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FROM HEGEL PHILOSOPHER TO ELDERFLOWER FARMER

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‘It is said that the great physician Boerhaave never passed an Elder without raising his hat, so great an opinion had he of its curative properties.’

A Modern Herbal by Mrs Grieves FRHS, 1931

 

Summer is on the way. A flock of naturalised Indian parakeet are circling above, punctuating the peaceful azure skies with their squawks. Six feet or so above the ground, coronation upon coronation of delicate, creamy flower heads provide a pleasing foil to the spear-shaped lime-green foliage – stretching as far as the eye can see. Best of all, a sweet, heady, citrus fragrance suffuses our nostrils with every pleasurable draught.

 

Who would have thought that paradise could be found not in the midst of the remote countryside but bang in the middle of the stockbroker belt – deepest Leatherhead in Surrey, to be precise.

 

An hour later, I am gently perspiring and surprised that despite the ease with which I can snip the blooms off the soft green stems, this ‘gentle’ exercise is becoming more demanding.

 

By midday, I am seriously sweating buckets under the relentless glare of the sun, my early euphoria is evaporating and I am ready for a break. My fellow-workers seem more hardened, however - and ashamed of my lily-livered townie pedigree, I persevere.

 

Guy and Sheila Woodall have assembled a motley crew of pickers on their 25-acre smallholding – all happen to be of an uncertain age. We range from Wendy Roberts, a farmhand who has been working for his family since Woodall was a boy, and Tina Johnson, a traveller who used to live on the caravan site at the end of one field – to horticulturalist Diana Morgan and Peter Johncox, a retired pastry chef and patisserie owner from Weybridge in Surrey.

 

Even working for the Woodalls is a family business. “Me Mum first worked for him,” says Johnson and now both her daughters lend a hand with the harvesting.

 

Johncox first began working on the farm four years ago, undertaking a variety of jobs from pulling up the old vines to planting out a new field of cuttings. “I spent 40 years inside the bakery,” he says, “and it’s so lovely now to be able to get out in the fresh air.”

 

Having gone through the education mill and armed with a PhD in philosophy (specialising in early 19th century idealism and Hegel in particular), Woodall was all set for an academic career. But a surfeit of philosophers, together with a dearth of students, forced him back to his agricultural roots. Both his grandparents and parents bred cattle for beef and dairy production. And back in 1797, his maternal ancestor John Frere, defined and characterised the Stone Age period, after discovering various flint stone artefacts.

 

One of Woodall’s earliest memories is making elderflower cordial in the kitchen of his grandmother’s Georgian farmhouse – just down the road. He and his wife Sheila, a political scientist whom he met at university in Edinburgh, began making elderflower cordial in their own kitchen 18 years ago – as a sideline to their main business of winemaking, while waiting for the grapes to ripen. He selected the pinot noir grape for its versatility, producing red and white wine and a champagne-style fizz. But it soon became clear that high overheads, fierce competition from foreign wines and the small market of British wine-lovers made his production uneconomic.

 

“English people don’t believe the quality is there. If you try a bad French wine, you don’t think, ‘I’ll never drink French wine again!’ The Brits have a much more dismissive attitude towards home-produced wine,” sighs Woodall ruefully.

 

By contrast, the market for fruit cordials was growing. From just 70 bottles in the first year to 200 in the next, and treble that the following – whatever the Woodalls produced, they sold – and were unable to keep pace with demand.

 

“I quickly realised that wine - our intended main income earner - was being rapidly surpassed by the sales of our elderflower cordial, so we changed tack accordingly and though we’ve still got one acre under vines, the winemaking has become more of a hobby,” explains Woodall.

 

It also became obvious that to meet demand and make a profit, he would have to step up production. Only one tenth of the elderflowers needed can be harvested from his present acreage, so the rest of the crop is subcontracted.

 

The most exciting development has been the discovery of a new species of elderflower bush. “I was out walking one June weekend along the towpath by the river at Hampton Court, when I spotted a variety of elderflowers growing there that looked distinctly different,” he recounts. “It had a very strong perfume of the right kind – not that cat’s pee scent characteristic of some wild varieties - but a very fresh, pungent, citrussy character. And the flower heads were huge, the size of dinner plates, and stood proud of the foliage, so I knew that they would be easier to harvest. I immediately took some cuttings and have been able to propagate them here.”

