Prosciutto, rosemary, even crab—the latest ice-cream flavours are a long way from vanilla. Christopher Hirst tries them out...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2012
In my 1950s English childhood, a faintly flavoured vanilla, strawberry and chocolate ice-cream brick called a “Neapolitan” was the height of sophistication. Only in New York in the 1970s did I discover ice cream with true and startling flavours. I still recall my first zingy lick of black cherry, and the subtle nuttiness of pistachio, so surprising in an acid-green ice cream. Later, I sampled the spectrum of fruity, nutty, chocolatey and alcoholic flavours in Italian gelaterias. Highlights include custardy, Marsala-tinged zabaione, stracciatella embedded with slender filaments of chocolate, and zuppa inglese, the bastard child of English trifle.
Recently, I have tried even more adventurous ice creams: celery flavour in a London café (green, sweet and bland); Heston Blumenthal’s mustard ice cream made for Waitrose supermarkets (creamy and rich but diffident in its heat); and a chilly invention from Giorgio Alessio’s Scarborough restaurant, Lanterna, that delivered the unmistakable, assertive taste of black pudding—highly palatable, but disconcerting. “I had to make it a few times to know the right quantity to put in,” Alessio told me. “You know it’s there, but it’s not overpowering. Tables tend to share one portion.”
Ice-cream makers have always been prone to experiment. In 17th-century Naples, they used a bean newly arrived from the Spanish colony of Peru. The result was the first vanilla ice. Parmesan ice cream was popular in pre-revolutionary France and Regency England. In her book “Harvest of the Cold Months”, Elizabeth David noted that early ice creams were flavoured with perfume ingredients, such as ambergris from sperm whales and musk from musk deer. The London-based ice-cream expert Robin Weir recently recreated these oddities using artificial versions of the original ingredients. The results had “a wonderful, flowery smell and fragrance,” he told me. “Everyone loved them.” For a food symposium, he made perhaps the world’s most expensive sorbet, with eight bottles of the stratospherically priced Château d’Yquem: “Absolutely fantastic.”
In his book “Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati: The Definitive Guide”, Weir advocates such unlikely ice-cream flavours as Guinness, goat’s cheese and burnt chocolate. The latter has “a sophisticated and complex flavour”, Weir says; but the active ingredient is “best made on the barbecue. There are copious quantities of smoke.” He admits to some persona non grata among ice-cream flavours. “Fresh pineapple doesn’t work. Sweetcorn is possible, but not worth eating. Garlic was not a success.”
Morfudd Richards, who sells her creations across Britain from a psychedelic ice-cream van called Lola’s on Ice, has further expanded the possibilities. Her book “Lola’s Ice Creams and Sundaes” includes recipes for Welsh-rarebit ice cream (including the obligatory Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce), beetroot-cassis sorbet and horseradish ice cream. However, mushrooms were a step too far. “Too earthy for a dessert ice,” says Richards. She also tried making an ice cream from seared beef infused with a red-wine reduction, but “the results weren’t particularly pleasant”.
More adventurous ices come from Humphry Slocombe, an idiosyncratic ice-cream bar in San Francisco. The name merges two characters in the bbc sitcom “Are You Being Served?”, a favourite of the bar’s owners, Jake Godby and Sean Vahey. Their “Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream Book” includes salt-and-pepper, pumpkin five-spice and peanut-butter-curry ice cream. But not green pea: “We couldn’t quite nail that one down.” Their most notorious flavour is foie gras (“we even got death threats”), closely followed by prosciutto. This cured-ham curiosity is “one of our most requested flavours—it’s salty, sweet and delicious”. Since it requires the maker to sauté the prosciutto, then add the fried meat and rendered fat (“that’s where all the flavour is”) to the ice-cream mix, this aficionado decided to give it a miss. However, a variety called Rosemary’s Baby sounded tempting. Godby and Vahey mention a “devout lady” who “calls like clockwork to see if we have [it].” It was time to dig out my Gaggia ice-cream maker.
Containing chopped rosemary, toasted pine nuts and olive oil, the recipe for Rosemary’s Baby seemed to head in the direction of pesto, but without the intractable garlic. It turned out to be distinctive and addictive: rich, resinous and grown-up, with a crunch from the pine nuts. After this, Humphry Slocombe’s olive-oil ice cream was disappointing. The complex flavours—sweet, salt and, from the added citrus zest, bitter—plus the overwhelming richness of cream mixed with oil, reminded me of the filling of a white-chocolate truffle. My wife’s view? “Mayonnaise.”
Roast-red-pepper-and-goat’s-cheese ice cream, from Morfudd Richards’s book, proved a triumph in both flavour and appearance—a luminescent orange. With a sweet smokiness, it would work well as a starter. Her crab ice cream was more daunting. Aside from the usual milk, cream, egg yolks and sugar, the recipe includes 500ml fish stock, 150g brown crabmeat and 100g white crab-meat. It should produce 900g, or 45 canapés. I halved the quantities, which still made a lot of pale-pink ice cream. It tasted surprisingly good—slightly metallic, clean, sweet and, yes, crabby—but you wouldn’t need very much as a fish course.
I had great hopes for Parmesan ice cream. But despite the ancient lineage of this chilly savoury, my rendition proved to be grainy in texture and sickly in taste; a sad fate for a big chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano. “Like eating very cold cheese,” commented my wife. My attempt at avocado ice cream produced mixed results – a lovely pale green, but a taste more like banana, possibly due to using under-ripe fruit.
After this losing streak, I was pessimistic about Robin Weir’s recipe for ricotta ice cream. How could such a bland and pallid cheese produce anything worth a lick? But the excellent result demonstrated how certain ice creams mysteriously amplify their flavourings. Creamy with a hint of salt, it was akin to a very good vanilla ice, but with a distinct, subtle depth of flavour that was all its own. Along with Rosemary’s Baby, ricotta ice cream will become a resident in my deep-freeze. But there are plenty more chilly oddities out there. I’ve only licked the tip of the iceberg.
Christopher Hirst used to be The Weasel in the Independent. He is now a food writer and author of "Love Bites"
Illustration Pete Gamlen