What a Scoop!
PUBLISHED: 11:41 20 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:43 20 February 2013
Christine McFadden meets the creative couple behind the award-winning Purbeck Ice Cream Company<br/><br/>Photos: Manuela Boeckle
Christine McFadden meets the creative couple behind the award-winning
Purbeck Ice Cream Company
Photos: Manuela Boeckle
Just outside Corfe Castle, up a steep and winding road, lies an easily missed stony track that leads up yet another hill to a farm and some timber-clad industrial buildings. Haughty llamas and woolly sheep graze on the lush grass outside, while inside, Hazel and Peter Hartle, co-owners of the Purbeck Ice Cream Company, produce award-winning ices and sorbets.
Like most food producers I meet, Hazel and Peter are a force to be reckoned with: practical, passionate perfectionists, whove survived the bad times too. They met in 1978 when Hazel, a 17-year-old veterinary nurse, was hitch-hiking home from work in Swanage. Peter, a full-time fireman, obligingly gave her a lift. Three years later, they bought the 126-acre farm where they still live, and by the mid-1980s were dairy farmers managing a 60-strong herd of Friesians and three very young children.
Just when things were looking good, the then Conservative government imposed milk quotas, forcing the couple to reduce their herd to 30 cows a figure too low to make a profit. The couple appealed and were subsequently allowed 45 cows, but the maths still didnt work. So they racked their brains for possible alternatives: arable (wrong type of soil), horses (too stony), deer farming (too expensive). Eventually they went back to Plan A as Hazel calls it, which was to create a milk-based product that did not compete with other local enterprises. Purbeck is superb for dairy farming, Hazel enthuses. With the lush grass, sea air and good rainfall you get lovely milk and cream, rich in butterfat, and perfect for proper ice cream.
As the next step, she and Peter set off on a series of ice cream crawls. Were no good at pubs, but ice cream is different, laughs Hazel. They identified a gap in the market for real dairy ice cream, and so the decision was made. Hazel enrolled on an ice cream training course, one of the farm buildings was converted into an ice cream parlour and they launched into production, flipping a coin to decide who would do the deliveries and who would stay at home with the children.
Meanwhile, Hazel had become friendly with food scientist and ice cream specialist Dr James Rothwell, who helped her develop the first recipe. I wanted a product in which you could actually taste the milk and cream rather than other flavours, she explains. The formula couldnt be simpler no eggs, no custard base, no gluten, no nuts, no artificial flavours or added colours. She offers me a sample of Purbeck Clotted Cream Ice Cream and I can immediately taste what she is getting at. It is rich and creamy, not in the least bit cloying, and it leaves a refreshingly clean taste in the mouth.
I wanted a product in which you could actually taste the milk and cream rather than other flavours
Donning white boots, overalls and what Hazel calls head knickers, we set off round the factory where I meet some of the all-important team. The team are the next best ingredient, says Hazel. Theyre chosen with care from the local community. We respect their input. On the day of my visit, pasteurising queen Sandy Stockley and two others are off sick, so everyone is pitching in even the Sales Director is helping to fill tubs. Its that kind of place.
Though the ice cream formula itself is simple, the manufacturing process is more complex. The milk is collected by tanker from local farms, and then pumped into a huge tank affectionately known as Big Mama. From here it is piped to a pasteurising unit and heated, and then forced at enormous pressure though minuscule holes a process known as homogenisation. It makes a smoother mix, explains Hazel. After overnight ageing, the mix is divided into batches and pumped into smaller tanks, and the ice cream-making begins. Fruit, chocolate or other ingredients are added to some of the batches; Roz Lewis, production team leader, sets up the recipes on a screen.
The mixture is piped from the tanks into the freezing units and then into containers, some of which are filled by hand. Roz does a two-hour stint managing the flow, concentrating like an air traffic controller as she dextrously lines up the tubs. Shes faster than any machine, says Hazel proudly.
Though the system appears foolproof, it has had its hiccups. One of the white pipes leading to the freezer units became blocked, expanded like a rugby ball and then exploded. Hazel recalls how she heard a desperate shout of Mess! Mess! Mess! and came running in to find strawberry ice cream sprayed from one end of the room to the other, dripping off the ceiling, and covering one of the operatives from head to foot. A camera moment fun to watch but a complete pain to clear up, she says.
