a simpler time. However, these are deceptive as you enter into a modern, well organized and very articulated factory process. It’s really quite impressive and I learn on a whistle stop tour – how this company is bringing farm to bottle, per say!
Now for the scientific part and it is truly quite a beautiful process – with my Taste Safari view on life, everything to do with food – even the production process is almost romanticized. Recently I was reading a charming book on olive oil farming in the South of France and the adventures of a couple that take their first harvest to the ancient mills that would grind down the olives to extract the oil. I can only imagine their breathless anticipation as they anxiously await the response from the experienced, fourth generation mill owner… and as he sips a taste, he responds, his face brightening through rows of wrinkles from working under the sun – ‘ Buerre du Soleil!’ Butter of the Sun, followed by the all important quality distinctions, ‘Extra!’ What a moment for those farmers!!!
Back to Timau and Mountain Oil…..Canola (or rapeseed, depending on your origin) is a plant from the kale family distinguished easily by its bright yellow flowers. Growing from a tiny black seed the plant forms a tall leafy green plant. Thin pods branch off the main stem. As the plant matures, yellow flowers start to form. These flowers become a magnet for pollinators; indeed in healthy fields many different species of bees can be found…The beauty of these fields are quite indescribable and this is the location , in the midst of the heady scent of canola is where I chose to later cook up some mouthwatering dishes. Absolute, sheer pleasure – that afternoon with the view of Mt Kenya watching over my little rustic kitchen in the canola fields…
The factory manager and I walk through the factory and he enigmatically describes the process… the passion and the seriousness of his profession clearly coming through and I am drawn into his technical descriptions. I’m fascinated as we walk from area to area, the clear separation of the different stages of extraction all encased in a meticulously clean and cool factory space .
He goes on to explain, that as the pollination proceeds, the seed pods start to fill out. Towards the end of the growth cycle, the flowers fall off and the broad green leaves dry out, leaving a tall stalk with many slightly thicker pods, full of ripe black seeds. These smell and look exactly like mustard seeds and I run my hand through the silky beads that will produce this wonderful ambrosial oil.
The plant is harvested and the seeds are separated from the stalks and dry leaves; these remain in the field so that the nutrients within go back into the soil and are not wasted. This is the part that really caught my attention – nothing goes to waste, as the plant is harvested – the nutrients are returned to nature – a simple exchange of thank you to the earth that gives us this plant.
The seeds meanwhile are dried and then crushed at ambient temperature; a process known as cold-pressing which enables the distinctive yellow oil to be released from the seeds. Cold pressed oils for those that are interested to know are among the healthiest oils in the world. According to Whfoods.com (The World’s Healthiest Foods), ‘Cold pressed oils retain all their flavor, aroma and nutritional value through this process.’
In some cases and certainly not all, more commercial operations produce larger volumes of oil by applying higher temperatures, sometimes adding a solvent – expanding shelf life – there is inconclusive evidence of the actual effects to the human body – but I personally, would rather be consuming a more pure product that won’t introduce any external, potentially toxic element.
After filtration, the oil is clear, bright and ready to use. The gentle process used ensures that all the vitamins, nutrients and anti-oxidants remain intact in their natural form. I watch as the oil sleek and pure, feeds through clear pipes – liquid gold extracted from Mother Earth…I’m in heaven.
The remaining residue, or cake, forms a protein-rich feed cake, which is valuable for dairy animals, increasing their yield. So once again, the producers recycle this seaweed looking flaky crisps back into the system ensure the cattle are fed with this nutrient rich produce…..
Back in the field, the plant has not been forgotten, as while it was growing, it gently acted as a natural control for soil diseases and weeds, leaving the soil healthier and cleaner for future crops for several seasons.
I watch as one of the team meticulously fills the bottles and seals them safely within their smart contemporary packaging…It’s a fluid, swift operation with quality controls being employed throughout the entire process..
I am so impressed by the whole operation ( the final tasting gave me so many new ideas for where the different flavours could be use – they have some lovely infused varieties – herb..chilli ) . This project is such a fantastic example of commitment to the country and farming processes that embrace whole communities, creating employment and working hand in hand with nature – gently nurturing the land and creating incredibly flavoured oils that I use in my own cooking.
So next time you are driving through those sunlit fields of yellow heading up towards Laikipia – I hope you’ll remember this article from Taste Safari and of course, your Everyday Gourmet Food Blogger, Sandy Thethy xxx