Flavour from a weed

KATE FRASER
Last updated 05:00 06/02/2013
mark dillon
STACY SQUIRES/Fairfax NZ

CORDIAL KING: Mark Dillon uses elderflower, rhubarb, gooseberries and rosehip in his nostalgic drinks.

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Run your eyes over this lot: elderflowers, rhubarb, gooseberries, rosehips. Get the picture?

If "old-fashioned" popped up, you'd be right - these were the flowers and the fruits your granny put to good use in her kitchen. Now, for Christchurch marketing entrepreneur Mark Dillon, these ingredients represent a business opportunity.

Five years ago Dillon was planning to import a range of ciders. As a brand manager in the liquor industry he had become aware of international interest in what he calls "nostalgic products" - that is, the old way of fruits grown at home and made at home into drinks and cordials.

In today's celebrity-mad world, "foraging" is the latest must-do for a chef. The story usually plays out with a chef, a basket overflowing with picturesque ingredients (mushrooms, seaweed, weed-weeds), and a photographer. Dillon has developed a business based on foraging for once well-known garden and wild ingredients including one still widely regarded as the flower of a weed tree.

Nostalgia for a simpler, more sustainable way of life can be a powerful marketing tool, or if overdone (think teddy bears and cottages with roses...) a complete turnoff. Dillon's approach to publicity and possibly the use of "Aroha" for his brand of drinks are, however, low-key. A surprise then to realise the flavours he has developed are a sophisticated combination of tart, sweet and floral.

The Aroha range of cordials and sparkling drinks includes elderflower, rhubarb, gooseberry, rosehip, lemon and honey, blackcurrant, quince and feijoa, but in the beginning it was all about the elderflower. Nothing new here as elderflower-based syrups have been in the market for some 20 years, but Dillon attributes the early success of Aroha's elderflower cordial to an old family recipe. "And we have plenty of elderberry trees on the farm so no shortage of flowers." The trial batch was good, so Dillon entered it in Cuisine magazine's search for artisan producers, it was runnerup for the supreme award, Moore Wilson in Wellington sold out and suddenly it was all on.

For all that he had "a detailed business plan" and considers himself to be "thoughtful and determined" he still sounds slightly surprised at this immediate success. Not one to gush though, he laconically describes his booming business "as meeting all my expectations". The first batch of cordial was made in the family garage, then a purpose-built kitchen handled the production, and as other flavours and drinks were added, Aroha is now produced in a commercial factory in Christchurch. The elderflower season is brief but other flavours are added when they meet with the owner's approval.

Dillon has kept to his nostalgia theme and with the sparkling range now on the market he is working on the release of new flavours for a still drinks range. A new fruit - green currant - is being trialled in an elderflower combination, and there is a work in progress combining the young green juice from sauvignon blanc grapes with saffron ("a nice colour, and saffron adds complexity to grape juice").

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"Production and bottling facilities in Christchurch are good," he says. "Our growth is only limited by fruit availability but we have different crops right through spring, summer and autumn." He is, he says "a careful guy" and is aware of the dangers of "limited quantities". However, he is always looking for new fruit. "Sloes for instance grow wild in the South Island, then there's damsons . . ."

The Aroha range is exported to Singapore, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates. In New Zealand it is widely available in bars and cafes.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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