Sir Michael Colman
PUBLISHED: 11:15 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:05 20 February 2013
Tra Walker finds out why reviving an old English mint crop has proven to be the perfect retirement project for Sir Michael Colman
Rudely, I wanted to begin by asking Sir Michael Colman about his age. He is almost 80, but the slim, sprightly, silver-haired gentleman who stands before me could easily pass for a much younger sixty-something.
I'm a little late on account of getting lost in the country lanes which lead to the Colman's 2,000 acre Summerdown estate just outside of Basingstoke, but I'm greeted like a long-lost friend by 'Sir Michael', as he's fondly called by everyone here.
Despite his impeccable elocution, his warm, friendly manner and casual dress do more than reveal that this gentleman has no heirs and graces.
I'm offered a drink. "Tea?", "Yes, please." "Mint?" It would be rude not to. So once he's kindly made sure I've got all the sustenance I need, we begin. I'm here to get a taste (pardon the pun) for his new venture, but first I wanted to know more about the man behind the mint.
Born in London, the middle child of three, Sir Michael moved to Hampshire at the age of four and it was at Summerdown where he spent his formative years. After finishing his national service at 18 his father encouraged him to join the family business, and he's quick to add that he was the only of his siblings to do so. "I didn't have the sort of intellect to go into a better class of business!" he chortles.
The Colman's mustard business started in Norwich in 1814 and a couple of generations later, when Sir Michael's grandfather was at the helm, the overseas division was merged with Reckitt & Sons, with the domestic arm following in 1957. Reckitt & Colman was based in Hull and the young man worked there in one capacity or another before eventually making his way to the chairman's office for the last 10 years of his career. He tells me that in order to survive, the family business had to merge and gradually the Colman family shares, and their influence, became less and less. "The family became a bit of an anachronism, and I expect I did too by the time I came to the end of my career," he muses, as he tells me he was the last generation of Colmans to be involved in the business.
He spent what he describes as a 'full business life' away from Summerdown. Although he, his wife Judy and their five children moved there in 1961 after his father died, he spent the next 35 years juggling life in Hull and London while managing the farm and estate at weekends. He only returned fully upon his retirement from Reckitt & Colman in 1995, the same year the food business was sold to Unilever where the Colman's brand still thrives today. "When I became unemployable - which is what happens when you get to a certain age - I was no longer needed in London," he says wistfully.
His official retirement should seem like a distant memory as most people of his age stopped working years ago, but his drive and his passion for business seems to burn as brightly as ever. "If you enjoy doing what you're doing, you've just got to keep doing it. Besides, it's much more fun to be busy, don't you agree?" he asks with a smile. Yet quite why he started a new venture of this scale post-retirement isn't immediately apparent.
It turns out that after inheriting Summerdown the commercially savvy Sir Michael wanted to make the most of his land so joined an active syndicate of farmers who aimed to produce the large scale crops that none were able to do alone. They first embarked on producing vining peas, which in the Sixties were a delicacy, eventually growing around four thousand acres over a very successful 30 years.
When the popularity of vining peas began to decline the syndicate looked into producing peppermint, England already being well-known for the quality of its mint. After a processing trial the syndicate decided not to proceed, but Sir Michael still felt that the discarded product hadn't really been exploited. "If there's one thing the commercial world has taught me, it's to innovate and explore opportunities," he nods. His team at Summerdown were also keen to make it work so decided to tackle the project themselves on a small scale, growing six different varieties (there are over 30 in all) in an area the size of a tennis court. "We then isolated the variety we thought would do well, an old-fashioned peppermint called Black Mitcham, a particularly high quality grade which hadn't been commercially grown in the UK for around 50 years," I'm told.
