Behind the scenes at Matlock Meadows ice cream parlour
PUBLISHED: 09:56 21 August 2014 | UPDATED: 09:56 21 August 2014
Andrew Griffiths visits Masson Farm, the home of Matlock Meadows
‘Out of the centre of Matlock, across the bridge over the River Derwent and the farm is half a mile or so straight up the hill on the left.’ So read the directions scribbled in my notebook. The sun was bright, the day was warm, and as I started the climb out of the town I began to wish I had taken more note of trigonometry at school. There is half a mile, then there is half a mile drawn as a steep line between two points to form a triangle. I was very much on the latter.
I was on my way to visit Matlock Meadows Ice Cream Parlour, a working dairy farm which produces its own ice cream made from its own milk. As the few scatterings of houses gave way to open fields, I began to wonder whether I was on the right road. I flagged down a passing tractor and the young man driving it cheerfully confirmed that I was, and that it wasn’t far now.
Tractor... farm. I did wonder, and when I did arrive the passing farmhand turned out to have been Jack, 19, son of Amanda and Mick Dakin, whose Matlock Meadows Ice Cream Parlour venture I had come to see.
‘I would have given you a lift,’ Jack later told me. ‘But I had some machinery on the back.’ For a moment I had an image of myself making a grand entrance through the farm gate on the back of a tractor, standing on a piece of swinging agricultural machinery like a general on his tank. As it was my arrival was more like that of a foot soldier, hot and panting, and in real need of... oh, I don’t know – a nice bowl of cold ice cream or something. Perhaps it was all a cunning marketing ploy after all.
The ice cream parlour is located at Masson Farm, a 200-acre working dairy farm overlooking Matlock and with superb views over the Derwent Valley. The farm has been in Mick Dakin’s family since the 1930s, first as tenants and then owners after managing to buy the farm in the 1990s.
Mick and Amanda had no ambitions to grow the farming side of the business other than to increase the efficiency of what they were doing, but they did begin to look around for ways to add value to the milk they produced.
The idea for the ice cream parlour began life as a throwaway remark when Mick and Amanda were holidaying in Italy.
‘You can’t help but be impressed by the ice cream over there,’ says Amanda. ‘It was a flippant comment really, but I said wouldn’t it be great if we could make something like this with our milk.’
Mick, whose adult farming life had been spent supplying milk to a faceless dairy and essentially having the supermarkets dictate how much he was to be paid, jumped at the opportunity to take more control over what he was producing. He describes supplying the supermarkets as ‘frustrating’.
‘They work out how much it costs us to produce a litre of milk, then decide how much we are going to be paid,’ Mick explains. ‘There is no control over it. But with this, with the ice cream, it is up to us to make a quality product and then decide how to sell it.’
Masson Farm supports a milking herd of 90 Holstein Friesian cows and between them they produce around 550,000 litres of milk a year. So far only a small proportion of this milk goes into producing their ice cream, but the milk for the ice cream you are eating on the farm now was still swinging around beneath the cow that very same morning.
The whole farm visit is a work in progress. There is a cafe where you can sit and watch the cows as you eat your ice cream, and the Dakins are currently creating a viewing platform where children will be able to watch the cows being milked. They are also building a large classroom area with full disabled access to host educational activities for visiting children.
None of the ‘under construction’ aspect of proceedings seems to spoil anyone’s enjoyment. Certainly not that of Chloe Wilson from Sheffield, age 3, who was visiting the farm with her mother, Emily, and was having great fun milking a mock-up cow when she wasn’t patting the snout of the real thing.
‘This is one of Chloe’s favourite places to go,’ Emily tells me, laughing as we try to get the cows to behave for the photograph. ‘We came here for her second birthday, that was one of her first ice creams.’ And Chloe’s favourite flavour? ‘Strawberry,’ says Emily with a confident nod.
Introducing young people to the realities of life on a farm is an important part of the Matlock Meadows experience. Amanda is not from a farming background herself, having been a nurse in the Midlands. But she is now an enthusiastic convert to the rural way of life.
