From the field to the fridge - how farmers are turning to ice cream-making

Pub party to mark major £300k revamp

  • Jeff Travis reports on a dairy farm that has launched a thriving ice cream business
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For as long as anyone can remember Northney Farm has been churning out milk and cream with military precision.

But six years ago something changed.

Instead of the milk being sent off to supermarkets and shops, it was whipped and frozen into one of the most delicious substances known to man – ice cream.

It’s hard to imagine a food more synonymous with happy times.

Whether it’s relishing a Mr Whippy on a balmy summer’s day at the beach, the instant excitement as a child when you heard the chorus of an ice cream van turning into your street, or tucking into jelly and ice cream at your gran’s, it seems everyone has a nostalgic connection with the stuff.

As the weather warms up (fingers firmly crossed) many of us may well be enjoying our first ice cream cone of the year as we saunter along a promenade somewhere in the Portsmouth area.

Farmer Tim Pike cottoned on to this love affair with ice cream and has turned it into a thriving business.

I meet him at his farm in Northney, a wonderfully scenic corner of Hayling Island.

Tim is one of a number of farmers who are diversifying, particularly in the light of the supermarket ‘milk wars’ which has seen the pint of a pint plummet to unsustainable levels.

Chatting to Tim, with his Pedigree Ayrshire herd mooing not far away, he tells me: ‘Northney Farm has been in the family for generations.

Tim Pike with ice cream produced using milk from his Ayrshire cows at Northney Farm, Hayling Island

Tim Pike with ice cream produced using milk from his Ayrshire cows at Northney Farm, Hayling Island

‘My family have lived in north Hayling since records began, at least the early 1700s.

‘I wanted to set up my own business, connected to the farm.

‘We looked into things you can do with milk and the most likely thing to succeed, I thought, was ice cream.

‘We are in an area where there are lots of tourists attractions and hopefully nice weather and there weren’t any other people doing ice cream in the Portsmouth area.

‘It looked on paper like a good idea and we have grown the business every year since.’

Unlike cheese or yoghurt, which can take days, weeks, or months to produce, Tim is able to whip up his ice cream on demand within 24 hours.

The farm produces 2,000 litres of milk a day, with a portion of it turned into ice cream.

All manner of flavours are available, from the traditional vanilla and strawberry, to more unconventional varieties, including bubble gum, ginger and my own personal weakness, coffee ice cream.

Thousands every month are distributed to local shops, cinemas, theatrea and one of the biggest attractions, Portsmouth Guildhall and Spinnaker Tower.

During the pantomime season over Christmas, demand hit the roof.

Good old vanilla remains the king in the ice cream production world, appealing to the vast majority of people’s palates.

Tim, who juggles his ice creamery and farm with raising two young children, says: ‘We listen to customers and develop new flavours and adjust them according to what people say.

‘We adjust the range every year according to what the latest trends are.

‘For 2016 we have introduced salted caramel across all sizes of tubs.

‘It’s certainly a challenge to produce ice cream here on a farm because we have to separate out the farming activities from what needs to be a very clean and efficient process.

‘So it’s been quite an expensive operation to set up.

‘We can respond very quickly to demand – so if we suddenly get a rush required, we can produce more ice cream within 24 hours.

‘It would be more difficult if we were producing cheese, which takes months to produce.’

Tim has big ambitions for the business.

Instead of most of the milk being tankered away for supermarkets, he has a sophisticated piece of kit which will be able to process all his milk and allow Northney to produce more homegrown ice cream, milk and cream to satisfy the Portsmouth area’s needs.

So what’s the secret to great ice cream?

‘It’s a combination between good ingredients and good process,’ explains Tim.

‘We have some complex and expensive equipment but it’s as much down to the quality of the ingredients.

‘So as well as using our own milk and cream, we buy quality ingredients and flavourings.

‘The quality of the ice-cream also comes down to the freezing process - it’s to do with the size of the ice crystals that are formed.

‘If you can taste the ice crystals then it won’t taste so good.’

Tim says he has seen a culture shift in ice cream eating.

‘People will buy a tub to have in their freezer as a dessert all year round,’ he says.

‘We sell a lot more in the summer to businesses on the beach, but more people buy ice cream as a pudding now at any time of the year.

‘We sell a lot to the theatres and people will get an ice cream at the interval no matter what the weather is like outside.

‘If it’s snowing outside, they will still buy an ice cream at the interval.’

One of the highlights of Tim’s life is seeing people eating his ice cream in places he never imagined.

The reach of his business continues to expand.

And he loves the fact he is making people happy.

