British

Farm to Table? Try Cow to Cone

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December  1, 2017

The world is wide, and we want to see (and eat) all of it. We've partnered with VisitBritain to take a closer look at the foods, producers, restaurants, and regions that make Great Britain a top destination for food-loving travelers.

The bus to Dungworth roars so loud that I can feel it in my bones. It shudders up hill after hill on its slow crawl out of Sheffield—clattering through city streets, winding along suburban roads, then crooked country lanes as it cuts a jagged path into the Peak District. Just when the engine seems to be ready to choke its last breath, the road levels, and the roar quiets to a steady purr, and the Yorkshire countryside unfurls on either side of the road in lush, green splendor. On top of this peak—one of Sheffield’s famous seven hills—I slip out of the bus and into a buffeting westerly wind. A herd of cows, in shades of black, cream, and gleaming brass graze idly in the long grass on the other side of a dry stone wall barely as high as my hip. I’ve only traveled 20 minutes, but I'm a whole world away from the Sheffield I call home.

Now THAT'S what we call English countryside. Photo by Ruby Tandoh

When Eddie Andrew started making ice cream at Cliffe House Farm here on this hill in 2007, the whole operation was so small that people would come ringing at his house to buy tubs of it. At the time, the British dairy industry was in crisis, with falling milk prices sending hundreds of dairy farmers out of business every year. A family dairy farm on a windswept Yorkshire hill would need something bigger than just milk to stay afloat—the Andrew family dairy farm was set up in 1947 by Eddie's grandfather, Hector Andrew, and the family has been committed to its success.

It’s about making ice cream that tastes of everything from grass-carpeted hills to the Sheffield air.

It was at a dairy industry show that Eddie became inspired to start making ice cream—a pint of ice cream could earn a cash-strapped dairy farmer some around 20 times what the same amount of milk could fetch. And so the Andrew family leapt out of the frying pan and into the freezer. They learned about ice crystals and churning and flavor bases. They bought an ice cream machine. Dashing out to greet customers on their doorstep, Eddie and wife Madeline would sell scoops of ice cream freshly made using milk from the cows in the field next door, taking it in turns to watch their 6-month-old daughter, Cora, as they went. An hulking ice cream cabinet filled the porch of their old stone house, and a single banner—"ICE CREAM"—was slung perkily across the window. "Our Cow Molly" was born.

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Ten years on, everything—and nothing—has changed. The farm still sits firm on the Dungworth hill, and the cows amble into and out of the milking shed under the gaze of the same watchful eyes. The "Our Cow Molly" logo, developed all those years ago by Eddie’s graphic designer brother-in-law, is unchanged: the familiar pink bubble writing finishing, on the "y" of "Molly" with a swishing cow’s tail. The fields still swell and shrink with the same grass, season after season, year in, year out. In the storage fridge, a milk crate sometimes holds a gem: an old Hector Andrew & Co. glass milk bottle from long before the Our Cow Molly rebrand, with a phone number printed on it that’s some 20 years defunct.

Seek and ye shall find: our intrepid author tracking down ice cream at the source. Photo by Ruby Tandoh, Ruby Tandoh

And yet when Eddie shows me around the farm that brisk October day, it’s clear that this isn’t just a side project. In the yard, there’s now a huge walk-in freezer unit, containing many hundreds of liters of ice cream, in as many sizes and flavors as you can imagine. The office hums with people busily preparing milk and ice cream orders for the long delivery day ahead. The shop has moved outside of Eddie and Madeline’s home, but only just: it’s now in a bright pink building in a courtyard behind the family home, sheltered from the blustery wind. A few newborn calves are curled in the hay in a little barn opposite, their names written in chalk above their pens, and customers jostle elbows on smart picnic benches outside, crowding around waffle cones and paper cups heaped with melting scoops. The entire process, from calf to cow to cone, is here in plain view. This is a real working farm, cow pats and weeds and all. "I can show you the scythe and how we chop the thistles down," Eddie quips.