Twelve years and some 10 employees later, business is thriving, but it hasn't all been a success story. "We had some dreadful years," Sir Michael recalls. "The first two or three, nothing grew, or only in small patches because basically we didn't have a clue what we were doing! We knew how to grow combining crops, we knew how to grow peas - we did not know how to grow mint." He admits they wrongly assumed that mint couldn't be difficult to grow as it seems as prolific as weeds in domestic gardens, but it turns out that is spearmint. Peppermint is a totally different beast which is a lot more vulnerable, not just to the elements but also in the way it is managed. "We had a very steep learning curve!" he says with ebullience.
They quickly realised that in order to make a success of the crop they'd need to learn a great deal more, so farm manager Ian Margetts made several trips to north-west America, where peppermint is grown on an industrial scale. Visits to state universities in Montana, Oregon and Washington were particularly helpful to the education process, and once armed with the necessary knowledge and skills to grow the crop successfully they imported distillation equipment from the States as there was nothing like it over here. There's now over 80 acres of Black Mitcham at Summerdown which Ian painstakingly distils into a rare single-estate peppermint oil. "We've moved on so much and now know how to grow it, distil it and handle the oil, all of which takes a great deal of skill. It's been a very interesting 12 years but we've still a lot to learn," Sir Michael confirms.
I'm observed pleasantly as I take a sip of the pale yellow tea. "How is it?" he asks, eyebrow raised. It turns out to be refreshing - not the usual murky, harsh-tasting green substance that I was familiar with. I've tried peppermint tea before but explain I've never been able to properly taste the peppermint through it. Sir Michael explains the reason. "The mint leaves are dried to remove moisture, leaving a fairly tasteless residual leaf which is what most teas are made from. Due to our distillation plant we are able to extract the oil, dry the leaves and infuse them again before making the tea bags." As it says on the box: Pure Black Mitcham Peppermint Leaf and Oil. "The only peppermint tea which includes the oil too to my knowledge," he says proudly.
Sadly today's commercial world has dictated the quality of other mint oils which are blended to maintain price, and one of the best confectionery mint flavours, Brazilian oil, has already been lost in the process. Sir Michael tells me how he is dedicated to putting the higher quality peppermint back in front of the consumer. "I want people to realise what they're missing out on - how pure peppermint tastes compared to the mint they've got used to." Although he's realistic, "There's obviously a market for the cheaper blended mint, but our products are an opportunity for the discriminating buyer to enjoy something a little different."
Not just an essential oil highly-prized by aromatherapists, the mint from Summerdown is affiliated to the Soil Associations' food standard, so Sir Michael has teamed up with a specialist chocolate-maker and for the last few years they've been producing delicious, dark chocolate filled peppermint creams. "You'd better open that up to try and take it away with you," he insists pointing at the cellophane-wrapped box that I've had my eye on since arriving. "And I'd better just check the quality," he says with a cheeky grin as he takes a bite from the delicious-looking contents. The cool and creamy fondant centre is covered in rich, dark chocolate - I was in heaven...
A ton of peppermint oil was distilled at Summerdown last August, but it won't be touched for at least a year, preferably two, in order to let it mellow. Due to the weather last year, the harvest resulted in a much lower yield, so it seems that in many ways peppermint farming is as risky and as time-consuming as wine-making.
At this point I'm still wondering what inspires him to go to all this hassle at a time when he could be spending extra time with his 13 grandchildren or sunning himself on a Caribbean cruise. Doesn't he sometimes wish he could put his feet up and enjoy his retirement? "I don't fundamentally think retirement is a good idea and anyhow, I couldn't imagine anything worse!" he adds. "I've withdrawn from the commercial deadlines and pressures and have greater flexibility in my timetable now though. I'll do two or three days, then take it easy." His definition of which is doing the shopping (he likes to keep in touch with the food trade), walking the three dogs before breakfast, reading the business papers, and spending a lot of time making phone calls. "You must maintain an interest and use the skills you've developed in your lifetime in an intelligent and creative way," he preaches. "And of course, experience saves an awful lot of time!"
And with that this rather delightful man sees me to my car, and packs me off with a box of teabags, a bottle of pure peppermint oil and the remaining box of mint creams 'for the journey home'.