Belvoir Farm: how a homemade elderflower cordial blossomed into something beautiful

by Great British Chefs 16 September 2021

Since the first bottle of Belvoir Farm’s now-famous elderflower cordial was made in Mary Manners’ home kitchen almost forty years ago, this once tiny farmhouse tipple has become one of the nation’s most popular drinks. We chat to managing director Peverel Manners to find out more.

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It’s remarkable how certain sights, tastes and smells can transport us to a particular place or time of year. The wafting aroma of barbecue has us reaching for our sunglasses whatever the weather, while the crackle of a fireplace keeps us indoors and wrapped up warm even if it isn’t cold. When it comes to the scents of the beginning of British summertime, however, nothing beats elderflower. Its wonderfully floral aroma means it has found its way into bakes, vinegars, jellies and sorbets, but the way most of us enjoy it year-round is in cordials. While many cordials are packed full of unnatural flavourings which try to artificially replicate the true taste of elderflower, Leicestershire’s Belvoir Farm (pronounced ‘Beever’) set out to change this in 1984 by creating an elderflower cordial made from natural ingredients. Almost forty years on, it’s regarded as the purest way to enjoy the taste of this very special flower.

‘My dad had an arable farm but he always knew that it wasn’t going to make him a rich man, so he tried to do lots of other things,’ explains Peverel (or ‘Pev’) Manners, the MD of Belvoir Farm. ‘He’d tried drying grass in the sixties but in the late seventies it stopped being a viable business because the price of oil skyrocketed. So he decided to start a pick-your-own fruit farm and soon had thirty acres of delicious fruit. One day, he was walking around the fields and noticed that there were masses of overripe strawberries leftover on the outskirts because only the middle of the field had been picked, so he decided to buy a cider press and use them to make strawberry juice drinks. He went home to tell my mother about his idea and found her with huge bowls of elderflowers steeping on the kitchen table, which she was filtering using muslin.’

Without realising it, Mary Manners was creating one of the first batches of what was set to become Belvoir Farm’s star product. Back then, it took around three hours to make just thirty-five bottles of the cordial, and most of those bottles were given away to friends for free. However, realising how popular Mary’s cordial was amongst friends, Pev’s father John quickly saw the potential for it to become a business. In its first year Belvoir Farm made just 2,000 bottles – still an impressive feat given that it was all done by hand – but by the time Pev took over the business in 1992, over 80,000 bottles were being churned out annually.

 

When the cordial was first being produced, all the lemons were squeezed by hand.
Belvoir Farm's sixty-acre elderflower plantation is the largest of its kind in Britain.

The key to this level of growth was moving from hand-making the cordial to using more and more advanced machinery. ‘Our first ever bottling machine was simply a little jug,’ laughs Pev. ‘Then we used a little machine which you could fill with twenty litres of cordial. You’d put four bottles in a rack, push them up to activate the filling nozzles, cap them using a foot operated machine, and then take them to another machine which would roll a label on. It really was very bad.’ Nowadays everything at Belvoir Farm is done automatically end-to-end, from the bottles coming off the pallets to the labelling at the end, and the factory produces up to 10,000 bottles an hour. ‘We’ve grown the business organically just by trying to make more bottles every year – it’s very unfashionable. As we sold more, we bought more kit and gradually built a factory.’

This growth would have been short-lived if the cordial had lost its quality or taste as production scaled up, something Pev was careful to retain as more and more bottles were filled. Still made from carefully selected, all-natural ingredients, Belvoir Farm actively avoids using any form of artificial flavourings, instead preferring the use of actual fruit juice combined with a small amount of citric acid. What’s more, apart from some initial tweaks to the original recipe back in 1984, the elderflower cordial hasn’t changed at all over the years. ‘We stuck to the original recipe because people love it and we always thought, if someone loves what you do, you should just stick with it,’ says Pev. ‘People told me that we could make it with less flowers and I knew we could, but I didn’t want to because fewer flowers would mean we’d lose that last two percent of taste.’

Of course, the elderflowers are the reason behind the cordial’s flavour and while there is little variety in terms of the taste of different flower varieties, the biggest difficulty faced by Belvoir Farm is getting enough of them. Originally Pev and the team would do all the picking themselves but as demand grew they started to get the locals to help out. ‘We have what we call ‘the big harvest’, which is where we advertise locally for the good people of Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and the other surrounding counties to bring us flowers and we pay them by the kilo. This year we got almost thirty tonnes of flowers from them.’

While the quantity of cordial now produced requires a more high-tech setup than a kitchen table, the same approach to flavour-driven natural ingredients ensures the quality remains the same.
Belvoir Farm asks locals to help them pick the elderflowers each year and pays them by the kilo in return.

Belvoir Farm’s elderflower cordial may be its flagship product but its success has led to the release of countless other soft drinks, ranging from bottles of freshly squeezed lemonade to cans of sparkling elderflower, all still boasting entirely natural ingredients lists. Even the strawberry juice that John Manners dreamt up in 1984 evolved into a strawberry and lime cordial that’s on supermarket shelves to this day.

Pev and the team at Belvoir may have come a long way from the days of filtering elderflower through muslin in a home kitchen but the business has always managed to maintain the homegrown image that it was built on. ‘My mum died in 1997 and if she saw where we are now, she would be astonished,’ says Pev. ‘A lot of blood, sweat and tears has gone into what we do, particularly in those early days, to get it to where it is today.’ With its products now stocked in most major UK supermarkets and ever-present in many home kitchens, Belvoir Farm has exceeded all expectations. It just goes to show that with enough time, determination and passion, something as common as the humble elderflower can lead to something truly extraordinary.