Mr Jeffares Blackcurrant Cordial: down on the farm

Irish blackcurrants Better for you than, ooh, almost anything. Avast, scurvy.

Currant affairs at Mr Jeffares

Are you all sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin. The first thing, because you'll be asking for it, I hope, is that Jeffares is pronounced to rhyme with heifers, and not with referees or the hanging judge.
Mr Jeffares Blackcurrant Cordial Tall, dark and handsome

Mr Jeffares Blackcurrant Cordial – the pips squeak

There aren’t too many opportunities to sell local produce in Ireland if you’re a wine merchant, so news of a new, grown-up non-alcoholic cordial made from Irish blackcurrants caused a little stir at BB HQ. We ordered without further ado, and thought we’d try out the handsome bottles in the English Market as an eye-catcher and as something different to add to our summer recommendations. Paddy, our manager in the Market, has been giving out samples to wide appreciation, and when we received an invitation to the official launch in Wexford, there was a not quite seemly tussle to decide who would represent Bubble Brothers.

A bit of a squash, but no water added

And the winner was… Julian and children, which suited me fine. We reached blackcurrant central, Ballykelly Farm in Drinagh near Rosslare, just as the introductory speeches were getting under way. Mrs Jeffares – the dynamic Mrs Jeffares, founder of Good Food Ireland – had not only provided a magnificently decorated and inviting marquee in which to entertain the numerous assembly, but had plainly given orders that rain would not be tolerated for the duration of the event, and that there would need to be some blue sky too if the weather knew what was good for it.

Celebrity juice

crowd at Mr Jeffares blackcurrant cordial launch Margaret and Des Jeffares, and some of the usual suspects
Even those of us who don’t get out much recognized that an A team had been picked from the national food and wine squad to sample, celebrate and subsequently announce Des and Margaret Jeffares’ achievement. Among the gastro-royalty it was a pleasure to meet and greet the tireless Billy Lyons, who lends his support to the cause of the day in this article. I daresay we can look forward to much more in the press, because this is a box-ticking good news story if ever there was. Des Jeffares is the third generation to farm blackcurrants at Ballykelly, and the decision to take control of his own fruit after harvesting and make a stand for Irish blackcurrants – previously the crop was sold to Ribena, before they let go their Irish growers a few years ago – must have been a very courageous one. Mr Jeffares’ cordial differs from the competition because it contains no added sugar, using instead the non-calorific and natural sweetener stevia to round out the lively tang of the fresh fruit and yield not only a drink but a versatile ingredient.

Beating about the bush

Des Jeffares giving a tour of Ballykelly Farm Can you hear me at the back?
After the introductions, Des and his megaphone led the gourmet sightseers away in a lazy crocodile to the fields for a look at the farm and to witness the harvest in progress. Crop rotation keeps the land in good heart, so barley, amongst other crops including nitrogen-fixing mustard and even, once, pretty-but-expensive marigolds, takes over when the currants move on every few years.
Barley at Ballykelly Farm The fields have ears
Hedges keep the wind down, birds of prey keep the pigeons down, and a beetle (I wish I'd insisted on being told which) keeps the vine weevil down. Just as in more environmentally run vineyards, grass is allowed to grow between the rows of fruit and encourage natural predators by providing a habitat.
Rows of blackcurrant bushes at Ballykelly Farm Agriculture raisonnée, Wexford-style
Des Jeffares grows several varieties of blackcurrant, mostly with hardy Scottish ancestry, to help cope with the vagaries of each season’s weather. While each is different in its characteristics as regards ripening and resistance to pest and disease, I don’t think we’ll be seeing varietal blackcurrant cordial just yet. It’s always valuable for wine folk to taste the fruit they refer to so blithely in descriptions, but even the air in the field where harvesting was taking place was scented with Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc.
Blackcurrant harvest at Mr Jeffares, Ballykelly Farm, Co Wexford "I've got a brand new combine harvester..."
The miraculous machine that gathers the currants still needs a little human help as they flow off the conveyor, but it’s an astonishing yoke to behold if you’ve ever had to pick much soft fruit of any kind by hand.
Blackcurrant harvester conveyor belt No stopping till they're all picked
This is the place to mention, as an aside, that the stalky raceme that makes up each small bunch of currants is called a strig. Word of the day or what? After the arduous two hundred yard trek into the beating heart of the natural world to see the harvest, it was soon time to return to the comfort of the marquee for a lavish, sumptuous buffet entirely spangled (remember Spangles, anyone?) with blackcurrants, whose energetic bursts of acidity improved pretty much everything they were added to.
Buffet lunch at Mr Jeffares Lobster and blackcurrant mayonnaise? Who knew?
From Dungarvan stout to mayonnaise and from couscous salad to relish for cheese, the humble blackcurrant performed its party piece over and over to an enthusiastic reception. Encore! Encore! Bravo! You can buy Mr Jeffares’ Blackcurrant Cordial from Bubble Brothers and an increasing number of other places where good food is sold and local provenance valued. Thanks to the Jeffares family for a cordial reception, tremendous hospitality and for interrupting the serious business of the harvest to show us what makes Mr Jeffares Blackcurrant Cordial so special.
Many thanks too to my photographer, without whose eye for detail our memories wouldn't have been half so beautifully preserved.