A few weeks back, I was lucky enough to spend a day in the company of Victoria Earle and Rick Freeman at Lovely Drinks in Barrow Gurney: a day consisting of foraging for elderflowers, making these into cordial and being shown the process for making the fantastic range of soft drinks that the company supplies to restaurants, bars, cafes and shops throughout Bristol, Bath, Somerset and now even London.
Lovely Drinks is by no means a big operation, with all of the magic happening in a small workshop a few minutes’ walk from Victoria and Rick’s cottage in Barrow Gurney. They only started making cordial a few summers ago with elderflowers from their garden, which was pronounced as “lovely” by the friends and family members with whom it was shared.
With career histories spanning journalism, horticulture and IT (Rick’s mum, however, did make cordials and wines as a hobby), it may not have been the obvious career move for the pair, but – while continuing their day jobs – they decided to get some labels printed, book a stall at a Love Food Festival and see if their drinks sold. Things spiralled from there. After a few successful markets and other events, they began to gain interest from trade customers and started experimenting with flavours including ginger beer, lemonade and apple juice – right through to brand new varieties launched in 2012 which include mulberries and gooseberries.
Lovely Drinks is very much a full time job for the pair now, with Rick saying that they work 9 hour days, 5 days a week. And they have to. With a range of stockists including well known venues such as The Watershed, The Arnolfini, Chandos, Boston Tea Party, The Pony and Trap, The Pump House and The Bird in Hand, they make around 3,000 bottles per week with everything – from making the cordial to bottling and labelling the drinks – done in house.
All of their apples, blackcurrants and now also gooseberries come from New Cross Farm in South Petherton, but Victoria and Rick are also hoping to plant their own orchards. They’ve used a massive six tons of apples in their drinks since Christmas 2011 – an incredible amount for a small local business!
Their elderflowers are all picked locally when in season, and they need a huge amount to make into cordial to get them through a whole year. We were on elderflower picking duty on the day of our visit, joined by local catering and hospitality students as well as Toby Gritten from The Pump House – what this man doesn’t know about foraging isn’t worth knowing!
It was certainly an educational day. We learned that early in the morning is the best time to pick elderflowers, as their pollen disperses when the sun rises and most of the flavour is in this pollen. It may seem obvious, but you’re also best off picking elderflowers from locations off the beaten track so that they haven’t absorbed traffic fumes and other pollutants.
Toby explained that you should take as little of the elderflower stalks as possible when picking, and that you shouldn’t take all of the flowers that are in full bloom – the rest of the buds on a plant won’t open unless bees can pollinate them from other flowers.
Foraging complete, we put our elderflowers into a cardboard tray to dry them out, and felt guilty while we left Rick and Victoria to spend time removing the stems that we’d missed!
Having de-stemmed the elderflowers, Rick combined them with hot water, sugar and citric acid, which prevents the cordial from oxidising and adds a sharpness that doesn’t affect the flavour. Lemon juice adds extra flavour (and vitamin C!), and the cordial is then covered and left for 48 hours.
The cordial is then strained, filtered and pasteurised, before being mixed with fresh water and lemon juice and filtered for a second time.
After chilling the drinks to 2 degrees, carbon dioxide is added for fizziness, and the drinks are then bottled and capped.
I don’t think I’d appreciated how manual a lot of the process is, and how laborious! The bottles are filled by a machine, with a maximum capacity of 4 bottles per minute – with Lovely Drinks producing 3,000 bottles per week…well, you do the maths! The machine that caps the bottles can only do one at a time, and once capped, they are then pasteurised again. The pair add the bottles’ labels by hand…while they have a labelling machine, experience means that they manage quicker without!
Spending the whole day at Lovely Drinks meant we also got to sample some of the range, including the new mulberry variety, which is fantastic! I still have a soft spot for their Elderflower and Rose – those of you who know me will know the extent of my addiction to the latter!
They’re a fantastic local company, and it was great to head behind the scenes with Rick and Victoria to spend a day in the life of a Lovely Drink! To find out more about the company, visit www.lovelydrinks.co.uk, or follow them on Twitter at @LovelyDrinks.
Find Lovely Drinks on the Bristol Bites Directory…