Mention the word peppermint and Sir Michael Colmans eyes light up with the enthusiasm of an 18-year-old at his favourite bands concert. Sixty years after mint was last produced in Britain, we are growing the best variety of it, he says. We are doing the utmost to replicate the quality of the past, so we can sell to people pure, single-estate peppermint oil and peppermint tea.
In any other man, this determination to restore single-handedly the fortunes of a long-lost crop (one which, although internationally acclaimed, was, even in its heyday, a fill-in-the-gap to revive soil during plant nursery rotation cycles) would be nothing short of quixotic.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss Sir Michael as a hopeless dreamer. He has an extraordinary business acumen, honed during his time as director of Foreign & Colonial and, earlier, director and chairman of Reckitt & Colman, a name indelibly etched on our collective memory for the jars of smooth mustard that bear a picture of a bulls head and Sir Michaels surname.
Sir Michael has his feet firmly planted on the Hampshire ground. When, in 1995, he took his decision to try growing peppermint at Summerdown, his verdant family estate near Basingstoke, he did it for a very sound commercial reason.
I was part of a farming syndicate, he recalls. We used to produce vining peas but then prices dropped. We had to look at other crops, and peppermint was one of them. It quickly turned out that it was not profitable enough for a whole syndicate, but it looked good for an estate. My farm manager thought we could make a success out of it, and thats why we decided to plant it.
Until 1999 Sir Michael was too busy with his day job to do much more than Saturday farming. But he retired at 71 and, while lesser people would have spent their hard-earned rest pottering about the garden, he plunged his energy into making a thriving business out of his mint-farming project.
In 1999 I passed my sell-by date, he jokes. No one would employ someone my age as a director any more, so I had to find something else to do. I tried to improve my golf handicap for a while, I really did, but I realised my best golfing days were over.
That might not be the most obvious reason to take up full-time farming but it worked for him. Plus I feel very strongly that, if you are blessed with assets, it is up to you to make them justify themselves, he adds.
Thats exactly what he set out to do with his peppermint crop. His plan for success is based on a simple gamble that the quality of his peppermint products is higher than the generality of the market, and the market will increasingly demand that quality.
He explains that, over the years, the peppermint industry, like most of the food trade, has faced an increasing pressure to cut costs. Confectionery manufacturers usually go to an essential oil blender and say: Do the best you can for this price. And in the toothpaste industry, which is the other destination of peppermint oil, it is even worse.
As a result, much of the essential peppermint oil that makes its way into our mouths is anything but. Proper peppermint, Mentha piperita, is losing ground to Mentha arvensis, a harsher, more bitter type of mint that is produced in vast quantities in India and, to a lesser extent, China. Cost-conscious blenders are pouring a drop of piperita in a sea of arvensis and hey presto! A cheaper but inferior peppermint makes its way into chocolates and teas.
The good news, Sir Michael believes, is that the trend for cheaper oil will trigger an attraction among sophisticated people for the real peppermint taste. I expect many people will still want to use Mentha arvensis in, say, toothpaste. But for other things, they are going to say: Just a minute, can you compare this with what mint used to taste like?
To prove his point, he opens an understated, powder-blue box and shares the luscious delight of his creamy, rich, intensely aromatic peppermint oil wrapped in a foil of velvety black chocolate.
In a market-place where America produces 3,500 tonnes of Mentha piperita and India 30,000 tonnes of Mentha arvensis, Sir Michael knows Summerdown will always be small fry. The farms whole production of peppermint oil for 2007 was about 1.25 tonne. But he believes that being small fry hardly matters, so long as you are the best fry around. What really counts is that the 1.25 tonne of oil maturing inside a lone vat in an intensely mint-scented outbuilding is of the very highest quality. I believe adding value is the way to profit margins, he says.
To achieve this result, Sir Michael and his farm manager, Ian Margetts, have carefully weighed up every single step from crop selection to oil distillation techniques for the past 12 years. We started small about the size of a tennis court and tested different varieties. We singled out Black Mitcham as the one best suited to our ground, Ian explains.
He recalls the early challenges of growing mint as he watches a partridge hop happily along the length of one of Summerdowns Black Mitcham fields, which slopes gently down a hedgerow-fringed hill enveloped in a soft, gauzy Hampshire mist. The mint regrowth, spearing afresh through the rich, brown ground after it was harvested last August, is surprisingly dark a deep sober colour between asparagus and myrtle. It is also very dense, except perhaps at the very edge of the field. It is a fairly even-covered crop of peppermint, which has taken us a while to achieve, says Ian.
Although Black Mitcham was traditionally cultivated in Britain, the need to turn every acre of soil to essential food production during the Second World War killed the indigenous industry. By the time Ian and Sir Michael decided to plant the variety, there was no information on it available in the UK.
Heres where Sir Michaels big business mentality emerged with full force. Convinced that there is no better investment than training, he put Ian on a plane to the US to learn all he could from the experts at universities in Oregon, Washington and Montana.