 

Woodall did consider ‘patenting’ his prize with the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, under Plant Breeders’ Rights. “If your application is accepted, you are allowed to give it an official name,” he explains. “But there’s a lot of bureaucracy involved, it’s expensive to register and there’s not much to be gained, so I decided not to bother.”

 

All that was seven years ago, and sure enough, the new variety have proved to be superior to their wild cousins. The paler, lace doily petals practically fall off their umbrella-spoke stalks – crucial to what makes the Thorncroft cordial unique.

 

Using a large, homemade Heath Robinson-style ‘wobbly table’ with a raised border, attached to which is a vibrating machine, only the petals are sieved through and collected.

 

Unlike his competitors, Woodall immerses just the petals - not the stalks and stems - in vast vats of concentrated sugar syrup, citric acid and chopped lemons. A touch of sulphur dioxide is added to preserve the mixture and prevent the bottles from exploding. After one week, when infusion is complete, the vats and their contents are shipped off to the factory at Stockton-on-Tees for bottling and labelling.

 

“Petals give our cordial a much fresher and lighter flavour,” he asserts. “Using the whole head imparts a pungent, woody taste which is far less agreeable. We’re under constant pressure to sacrifice quality to balance costs but I refuse to compromise.”

 

Every 950 litres of syrup requires at least 50 kilos of pure petals, that is, 5 per cent, to impart the full, vibrant flavour and renowned health benefits of elderflower cordial.

 

The elder’s (sambucus nigra) significant health properties have been appreciated way back. High in vitamins A, B and C, elderflower cordials and elderberry wine were thought to prolong life.

 

The Mrs Beeton of herbalists, Mrs M Grieve, recommends an elderflower infusion as a ‘good old-fashioned remedy for colds and throat trouble, taken hot on going to bed.’ And, she advises, ‘an almost infallible cure for an attack of influenza in its first stage is a strong infusion of dried elder blossoms and peppermint.’

 

In The English Physitian, published in 1652, Nicholas Culpeper waxed lyrical about its powers: ‘The first shoots of the common Elder, boyled like asparagus, and the yong leaves and stalks boyled in fat broth, doth mightily carry forth flegm and choller.’


For today’s hay fever and pollution sufferers, the flowers are a particularly useful prophylactic. Medical herbalist Christine Houghton NIMH advises in www.purplesage.org.uk: ‘Drink an elderflower infusion daily, starting in February or March and continuing throughout the hay fever season. The fresh flowers are best. Take care not to harvest blooms from roadsides or where agricultural chemicals may have been used. If you cannot obtain fresh elderflowers, you can use dried flowers, tincture or a good-quality and preferably organic elderflower cordial instead.’

 

What should also contribute to the nation’s health is Thorncroft’s recent introduction of a ready-to-drink range in 33 centilitre glass bottles. The sparkling new Healthy Thirst take-away drinks capitalise on the popular elderflower, pink ginger and cranberry & hibiscus flavours, as well expand their already existing ‘well-being’ varieties of Carnival Spirit, Detox and Kombucha. They sell through sandwich bars, pubs and health food stores.

 

Surprisingly, this tiny orchard already produces over a million bottles of cordial annually and the new lines are set to add a further million a year over the next five years.

 

THE WORLD'S BEST INSECT WARDER

Mrs Grieves, in A Modern Herbal: Volume 2, 1931, swears by elderflower leaves, bruised or 'in decoction' to drive away flies, midges and mosquitoes. Bruised leaves can be worn in a hat or rubbed on the face. Alternatively, make an infusion of the leaves and dab the mixture on afterwards with a cotton wool pad.

 

METHOD

Gather some sprigs of fresh leaves from the Elder.

Remove the stems and place the leaves in a jug.

Pour on enough boiling water to cover the leaves.

Cover with a lid immediately.

Leave for a few hours, until the liquid infusion is cold.

Strain, decant into a bottle and keep tightly corked.

 

Tip: make fresh infusions often, as over time, it tends to lose its efficacy.

  

For fascinating historical anecdotes and other useful recipes using the flowers, berries, bark and leaves of the Elder (sambucus nigra), visit www.botanical.com

 

Susan Wolk - first published in the Financial Times Magazine  March 2005

Elderflowers in bloom


Eden Project