Words & photos: Jo Fiddes
Cards on the table – I’m a huge fan of Northern Bloc ice cream. So when I spotted there would be an event at Castleton Mills as part of Heritage Week, I was quick to book my place on the “Northern Bloc: Exceptional Ice Cream Alchemists” talk.
The event took place in a newly refurbished event space in the historic setting of Castleton Mill, a beautifully restored former textile mill on the banks of the Leeds Liverpool Canal in Armley.
The Grade II listed mill was built in 1838 for flax spinning, and had a weaving shed added by the 1850s – some of the later additions to the mill were overseen by famous Leeds historical figure, Matthew Murray.
After the early 1860s it was used mainly for linen and woollen manufacture. Fast forward a hundred and fifty years and Northern Bloc founder Dirk Mischendahl (Australian/German by descent but a true ‘Leeds-o-phile’ since his arrival here in 1992) bought the mill complex in 2013.
As well as establishing his ice cream company, he has also spent the last several years restoring the mill sympathetically, while repurposing it as a creative work space, thereby ensuring the mills’ future.
Care and attention has been applied throughout the restoration – including repointing the mill chimney – at a cost of £100,000. When Dirk declared he had “a passion for pointing” he clearly meant it…..
As well as learning about the history of the building, we also heard first-hand the story of Northern Bloc, a company built on the ice cream heritage of Leeds – from ice blocks shipped along the Leeds Liverpool canal, to the development of flavoured ices, to the Italian families who settled in Leeds to sell ice cream.
The story of Northern Bloc started as a simple plan to make and sell ice creams from a van at festivals.
From very humble beginnings – foraging for ingredients in Roundhay Park and making ice cream on an evening to sell the next day – Northern Bloc was born. Intrigued by the science of good ice cream making (how do you avoid emulsifier? Which of the 30 types of sugar available is best to use?), Dirk set about developing top notch ice cream designed to be the main event as a dessert rather than an accompaniment.
”We’re not trying to save the world scoop by scoop – just make something that is consistently great,” he said. The free ice cream attendees received (mine was chocolate and blood orange flavoured) is proof he has succeeded.
Throughout the talk, Dirk’s pride in his business and the mill complex was evident, though he was clear that in terms of Castleton Mill:
“You never really own something like this – you just look after it and then pass it on to the next generation.”