Sir Michael Colman at his farm near Basingstoke
- Credit: Archant
After retiring from the family’s famous condiments business, Sir Michael Colman’s passion for English peppermint has seen his farm near Basingstoke turn over a new leaf. Viv Micklefield gets invited in for a cuppa
It’s possible to approach the Summerdown estate from two directions. An elegant avenue of trees leads straight to the electric gates. Or, as I mistakenly did, you follow the Sat Nav’s route which involves mud washed back lanes, high hedgerows, and the white-knuckle tension of what to do should a tractor appear around the next bend.
Perhaps not the best way to start a tour of Sir Michael Colman’s distilled oils enterprise, high on the Hampshire downs. It’s just as well then that a calming mug of his award-winning peppermint tea (it scooped the top three-star Great Taste accolade in 2014), was proffered immediately as I crossed the threshold of the estate office.
With an array of prize certificates battling for wall space, the pride in having successfully revived an industry lost to the nation for over half a century is clear to see. And that’s reinforced on meeting the genial ex-chairman of the Colman’s sauce empire who, while other 70-year-olds hit the golf course, has instead spent over a decade putting Black Mitcham mint back on the map.
“Everyone said I was mad,” says Sir Michael with a twinkle in his eyes. Perhaps it was the early knock-backs from middlemen declining to use Summerdown’s mint oil in their products that spurred him on, or the fact that he knew he was genuinely on to a good thing. Whichever it was, this business veteran who regularly peppers his sentences with the words “authenticity” and “added value” took a different view.
“It’s the consumer I’m interested in, that’s what lured me into producing a product under my own name. People are quite fussy which we like, because we are too. One thing you can’t do is fob them off.
“I like the idea of diversification of the land, and was very fortunate because Hampshire’s got some of the best farmers in the country who have led the way in this; people like John Rowsell who started United Oilseeds in Sutton Scotney, and Malcolm Isaac at Vitacress in Alresford.
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“What we’re growing here was developed originally in Mitcham, Surrey and we get pretty similar weather. Further north the colder temperatures would be against you and in Kent it would be too dry. Because the weather varies, our production varies year-on-year, so we try to build stocks up to three years ahead of when the oil might be needed.”
As soon as the talk turns to producing single estate pure English mint oil, you fancy that Sir Michael knows his Bordeaux from his Burgundy. Indeed, he’s quick to draw the parallels between Summerdown’s precious liquor and a fine vintage.
“Just like wine it mellows with age. When the mint is freshly mown there’s a rawness to it. Although chemically it has the same composition, until the oil is over a year old we won’t use it. A lot of the imported blended oils have this rawness to them, which we feel is unacceptable.”
Sir Michael is keen to show me a collection of pre-WW2 sepia photos taken when England supplied the world with mint oil. But pressure to grow less labour-intensive food crops saw the cultivation skills lost to North America, which is where he and farm manager Ian Margetts turned to for their 21st century know-how and technology.
Black Mitcham mint is, apparently, a rather lazy crop sending shallow roots just two-to-three-inches below the thin chalk soil found in this part of Hampshire. And unlike the invasive garden (spearmint) variety, it’s slow growing and requires herbicides to control weeds and fungicides to keep disease at bay. Driving around the stubbly mint fields, the hope is for a wet spring followed by hot summer sunshine to stimulate the flowers’ oil production; the levels of menthofuran this contains is critical with only a quarter of plants allowed to flower before harvesting. Covering an area of almost 100 acres, it’s no flight of fancy. Having inherited Summerdown in the 1960s, the estate’s farms used to grow vining peas, but soon realised this wasn’t a sustainable business (in the face of competition). Sir Michael’s determined to ensure that the production of mint has a long term future and this has involved considerable trial and error to get to where they are now.
“If you can make mistakes, we’ve made them!” he declares. “50 per cent of the skill is in growing the crop, while 50 per cent is in the processing. To get quality oil there are no shortcuts.”
Once inside the former cow shed turned distillery, it takes imagination to appreciate the ‘dark art’ involved. With the chopped leaves and stems arriving in so-called cooker tubs directly from the fields, these large enclosed trailers are coupled to a boiler that heats-up the contents which, as Ian puts it: “Is a bit like bringing your vegetables to the boil.” Precise temperature control avoids burning the mint which is slowly cooked for around three hours, during which time the steam released breaks down and carries the oil capsules to a condenser.”
With up to 25 kilos of oil extracted per load this is then filtered and stored in air-tight barrels as, like wine, oxidisation spoils it. And wasting nothing, the residue within the cooker tubs is used to fertilise next year’s crop. With Ian handling up to 10 loads a day it’s a highly pressurised environment, taking almost seven weeks to distil not only the mint, but also the lavender and camomile oils which are produced here too.
Before leaving, I’m allowed a quick peek inside the adjoining ‘mint lab’. Instead of men in white coats, there’s a piece of kit called a gas chromatograph that tells when each flavour component in a sample of mint oil has reached its peak, a vital tool in maintaining Summerdown’s distinctive intensity.
The peppermint tea harvest, by comparison, sounds relatively straightforward and usually begins in June before the flowers develop. Mechanically stripped from their stems, the leaves are heat dried after which, infusion with the estate’s mint oil cleverly enhances the taste.
“We can’t manufacture all the products we now offer – you’d have a most peculiar factory!” laughs Sir Michael, referring to a range that includes oils and teas, chocolates and, most recently, natural botanical fragrances used in their rapidly-expanding home and beauty collection. With the shiny distribution warehouse and internet sales hub dwarfing older brick and flint farm buildings, we spot one pallet labelled ‘New Zealand’. This truly is a global operation.
As he says: “It just goes to show what you can do with quality oil. Chocolate peppermint creams was our first product and it’s still our bestseller. Using a distributor has enabled us to transport Summerdown to farmshops all over the country, and with some trade outlets now coming to us, only 10 to 15 per cent of sales are under our own name.”
Having passed the Regency pile at the top of the drive on to their eldest son, a more modest single-story home built five years ago still provides Sir Michael and his wife Judy with splendid views across the 2000-acres.
Although Sir Michael admits to preferring to eat-in these days, visiting Basingstoke’s Anvil centre with its “magnificent auditorium” and a couple of nights a month spent in London, still provide social highlights. And, naturally, he finds the time to enjoy the estate’s country pursuits with faithful spaniel Elijah never far from his side.
Behind the bonhomie however remains an astute head for business. One that you guess doesn’t rely wholly on tea-leaves, to foretell the future.
Peppermint: what’s in it for you?
Containing up to 80 different components, it’s a complex plant. Historically there’s plenty of evidence to suggest the medicinal benefits of peppermint oil. These include:
• Aids digestion
• Soothes nausea and headaches
• Perks up the senses
• Nourishes the skin
• Freshens your breath!
Where to buy
Summerdown products are available to order online (www.summerdownmint.co.uk) and are stocked by retailers and farm shops across Hampshire, including:
• Cadogan & James, Winchester
• Caracoli, Alresford
• Caviste, Overton
• Garlic Farm Shop, Newchurch, Isle of Wight
• Manydown Farm Shop, Basingstoke
• Newlyns Farm Shop, Hook
• The Shop, Upton Grey