Cracking the oil industry
Who would have thought you could squeeze oil from tiny kiwifruit seeds, blackcurrant seeds and coriander seeds?
Twenty years ago Jenny and Malcolm Horwell wouldn’t have contemplated it either, yet today those tiny seeds are part of a multi-faceted business in Marlborough that turns nuts and seeds into award-winning oils under the brand Uncle Joe’s.
It all began with two elderly walnut trees on their farmlet near Blenheim that produced a large crop of nuts each year. They scooped them up and delivered them to a man in Nelson with a hand-cracker machine who would shell the nuts while watching rugby with his Uncle Joe, then sell the final shelled nuts at the Nelson market under Uncle Joe’s name.
When Jenny and Malcolm bought the hand-cracker machine, the name stuck, and as they bought nuts from other growers, their business grew. Hand-cracking machines still require a bit of muscle, so it wasn’t long before it was replaced with a substantial automatic cracker that had air-separating systems to remove the shells from the kernels. Along the way they’d planted a hazelnut orchard, which prompted a separate machine using rollers to crack the shell. At the end of cracking walnuts and hazelnuts, there’s all the little pieces that can’t be packaged, so that led to oils, and now they are developing spreads.
“The oils are all cold pressed and have a sediment at the bottom of the oil that was a tasty spread,” Jenny explains.
It was good luck that a press was owned by Garth Neal just down the road and they are now in partnership with him to press a range of products. When oil is pressed from nuts and seeds, the remaining fibre is pressed into a pellet that is then ground into flour which is ideal for gluten-free diets as well providing something different in a recipe. Hence the recipes on their website for ideas about using the products.
An impressive array of products is now on offer under Uncle Joe’s brand including oils pressed from the seeds of grapes, coriander, pumpkin, mustard, hemp, blackcurrant, kiwifruit and flax as well as the walnut and hazelnut. Add to that the meal from the nuts and flour from many of the others – including bright green pumpkin seed flour and dark purple blackcurrant flour – and the result is a wide range of products on offer. The bulk is sold around the country or online and just a small amount is sold overseas.
“We try to keep it 100% natural, so we don’t add anything to anything, which means people are getting all the goodness
and health benefits without the additives. When you’re cold pressing, you’re pressing below 30 degrees (celsius) so don’t affect the good fats and vitamins which remain in the oil. Kiwifruit seed and hazelnut have high vitamin E, so we don’t destroy any of it.”
Oil experts have recognised the quality of Uncle Joe’s range of oils, with several winning medals at the NZ Gourmet Oil Awards last year. Both walnut and hazelnut won gold medals and the hazelnut scooped the class champion award. Since 2007, their walnut oil has won eight gold medals in New Zealand and their oils have had international success as well, with medals at the AVPA (Agency for the Valorization of Agricultural Products) International Gourmet Awards in Paris.
Kiwifruit seed produces a beautiful oil, Jenny says, but it takes a lot of seed to produce a little oil, and likewise coriander seed has only a 2% extraction rate for oil, so 400kg of coriander seed produces less than 10kg of oil. Fortunately, nuts produce good quantities of oil and retain their distinctive individual nut flavours. All the oils are rich in either omega 3, 6 or 9, with the first two being polyunsaturated fats for the diet and omega 9 being a monounsaturated fat.
Most are edible oils, though the blackcurrant and kiwifruit have been produced for cosmetic purposes. In the case of blackcurrants, the juice is extracted first as a product and the leftover marc contains the seed for pressing.
Their entire range of products are grown in New Zealand, with most purchased from individual growers, including hemp from Hawke’s Bay, sauvignon blanc grapes from a local Marlborough vineyard, and Garth Neal grows a range of seed crops. Jenny says the oil from sauvignon blanc seeds is quite different from other grape oils as it has a special aroma in the oil that gives extra strength in flavour.
Walnuts are sourced from a range of growers including Marlborough’s individual giants that are a landmark from past generations, to younger orchards in Canterbury. They’d like to see more hazelnut orchards established, as grapes have replaced some that once added diversity to the Marlborough landscape.
Jenny says the homegrown story is very much in demand now in New Zealand as consumers look for products that have been grown and packaged here. “I think New Zealand grown is becoming very popular and people are starting to look for that,” Jenny says. “They’re saying the nuts taste better and that’s because they’re local and really fresh.”
Nuts punch well above their weight when it comes to nutrition and Jenny says a handful of different nuts a day will provide every vitamin and mineral the body needs, as well as providing protein, fibre and essential fats.
Nuts keep better in their shells, so are usually cracked to order, including bulk orders of walnuts or hazelnuts for restaurants. Keeping nuts in the freezer protects the good fats and Jenny says they can be used straight from the freezer and they will be as fresh as when they went into it.
It’s important to harvest the nuts as soon as they have dropped, then dry and store them well. In their own 400-tree hazelnut orchard, the nuts are picked up immediately to avoid the risk of mould from the damp grass. They planted Ennis which is an Oregon table nut with good flavour and grows into a well-shaped tree.
“A couple of years ago we pruned them hard to get more light in the tree structure because they were dropping off production. Our crop increased in size from one tonne to six tonnes.”
Hazelnuts are a biennial crop, so it dropped back to 2.5 tonnes this harvest, with 6 tonnes expected next year.The good thing about hazelnuts, because of their monosaturated fats they can be stored for more than 12 months. Whereas walnuts are better only stored up to 12 months.
All the nuts and seeds are processed through a small facility beside their house on the edge of Blenheim where they employ a small staff to grade and package the diverse assortment of products.
“It’s very hands-on because we do a lot of hand sorting over the nuts and all the oils have to be bottled and then there’s spreads and nut meals to be made.
“I think we’ve probably reached our limit now!”
Hazelnuts are cracked through a machine using rollers. Jenny and Malcolm Horwell in their Marlborough hazelnut orchard. Left: Nuts and seeds form the basis for Jenny and Malcolm’s diverse range of products.
Staff sort through nuts in Uncle Joe’s food facility on the edge of Blenheim. Right: A selection of the oils created at Uncle Joe’s.