Next we visit the storeroom where the temperature is a bone-chilling 23C. Here I find Frozen Stock Controller Philip Cooper suitably clad in Arctic expedition gear. Within seconds my summer jeans are frozen stiff with cold and my glasses have steamed up for good, or so it seems. Keeping my visit necessarily brief, I step outside into what feels like the sweltering tropics rather than a typical chilly English summer day.
We retire to the relative warmth of the boardroom where we are joined by four very friendly retriever dogs, and I am presented with ice cream to try. The dogs are not allowed anywhere near the factory floor, says Hazel. But they love the ice cream and wait for tubs to appear.
Purbeck is superb for dairy farming, with lush grass, sea air and good rainfall you get lovely milk and cream, rich in butterfat, and perfect for proper ice cream
I adore spicy flavours so I dig first into a tub of Black Pepper Ice Cream. It is gorgeous pungent, creamy and clean-tasting with a pleasantly slow burn rather than industrial-strength heat. I move on to Chilli Red, created for Springbourne Fire Station near Bournemouth, as a fiery finale to a Mexican-themed dinner. It is the most divine shade of pink, with just the right amount of heat. Continuing with exotics, my next treats are an intensely aromatic cardamom-flavoured ice cream good with a curry perhaps and another made with beetroot and horseradish, a small dollop of which would be good with roast beef.
Joes Cider Sorbet is another intense taste experience. Clocking up zero food miles, it is made with cider produced by Hazel and Peters second son, Joe, using Dorset apples gathered on the farm. To finish the tasting session, I had just enough room for a spoonful of St Clements, this summers latest variety, packed with tangy citrus flavours, as the name suggests.
Twenty-three years down the line, the company is still going strong, churning out 4,500 litres of ice cream a day, and supplying airlines, cruise ships, theatres and restaurants, as well as local farm shops and supermarkets. They even supply tubs for the patients at the Royal Bournemouth Hospital. The calcium in milk and cream is good for bones and teeth, explains Hazel.
The couple are dedicated to looking after the countryside around them. They have planted trees, maintained hedgerows, installed boxes for birds and bats, and created animal-friendly areas around the buildings hence the llamas and sheep. Peter is passionate about getting the best from the environment, says Hazel. Weve made sure our carbon footprint today is no bigger than when we were farming. To this end, Peter has created an ingenious cooling system for the ice cream machines: cold water is pumped from the family swimming pool and circulated round the machines, chilling them in the process, before being pumped back to the pool by which time it is warm enough to make swimming bearable! He has also installed wind-monitoring equipment, energy efficient compressors, and thicker building panels to retain cold or heat more effectively. Next on the list are photovoltaic solar panels for the roof.
Hazel still loves ice cream and eats it every day. A pig-out on Ben & Jerrys is fine now and again, she says, but not if you want to eat ice cream every day. Replete on gorgeous samples, I ask her about future plans for the company. Were growing organically and arent hungry for more. We just want to carry on providing the very best ice cream at the most affordable price, she says, adding that at some point theyd like a day or two to relax in a deckchair with a large gin.
This is adapted from one of the gorgeous recipes on the Purbeck Ice Cream website
Pimms with Purbeck Quince Sorbet, Cucumber, Melon and Mint
1 measure Pimms, chilled
3 measures lemonade, chilled
5 balls Honeydew melon, chilled
1 tsp cucumber matchsticks
tsp shredded mint leaves
1 scoop Purbeck Quince Sorbet
1. Combine Pimms and lemonade, and pour into a large chilled cocktail glass.
2. Stir in melon, cucumber and mint.
3. Top with the scoop of sorbet, and serve with a teaspoon.
Purbeck Ice Cream is available at some branches of Asda, Co-op, Budgens and Londis, National Trust shops and tea rooms, and the following farm shops. It is not sold directly from the farm.
Pamphill Farm Shop, Newton Farm, Sturminster Marshall, Wimborne, BH21 4AN.
Stevens Farm Shop, Martinstown, Dorchester
DT2 9JR. 01305 889216
Washingpool Farm Shop, Dottery Road, North Allington, Bridport, DT6 5HP. 01308 4595459, washingpool.co.uk