I learnt where to grow the crop and thats where we bought our first stock, Ian says. We expanded it to where we are now, which is 80 acres. Big and down-to-earth Ian is the man behind the day-to-day running of Summerdowns minty production, which in turn makes him the man who knows most about peppermint cultivation in Britain. I always wanted the opportunity to manage a traditional Hampshire farm, but I also enjoyed setting up and facing the challenge of something completely new, he says. And I actually like peppermint. I cant really say that about all the other crops we have grown.
It is great to have Ian because I am a rotten manager, says Sir Michael. Considering his professional history, this piece of news is rather hard to digest, but he insists. No, no, it is true. One of the things you learn in the business world is to recognise your weaknesses and address them. I am very enthusiastic about some things, but can get very dilatory about others that dont interest me so much. Ian, on the other hand, is very punctilious.
Precision, it turns out, is perhaps the most important ingredient in making good peppermint oil. Sir Michael and Ian have invested in a fiendishly complicated machine (which has the suitably impressive name of gas chromatograph and takes pride of place in a whitewashed, beaker-peppered lab worthy of the Science Museum), to analyse their mints aromatic components. It tells you whether the crop is good to harvest by telling you the peaks of each flavour component, Ian explains.
Picking the right harvest time is just the beginning. Distilling peppermint oil requires care and accuracy, and, during the whole operation, Ian hardly moves from his cubicle in a large outbuilding where an alchemists dream set of distillation machinery is situated.
The oil extraction process, which Ian learnt in the US, is one part art and two parts science. We extract the peppermint oil by steam distillation, he explains. There is a lot of skill required in setting the pressure at which you run the steam boiler. If it is too hot, you burn the oil. You also have to have the receiving cans, where oil and water are separated, at the right temperature for the optimum separation.
After that, the oil is left in a settling vessel for two or three months, then filtered and stored in vats for at least a year, preferably longer. It is perhaps unusual to compare peppermint with wine, but Sir Michael believes the analogy holds. It is like a good red wine. You dont irrigate, you pick the crop at the right time, you process it carefully and you let it age. In the end you have a pure, single-estate oil which is not blended, whereas a lot of imports are a mix of lower and higher grades.
There were a few bumps on the road to perfect oil, of course one quite literally. The distillation units came from America, and the shipping company put one of them on a very high trailer. To reach Summerdown, the truck had to go through a low tunnel, where the unit promptly banged against the ceiling before getting stuck. They had to deflate the tyres to get it out of the tunnel, says Sir Michael. The unit was so badly damaged we had to order a new one anyway.
However, the oil they produced in the end was well worth that early tribulation. When we first tasted our peppermint chocolate creams, noticing how distinct the flavour was from anything else available on the market, that was our greatest achievement, says Ian.
If Ian is the engine on the field, Sir Michael is the business brain behind the desk. To hear him tell it, all he does these days is talk on the phone to get other people do some work for him people such as his marketing consultant or the designer who produced the understated packaging for his chocolate and tea.
But the truth is that he is also the mind and the palate behind the ways in which British gourmets can enjoy the Summerdown mint. Seated by a roaring fire in the treasure trove of austere family portraits, lively hunting scenes and old Field issues that is his drawing-room, he sips his pale golden Summerdown mint tea from a dainty porcelain cup and explains why and how he comes up with ideas. The best way to put a product to peoples attention is to put it under their noses, he says.
After considering producing a boiled sweets range, which was lovely but not sufficiently upmarket, he experimented with chocolate. Chocolate and mint go so well together. But I didnt want the chocolate to front the product.He concocted the idea of making chocolate mint creams, each one consisting of a thick layer of dazzling white, minty cream cocooned in a thin but exquisite chocolate case. The concept was perfect but the initial execution was less so. It was no good, he says of his first efforts. So he picked up the phone once more and enlisted the help of confectionery consultant Brian Jackson. Brian took over production, worked some magic and the chocolates came out the other end the way that showcases our mint to its best advantage.
At the moment Sir Michael is working on another chocolate and mint combination, an intensely minty product that is encased in 72 per cent cocoa. It tastes like molten heaven, but the perfectionist Sir Michael is not quite happy with it: It is not minty enough for what Im after, he says.
While this is happening, Sir Michael is also talking to Sainsburys about some potential new products for the Taste the Difference range, which would state that the mint comes from Summerdown. He is particularly pleased to have opened this dialogue, which shows that supermarkets are starting to come round to thinking that some consumers want more from their food than just a low price. I am right in the middle of marketing a product and a concept, he says. How far we go depends on how the market responds to them.
Whether he pulls off the deal, Sir Michael is cheerfully optimistic about reviving the glories of British mint. The margins are quite satisfactory, he says. I just need more people to recognise what we are doing to make the returns. And with his enthusiasm, contacts and endless determination supported by Ians skills and quiet strength, there is little doubt that he will succeed.
Summerdowns chocolates and teas are available from Summerdowns website.
Prices start at £4 per box for Summerdown chocolate peppermint creams and £2.09 per box for peppermint tea. Summerdown English peppermint oil is also available from £4.