Ice-cream in Pailton
PUBLISHED: 16:06 20 July 2012 | UPDATED: 21:38 20 February 2013
The Dalby family is celebrating 25 years of making ice-cream at their farm near Pailton. Jane Sullivan reports
Standing in the garden of Cestersover Farm near Pailton you have views over the gentle hills of north Warwickshire. To the south, the towers of Rugby School and the cement works are in the distance and all around there are woods, and pastures and the River Swift which feeds the Warwickshire Avon wends its way through the fields at the bottom of the hill.
In this pretty part of north Warwickshire Brian and Sheila Dalby have been making ice-cream for 25 years. Their granddaughter Bethan, 18, has recently joined them in the family business bringing new ideas, IT skills and enthusiasm.
Brian and Sheila came to the 545-acre farm in 1968, moving from a farm near Kettering in Northamptonshire. This was a slightly bigger farm and it was in a ring fence all the land was together so there was no travelling on the roads to get to the fields. We have a hundred pedigree dairy cows here and about 450 animals in all.
When milk quotas were introduced in the 1980s Brian and Sheila looked for a way of being able to produce more milk without being clobbered by the Ministry of Agriculture (now DEFRA).
In those days you could make ice-cream or yoghurt from your own milk and not need a quota, says Brian. We looked at yoghurt but it has a fairly short shelf-life so we tried ice-cream.
It took a while to get the recipe right. Our first batches werent creamy enough, says Brian. Sheila adds: We visited a couple of ice-cream makers and took advice from the machinery manufacturers but it was trial and error really.
Right from the start, the couple wanted to make a natural product and went to a lot of trouble to source products that were not packed with artificial flavourings or colours. For example, their honey ice-cream is flavoured with Warwickshire honey from John Home. Nowadays, the goalposts on food labelling have moved and products that are heated to preserve their flavour and kill harmful bacteria cannot be labelled natural as the cooking is regarded as processing even if they contain nothing but the source ingredient.
Brian opens a large vat of strawberry preserve and the intense scent fills the homely farmhouse kitchen where were doing our tasting. The preserve is pure strawberries which have been cooked and canned. Nothing else added. It smells wonderful and makes fabulous strawberry ice-cream. Because the couple refuse to use artificial colourings their strawberry ice-cream can confuse customers accustomed to the Barbie-pink strawberry ice-cream theyd find in the supermarket. The colour is a sort of pink-beige and Brian often has to persuade customers who think theyve been given the wrong flavour to give it a lick. It might be easier to pop a dash of cochineal in to jazz up the colour but that wouldnt be true to the natural ethos.
The ice-cream is made in a small room across the hall from the familys kitchen. Brian admits theres not much to see. The cream and milk is churned in a big grey machine and then to a pasteuriser before being packed and frozen. And, thats it.
The base flavour, vanilla, is used for all the ice-creams. Today there are 18 flavours and Bethan has persuaded her grandparents to experiment with less-traditional flavours such as apple crumble and lemon meringue. Shes also working on a range of sorbets. A recent innovation latching onto the national obsession with baking is cupcake ice-creams which have proved very popular for birthday parties.
The family make around 40 batches of ice-cream a week (each batch is 12 litres) during the height of summer. And talking of summer, how has this years dismal apology affected the business?
Its been variable, says Brian. The shops have not done so well but some of the functions and shows have been very good. Its hard to predict. The Kenilworth Show was wet and cold and we hardly sold anything. But we went to a ferret racing evening which was cold and dry and sold a lot we had a good night.
Functions and shows are important to sales. The family has invested in an ice-cream trike an eBay find and a cart, which attract custom. On the retail side farm shops are the main outlets. When we started we had a lot of village shops, says Brian. But those have dwindled and the ones that are left only sell a small amount.
All this talk of ice-cream is making my mouth water. We taste the vanilla. Its smooth and not too heavy on the palate refreshing in a way that some creamier versions arent. Its also not too over-sweet as so many factory-made ice-creams are. The strawberry is lovely, not too lumpy and more subtle, less cloying, than the in-your-face synthetic versions. I particularly like the ginger with nuggets of stem ginger would be wonderful with brandy snaps, I think. With one eye on my expanding waistline I reluctantly put my spoon down so many flavours, but Ill leave some for next time.
Its clear that the Dalbys have a good head for marketing. Brian is on the board of Heart of England Fine Foods and has seen custom expanding beyond Warwickshire. We supply shops as far afield as Cambridge, Lichfield and Gloucestershire, he says.
Bethan helps out with packaging. One of the problems for a small business is the packaging, says Brian. You dont want to invest in thousands of labels if you only need twenty at a time. A new label printer and Bethans IT skills have helped here.
From the early days of the business it was meeting the customers that the Dalbys enjoyed, and still do. Its interesting meeting the public and satisfying to be able to tell people where the ice-cream comes from and what goes into it, says Sheila. There are a lot of peanut allergies around and when people ask if our ice-cream contains nuts we can tell them that there are no peanuts in our products. Were also totally gluten-free.
So of all the 18 flavours that the Dalbys make, its surprising that best-selling ice-cream is always vanilla, unless the Dalbys are at an equestrian event where the favourite flavour is always chocolate. Dont ask me why but chocolate is always the favourite with the horsey crowd, says Brian.
As we take our leave I look over the fields to see the cows contentedly chewing the cud in the fields beyond the barn. Theres a lot of satisfaction in seeing a product being made from start to finish. Customers are welcome to drop in at the farm; or look out for it in local farm shops.
Ringswood Ice Cream
Cestersover Farm, Pailton
Rugby, CV23 0QP
Tel: 01788 832188