independent

Wednesday 22 May 2019

Wexford's heritage bottled

Des Jeffares with his blackcurrant crop, and famous cordial
Des Jeffares with his blackcurrant crop, and famous cordial

Simon Bourke

Anyone of a certain vintage, a certain age, will remember summers spent working at Jeffares blackcurrants. They will remember cycling out to Ballykelly House, en masse, to pick fruit under a blazing hot sun, perhaps sampling some of the produce in the process as they helped create what has become a Wexford institution.

And it is this sense of nostalgia, these misty-eyed recollections, which provided the inspiration for one of Mr Jeffares' newest products, an authentic nod to the past which, in many ways, helped to save what is now the only commercial blackcurrant farm in the country.

'Ribena pulled out of Ireland in 2013, they would have been a big stalwart of ours. Dealing with the shock of that, it was very hard to keep going,' says Des Jeffares of the news which threatened to cripple his business completely. Having previously been a poster boy for the company, featuring in adverts for Ribena which had been screened throughout the UK, Des was facing the prospect of life without his primary customer, a client which had helped solidify Jeffares place in the market.

Yet contingency plans were already in place. Des had been looking at ways to soften the blow as soon as he'd learned of Ribena's intentions, and had devised a high-risk venture which he hoped would save Mr Jeffares Blackcurrants.

'I asked "how can we continue this?" Des recalls. The answer lay somewhere deep within the past. 'I remember as a child my mother making this fantastic juice, pure juice drink in the kitchen during the summertime, and it was very much a case of trying to hone those memories to create the cordial, ensuring it was as simple and as pure as possible.'

Thus Mr Jeffares Irish Blackcurrant Cordial was born, a drink which instantly transports those who were there at the time right back to those lush green fields, to those days spent out at Ballykelly House.

'The heritage angle was huge,' Des says. 'People would have remembered growing up, picking fruit here as kids, whole families would have been here. I've even heard of relationships being created under bushes at Jeffares farm,' he laughs.

While his risk paid off, his cordial gone on to become a great success, a staple in every Wexford kitchen, Des admits that it represented a huge risk on his part. 'There were pitfalls, it was very high risk but we felt we had to make a go for it. If we hadn't tried it I would have regretted it.'

However, having averted crisis, the onus now is on developing Mr Jeffares Blackcurrants, exploring as many new fields as possible.

'Killowen Yogurts use our blackcurrants, Wexford Preserves have won awards since they started buying from us. Yellow Belly Beer bought from us last year, they produced a lovely lady's beer, blackcurrant and heather honey flavoured. It was very strong,' Des says with a smile.

And although the majority of his business continues to come through retailers buying blackcurrants in bulk, Des is keen to develop partnerships and nurture relationships with other food companies who place emphasis on producing high-quality, healthy stock.

'There's a huge ethos on good quality local produce now and our blackcurrants tie into that,' Des says of the sea-change in Irish culture which has led to health-conscious consumers seeking out nutritious 'super-foods'. 'Blackcurrants are high in Vitamin C, much more so than cranberries or blueberries, they really fit into the healthy lifestyle across all ages,' he adds.

This mindset has also spread into how Des produces his blackcurrants, into an increased focus on sustainability and environmental awareness.

'We're working on the sustainability side of things with Bord Bia, we're a full member of Origin Green and part of the Wexford Food Family. It's important that we can stand over the product and declare it's got a good clean bill of health.'

However, he is cognisant of the fact that there's one battle, the one against the elements, which even he might not be able to win.

'It was dangeously mild last winter. If we don't get a a winter chill the plants don't sleep and don't know where they are, the spring comes in and some plants start to flower while others might not even have buds. I can't remember that happening when I was growing up, but it's happened three times in the last few years. I do feel things are getting more severe, I would be concerned, but we've all got the opportunity to do something to change it.'

Right now though, Mr Jeffares Blackcurrants is dealing with whatever challenges are being placed in its path, going from strength to strength at a time when others fall and falter. This survival instinct comes not just from Des's ability to adapt to his circumstances, to move with the times and recover from potentially fatal blows, but also from a love of his product and of the land from which it grows.

'I'm the third generation of our family to grow blackcurrants, I've been doing it all my life. It's synonymous with the region of Wexford, it's part of the folklore, part of our culture and heritage. We're fighting imports all the time, it's a challenge, but it's one that we're winning.'

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