Country Matters: They see white gold and run amok

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THE GLORY is fading now, but for the whole of June our hedges have been ablaze with elderflowers. From a distance they looked like lines of breakers bursting creamily on the shore and, from close at hand, when the sun was out, the smell was overpowering.

This grand show has been a bonanza for Shireen Morris and her husband, Kit, enterprising founders of the Bottle Green Drinks company, which produces concentrated elderflower cordial and ready-to-drink 'Elderflower Presse' from an old mill at Woodchester, near Stroud. Like many successful small businesses, this one started in the kitchen, but it has grown at an astonishing speed.

After taking a PhD in biochemistry at Leicester University, Kit worked for three years as wine-maker at the Three Choirs vineyard in Herefordshire. He also planted a vineyard in Jersey with a partner who owned 10 acres of land, his plan being to go and live in the Channel Islands.

Then, as children started to arrive, he and Shireen decided they would rather stay in their native Gloucestershire, so they began experimenting with various cordials, and their kitchen became crammed with demijohns. Their Citrus Cordial, concocted from orange, lemon and lime, seemed promising, but the brew that took all tasters by storm was elderflower.

Acquiring premises on an old industrial estate, which had pure water running from a spring on the hillside behind, they continued to produce cordial on a small scale, but also cider and wine. Apple juice came by tanker from Herefordshire, and grape juice in barrels from the vineyard in Jersey. They also contemplated bottling the spring water - but still, of all these possibilities, elderflower looked the most likely winner.

As Shireen points out, country people have been making elderflower cordial for centuries, and water-ice for many years. Water-ice or syrup can be preserved in a freezer, but cordial will not normally keep, because the yeast in it continues to ferment - hence the midnight detonations in larder or airing cupboard that haunt producers of home-made wine.

The Morrises' secret was that Kit, with his professional knowledge of wine-making, was able to filter out the yeast particles and bring his cordial to a state in which it would keep for at least a year without refrigeration.

According to Shireen, the first commercial samples, sent out in 1989, evoked 'a tremendous response'. The Waitrose supermarket chain was so impressed that the chief buyer came out to inspect their operation for himself.

With business picking up fast, the company acquired larger premises in the form of Frogmarsh Mill, a former tannery that had fallen into the hands of the receiver. The inside of the main building was black with smoke, and stinking, when they took it over, but they have converted part of it and built a new bottling-room to EC specifications.

At the moment this new site has no spring, but an 83-year- old dowser has detected one, and the idea is to bore a well down to it. Meanwhile, spring water is being ferried across from the earlier site, just along the valley.

In their first year, the Morrises picked the flowers themselves. The second year, they sent out friends to help with the harvest, which lasts only four or five weeks. The third year, they advertised in local newspapers for extra pickers, and things grew so rapidly that this year they had more than 300 people on their books.

Pickers are now paid pounds 1 a pound for good flowers. A normal kitchen bucket, with the contents not squashed down, contains about 2 1/2 lbs, and dedicated pickers can earn pounds 50 or pounds 60 a day.

This mass-attack on the hedges of a relatively small area has inevitably aroused some controversy. Farmers are complaining that their fields have been invaded without permission, and they point out that, because there will be fewer elderberries, birds will be deprived of food in the autumn.

I myself do not see much in this last argument. Even with all this activity, only a minute fraction of the elderflower available has been harvested; and in any case, only a fraction of the berries which ripen in autumn are ever eaten by birds. As with blackberries, the vast majority rot and fall to earth.

But I was certainly not pleased when I found a team of boys smashing one of my hedges, pulling off whole branches and picking the flowers afterwards. When my wife remonstrated with them for coming on to private land without asking, they apologised, and I think that after receiving a rocket they marginally refined their tactics, to make them less destructive. But the same process has been occurring in hundreds of other fields, and it has caused a good deal of irritation.

In a leaflet handed out to pickers, the Bottle Green company does give hints on how the flowers should be gathered: only open flower-heads are wanted, not stalks or buds. Furthermore, people are exhorted to respect the countryside. But in practice the recipients have practically no control over their suppliers: once pickers see hedges loaded with white gold, they tend to run amok. A set of considerably more rigorous instructions might be no bad idea.

In any case, picked flowers pour into the factory in boxes, buckets, paper feed-sacks and plastic bags. Black dustbin liners do not make good containers, as the flowers are liable to heat up inside them: once a composting process sets in, the smell plunges from divine to disgusting in a few minutes, and the whole bagful can be ruined.

Good flowers are plunged straight into a solution of sugar and spring water, with a little citric acid added, and in this they steep for four days before the liquid is drained off and filtered. To cope with the glut of flowers, another receiving station has been established on a farm near Kemble, some 10 miles away: there, more vats of sugar syrup await the flowers, which can begin steeping the moment they arrive.

Just as the whole process has the merit of being very simple, so the cordial that emerges has the merit of tasting extremely fresh and natural. It is these qualities that have sent sales rocketing. Bottle Green products are now to be found in 110 branches of Tesco, all those of Waitrose, 30 of Sainsbury's and all Oddbins.

Kit Morris is still making his Jersey wine, under the label Chateau Catillon - and a nice, crisp, hock-like wine it is; but elderflower has forced that into the background for the time being.

There is no doubt that the Morrises have carried off a brilliant coup in making a delicious wild taste generally available, and - unlike one rival - in having the sense not to call their product 'champagne'. Now they are wondering what other flowers or fruits they might exploit.

Elderberry juice is, by common consent, disappointing - dour and ironic - so it seems that the bushes are safe for the rest of the year. But what about blackberry cordial? Crab apple? Clover? Dandelion? Nettle? They are all out there (or will be), waiting to be picked.