Ex-milkman Steve has taken over the ice cream production, moving it into a smart new kitchen with an industrial churning machine. "I’ve given up trying to influence him," says Eddie, shaking his head. Working his way through a list of Michelin star restaurants he wants to eat at, Steve’s been given carte blanche to do what he pleases with the ice cream flavors, which now number over thirty. Among them are Bakewell Tart—inspired by the famous almond frangipane and raspberry tart from just 20 miles away across the Peak District hills—and Cora’s Chaos—a velvety rich chocolate ice cream, swirled with marshmallows and chocolate sauce, and named after Eddie’s little girl. Vanilla, Licorice, and Honeycomb all vie for attention in the shop’s shining scoop cabinet, alongside less traditional flavors such as Jam Roly Poly, and even a sorbet selection for dairy-averse. Little jewels of crystallized ginger glisten in a lemon ice cream, while the Honey Ripple shimmers with amber swirls of local Sheffield honey.

How now, brown cow? And black cow? And spotted cow? Photo by Ruby Tandoh

My favorite flavor, though, which I can’t help choosing every time I come to the farm, no matter what technicolor wonders are on offer, is a simple one. "Just Molly" is a pale, smooth ice cream: one that melts slowly on your tongue, and is clean with the flavor of fresh milk. It’s gently sweet and completely pure—a timely reminder that milk is a delicious thing, and not just a vehicle for bigger, brasher flavors. "I’ve given up trying to explain to people that Just Molly isn’t vanilla," Eddie laughs, when I tell him this. Just Molly is about milk—no vanilla, no flavorings, no fuss—and all the goodness of these few grassy fields condensed into a scoop. It’s what Eddie compares to the terroir of wine: all of the environmental factors—climate, terrain, and soil—that make a unique bottle of wine, or indeed, milk. It’s about making ice cream that tastes of everything from grass-carpeted hills to the Sheffield air. So important is the taste that Eddie has worked closely with the University of Sheffield’s "P3" plant sciences team to learn about the unique ecosystems that flourish in his fields.

The contrast between what Eddie and his family are doing here on this Yorkshire farm and conventional industrial milk production is massive. "If you got all the wine in Italy and just tipped it into a massive silo and labelled it all as ‘wine,’ how much would that be worth? So why are we doing the same with milk?" The milk from this farm isn’t swirled together with gallons of milk from a range of farms. It’s made, bottled, and consumed right here. Our Cow Molly supplies the university and a host of thriving Sheffield coffee shops. The ice cream is sent in tiny tubs to be wheeled out mid-show at the Sheffield theaters, and delivered to local farm shops, markets, and cafes in the famous Our Cow Molly vans.

Between the cows and the pasture, the people and the country, the farm and the city, there has evolved a strange, sweet, symbiotic relationship.

But this milk and ice cream doesn’t just flow down into the Sheffield basin from its hilltop perch. The success of Our Cow Molly has been built, from the very beginning, on a two-way relationship. The farm gives, and it takes. Sheffield is nourished with rich, dairy ice cream, and in turn it supplies Eddie and his family with the means to keep up the good work. Eddie tells me about the Sheffield company that prints his labels, who he keeps happy with freshly churned ice cream. He guides me through a labyrinth of empty milk crates ready to be filled with bottles of milk—bottles made just down the road. He points out his tractor ("that’s from a company in Doncaster"), and draws my eye to the grindstones—huge round stones, once used to sharpen knives in Sheffield’s steel industry—that form the very walls of the ice cream shop.

Instead of getting bigger, Our Cow Molly has gone deeper, burrowing its roots right down through the Sheffield hills into the core of the city. Between the cows and the pasture, the people and the country, the farm and the city, there has evolved a strange, sweet, symbiotic relationship. Eddie tells me about a campaign he coined a couple of years ago. With the help of a little Our Cow Molly tub and a few grass seeds, people from all over Sheffield grow #pasturepots—patches of pasture for the cows. On Open Farm Sunday in June, thousands of people arrive at the farm, many with pots thick with newly sprouted grass, which they transplant to Cliffe House Farm’s well-grazed fields. The people of Sheffield sow the seeds for the grass that will feed the cows and in time produce their favorite milk—and they treat themselves with chocolate, raspberry ripple and panna cotta ice creams in return, soil under their nails and sticky rivulets of ice cream down their chins. At a time when milk has been squeezed of any sense of place or provenance, this is a business putting the pint back on the map.

We've partnered with VisitBritain to take a closer look at the foods, producers, restaurants, and regions that make Great Britain a top destination for food-loving travelers. Follow along on Instagram to see what's going on across the pond at @lovegreatbritain and what Great Britain is eating at @greatbritishfood.

1 Comment

Matthew R. August 18, 2018
Nah. Dairy sales should stay dropping. Cow's milk is for cows.