Ice cream making at Red Lion farm
We went along to Red Lion farm, a family-run dairy farm in Haughton, Staffordshire, to find out how they make their delicious ice cream. We pulled up outside a very smart Scandinavian-looking log cabin (their shop and tea-room) and were met by Alison Hollinshead, who runs the business with her mother and father.
The family had always had a farm shop and enjoyed dealing with the public so her father jumped at the chance to buy some ice cream-making equipment from a Newport manufacturer who was going out of business, convert an old barn into an ice cream factory and start selling direct to the consumer.
The milk comes from their herd of pedigree Jersey cows (Alison’s ‘little ladies’) and, while half the milk produced goes down the road to a local farmer who has his own processing plant and sells pasteurised milk locally, the other half makes the short journey from the milking parlour to the factory and is turned into the deliciously rich and creamy ice cream that only Jersey milk can make.
The ice cream making process is less complicated than we thought it would be:
– The milk is pasteurised with cream and butter (the base of all their flavours) and any required flavourings (such as cocoa for the chocolate ice cream)
– The mixture is then homogenised, which means that the fat is broken into tiny particles that remain suspended in liquid rather than rising to the top as cream does in untreated milk, meaning that the last tub in that batch of ice cream will be the same as the first
– It is then chilled in an ageing vat for at least six hours to around -5C, which gives it a Mr Whippy consistency that enables them to squeeze the ice cream into the tubs
– Finally, it is frozen to around -21C
The result is a wonderful niche product that comes in 25-30 flavours and a variety of pack sizes. Butter & Cream is their biggest seller, accounting for 80% of their sales, but they will continually experiment with different flavours.
Christmas Pudding is proving to be very popular (we had a taste and it is unbelievably good) and, as they only sell it as a seasonal product, one loyal customer buys enough tubs to last him the whole year!
On average, they sell 1,000 to 1,500 litres of ice cream a week, either directly from the farm shop or through selected regional outlets. Alison also goes to about ten local shows a year and sells the ice cream from a small trailer. As a result, the majority of their customer base is made up of local people, including a loyal group of Harper Adams students that come on Fridays!
It was very interesting talking to Alison about running this type of business. One thing she remarked on was the difference between working in farming and working in the ice-cream industry – there is less loyalty within the latter and it requires a different mindset to succeed – which got us thinking about how many farmers have had to learn completely different industries since there has been this greater need to diversify.
She also talked about opportunities that had arisen to grow the business, such as selling to a supermarket.
Initially, she jumped at the chance but soon found the supermarket was undercutting the smaller retailers, which obviously made them unhappy. As with any small business, there came a point where she had to decide what she wanted from it for herself.
Getting bigger might mean more money and more employment but you then run the risk of losing what you loved about it in the first place. In Alison’s case, dealing with farmers, meeting people and getting mud on your boots is what it’s all about so she decided to keep it small and local.
Finally, there was the incident with the chilli!
We’ve all done it – you add a small amount and have a try but can’t taste any chilli. So you chuck a bit more in at exactly the same time as your throat suddenly catches alight.
Now, that’s not so bad when you’re just making a curry at home, but it’s potentially disastrous if you end up with a whole batch of ice cream you can’t sell. Nothing that good business sense can’t overcome though – Alison just took the ice cream to a local show and advertised her Chilli Challenge.
People flocked to have a go and it generated a lot of local publicity. Furthermore, what do people want to buy when their throat is on fire? Exactly! Brilliant.
Red Lion Farm
Church Eaton Road