Wednesday 17 January 2018

The ice cream man

Colm Lambert

Simon Cooper of Featherbed Farm.
Simon Cooper of Featherbed Farm.

There's a bunch of people around Oylegate who must love getting a phone call from Simon Cooper.

That call can be a summons to say that their services are required for a testing panel for a new flavour of the ice cream he produces - and if it is, it's a guarantee of a real treat.

Those flavours can be unusual - lemongrass and mascarpone sorbet was a recent one, for example, while another was a lavender ice cream for a bride who was having a whole lavender theme for her wedding. The common thread however is that they're all made from one hundred per cent natural ingredients, with all the flavourings sourced as locally as possible, and absolutely everything built upon the foundation of milk and cream produced by the herd of cows maintained by Simon's brother Paul at the Cooper farm where milking parlour and ice cream production plant stand side by side.

Featherbed Farm is the name of the operation, in a nod to local lore which has it that a shebeen once stood along the lane outside, and that 'those who had a tipple too many would lay down on the side of the road, noting it as soft as a featherbed'. While Paul's been minding and milking livestock there since leaving school, Simon had a more circuitous route before landing back there too.

He trained as a chef at the Cathal Brugha Street campus of DIT, before going on to work in renowned eateries like The Hungry Monk restaurant in Greystones and the Summerhill House Hotel in Enniskerry, while he also had a stint in the kitchens of the Microsoft canteen. All the time though, he and Paul had the idea of starting up something between them back at home - and just shy of ten years ago, they decided that it should be ice cream.

'I had experience in making ice cream from my time as a chef,' Simon explains. 'I knew too that chefs like to make their own ice cream whenever they can, but it's not always possible because it can take a lot of time and resources in a busy kitchen to produce a relatively small amount. If they're buying it in instead then, they want something of the same taste and quality as they would make themselves. That's what we set out to do here, and in fact we can make it even better than the chefs themselves.'

There was some travelling involved as part of the initial business research, with the brothers spending time in Italy, the USA and the UK to try source machinery and looking at the commercial end of other operations. Simon himself undertook a course in the Caprigiani 'Gelato University' in Italy, while another educational trip was to Las Vegas, of all places - although he didn't see much of the glitz and glamour side of that unique city, since most of his time was spent in seminars and classrooms instead.

Meanwhile, back home, the brothers did up a business plan with the help of the LEADER programme, successfully applied for planning permission, and went about designing and setting up their production plant - all of which took some time, at what turned out to be exactly the wrong time insofar as anybody setting up a new business was concerned.

'It was just when the financial crash was staring to happen,' Simon points out. 'We had to consider whether to press on with the plan at all or not, and we ended up deciding to scale things back a bit and starting out smaller than we would have ideally liked. We ended up getting going around late 2008 and into early 2009 and we went out into the market - slowly at first, but building it up mainly by word of mouth, and trying to get mainly into restaurants and hotels.'

A big help in this regard was linking up with Dublin-based distribution company, Redmond Fine Foods.

'We've been with them going on three years now, and they're a great help because of how they operate nationwide. We're getting our product into five-star hotels in particular, as well as catering services and other markets,' says Simon. 'We're in Pettitt's supermarkets too, and some other stockists like the Karoo Farm Shop in Killinick, and the Avoca Shop and the It's A Bagel chain in Dublin, so it's all going well and feedback is very good.'

And with his own cheffing background, he says the litmus test of that is the reaction from the senior food staff of the top hotels and restaurants they supply. 'A chef will tell you very quickly if they like something or not, or if they're looking for something new either. It means we often try to come up with new flavours here too, to complement the ones we already have that are going well. We get in friends and family then to do a tasting - we give them a sample and a questionnaire, and generally we get it fairly right the first time. Like anything else, you have to get it right in as few attempts as possible anyway, or else you're just using up too much time and resources!'

At the heart of it all though is still just the two-man operation of Simon and Paul, with Simon doing much more than 'just' making the ice cream, as he produces many of the flavourings and additives too. For example, pick up a tub of Featherbed Farm chocolate chip ice cream, and the cookie pieces in it have been baked by Simon himself. Similarly, if it says 'Roasted Banana' on the tub, you can be sure that Simon's the one who put those bananas in the oven himself, which he also makes the honeycomb and salted caramel and everything else needed for the range on offer.

'And any fresh fruit we need - like strawberries or raspberries or anything else - is sourced from not too far away either, so everything is as fresh as can be,' he says. 'We're really just using milk, cream, sugar, and flavours, and producing it in small batches compared to the likes of HB or the other big manufacturers - that's one of the main differences between artisan ice cream and the mass-produced stuff.

'Everything is fresh - what's grass at seven in the morning could be ice cream by seven that night, and we're only ever a week or two ahead in terms of filling orders, instead of making big batches and storing it long-term.

'It means it can get very busy here if a heatwave comes and orders start rolling in - but that's the way we like it!'

the temperature (in degrees centigrade) at which milk is pasteurised at Featherbed Farm after being produced by the family herd

the minimum number of hours which flavours are left to infuse for during the production process

the number of litres of ice cream that the batch freezer (one of the largest of its type in the world) can produce each hour

the temperature at which ice cream emerges from the freezer

the temperature to which it is then further cooled ('the cooler you get it, the better the quality,' explains Simon)

Featherbed Farm produces all the flavours of ice cream you'd probably expect - and it does so superbly.

The strawberry is scrumptious, the chocolate is as more-ish as can be, and what you might regard as plain old vanilla is heavenly too - but there are far more unusual flavours too among a range that extends to more than thirty altogether.

Simon Cooper says it's something they're working on all the time, and also that it's something that customers have come to expect. 'There's always the reliables like our vanilla and double chocolate and strawberry jam flavour, but there's more unusual ones too, like rhubarb and lime sorbet, or chai tea ice cream,' he reports.

Probably the most unusual one is produced by special order for a sushi restaurant in Dublin. It's a 'matcha' green tea flavoured ice cream, with 'matcha' being a real high-end delicacy tea drink in Japan. 'It's not much different from the rest in terms of how we actually make it - apart from the fact that the matcha tea is extremely expensive itself!' Simon says. He says it comes in at somewhere between €160 and €200 per kilogramme - go looking for a kilo of 'ordinary' tea in your supermarket, by way of contrast, and it shouldn't cost you much more than a tenner.

While friends and family may be the initial tasting panel for any new flavours being introduced, the general public often plays a role in trying them out too, as a couple of tubs of new flavours could be shipped off to outlets offering the existing Featherbed Farm range.

'It's a case then of just waiting for feedback to see how it goes,' Simon says. 'If something does well, it stays - it can be as simple as that.'

As may be expected, Simon is currently preparing for the busiest time of year, with lots of long hot days hopefully in store for the summer. 'It's around about the end of March or early April that things start picking up all right, with orders and requests coming in,' he says. 'It gets very very busy here altogether for a couple of months. Hopefully things will keep on growing like that and we'll get to the stage where we're taking on some staff too.'

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