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Meet the Founding Fathers, the pioneers, and the innovators behind the Dorset Food and Drink revolution
Groucho Marx famously observed: “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” If local food group Dorset Food & Drink had come calling, however, he would have been finessing a chutney recipe by nightfall. The organisation’s relentless promotion of members, events and local produce is an inseparable element of Dorset’s foodie renaissance. The aim of Dorset Food and Drink is to celebrate the terrific diversity of produce in the county, and to bring it under one community banner. Flying in the face of collective responsibility, we grabbed a handful of key Dorset producers to trace their individual back story.
Urning a living
The Gilded Tea Pot
Blame the short monsoon season, blame the chalky soil, but Dorset consistently ranks outside the top tier when it comes to the production of fine leaf tea. In 2010, Dorset native Jo Davies decided to strike back by opening The Gilded Tea Pot on the site of a former tobacconists in Dorchester. Her mission? To track down the world’s finest loose leaf teas. Her reward? A Great Taste Gold Award within two years.
Jo had a background in tea, but didn’t like what she saw. “As the quality on supermarket shelves got worse and worse, I took the bull by the horns and decided to open a home for tea in Dorchester, to help tea drinkers explore different tastes, types and blends of tea from far-flung corners of the globe.”
“At that time, the green shoots of loose leaf tea were only just beginning in Dorset,” she recalls, “and our lovely locals were pretty traditional in their tea tastes – lots of good, full bodied black teas and cracking Earl Grey’s were on everyone’s shopping list!” It needed a few spoonfulls of imagination, with a Dorset flavour.
“We create tea blends to suit the water we have here, and work with a local coffee roaster to keep things as local as possible, and craft our tea range to reflect the tastes of the county.”
Seven years on, and the success of The Gilded Tea Pot has been astonishing, particularly regarding the change in tastes of the regular customers.
“A growing number of our tea lovers are exploring the world of tea a lot more than when we first began – especially our specialist green teas and herbal infusions. Japanese green teas, especially Matcha, are really growing, which is wonderful to see,” says Jo, who will be heading out to Japan in November on a fact-finding mission. Stay tuned, something’s brewing.
Olives et Al
“I’ll let you into a secret. I don’t like olives,” reveals Giles Henschel, founder of Olives Et Al and arguably the reason why your local supermarket serves rustic tubs of fat, juicy olives sluiced in aromatic oil and fresh herbs. Thankfully, there’s a crucial twist. “But I love the olives we make.”
In fact, it turns out, there are 3,000 different varieties of olive. Up until 1993, the vast majority of them sold in the UK were tough, withered, sour continental bycatch doused in brine and destined for pizza toppings at best. We’d still be thinking this was the apogee of Mediterranean antipasti if, that same year, Giles and his new bride hadn’t sold everything, bought a couple of motorbikes, and taken a year-long road trip through North Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Through the heart of olive country, in fact.
“Everywhere we went, we tasted olives,” he says. “When we made it back to the UK, we were flat broke, living in a bedsit in Southampton, and really missing what we’d eaten on our trip.”
So the couple decided to bring olive country to this country. “We sold our first jar of olives on the 28 October 1993 at the Rural Living Show, selling £304.40p of product on the first day.” This attention to detail is possibly one of the reasons why Olives Et Al has grown into a multi-million pound empire. A quarter of a century later, and Olives Et Al employs 55 people, runs two delis, one in Sturminster Newton and one in Poundbury, and has won accolades from The Observer, The Times and many more.
In the early years, the team were doing 70 to 80 shows a year nationwide, and consistently finding themselves the focus of attention. That was a hard secret to keep. “We started to get approached by all the major supermarkets but we said no. We didn’t think we were big enough or good enough in the early years.”
It paid not to sell out. “The supermarkets would take away samples, deconstruct them and 8 months later you’d see they’d reengineered it and put it onto the shelves.” The satisfaction for Giles, however, has been producing “Greek olives marinated to a Moroccan recipe in Spanish extra virgin olive oil that we manufacture in Dorset. It’s Dorset knowledge, Dorset knowhow, Dorset skill.”
