HEFF and The Great British Blackcurrant

After listening with some pleasure to the news that Tom Archer, of long-running BBC radio soap The Archers, is promoting his organic pork sausages through HEFF – the Heart of England Fine Food Group – I thought I’d post this. I’ve been writing for HEFF and its producers for a couple of years now.

Small and mighty, blackcurrants were credited with health-giving properties long before scientific research could prove they were not only packed with Vitamin C, full of anti-oxidants and bursting with nutrients, but could also promote healthy vision, brain and kidney function, benefit the cardiovascular system and had anti-ageing properties.

On-going research into Alzheimer’s Disease, asthma and post-exercise muscle and joint regeneration ranks the blackcurrant firmly as a super-food. What’s more, they taste delicious! Sandra Kessell spoke to the new generation of Herefordshire blackcurrant growers who are bringing innovation to the fruit market and introducing ranges of blackcurrant-based products to the public.

Jo Hilditch

Jo Hilditch took over her family’s fruit farm after her brother Johnny was killed in a car accident. She has blended her upbringing with her former PR and marketing career to develop new products for the twenty-first century whilst still growing the crops and managing the activities traditionally found at a family farm. It’s one of her newer ventures, however, that is enjoying some time in the spotlight. Around five years ago, after selling the usual blackcurrant harvest to Ribena, the farm had an excess of the fruit and Jo decided to make the French-associated drink cassis. Now her name is synonymous with British cassis. Though the first year’s techniques were rather rudimentary, the results were delicious and Jo and her team have refined the process and their know-how. Rather than distil the juice, Jo Hilditch British Cassis is made in a similar way to wine, resulting in a less cloying flavour and less syrupy consistency than its continental counterpart. “It’s much easier to use our cassis in recipes and savoury dishes,” says Jo, explaining that it can add a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ to venison stews or gravy, for example. Now they are set to offer a whole fruit product preserved in cassis, capitalising on the fact blackcurrants’ thick skin makes them less absorbent, less alcohol-infused and full of fruity flavour. “It’s really exciting. This can be used as an ingredient in cocktails and you’ll get the berries in the bottom of the glass – a bit like a Pimms. You can top it up with a fizzy wine – it looks great – and obviously you can still use it in cooking,” says Jo. “We think it’s a British innovation – we don’t think it’s been done before.”

Click here to find out more about Jo Hilditch British Cassis

Anthony Snell

Though their family’s been farming for three generations Anthony and Christine Snell’s business started when they bought their own land to grow vegetables and salad crops. Over the years, they switched their expertise into fruit growing and now their blackcurrants not only go to Glaxo Smith Kline for Ribena, but also to Marks & Spencer. Anthony emphasises the benefits of buying British, traceable, sustainably managed and environmentally friendly fruit with fewer transportation costs and carbon emissions. In addition to their other fruit crops, 120 acres are earmarked for organic blackcurrants. “We take our very best fruit, very carefully harvest it when it’s at the right stage of ripening and within hours of harvesting it’s blast frozen,” says Anthony, revealing that the high-tech and very sensitive equipment processing individually quick frozen (IQF) blackcurrants cost the farm £70,000. It’s all far more delicate – and sophisticated – than pick-your-own to freeze at home – the fruit doesn’t go watery when defrosted and is perfect to use in yoghurt, jam and fruit-juice making. The blackcurrants are also sold under the Windmill Hill Fruits brand, marketed by HEFF, and there’s an online ordering service for next-day delivery. “They’re fantastic in a pie or cooked and served with crème fraiche but we’d like to find a new variety you really want to eat fresh and completely raw. That’s the ultimate but we haven’t got to that yet,” says Anthony.

