Elderflowers make Romania's rural economy blossom

As elder trees add to the beauty of Romania's landscapes, their white flowers help its rural economy grow when they are turned into cordials exported to Britain and Japan.

Every year Romanians anxiously await the blossom season in May and June to pick the delicately scented flowers and concoct a traditional soft drink called "socata".

The refreshing beverage has also inspired US giant Coca-Cola to launch an elderflower-based drink, Fanta Shokata.

In Transylvania, a picturesque region praised by Britain's Prince Charles for its rich flora and traditional agriculture, hundreds of seasonal workers carrying wicker baskets set out early in the morning to pick elderflowers.

They deliver their daily harvest to a small firm producing cordials, jams and chutneys, Transylvania Food Company (TFC), based in the village of Saschiz.

"Last year we picked 27 tonnes of elderflowers," manager Jim Turnbull told AFP.

As the flowers spoil rapidly, they are turned into juice which is exported to Great Britain.

A processing company, Bottlegreen, then turns the juice into cordials and sparkling drinks which it sells in Britain, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong and Japan.

"We've got a five-year rolling contract which allows us to develop our business" in Saschiz, Turnbull said.

Set up in 2010, his company has five full-time employees and has become the second-largest private employer in this village of 2,000.

Romanian, American and Australian businessmen invested 350,000 euros ($467,700) in TFC. Their aim was to help the region develop by stimulating traditional agriculture through a "middle-sized project".

Around 1,300 seasonal workers pick elderflowers every spring.

TFC pays two lei (45 euro cents, 60 US cents) for a kilo of flowers, which is more than what they used to get when they sold the harvest to medicinal herb traders, one of the villagers told AFP.

"This revenue helps us a lot," said Alin Barabas, whose parents are among the pickers.

An experienced picker can collect up to 20 kilos per day, bringing in 40 lei (9 euros, $12) in a country where the minimum monthly wage is just under $200.

Turnbull said he believes TFC offers a fair price and notes some "get often what might be their only income in a period of a few weeks" from picking elderflowers as there are no other cash crops so early in the season.

-- 'An old tradition in Romania' --

In the neighbouring village of Bunesti, Sorin Neculaie has also gone into making elderflower syrup.

After working in Finland in electronics and the food industry, Neculae felt the need to go back to the landscapes and the rural life he used to know as a child.

Thanks to the 100-percent natural currant and elderflower syrup he makes and sells to several restaurants throughout Romania he could return to his native village and start a new life.

A bold decision in a region where many choose to emigrate to other EU nations in search of better paid jobs and brighter perspectives.

The ADEPT Foundation, which helps local producers benefit from a low-rent workshop meeting European standards in Saschiz, made it possible for Neculae to go into business without having to come up with tens of thousands of dollars to set up his own production facility.

"Elderflower drinks are an old tradition in Romania," Neculae said.

Under the communist regime when soft drinks were not available in shops, "'socata' was a wonderful beverage for us, children," said Carla Szabo, one of Romania's most famous jewellery designers.

Even after the fall of communism in 1989, Romanians did not abandon their 'socata', although the local market has been flooded by Western brands of beverages.

In 2002, Coca-Cola released the Fanta Shokata, "after having studied the traditional recipe of the Romanian 'socata'," the company told AFP. The drink is sold in several Balkan countries.

And the traditional 'socata' has made a comeback in private kitchens and public bars.

Octavian, a Bucharest bartender, says he prepares 'socata' every spring and serves it to thirsty customers including many well-known artists.

Szabo said she started making 'socata' three years ago, driven by "nostalgia over (her) childhood".

"The comeback of 'socata' is also related to this new trend that makes people pay more interest to their diet, to homemade, natural products," she stressed.

"People are also becoming more conscious of the extraordinary things they can find in Romania and that anyone can afford."