‘It’s good because most people associate ice cream with having fun and it being a treat,’ he says.

‘It’s nice to see people engaged with thinking about where their food comes from and not just buying whatever is cheapest.

‘My favourite flavour is coconut.

‘We don’t sell a huge amount, but we are going to keep on producing it because it’s my favourite!

‘I will eat all of the flavours. We tend to have a bit left over at the end of the day which I might have myself.

‘But if I had a choice of everything I would still go for a tub of coconut.’

FUN FACTS ABOUT ICE CREAM

- Worldwide, around 15 billion litres (3.3 billion gallons) of ice cream are consumed every year, enough to fill 5,000 Olympic swimming pools.

- The largest worldwide consumption of ice cream is the US. The average person consumes 48 pints of ice cream every year.

- Over her entire lifetime, one cow can produce enough milk for 72,000 pints of ice cream.

- Historians remember that Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) loved to eat snow flavoured with nectar and honey.

- Some funkier flavours are currently on the market, including Wildberry Lavender, Sichuan Pepper, and Basil Avocado.

- The last thing Elvis Presley ate was four scoops of ice-cream and six chocolate chip cookies.

- The earliest known reference to ice-cream in English was in 1672.

- The cone didn’t appear until 1904, when a Syrian waffle maker at the St. Louis World’s Fair began rolling his pastries into horns to help an ice cream vendor who had run out of dishes.

MEMORIES OF VERRECCHIA’S ICE CREAM PARLOUR

There was a time when ice cream was produced in great quantities in the heart of Portsmouth.

Ice cream company Verrecchia was woven into the fabric of city life for more than seven decades.

Many people in our communities have memories of doing their courting over an ice cream sundae or milkshake at the family firm’s parlour opposite the Guildhall.

Many of the wooden booths displayed the carved initials and hearts common in courtship.

The company began life in the 1930s when Angelo Maria Verrecchia and his son Augusto left Italy and settled in Portsmouth.

Their shop in Guildhall Square opened its doors in 1933 and soon became a magnet for the in-crowd and working classes alike.

Stars including singer Dusty Springfield would pop in after performing at the Guildhall.

During the war Angelo’s wife Gemma ran the shop while he worked as an interpreter for the RAF.

The shop continued to thrive until 1969 when Portsmouth City Council made a compulsory purchase order on it.

The family had another shop in London Road, North End, but as time went on the company focused more and more on wholesale products.

The firm’s ice cream vans were a familiar sight across our area, and at fetes and fairs during the summer.

The tradition melted away when Verrecchia Ltd was forced to close its factory in Claybank Road, Copnor, because none of the younger family members wanted to take it over.

The Portsmouth at Play gallery at the city museum still features an original booth from a Verrecchia’s ice cream parlour.

Another Italian family business, based on the Isle of Wight, is still going strong.

Established in 1950 by master gelatiere Edward Minghella and his wife Gloria, the Minghella Ice Cream company was built on the ambition to create Edward’s dream: nothing less than the best ice cream in the world.

In the days when ice cream in England was only ever eaten in one flavour – plain – Edward was experimenting with espresso, strawberries, nuts and liqueurs to create new flavours.

Minghella Ice Cream is now run by Edward’s daughter Gioia and husband Richard.

CAROLINE’S DAIRY

Customers are given a simple warning ‘this product exploits human weakness’.

And people’s weakness for frozen cream is certainly paying dividends for farmers Caroline Spiby and her husband Chris.

Launched in 2008, Caroline’s Dairy produces handmade ice cream and sorbets from their working dairy farm in Sidlesham, near Chichester.

It supplies pubs, restaurants and farm shops across the south.

Like Northney, Chalder Farm has been forced to diversify as a war of milk prices among supermarkets has wiped millions of pounds off the industry.

The Spiby family have been producing milk for 40 years and started producing ice cream seven years ago.

Well over 90 per cent of their produce is still sold as milk to M&S.

This year the family were celebrating after scooping a top award at this year’s National Ice Cream Competition for the second year running.

Caroline’s team was awarded gold in the toffee class for their toffee and honeycomb ice cream.

Caroline says: ‘These prestigious awards celebrate the best ice cream in the UK so to win a Gold Medal is really something to be proud of.

‘We are so pleased that all our hard work and passion has been recognised.’

PANEL

For more information about Northney Farm, visit northneyicecream.comor call Tim Pike on

07786 545395.

The tea room is in Northney village, after the bridge, on Hayling Island.

For more information on Caroline’s Dairy visit carolinesdairy.co.ukor call 01243 641001.