Click here to discover more about the Snells’ British Blackcurrants

Edward Thompson

Edward Thompson didn’t join the family hop farm at Pixley Court straight from school – he studied mechanical sciences at Cambridge, travelled and returned to Herefordshire in the Seventies. New products, new processes and even new varieties of blackcurrant have ensued as Edward has gathered a dedicated team around him. Pixley Berries superfruit cordials are just part of the story. They contain a massive 60 per cent fruit juice, not from concentrate, capturing that quintessential summer flavour lacking in more sugary standard drinks and cordials. Edward emphasises the “not from concentrate,” a key requisite for brands like Innocent drinks and some Marks & Spencer products, provides flavour and aroma best served by local production. Careful analysis of taste profiles ensures the right bushes are planted including a new blackcurrant variety, Pixley Black, which Edward sought out to counter the effects of climate change and our warmer, wetter winters. Thankfully, it has also proved hardy in the last two, trend-bucking, very cold winters. Unsurprisingly, given his background, Edward has invested in new machinery enabling Pixley to do all its processing at its own pressoir. “It was a huge decision in 2003 – massive,” says Edward, hinting at the cost. “But now we can control the quality, which we wouldn’t be able to do if we outsourced. Most of the fruit is processed on the day it is harvested.” It’s a testament to Pixley’s products that one of their largest overseas customers, on spotting Edward in the audience at the spring International Food & Drink Event, introduced him by announcing: “This man makes the best blackcurrant juice in the world.”

Click here to find out more about Pixley Berries

To find out about HEFF and the producers it supports, please click to visit the HEFF website.

The privilege of having a Gran like Baa-Lamb

Art imitated life yesterday when The Archers bade a fond farewell to Phil Archer. I was, in the meantime, attending my Gran’s funeral service. Not many people get into their forties and still have a grandparent around, so I count myself lucky to have had her company for so long. Since her death I have been trying to remember all the fun that we shared rather than mourning her loss. Grandparents have a privileged and uncomplicated relationship with their grandchildren, which is why I get annoyed when I hear of divorcing parents who cut their children off from one or other set of grandparents to maximise the wound they inflict on their ex. Though I know there are lots of grandparents who offer regular childcare, on the whole, grandparents don’t have to be responsible for their grandchildren’s upbringing, they don’t have the daily stress of balancing homelife and work, discipline and reward, household management and homework. Not that they don’t take grand-parenting seriously, but they can share innocent yet illicit pleasures, like eating pudding before main course or playing with water pistols and getting soaked when it’s really not that warm outside. They put a different perspective on the world, not necessarily better, just different – and start an understanding in their grandchildren that old and young, black and white, rich and poor don’t have to see things from the same point of view, just co-exist with jumbled-up harmony and respect.

Since Gran and my Dad were both young parents, she was a very young grandmother, and great-grandmother, and great-great-grandmother, taking great pleasure in each new generation that was brought into the family, though she was rather horrified to be called “Grandma” and asked to be known as Barbara. My father refused to allow this, however, and the compromise name Gran-Lamb was coined, though we derived no end of pleasure in calling her Baa-bara Lamb, which she loved too.

Gran lived in Kenya when I was born, so my earliest memories of her were of her visit when I was about six. I’d recently learned to ride a bicycle, but found it impossible to stop without falling off, so I travelled around and around a circular route yelling for help every time I passed my parents’ house. My parents were used to my Matilda-like false alarms and ignored me, so it was Gran who ran after me and brought me to a halt by grabbing the back of the saddle. I daresay I wasn’t that grateful for her help since I fell off and hurt myself anyway. And I shouldn’t have been that surprised that despite her great age (she was about 50) she could still run after me, as she’d been Suffolk sprint champion in her youth. Dad remembers being a small boy and trying to evade punishment by climbing out of his bedroom window and running away – only to be caught by his fleet-footed mother. He also remembers her laughing in the face of the rather pompous vicar who arrived on her doorstep to complain that his choir boys (including Dad) had knocked his hat off  his head with Harvest Festival apples.

Her life was so full of joy and sorrow – she’d married young and had two small boys when her first husband died of cancer at the age of 29, four years after returning home from the war. She found love again and when her second husband suggested moving to New Zealand or Kenya, she left my father in the UK, he was by then a boy apprentice in the RAF, sold her possessions, home and the holiday houses she and Frank owned, and followed him out to Africa with my uncle and aunt in tow. A few years later Frank died, leaving her a widow once more. Feisty, she worked in a garage and a girls’ boarding school and only moved back to the UK in the Seventies when Kenya became too volatile for safety. It meant starting all over again, again, but I don’t remember her once complaining, never reminding me of her hardships if I moaned about my imagined difficulties, which I hope I didn’t, in front of her. I only ever heard her mention the raw hand she had been dealt once, when we were being told of the death of a 60-year-old friend of my then in-laws, who gave us a 15-minute lecture on the unfairness and tragedy of his passing. After listening until she could bear it no longer, Gran reminded them she had lost one husband when she was 29 and had two small boys, and a second when she was 47 and had a teenage daughter who doted on her dad. A deafening silence followed.

