‘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.’
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Leave for a few
hours, until the liquid infusion is cold.
into a bottle and keep tightly corked.
Tip: make fresh
infusions often, as over time, it tends to lose its efficacy.
fascinating historical anecdotes and other useful recipes using the
flowers, berries, bark and leaves of the Elder (sambucus nigra), visit
Susan Wolk - first published in the
Financial Times Magazine March 2005