There’s the feeling that this incredible story has not even yet reached its third act. “We’ve always been pioneers,” says Giles. “This came out of no firm plan. I feel privileged to be allowed to do it and that 54 other people want to do it with me.”
Gyle 59 Brewery
“I’d been a very keen home brewer,” begins Jon Hosking, founder of Gyle 59 Brewery. “I even used to hold an annual beer festival at home just to get rid of the amount of beer I’d made. My drinking buddies told me, ‘Jon, I’d pay good money for this.’” And indeed they did, as would many more.
Having packed in a career in financial services and turned 50, Jon should have been thundering down Dorset country lanes with a Harley Davidson beneath his ripped jeans. Instead, the siren allure of craft ale came calling. Having spent six months refitting a partially built brewery and running some trial brews, Jon launched Gyle 59 brewery just outside Chard in early 2014.
Initially, Gyle 50 offered three beers: IPA, Pale and Bitter, and Strong Porter. They were an instant success, but not locally. “We found it much easier to sell into London,” says Jon. “We were a little bit ahead of our time in terms of the craft beer element. There’s a lot of very traditional pubs here and our beers can be hazy and cloudy.”
Read on, hipsters. Gyle 59 made a conscious decision to reject ‘fining’ their beer with isinglass, a substance derived from the swim bladders of fish which draws out the cloudiness in beer. Fish-free beer was not the only selling point. “Our beers are more flavourful than the standard best bitter,” promises Jon. “Our approach was that we weren’t going to try to persuade people who were reluctant. We’d just let the beer do the talking.”
Just three years on, and he can’t shut it up. “We produce 3,000 pints a brew, and two or three brews a week,” he says. “We now have five distributors that deliver casks around the country.” In Easter 2016, Gyle 59 opened Cellar 59 in Lyme Regis, a cellar bar devoted to cask ales and “like-minded artisanal brewers.”
Gyle 59 have been members of Dorset Food and Drink from the word go, and Dorset plays a big part in the beer’s character. “We use a lot of foraged products because our Brewster is a keen forager,” says Jon. “We do a nettle IPA and an elderberry stout, all from the hedgerows. It was leapt upon by River Cottage who did their own foraged beer.”
There’s definitely a craft ale revolution going on worldwide, and Dorset has its flag on the map. Says Jon: “Britain was in the doldrums for decades, but now there are these wonderful types of craft beers available.”
On the day of our interview, Weymouth is basking in June sunshine and Caroline Drever is understandably chipper. Life is good on the South Coast when the weather’s fine and you’re the founder of the Taste of the West Gold Award-winning Dorset Shellfish. But it’s taken a whole lot of cold fronts and rough seas around Weymouth Bay to get here, since Caroline launched the business in 2011. A reminder that behind every Dorset success story is some hard graft behind the scenes.
Caroline’s partner Graham had fished out of Weymouth his whole life, along with their son and their nephew. But when their daughter Stef (there’s more family in this tale than The Godfather) requested ideas to raise funds for university, Caroline made an offer nobody could refuse. Dorset Shellfish was born, selling fresh crab, lobster and line-caught sea bass almost right off the landing dock. Soon, Caroline became a regular feature around Dorset Farmer’s Markets, of which she’s now the chair. “It wasn’t too difficult to get in because we’re quite a niche product and we fitted the criteria – we catch it ourselves and process it ourselves.”
Customers can now buy Caroline’s shellfish at markets, on Thursday mornings at a pop-up stall at Oxford’s Bakery in Canford Cliffs, and most recently online.
“Before us, it was difficult to get good local shellfish,” says Caroline. “People were a little bit hesitant. We’re on a mission to encourage people to try good shellfish.” Try it, and you’ll experience a revelation. Whereas most supermarket shellfish is either frozen or mechanically produced, Dorset Shellfish’s is hand-picked.
“Supermarkets use air blowing to blow the meat out the shell with compressed air, which breaks the fibres down. With ours, you get big chunks of meat and fibres.” The biggest sellers is the dressed crab, as well as the pots of white or mixed crab meat, which take sandwiches, pasta, soups, fishcakes or canapes to a whole new level. They also sell line-caught sea bass, a premium local product that Weymouth is noted for.