‘We take all this for granted,’ Amanda says, gesturing around her. ‘But a lot of my friends from Nottingham would come up and bring their children and they would think it was brilliant. We’d show them round, show them the milking parlour where they can get close to the cows and they thought it was fantastic!’
So farm tours have become a part of the itinerary, alongside the ice cream.
Mick, too, welcomes the opportunity to show people what farming is really about, as he feels a lot of people are not aware of what farmers actually do. He gives me an example.
‘We do a lot of conservation work on the part of the Peak Park,’ he explains. ‘It’s not that we want to be recognised for it, but people don’t see that we have actually done it. I want to show people what we are really doing.’
The visitors also bring the farm back to life. Mick remembers that when he was growing up, the farm was an integral part of the local community’s life. People were always coming and going on a farm.
‘There would be times at the weekend when lads and teenagers from the village would be wanting something to do, a bit of work, and there were a lot of manual jobs then,’ Mick remembers. ‘People could help out even if they had no particular skill. In farming, whatever age you were, you could always find something to do on a farm. But nowadays it is different, because everything is done with big machines.’
As agricultural methods modernised, the farmer’s life became an increasingly isolated one.‘You wouldn’t see anybody except for a couple of feed reps, but a lot of time you are working on your own.’
‘There are a lot of myths about farms and farming, aren’t there?’ says Amanda. ‘They are perceived as miserable old grumpy blokes, so it is nice to let people come and ask questions and see what it is really all about.’
Mandy is keen to encourage more groups of children to visit the farm. ‘We had a school visit the other week from Nottingham, inner city Nottingham, and they loved it,’ she tells me. ‘At the time I was having to bottle feed some of the lambs, so we let them do that. They thought it was absolutely fantastic. They had never seen or done anything like that before. The lambs are quite cute and friendly and they don’t bite, so they could stroke them and touch them. It was real and they loved it!’
One of the difficulties now is that as so many farms are throwing open their gates to visitors, whenever you see a small furry animal in a cage you are never quite sure whether to pet it or not.
‘We didn’t want to be a petting farm because we think other people do it far better than we ever could,’ Amanda tells me as we make our way down towards an enclosure full of frolicking lambs, and I sense a ‘but’ coming on.
‘But one woman came with a rabbit and two babies, so we said we’d have them. And we have neighbouring farmers who had some lambs and said they didn’t want to bottle feed them, and I thought it would be nice for the children to look at. So that is how we acquired the lambs.’
I was duly introduced to orphans Isaak, Lenny, Maurice, Doris and Horace on the grassy area in front of the cafe, where they were being patted to within an inch of their lives by doting children. They are a heartless bunch, these farmers.
Settling in at the cafe, we discussed how the business was developing over a tub of delicious ice cream. They are already starting to supply some local outlets and Amanda wants to do more of that but always on a small scale to maintain quality – they have no plans for their ice cream to follow their milk into the supermarkets. But see keeping the farm as a working dairy farm as equally important.
Both of their children, Josh, 23, and Jack, 19, are following their parents into the business, Jack on the farming side and Josh more in the parlour. The farm has also taken on an apprentice, and none of this would have been possible without the Matlock Meadows venture.
Although there is some crossover in the division of labour, the nature of the two jobs dictates that Amanda concentrates more on the ice cream side of things and the visitors, while Mick wears the mucky wellies.
‘It is a bit like a comedian double act,’ explains Mick. ‘One is the funny one and one the straight one.’
This season Amanda is experimenting by going back to basics and creating new flavours for her ice cream made from from natural ingredients. ‘There are all sorts of things you can do, you just need to have a good imagination, really,’ she says, with the confident smile of someone whose imagination is seldom found wanting.
As I finish off my vanilla and chocolate ice cream, Mandy neatly sums up their plans for the future: ‘We want to keep it as a real working dairy farm that is accessible to the public and make a quality product that people keep coming back for.’
Where you can find Matlock Meadows ice cream:
Scotland Nurseries, Tansley
Bowling Green Inn, Winster
Coco Bar Bistro, Chesterfield
Hodgkinsons Hotel, Matlock Bath
Tuckers Fish and Chips, Matlock Bath
Coco Grove, Hartington
Sycamore Inn, Matlock