The cream of Dorset
A taste of Dorset: Purbeck Ice Cream was born of necessity following a change in policy of milk quotas, but as Julian Powell observes, it has become an icon of Dorset quality produce
Published in April ’12
When one thinks of ice cream, one’s thoughts immediately think of luxury and indulgence, of warm summer days and a much-needed treat. It is a million miles away from the original reason for the setting up of the Purbeck Ice Cream company, though. Thirty years ago, Hazel and Peter Hartle had a dream to farm and, coming up on a quarter century ago, that dream was fulfilled when they bought a farm (although not a home) on which to raise a dairy herd.
They had worked out that in order to be a viable operation, they would need a herd of eighty cows and, for three years, they lived in a caravan as they sought to build up their herd. After three to four years of milking, the government imposed a milk quota based on, not the sixty cows they had, but thirty; it was a level on which they could not survive and so they appealed. They got the quota raised to 45 cows – an improvement, but still not enough for them to be able to make a living out of farming; the dream was over. As Hazel recalls: ‘Peter looked at all the possible alternatives to dairy farming but, after considering worm farming, deer farming and raising water buffalo, we decided to stick with Plan A: dairy farming, and to consider other ways to survive the quota restriction. The only milk-related items which were outside of the milk quota were flavoured milk, yoghurts and ice cream… and we loved ice cream.’
Hazel and Peter went off to take a course on ice cream making with Celia Haynes – who, with her husband (also Peter), had been making ice cream since 1984. ‘We got lost on the way there and arrived late,’ Hazel remembers, ‘and I was still nursing [her son] Ben, so he came with me. Celia was very helpful and as we were hours away, we weren’t in competition. Peter and I decided to sink some money into making ice cream and bought a batch freezer and invested in a small walk-in cold store, an ex-Bejam freezer and a van.’ Purbeck Ice Cream was born.
Philosophically little has changed as to how the Hartles produce their ice cream in the intervening decades: ‘We wanted the ice cream first and a hint of flavour later.’ There were practical and financial reasons, too, Hazel says, for the purity of the product: ‘we wanted to use all the excess milk we could and we had no money for the kind of additives that other makers used. We were really careful to make ice cream as well as possible.’
Once again, though, a milk production volume issue had to be resolved: ‘we were generating quite a lot of skimmed milk, which we couldn’t sell and couldn’t dispose of, so we bought a whole load of pigs which, while solving the skimmed milk problem did raise others!
Although Purbeck Ice Cream now has a double-digit work force, the business is still very much a family one, but at first this was through necessity rather than choice. ‘The kids had little freezer coats by the time they could walk,’ says Hazel. ‘At first Peter was working full-time and I was nursing full-time at Swanage hospital. We started off knocking on doors and we got a lot of lucky breaks.’
One of these was coming into contact with a Business Link adviser who asked: ‘What is your plan?’ That simple question changed the way the Hartles did business, and also their dream. ‘One of the things that came out of the planning exercise was that we had to come out of farming; it was incredibly hard for Peter,’ Hazel recalls, ‘we sold the cows and the quota and a bit of land. We had two consecutive five-year plans, which we actually achieved within six [rather than ten] years, so we now do three-year plans. They are on a single piece of paper as, if you don’t keep things simple, you lose sight of them.’
The simplicity extends to their sourcing policy: ‘All our milk is guaranteed from Purbeck, all our cream and clotted cream is from Dorset, the water for our sorbets comes from Encombe. The first product was traditional ice cream; we looked for a nice additive-free vanilla, but in the end we just put ice cream in it and called it “Traditional”. Our first flavoured ice cream was blackberry, then raspberry, even without any artificial flavours and preservatives, our product has a shelf life of a year.
Ten years ago, the Hartles had a breakthrough when they attended a trade show at the NEC. Hazel remembers they were not alone: ‘We saw there were a dozen or so ice cream makers there so we decided to do something to make us stand out from the crowd and made 24 litres of a chilli ice cream which had been developed for a party of firemen at Springbourne fire station; much to our surprise, it went down really well and took the show by storm. Both Somerfield and Tesco placed orders at the show and there was great feedback from chefs attending the show so we then launched a “spice-rack” range for use by chefs.’
So with the twenty-fifth anniversary on the horizon, it is worth looking at what has changed and what has remained the same at Purbeck Ice Cream: the range has grown to ten sorbets, eight ‘spice rack’ flavours and over a dozen flavours available in 125ml and 500ml tubs; the philosophy has remained unchanged, but the workforce has grown to fifteen – sixteen if you include ‘Colin’ the thirty-year-old freezer – half of whom come from farming. Staff retention is high, thanks to events like the annual conker competition, ‘talk like a pirate’ day, hoedown and other one-offs which – like the GMO-free, artificial additive-free, gluten-free, added-colour-free and above all delicious products the staff help to produce – combine a child-like sense of fun, with an emphasis on improving quality and quality of life.