This summer, Dorset Shellfish will be unveiling new branding at the Weymouth Seafood Festival. A permanent shop is a possibility in the future. Reasons to be cheerful.
“For me, I absolutely love Dorset and the sea,” says Caroline. “It’s a family business and we’re able to provide wages for five to six households. We’re the real deal.”
Crème de la Cream
Purbeck Ice Cream
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. For Peter and Hazel Hartle, that thrust came with the introduction of milk quotas 29 years ago that suddenly turned a thriving dairy business near Corfe Castle into the reality of 60 Friesian cows,126 acres, and zero likelihood of sustaining the same living.
Undaunted, they saw an opportunity. “At the time, the ice cream landscape was a bit bland,” explains Emily Freeman, Sales & Marketing for Purbeck Ice Cream. “There was a gap for high quality ice cream.” So the Hartles took an abundance of fresh milk, thick double cream, a little culinary craftsmanship, and began delivering Purbeck Ice Cream in a little van to local companies. When they needed a wholesaler, they knew they had a success on their hands, particularly once the frozen pots of wonder started becoming well known in London and beyond.
Today, Purbeck Ice Cream sends out four event vans to shows around the country, including the RHS Chelsea, RHS Hampton Court, and the big music festivals. As a founder member of Dorset Food and Drink, they’re a regular feature of local food events too.
Apart from being absolutely delicious in 40 flavours, most recently incorporating Chai Latte and Salted Maple, Purbeck Ice Cream’s big selling point is that the ice cream doesn’t use nuts, eggs, gluten, artificial colours, preservatives or flavourings. Salted Caramel remains the consistent crowd-pleaser, with new flavours added all the time. Dorset Marmalade in partnership with Ajar Of was launched last year, with Dorset Truffle coming this winter.
For Emily, the Dorset Food and Drink connection is vital for creating strong relationships between suppliers. “It’s a good network,” she says. “We’re able to collaborate with other companies like Ajar Of and Dorset Watercress.”
Summoning the spirits
“No one was making gin in the county,” says Rupert Holloway, founder of Conker Gin. The first shots in the UK gin revolution were fired around 2010, but the call had yet to reach the South Coast by 2014. So Rupert did what any self-respecting 29-year-old chartered surveyor would do. He quit his career and launched Dorset’s first gin distillery. With no savings and no formal qualifications, just two 30-litre coper stills, a name, and a stonking recipe for a classic London Dry Gin to start with. If you’re seeing a pattern to these stories so far, you’ll know that this was another try that converted.
It took an exhausting slog through 45 recipes before landing on the exquisite blend of 10 botanicals that give Conker Gin a unique character. As a classic gin, juniper leads the way, but it is joined by lime peel, local Dorset marsh samphire, elderberries, handpicked New Forest gorse, coriander seed, angelica root, oris root and cassia bark. These are distilled with British wheat spirit and New Forest spring water. Rupert insisted on creating a classic rather than a flavoured gin, but “there are these lighter and brighter flavours from the Dorset botanicals. It has a broad, herbaceous flavour.”
Already, the beautifully designed bottles are a feature across Dorset bars, and the awards have rolled in, including a Taste of the West Gold, and Best Drinks Product of the Year at the Dorset Magazine Food, Drink and Farming Awards 2015.
Possibly the most striking aspect of the Conker story, however, is the single-minded determination Rupert brings to the product. It’s just him, his stills, and his story. There’s no team of marketing gurus, PR fixers, promotional flash mobs, or branding specialists. No big backers, venture capital, Dragons or multinational brand behind it. If there’s a better example of turning your passion into your livelihood, it’s hard to imagine.
