The Healthiest Fruit Of All
PUBLISHED: 10:49 28 October 2008 | UPDATED: 15:33 20 February 2013
Philippe Boucheron meets Edward Thompson, the Herefordshire farmer who switched on to blackcurrants.
An engineer turned fruit-farmer, Edward Thompson is the third generation of his family to live and farm at Pixley Court, Ledbury. When his grandfather first moved there from London in 1928 it was a typical Herefordshire farm - lots of hops, cattle and some arable.
Today, with some 300 acres, Edward is arguably not only the largest blackcurrant grower in the UK, but also the most adventurous. His overall objective is to get pure and unadulterated fruit juice from the bush to the bottle. As a result he not only grows the fruit but also presses and processes it on the farm and sells his juice to Innocent, who make 100% pure fruit smoothies, as well as to packers for Marks & Spencer. Some of his fruit also goes away for others to turn into a well-known family drink.
The Thompsons began planting blackcurrants in 1967 and all was well until 1998 when a totally unexpected, and unexplained, crop failure could have been an absolute disaster. But Edward knew that there had to be a cause and he was determined not only to find out what it was, but to discover the solution as well. If the seasons were changing then he had to have varieties that would thrive in global warming. The blackcurrant is considered a northern European cold-climate plant, and most of the UK breeding and development is carried out at Blairgowrie in Scotland.
For some three and half years Edward searched for answers in France, New Zealand and Tasmania. Today the result of his travels and research is his own Pixley blackcurrant which, together with Ben Garin, is rapidly replacing old favourites like Ben Alder and Ben Tirran.
The Thompsons use 'integrated farm management', which means that all cultivation is carried out with respect for the environment and soil, and that no petro-chemical fertilisers or toxic pesticides are used unless absolutely essential. They are now cropping blackcurrants at around 7.5 tons an acre as well as growing blackberries and raspberries. And Edward has not forgotten his hops. He has a sizeable plantation of the highly successful and popular dwarf, First Gold, and is planting the new aromatic Sovereign variety.
Edward Thompson is unashamedly a man with the black stuff in his heart. In 2004 he decided to get his pure juice to the public, and began processing it on the farm. His blackcurrant juice contains 60% pure fruit, plus water and sugar. No E numbers, no artificial sweeteners or sulphites, so it is suitable for people with delicate stomachs, or those undergoing chemotherapy. And as well as being a really healthy cordial, you can also use it in cooking. In addition to pure blackcurrant juice he also blends the currants with juice from Coxes Orange Pippins, pears and Scottish raspberries.
"Nothing", Edward stresses, "is quite as good for you as the humble blackcurrant. It is a wonder food. Few fruits pack such a powerful punch of vitamin C; and, unlike most others, it retains the vitamins when cooked. It contains more potassium than bananas but without their high sugar content. It's not surprising that during the Second World War children were given a free supply of blackcurrants. The leaves can also be used in pickles, soups or to make herbal teas."
Cultivating and processing blackcurrants on such a large scale meant that Edward had to acquire much of his own plant. This ranges from mechanical harvesters, developed from French machinery designed to pick grapes, to crushers, de-stemmers, presses filters. Most of this is based on plant found in wineries across Europe. The processing is designed to protect the juice from overheating, over pasteurisation or boiling under vacuum - techniques that are often used to produce concentrates..
"What goes into our bottles is a potent, adult cordial that may taste a shade sharp to anyone used to other juices that claim to have 'No added sugar'," explains Edward. With the amount of artificial sweeteners they contain it's not surprising that they taste so sweet."
Potent the juice surely is: you only need a coffee spoonful added to a glass of dry white wine to make a perfect Kir, or to a Brut sparkling wine to produce a delicious Kir Royal. This Burgundian drink is named after Canon Felix Kir, a hero of the Resistance and one-time mayor of Dijon, which incidentally is France's blackcurrant-growing centre..
Blackcurrant juice is amazingly adaptable. In the old days, before thermal vests and long-johns, motorcyclists would drink it with rum and hot water. It was at one time well-known in Ireland, where ladies would add a spoonful to their Guinness, to make it less bitter. You can also add it to vodka or gin, white rum and even cider.
Each half-litre bottle of Pixley Berries Blackcurrant Cordial contains 300ml of pure fruit. A measure in a glass topped up with cold water is the most enjoyable way that I know of getting your daily dose of vitamin C and potassium. And if you're mixing a Martini - shaken or stirred - a drop in four or five parts gin or vodka to one part vermouth adds a wonderful aroma and colour, and you won't need a slice of lemon or an olive.