Despite the predominance of Mediterranean olive oil, in recent years many other exciting plant oils have established themselves in our kitchens. Some of these have only recently been discovered and developed, like Styrian pumpkin seed oil. This oil is gained from the washed and dried seeds of Styrian oil pumpkins and didn’t find its way to Switzerland until the 1990s. Home-grown rapeseed oil now also features in our cooking and is of high enough quality to have many different uses. Even more exciting, though, is the oil of “camelina sativa”. This is the beautiful Latin name botanists have given to this plant of the Brassicaceae family, usually known in English as camelina, gold-of-pleasure, or false flax. It is closely related to rapeseed, but has a tangier and greener flavour, its oil tasting of fresh peas and a little reminiscent of early spring-harvested kohlrabi. Incidentally, although it is sometimes called false flax, it is unrelated to flaxseed oil (which is often known as linseed oil and tastes very plain, but is held to be very healthy). The name false flax comes from the fact that it used to grow as a weed in flax fields alongside the crop but is taller so its flowers stand out more.
It’s time to rediscover camelina. Until the fall of the Roman Empire it was still cultivated widely as a crop in its own right, but then plunged into complete obscurity for almost one and a half millennia. It has recently been rediscovered by oil mills and even more so by organic farmers, and used to produce an oil which goes particularly well with native Swiss dishes. It can be used either to flavour all sorts of vegetable salads, or as the basis for mayonnaise, especially when the latter will be served with fish or asparagus. Camelina oil is very strong, however, so if you are using it to make a creamy mayonnaise, you should use one part camelina and two parts neutral-tasting sunflower oil.
Unlike walnut oil, which is also widely used in Switzerland, camelina oil doesn’t go rancid so quickly, but it’s still advisable to buy it in small quantities, assuming you use a wide variety of plant oils and thus don’t use speciality oils very regularly. What we can be fairly sure of is that it won’t take as long for camelina oil to find more widespread acceptance as it once did for olive oil. For although olives have been grown for more than two millennia on the shores of Lake Como and Lake Garda, therefore on Alpine soil, it took until the 20th century before people north of the Alps even began to contemplate using olive oil. In his “Poems about Rome” written in 1817, German poet Friedrich Rückert actually asked advice on where he could stay and definitely not be served olive oil:
“Such oil I fear and do not trust,
The food they season with it cussed…
Pray tell me where to find a bed,
To safely rest my weary head” [translation of original German].
Today’s camelina oil has one definite advantage over the olive oil of the past: the containers are dark, the seals are tight, and once it’s been opened it will keep in the fridge for a good two or three months. Unlike the olive oils from back then, which were transported across the Alps in earthenware pots and had turned rancid before they even got to market.