Creamo’s! The wonderfully wacky craft ice cream from Ashburton

Logo depicts owner and maker Matai’s great- great- great-grandfather. Photo by the author

We are very keen to showcase small businesses from Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset. The stories these entrepreneurs have to tell make a very welcome change from the news, escaping from which, however briefly, is a privilege not afforded to many, we know.

I met Matai and Rachael to talk about how they got into craft ice cream and what their plans are for the business.

Matai is a tall, softly-spoken New Zealander, from the Coromandel peninsula who ended up in Ashburton, a Dartmoor former stannary town, because of relatives. His wife, Rachael, is from Ashburton and is a coffee roaster by profession, working with Voyager Coffees down the road in Buckfastleigh (it’s Voyager’s coffee you can buy at Creamo’s in 100 per cent recyclable cups and lids). Their small son is very much in the tractor-phase of toddlerhood and he busied himself with his John Deere model whilst we sat in the spring sunshine outside the small shop which also houses the ice-cream-making kit.

How did Matai get into ice cream making?

“I worked at a really good French restaurant, (sadly closed now) in Chagford…22 Mill Street. The owner and chef (Duncan Walker) was classically-trained and he used to come up with all sorts of wonderful ice creams and sorbets, like lemongrass and roasted peaches, for example. He really lit a spark in me. I got a small machine and made some chocolate ice cream at the request of a friend. The trouble was, the machine made three litres at a time and they only wanted one, so I offered the rest to other people.

Before long, I was making for quite a few people and delivering the tubs round Ashburton…hence the club. The shop came later, as our reputation grew by word of mouth and demand stepped up.

I also really got into pastry. I worked at the Almond Thief in Dartington and made croissants, making them over and over again until I cracked the formula so completely that I could then start experimenting with variants – cronuts etc and different flavours.”

Can you ‘taste’ food just by thinking of the ingredients? A sort of synesthesia?

“It’s not so much that for me. I think in colours rather than flavour combinations.”

Have any of your flavour combinations been failures?

“Well, taste is so individual, isn’t it? I have never made anything which literally nobody liked! But some flavour combos polarise people more than others. I made one I called Firecracker Walnut with roast apples and peppercorns. It had a roasted apple caramel and a walnut and black pepper praline. The walnut flavour was a bit much for some people.”

Which are the big sellers?

“Honeycomb and chilli…incidentally, I have a tub of that in my freezer that’s a year old. It’s definitely got hotter!

Salted malted chocolate is very popular and the surprise favourite is the fresh fennel seed. People say they don’t like licorice, but actually they really go for aniseedy flavours.”

What about the raw materials? Where do they come from?

We source locally wherever possible. The milk and cream is all organic, from Riverford Dairy. We make a range of vegan ice creams, too, by the way. The Husbandry School supplies our herbs, and we get fruit and veg from a shop in Bovey Tracey. Super ripe is perfect for us so we help with cutting down food waste. For example, I have just taken 20 kg of kumquats which needed using up. They took a lot of preparation but you’ll see spiced kumquat on the menu at the weekend!”

I heard rumours that you were expanding?

Yes, we’ve taken a unit in Buckfastleigh and we’ll move production there, and Ashburton will be just for retail. We only used to sell on Fridays and Saturdays but we’re now opening on Sundays and maybe we’ll add Thursdays in the summer.

What is happening to costs?

Our raw material prices have rocketed and electricity has gone nuts. Our costs are going to pretty much quadruple but I don’t think we can do much on our selling price. This year is going to be a bit of a dance. Very stressful.

Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs?

“Be true to your product. Don’t water your ideas down or compromise.

Do some research but not too much…if your product is new there’ll be no evidence for it anyway!

A lot of the success is due to building relationships and if you can succeed without having to push and promote, but with a good team building a rapport with the customer, then you’re onto a good thing.

We’ve got a great team here and it’s important to give them some scope to contribute, some empowerment. It’s more than just a job.

This is the first time we’ve really talked to a journalist and, as you know, I wasn’t that keen! It feels uncomfortable, self-promotion.”

Like artists talking about their work…they often feel awkward?

“Yeah. Like that. But we are looking to raise our profile a bit. We’re entering ice creams in the Great Taste Awards. In fact, I am taking three varieties up to Dorset for judging because it was going to cost a fortune to send them by courier! Results are out in August, I think. I’ll let you know how we do!”

I’ll come clean. I have a freezer drawer full of these chilly delights and a visit to Creamo’s has become something of a Saturday afternoon ritual. When I moved to Ashburton a friend whooped with joy tinged with envy.

“Wow. That’s the home of the best ice cream in the world,” she said.” People come for miles. You wait ‘til you see the queues.”

She was right! But don’t let that put you off! It’s always good craic as you wait and debate with your fellow ice cream lovers about whether to live dangerously and go for one of the really ‘out there’ flavours or play it ‘safe’ and stick to one that merely flirts with eccentricity.

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