I have a weakness for small well run factories. Perhaps it’s because I’m orderly by nature that I get excited about wholesale production organised into cartons and pallets stacked up and ready to be dispatched into the messy world of retail.
A few weeks ago while on holiday in Devon I arranged to visit the Salcombe Dairy ice cream factory. There’s no getting away from the food business even on holiday, but actually why would you want to? Two years ago I’d been in Cornwall, not far from the Tregothnan estate and had engineered a private tour round the Boscawen family’s massive 15000 acre estate, primarily to visit the only tea estate in England.
Coincidentally, there is a connection as the Boscawen family own the Devon-based business, and are the distributors for it from their family property in Kent. I have known the MD Dan Bly and James, Head of Sales, from Salcombe Dairy well from food trade exhibitions. (They always know to have a taster spoon of their Tregothnan Honey frozen yoghourt ready when I am lurking.) All the flavours are exceptional, particularly the honeycomb, their best seller, which has chunks of the stuff thrown into the mix by hand by seasoned operators.
My visit began with donning the full gear appropriate for entering a food manufacturing unit (particularly a dairy one): white coat, hair and head covering and the most enormous white wellingtons, which made me feel about 4 years old. I have to tell you that the factory is absolutely spotless.
The manufacturing process is surprisingly simple with few ingredients involved. The basis for most of the ice cream is milk from a local farm which is delivered daily. Each tanker delivery is tested by the Dairy staff before it is off loaded, as consistency is crucial. To maintain maximum control, it is also supplied raw, and the pasteurisation carried out in house in the factory. Other ingredients are sugar and seaweed (no eggs), and the natural flavours. Cream and yoghourt comes from other local farms and the testing is just as rigorous.
Surprisingly, for the amount of ice cream produced the processing unit is quite small – I’d say around 1500 square feet. Out of this Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines take a sizeable chunk, and retail outlets in the South East of England and of course all over the West country, bar Cornwall. Why the exception, I ask? Dan tells me that ancient rivalries between Devon and Cornwall contribute to that. And competition is fierce. Food feuding apparently still goes on over whether the Cream Tea was first invented in Devon or Cornwall, with continued discussions over whether the jam or the clotted cream should be put first on the scone. It puts the competition between London and Paris in the shade.
At any one time, only one or two flavours are being made. On the day I was there, it was choc chip and mint. For the most part, the combinations are fairly standard, suiting the local core business, but other more adventurous varieties like chocolate and chilli are run to suit their more niche customers too. The 2 litre containers were automatically date stamped, sealed and immediately transferred to a blast freezer. And then to the beautifully organised dispatch room. All so seemingly simple and straightforward.
As we de-robe, we talked about their future development plans, which include modernising the branding, extending the factory and expanding sales into the Midands. And then I sat in the sun in the adjacent factory cafe with a delicious Tregothnan Honey ice cream cone in my hand. A holiday educational highlight.