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Discovering Ambrosia

PUBLISHED: 09:30 24 September 2014

A behind the scenes look at the Ambrosia Factory, Lifton. -

A behind the scenes look at the Ambrosia Factory, Lifton. -

© sghaywood photography

CHRISSY HARRIS takes an exclusive behind-the-scenes look around the Devon-based Ambrosia creamery

Ask yourself this deep philosophical question: Ambrosia – rice pudding or custard? It’s not something I’d given much thought to.

But, now, here in the Ambrosia creamery, surrounded by tins and pots and with general manager Steve Pretty looking anxiously on, I suddenly have to make a decision.

And I do it without hesitation. For me, it’s definitely custard.

‘It’s funny,” says Steve. “You do find that people usually associate us with one or the other.”

Ambrosia: a potted (or tinned) history:

1915 – a chance meeting occurred between an English businessman Alfred Morris and an American named James Hatmaker.

Mr Hatmaker was trying to set up his patent machines for drying milk on heated rollers for infant feeding.

Mr Morris said he would try to find somewhere in Britain.

He decided on Lifton after Ernest Miller, the landlord of the Arundell Arms (where Mr Morris used to stay on fishing weekends) agreed to help.

Local farmers agreed to supply 50 gallons of milk to the inn every day.

1917- A site for a 30ft x 20ft building was leased from the Great Western Railway Company and the creamery at Lifton went into production.

The product was called ‘Ambrosia’, meaning ‘food of the gods’.

1936 – First creamed rice produced.

1958 – the current factory was opened at Lifton.

1968 – canned custard produced.

1986 – plastic pots are introduced.

2003 – the site and Ambrosia brand are acquired by Premier Foods

It’s testament to the affection felt for this Devon brand that people from across the generations can say which side of the rice pudding/custard fence they sit on.

“Everybody loves Ambrosia,” says Steve. “It’s just one of those things that people remember from childhood. It’s a real comfort food.”

We must really love it. Ambrosia has recently become a £100 million brand, alongside the likes of Oxo and Bisto.

The factory has stood on its site in Lifton for nearly 100 years. A £20 million expansion is helping increase production of the increasingly popular ‘pot’ format.

Today, Devon Life has been given an exclusive behind-the-scenes look around the creamery where technology has been installed to help satisfy our need for a quick fix of rice pudding or custard in a handy, lunchbox-sized pot.

The Premier Foods-owned brand now makes twinpots (eg custard and crumble), pouring vanilla sauce and has launched mini rice and custard pots. These are exciting times for Ambrosia and the buzz on the factory floor is palpable.

“We have pretty much got the Rolls Royce of machinery in here now,” says process operator Mark Flanders, who I can just about make out in the midst of a mass of shiny tubes and stainless steel.

“I just feel very lucky to be here, in this room, with this new equipment. It makes me feel so proud.”

We (myself and photographer Steve Haywood) are led from one section to the next, each one filled with more space-age-looking technology than the last.

We are surrounded by steam, pots of rice pudding and the sweet smell of a dessert that takes me back to holidays with my granny. It’s enough to make the mind boggle.

“Are you all right, mate?” Steve asks me. “You look a bit, sort of, star struck.”

And I am. It might be the noise, or the smell or the sight of thousands of pots of rice pudding stacked as far as the eye can see but this place is really something.

It’s almost a relief when we wander through to the custard section (I know, I’m biased) where the pace is more relaxed.

They’ve been making custard in tins in the same way for decades, give or take a few new bits of machinery.

It’s the other side of the factory but it seems a world away from the ultra-shiny, futuristic ‘pot production’ side.

“It’s lovely to meet you,” says process operator Lynne Hancock, whose job it is to taste the custard. What a job.

Lynne has to make sure the recipe and the temperature are right by using, among other things, a humble spoon. It’s quite reassuring to know that some things haven’t changed when it comes to pudding production.

“I just have to try it and decide if it’s perfect or not,” says Lynne. “You have to keep your eye on things and I’ve got my trusty recipe book.

“I do love it here. I live nearby and the people are all so nice.”

Does she still like custard though?

“I still like it but I haven’t got that much of it at home, put it that way,” she says.

Lynne gives me a big hug goodbye. She’s right - everyone here is just so nice and seems to share a real sense of honour about working for this much-loved Devon brand.

Kevin George is a prime example. He and his family have clocked up more than 100 years of service to Ambrosia.

His two brothers, sisters-in-law and his partner have all been loyal workers at the site.

“It’s the biggest part of my life,” Kevin explains. “I wouldn’t have all that I have if it wasn’t for Ambrosia. It’s been part of my family for years.”

I hang up my fluorescent jacket and hairnet and head out to see the rolling green hills that surround this factory.

It’s a reminder that Ambrosia’ s appeal rests on the fact that it is a comfort food made in a part of the world people feel so comfortable in.

Devon knows how they make it so creamy – and now I do too.

You can pass the Ambrosia creamery as part of a walk on the Lifton Link trail. For more information, visit ambrosia.co.uk

Facts and figures:

The creamery uses 52,000,000 litres of milk (all from the South West) per year.

It’s enough to fill 21 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

It takes 2,364 tankers to deliver the milk.

Up to 87,576,250 cans are produced each year - enough to stretch from Devon to California.

On an average day, the creamery uses 15 lorry loads of milk, 500,000 cans and 10 tonnes of rice.

The firm employs 285 people.

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