The Watercress Company
In the era of superfoods, the humble watercress is long overdue its moment in the spotlight. Move over spinach and kale, there’s a new kid in town. Except of course, there’s nothing new about watercress in England. The Old Family has been growing this wonderfully peppery, crisp crop since the 1850s. We might now know that it’s packed with vitamins and minerals, and chewing it breaks down chemicals that protect the DNA, but it’s always been a salad stalwart on the British menu. Go back to the 19th century, and it was a daily staple, nicknamed ‘Poor Man’s Bread’ because of its ability to satisfy the hunger and provide a nutritional boost at relatively little cost.
The largest producer in the country happens to be in Dorset and the South West. In 1994, Peter Old brought together a couple of struggling farms and formed The Watercress Company. At the time, there were just two customers. Now there are 50 or 60, including M&S, Waitrose, Tesco and Co-op. Given that they produce 40 to 60 tonnes of watercress a week, equivalent to about 350,000 bags, there’s a good chance that the last time you bought watercress, it was from The Watercress Company.
It helps that along the way, certain chefs have championed watercress in their recipes. Phil Vickery, Antony Worrall Thompson, Raymond Blanc and Jamie Oliver are just some of the notable advocates of the tender but tasty leaves around their kitchens. Celebrity figures such as Liz Hurley swear by its properties in their smoothies and juices. Clearly, this is a crop that is destined to keep on growing.
What sets The Watercress Company apart, however, is its refusal to settle. Credit for that largely has to go to MD Tom Amery, who left school at 15, travelled, attended Agricultural College, and joined The Watercress Company in 1998. A passionate horticulturalist, he was quick to recognise that the typical watercress buyer fits a comparatively mature demographic. In order to stay fresh and reach a younger, more lifestyle-conscious market, they needed to innovate constantly. That’s why they’re out and about selling smoothies at music festivals, collaborating with Cerne Abbas brewery on a watercress beer, and since 2009 diversifying into wasabi cultivation, the first farm in Europe to do so. The company also blends special daily fortifying smoothies for cancer patients at the Dorset County Hospital.
“I’ve always said you should take every opportunity you can,” says Tom. In the case of The Watercress Company, that has meant branching out from a simple farm co-op in Dorset, to a global enterprise spanning the UK, Spain and USA.
Black Cow Vodka
How was of the quirkiest Dorset success stories of recent years conceived? “Like a lot of good things, it came out of two good friends having a drink together,” says Paul ‘Archie’ Archard, co-founder of Black Cow Vodka with Jason Barber. “Jason and I were talking about what to do with all the cider that is left over in Dorset. We were talking about making eau de vie, then one of the Polish guys we work with told us that you can make a great vodka out of milk. We looked out of Jason’s window and over the wire fence we could see his herd of 250 dairy cattle.” You can almost see the light bulb going off from here.
“We went on a year-long journey of discovery and came up with Pure Milk Vodka, the only type in the world made entirely from grass-fed cow’s milk and nothing else,” explains Archie.
Milk whey, it turns out, is the problem child of the dairy industry. “There’s too much of it and it used to get fed to the pigs,” says Archie. “But the quality of Jason’s milk is top notch. The milk sugars are extremely clean and it has a delicious creamy character.”
In 2012, the two filled their first bottle, using a still purchased from the Swiss German border. Ironically, it was an Arnold Holstein. Creating the distinctive Black Cow brand involved not a Soho brainstorm with expensively bearded creatives, but a kitchen table session with Archie, his wife Helen, and Jason. “We realised that colours and animals work well for brands,” he said. “Red Bull, Grey Goose and so on. And it’s a great Steely Dan song.”
At the risk of understatement, Black Cow Vodka has rather taken off as an idea, already winning a Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirit Championships, and currently exported to 11 countries, with a huge fanbase in the US and Canada. “We bottled 100,000 bottles last year and we hope to double it this year,” says Archie.
Getting renowned distributor Coe Vintners/Mangrove to spread Black Cow vodka to London and beyond was the moment they realised they had succeeded, Archie explains. “They took a five case order and we said we’d buy it back if they couldn’t sell it. We didn’t have to.”
Funnily enough, there are no plans to diversify into flavoured varieties or mixers. “We have a funny view about innovation,” says Archie. “We feel our job is to make one very simple, smooth, creamy vodka. We like other people to do the innovating.”