She was my slightly dotty, eccentric, outspoken Gran, with whom I shared an affinity and recognition of self. My mother’s parents were far more exotic, in fact, having been brought up in India with a mixture of  Persian, Burmese, Portugese, Scottish, Irish and Dutch blood coursing through their veins. But they weren’t fun like Gran, who was about as English as you could imagine, born and brought up in John Constable’s home village of East Bergholt and spending her young life around Flatford, playing in the Suffolk countryside. My maternal grandparents, who’d divorced at a time when it was taboo, warred all their lives and had a very Victorian sense of right and wrong, of rights and being wronged. Gran had a subversive streak (guess where I get mine from) and she was self-willed to boot, perfectly able to stir up trouble and to put people in their place if they annoyed her, but she was also loved by friends and neighbours, even if she exasperated them sometimes with her stubbornness.

When I had children and moved back to Norfolk, Gran and I really got to know each other as we spent the day together after I’d taken her to do a weekly shop at Sainsbury’s. I realised how much like her I was, where I got my inability to sit still; where I got my penchant for rearranging my furniture at irregular intervals; why I was good at fast sports; why I would start 10 jobs at once and only finish five. She taught me it was fun to jump on the bed with my children, that it wasn’t worth ironing pyjamas when it was sunny outside – so many lessons that I’ll never forget and will pass on to my grandchildren, if I’m lucky enough to have any. I moved away from Norfolk and returned and moved away again – leaving her wondering why everyone she loved left her – though she never said that to me. By way of recompense I used to drive to Norfolk to collect her and she’d stay with me for a week at a time, helping at children’s parties and ensuring the fun didn’t stop – though she did tick off one child very soundly when he caused havoc at a sleepover. And because I loved having her here, I made sure she spent every Christmas with me, making a huge fuss when I was told she was too frail to come in 2008 and insisting we would carry her from car to house and upstairs if necessary. By the end of 2009, she really was too ill to make even the smallest journey and I had to accept she was dying. She had been desperate to come to my marriage – she loved my husband and insisted she was well enough to attend. We raised a toast to her during the speeches and deliberately honeymooned in Norfolk so I could give her my bridal bouquet. I didn’t get to see her again before she died, and though we did speak on the phone, she struggled for breath as the mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos decades before and who-knows-where, finally took her from us.

It was so lovely yesterday to hear other people’s stories about her. Her elderly sister-in-law Shirley wrote to say that she and Great-Uncle Geoff never left her alone in their manicured and well-tended garden when she’d visited because she had a habit of digging up plants she disliked and throwing them behind a shed or wall where they wouldn’t be noticed until it was too late to reinstate and resurrect them; Dad’s cousin remembered “Auntie Barb” and how he had loved visiting her as a small child and how she’d inspired him as an adult to move to Africa; and how she had taken him for a spin in her new Triumph when she’d returned to the UK – travelling the wrong way down the A12 and declaring in her defence that they had changed the roads since she’d been there last. She never did re-pass her English driving test after her temporary one expired.

Gran as a young woman

One of my fondest memories is of her coming down to breakfast on Christmas morning and being given an impromptu six-child standing salute. She thought it was a hoot – they did too, collapsing in fits of giggles. Another is of taking her ten-pin bowling – she whopped us all. The headmaster at the school where she had worked when she moved to England recalled how special she was and wrote to say she’d been well-loved by staff and boys – everyone had a story to tell and remembered the twinkle in her eye and the mischievous grin that would play on her lips when she knew she was being naughty. Her nieces, nephews, grandchildren and great-grandchildren turned out to pay their last respects; friends of my parents attended too – she’d been a part of their lives as well. She was the last of her six siblings to leave this earth and her passing marks the end of an era for us all.

The fictional Elizabeth Pargeter’s tribute to her father Phil Archer could so very easily have been applied to my Gran. But Gran-Lamb really was a one-off and I’ll miss her enormously.

*[Gt Uncle Geoff told Gt Aunt Shirley on their golden wedding anniversary that he had been a member of the Secret Army during World War II. She asked him why he’d never told her before and he replied: “It was a secret.” What a generation, what a family.]

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