Jo Hilditch, Founder of British Cassis, On Blackcurrants And The Birth Of British Cassis
This month’s specialist contributor is Jo Hilditch, who came up with the idea of creating the original British Cassis, a slightly fresher, punchier alternative to crème de cassis, after spending ten years running her family’s blackcurrant farm in Herefordshire.
British Cassis has just won not one, but two gold stars at this year’s Great Taste awards. Jo has recently appeared on both Dragons’ Den (she turned down the offers of investment) and Countryfile.
Jo is also a founding member of The Blackcurrant Foundation.
For a great recipe using cassis go to plums poached in cassis.
The varieties of blackcurrants that we grow at the farm in Herefordshire have been developed by Ribena in order to give the best flavour to their product but also to spread the growing and harvesting season. The season starts with Ben Gairn in very early July and runs through Ben Starav, Ben Vane, Ben Hope, Ben Dorain ending with Ben Alder which usually takes us into early August. All the varieties are named after Scottish mountains as the varieties have been developed by the Scottish Crop Research Institute (now the John Hutton Institute)! Different areas of the country slightly differ in their harvesting window and it does also depend on the coldness of the spring. This year has been cooler during April and May and we started picking on around the 10th July. Two years ago we had a wonderfully warm March and April and harvesting actually started in June.
The crop – millions of berries
We have a total of 150 acres planted and we will expect to have a yield of around 350 plus tonnes. Most of these will end up in Ribena with some being sold to a local juicing company and some others being sold to a local company that produces IQF fruit (Individual Quick Frozen). That’s millions of berries! Some of those that we sell to the local juicing company come back to us to make our British Cassis.
The idea for British Cassis
Ten years ago I found I had additional blackcurrant crop and so decided to go into production for my own blackcurrant liqueur, calling it British Cassis. The first batch was made by trampling fruit in a half ton bin and mixing it with an augur drill. Although we have moved on a long way since those days, the process is still carried out on a very manual basis. This is a British take on the French staple but infinitely more delicious, less sweet and syrupy and really fruity – it’s a fantastic base for both cocktails and loads of recipes, sweet and sour. I use it in summer pudding, over ice cream, in game dishes and of course for the classic Kir royal. Alongside the cassis I have also developed four other flavours and a delicious jar of blackcurrants steeped in cassis.
Our sales have expanded from around 8,000 bottles in the first year, up to a target of well over 90,000 for this year and we have a broad range of outlets including being an own brand for Fortnum and Mason, and being listed at Waitrose and whole food shops and it’s also sold in a myriad of delis, garden centres, hamper companies and independent wine merchants.
A tongue in cheek use of the French language
There is no other product in the UK artisan drinks market that brands themselves in the way that we do; copying the French but using a different, and we think better technique – and with a tongue in cheek use of their language: British Cassis, British Framboise, British Fraise, British Poire and British Mure!
British cassis can be used really successfully in both summer pudding and in poached plums, and as Jo suggests, over ice cream. It’s also great in cocktails – for example in a Purple Velvet cocktail – and Jo gives the recipe below. The British cassis site also gives some great recipes for using blackcurrants and other fruit. Among them is an excellent recipe which mixes blackcurrants in with the traditional Christmas cranberry sauce.
Recipe for Purple Velvet cocktail
Jo has created her own version of a classic Guinness cocktail featuring the typical Irish tipple with a British twist. Usually known as a ‘Black Velvet’, her version is just that little bit sweeter, so get ready to paint the town purple!
- 150ml chilled Guinness
- 400ml chilled Champagne…or, of course, English sparkling wine
- 50ml British Cassis
Pour British Cassis into a champagne flute. Add the Guinness slowly, using the back of a spoon to float it on top of the Cassis. Add the Champagne, again using the back of the spoon in order to float this on top of the Guinness.