I spent the day joining in the elderflower harvest at Belvoir
A bucolic day learning all about Belvoir’s elderflower cordial
Every year in late May or early June, Britain’s hedgerows come alive with clusters of tiny cream-coloured flowers and a heady sweet scent. Foragers – both serious and casual – know it’s time for the annual elderflower harvest. People grab large bags, round up their children, call friends, or go solo, and head to roadsides, fields, or top-secret locations to pick the lovely little blooms.
At the end of a long day, or a short hour, people turn up to Belvoir drinks factory in Leicestershire with their bags, which are weighed and exchanged for money and a bottle of elderflower presse for a job well done.
Our elderflowers on Pev's rather lovely 1997 Defender
It’s a bucolic scene, especially on a sunny day with a gentle breeze and fat bumblebees buzzing by. But it’s incredibly important for Belvoir too. Over the four-to-six week period, literally tonnes of elderflowers are harvested, weighed, steeped and turned into delicious elderflower cordial and presse.
Adverts appear in the local press every year encouraging pickers old and new, and word is spreading. We’ve all also been cooped up for the past year and a half, so any excuse to have a different kind of day out, right?
Belvoir has around 60 acres of organic elderflower, which the public can harvest, or people can head out and find their own, wherever that may be.
Me trying to look like I know what I'm doing...
From a kitchen table and 100 cases, to millions of bottles every year
Belvoir started in 1984, from managing director Pev Manners’ mum’s kitchen table, and the recipe used today is the same one from more than 30 years ago. Although there are of course recipes for elderflower cordial on the internet, the specific quantities and ratios of the ingredients at Belvoir are a closely guarded secret.
The house where it all began...
Lady Manners had been making bottles of elderflower cordial for her friends, when her husband, Lord John (the 10th Duke of Rutland’s brother – aka the guy who lives in Belvoir castle) encouraged her to make more to see if it would work commercially. During the first year, Lady Manners produced 100 cases of elderflower cordial, which Lord Manners drove around the countryside to various delis and farm shops. It was a sellout, and things have continued to grow since then. Today, millions of bottles are sold every year to countries all around the world, including Japan, France and America.
Interestingly, and something I’d been doing wrong for years is the pronunciation, which is ‘beaver’ and not ‘bell-v-wahr’. Except in the US, where they refuse to call it ‘beaver’ because of the word’s connotations.
Belvoir now makes 23 different drinks, including 11 cordials. Demand has soared throughout lockdown too, as people wanted to treat themselves to a nicer or more special occasion drink, but didn’t necessarily want an alcoholic one.
Some of the early Belvoir bottle designs
How does Belvoir make its elderflower cordials?
Going behind the scenes at the Belvoir drinks factory was a fascinating experience. I’ve been to a lot of factories over the years: from car plants, to bearing factories, breweries and other food products, and none has come close to smelling as delicious as Belvoir.
In the huge syrup room (the cordial is called syrup before it’s in the bottles), vast baths previously used to make cheese hold tonnes of elderflowers and lemons steeping in water, which are gently hand-stirred. The whole thing looked like a restorative spa treatment, and it took all my restraint not to dive in. Sugar and citric acid (extracted from maize) are added to the mix, heat is applied, it’s left to infuse and eventually strained and put into bottles. The flower heads are poured into the vats within 24 hours of harvesting, so everything’s really fresh.
The bottling process is also incredibly interesting, full of mesmerising machinery you could watch for hours, from the machine that fills the bottles perfectly, to the labelling machines and the pasteurisation machine, which is basically a big hot shower that gives the cordials about a year’s shelf life. At full capacity, the machines can process more than 50,000 bottles a day.
Look at it goooooo
What other ingredients are used?
There’s a humongous refrigerated room for storing all the fresh fruit and juices for the various cordials: even with the huge quantities of everything used, Belvoir still uses whole lemons harvested from a family founded business in Spain which runs on 100% renewable electricity, and fresh root ginger, hand-sown and hand-picked in China. Tonnes of the stuff.
Because of the amount of elderflower needed, Belvoir also works with an organisation in Hungary that hand-picks elderflowers in their national parks, to the same high standard that happens in the UK. The sugar is British, the blackcurrants are pressed within 24 hours of being picked, and cucumbers – straight and wonky, all are welcome – come from Kent from a farm that is 85% water self-sufficient. The Pink Lady apples are grown by more than 13,500 small family farms between the Alps and the Dolomites in northern Italy, and the limes come hand-picked from Peru.
It was interesting talking to Pev about the quality and standard of all his suppliers. He’d recently been unhappy with the quality of a strawberry juice (he tries everything before it’s used), and refused to add it to the drinks, at quite a significant financial cost. However, he said it’s not worth creating a product he isn’t happy with.
Belvoir bees buzzing
And on top of that, Belvoir operates using sustainable farming methods and abides by Countryside Stewardship practices, meaning it always give at least as much back to the land as is harvested. After the harvest, Keith, Belvoir’s farm manager gets busy giving back to the land with gentle tilling, aeration and organic fertilising of the plantation, protecting the established nature corridors around it, for wildflowers, butterflies, pollinators and fallow deer. Belvoir’s also just set up three beehives, painted in Belvoir colours of course! There’s also zero waste to landfill, and they’ve just been given the green light to install solar panels.
Not quite ready to pick just yet...
There are a lot of companies out there which talk about eco credentials, quality of ingredients etc., but having been behind the scenes at Belvoir, there really isn’t anything to hide. It’s all true. Of course, it’s been hugely scaled up from the early days bottling around Pev’s kitchen table (he now lives in the house it all started in), but the ethos and everything is the same.
Having been out in Belvoir’s fields with Pev, he looked so at home with his elderflower hook which helps to reach the higher up flowers, naming all the other plants, insects and trees, and pointing out where the elderflower likes to grow best – sheltered and protected among the hedgerows. It’s almost like he went into a zone, methodically picking the big cream dishes, and leaving behind the ones that weren’t quite ready.
If you’re anywhere near Leicestershire, I’d encourage you to get involved and join in the Belvoir elderflower harvest. There are a few weeks left yet – and you’ll even be able to treat yourself to a few bottles with the money you make. It's a win-win.