One of my earliest recollections from my days in Bush Boake Allen (now International Flavors & Fragrances Inc.) was of my first visit to the rambling bucolic estate that masqueraded as its Long Melford, England, essential oil and extract plant. Bush Boake Allen had only recently been assembled with an evident lack of planning and forethought from three proud old companies: W.J. Bush & Co., Stafford Allen & Sons, and A. Boake, Roberts & Co. Long Melford had been the heart of Stafford Allen & Sons, specializing in superb English distilled oils, spice extracts and raising prize pigs.
My first visit could not really be described as anything approaching a success. I suspect any visitor from another outpost of this newly cobbled together empire would have been equally uncomfortable. At first sight, this was a little surprising because many of the top positions in the new company were held by Stafford Allen people, so there was little obvious reason for defensiveness. At least, unlike a number of others, I had not been banned outright from further visits, so I persisted. My perseverance was richly rewarded, and I learned a great deal over the years, especially from Arthur Woodgate and Henry Heath. The quality of the essential oils was fantastic, many of them distilled from botanicals grown on local farms. The peppermint, lavender, chamomile and elderflower oils were my particular favorites. Their approach to every aspect of production was distinctly more artisan than scientific, which could make a visitor defensive when talking to visitors about the company’s processes, but nobody could argue with the results. Sadly, as with many companies in those days, management was determinedly amateur and short-term decisions led to continual “rationalization” and production was slowly wound down. Nevertheless, for years I cherished my little bottles of the original oils and saw them as the yardstick against which everything else should be measured.
You can imagine my surprise when I visited the local Bon Appétit store in Princeton a few months ago and saw boxes of Summerdown peppermint creams proclaiming the use of English ‘Black Mitcham’ peppermint oil. The quality was very good indeed, and I started to do some research. Summerdown is a fantastic 20-year-old project of Sir Michael Colman (from the famous mustard empire) to reintroduce the original ‘Black Mitcham’ variety of peppermint to England. He now produces a single-estate mint oil on 100 acres of the Hampshire Downs in the South of England. He was kind enough to send me a sample of the oil (along with an equally stunning organic English lavender oil) and I have to say it is very, very good—so good in fact that it even surpassed my memories of the old Stafford Allen oil. Why is it so good? Here I am indebted to Rob Tyszkiewicz of Wild Flavors, who very kindly analyzed the oil for me. The following components were either present at above 1% or seemed to me to be minor components whose levels contributed to the evident superiority of Sir Michael’s oil.