Thursday 12 June 2014

Elderflower harvest at Belvoir Fruit Farms

As the train pulled away from Doncaster and the urban sprawl of South Yorkshire there started to be glimpses of what I was to expect from the day ahead. Fields of crops and grass as far as the eye could see with splashes of red from poppies and white blooms – elderflowers. Just outside of Grantham lies Belvoir Fruit Farms, producer of fine fruit cordials and pressés, and I was on my way to join them for a day of elderflower harvesting.
Rows of organic elderflower trees at Belvoir Fruit Farms
At this time of year the delicate white blossom that is the elderflower can be seen everywhere. If is isn't picked it turns to elderberries. A favourite food for birds, such as blackbirds, the seeds are then deposited by them and can grow quickly into trees. Despite the abundance of trees the season for elderflower is of course very short. Depending on the weather it usually runs for just 4-6 weeks. To get enough elderflowers Belvoir Fruit Farms rely on a dedicated army of pickers.
An elderflower nearly ready to pick
Each May the call goes out to people in Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire to pick elderflowers and bring them to Belvoir or Sacrewell Farm and Country Centre, near Peterborough, to be weighed. The finder's fee is £2 per kilo and when a hard-working picker can fill three bin bags weighing about 45 kilos a day then it's worth doing. The stipulations are the elderflowers must have been picked on the same day to ensure freshness and you pick the fragrant flower heads and not the stalks.
Pev Manners with an example of the perfect elderflower bloom
I was shown how to pick the perfect the elderflower head by Pev Manners, the MD of Belvoir Fruit Farms. Forget the 'Chelsea Chop' or the 'Hampton Court Hack' at this time of year it's all about the 'Belvoir Snip'. What you are looking for is a bright white flower with full yellow pollen in the middle. Once the yellow starts to fade and the white flower doesn't look so pure it's best left on the tree to turn into elderberries. The mild winter and lack of frost coupled with a spring of rain and sunshine has ensured a bumper harvest this year. Pev thinks there is still about two weeks worth of picking for this year.
A perfect elderflower on the left and one that's past its best on the right.
The company was originally started by Pev's father John and this month celebrates 30 years in business. The family ran a pick-your-own fruit farm with locals and visitors to the nearby Belvoir Castle stopping off to collect strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, blackcurrants, loganberries and other soft fruit. Not wanting the excess fruit go to waste John struck upon the idea of making fruit cordials. The previous year his wife Mary had made 40 bottles of elderflower cordial which the locals had snapped up leaving them with just 2 bottles for themselves. A new business was born.
Some of the original Belvoir Fruit Farms elderflower trees.
Pev joined the company full-time in 1992 and his enthusiasm and passion doesn't seem to have diminished at all. He started as an elderflower picker himself and still finds pleasure in the simple task of picking. His 6'3" frame is perfectly built to grab the elderflowers at the top of the trees. Belvoir Fruit Farms have their own organic elderflower plantation. They manage this by cutting the trees so they don't grow too tall so the tops can't be picked and this also means all the trees energy is used to grow better, healthier flowers.
The managed organic elderflower plantation
Within no time Pev's bag was full of elderflowers. Mine however was definitely a beginner's effort. To capture their freshness and flavour we whisked them back to Belvoir Fruit Farm's production base to be weighed before being made into cordial and pressé. Join me soon for a tour of the factory and a tale of field to bottle.

I was a guest of Belvoir Fruit Farms. All photographs, words and opinion are my own.

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