The origins of ice cream can be traced back thousands of years. Chinese kings and Roman emperors were known to send servants up mountains to collect fresh snow, which was then tailored and flavoured to their tastes.
Frozen desserts remained the preserve of the wealthy until the Industrial Revolution made mass production and refrigeration possible, and ice cream is now available to almost anyone, almost anywhere, almost any time they like.
Rapid market growth brought with it inevitable cost and corner-cutting, and this partially explains the quality of much of the commercially-made ice cream available today.
Alastair Jessel, the mind behind Paddock Wood’s Taywell Ice Creams, is determined to raise the product back to former heights. His firm supplies nearly all of Tunbridge Wells’ top end restaurants and about 1,000 more nationwide.
The company has also just taken its first steps into foreign markets, as Mr Jessel looks to spread his brand abroad.
When Alastair founded the company in 2006, selling the ice cream from the Goudhurst farm which had been in his family since 1870, he didn’t know where it would take him.
“I had no idea it was going to be like it is today,” he said. “And no plans for it to be.”
And it very nearly wasn’t. When his application to expand his premises was turned down, Alastair had a tough choice to make.
He said: “Having the planning applications turned down forced me to close my farm shop. I was left with just the ice cream business. And I calculated that I needed to multiply turnover by three for the business to break even.
“Where do you go from there? Most people would say, ‘I’ll just sell up’
“It took me three months to make a decision. And I eventually decided to do what no normal person would.”
What he did was relocate Taywell to its present home, the same site in Maidstone Road, Paddock Wood, in which he had set up a stone tile company 25 years ago. He installed a purpose-built production room, five times the size of his former one, and set about turning his company into one of the nation’s most respected high-end ice cream producers.
Though he had to move his business to expand, Alastair didn’t want to move far, knowing the best growing conditions are here in the garden of England.
“Getting hold of milk and cream is easy, they’re commodity items,” he said. Fresh fruit and veg aren’t. Most of the nation’s best fresh fruit and veg is in Kent.
And it’s having the freshest and best ingredients at his disposal that has led to Taywell’s success.
“There’s no secret to this,” Alastair said. “You get out what you put in. We only deal in the highest quality ingredients. All the fruit we can we get from Kent farms. We’ve taken ten tonnes this year. Rhubarb, apples, pears, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries. Anything Kent grows, we buy.”
This policy of only putting the best raw ingredients into his products doesn’t stop with fruit and veg, and stretches far beyond the garden’s walls.
“We buy the finest Belgian chocolate chips for our mint chocolate chip ice cream. It costs a lot more per kilo, but we want to open up a taste divide between us and our competitors. It’s about being prepared to pay more for an ultimate taste. That’s how I want to define us.
“Most people use a rum flavouring for their rum and raisin ice cream. We use Appleton.
“The dulche de leche ice cream we were making here wasn’t good enough, so now we import a paste from Argentina. You’d have to go to South America to find a taste like this.”
It’s not just the ingredients going the extra mile. Alastair’s willingness to provide a service that most wouldn’t dream of is another string to the Taywell bow.
At last Saturday’s FA cup final, 2,000 scoops of Taywell were eaten in the members’ restaurant. With ice cream’s tendency to melt, and just a short time to serve everyone, Wembley requested it be delivered pre-scooped.
“We’d normally use a mould but they wanted smaller scoops,” Alastair said. “Moulds take months to make and we were given three days’ notice, so we had to work by hand. It took two of our staff two full days to complete the task.
“You can see it’s a labour of love. There aren’t many companies who would do something mad like that!
“We’ll do pretty much anything. Being prepared to go one step further than other companies gives us the edge.”
‘Anything’ includes creating any flavour of ice cream you care to name, like the green tea and moringa flavour recently made at a restaurant’s request.
Alastair said: “I’ll be sitting in my office, with no idea how to make a flavour that’s being requested, with just 20 minutes to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as they want delivery tomorrow!”
When it comes to his own inventions, things aren’t much simpler.
“We try to have fun with ice cream. I want it to be crazy. Some of the crazy ideas work, some don’t.”
One of his craziest ideas yet is making ice cream without sugar. Given how well it freezes and flavours compared to natural sweeteners, this was no easy feat, but its one he’s hoping will help Taywell get the jump on its competitors.
At the heart of the expansion plan is Sweet Rebellion, a sugar-free range that aims to turn ice cream from a guilty treat into a healthy one.
“I believe there’s potential for 10 per cent of the market to be sugar-free,” Alastair said. “We want to be the leading brand. In terms of a dairy, lactose, gluten and refined sugar-free range, there’s no competition anywhere in the world. But there’s severe competition to come. I want to be the front-runner, and I need to grow rapidly to do that.”
This growth will be both foreign and domestic. The first step is giving over the whole of his property to production and increasing the workforce.
The second is establishing the brand abroad, with the Middle Eastern market the main target.
Alastair said: “The Middle East has the greatest obesity rate in the world, with fifty percent of the population clinically obese. I’d guess 25 per cent have type 2 diabetes.
“Shipping ice cream thousands of miles is expensive, the margins are tight. But our ice cream’s so much better than anything they have out there. And so much healthier.”
Alastair’s efforts to make ice cream healthy and local food global are typically ambitious.
“Being an entrepreneur rather than a manufacturer, I see no point in copying what others do,” he said. “If people are eating Taywell ice cream in other countries, I’ll be very proud indeed.”