When Karen Massad Saade and her husband travel, the first thing they do wherever they land is to try the ice cream. That’s how much they love the frozen treat.
But when Saade moved to London, she was chilled to find a lack of authentic Lebanese ice cream on offer. It prompted her to launch her business, Festok, which is about to set up a pop-up shop in Harvey Nichols.
Ice cream is a popular treat over here, despite the questionable weather. On average, each person in the UK eats 9 litres of ice cream every year, according to the Ice Cream Alliance. There’s a range of different types on the market too, from Italian favourite gelato, through dietary digressions like dairy-free, vegan and low calorie, to Thailand’s stir-fried speciality.
So how does Lebanese ice cream differ?
It has a unique elastic texture, Saade tells Food Spark, due to two ingredients that generally aren’t used in other ice creams. The main constituent is sahlab, a flour made from the tubers of a species of Turkish orchid, while the other is mastic resin, obtained from trees in Greece.
“We also use orange blossom water and rose water, which gives it a superb scent, so it’s really delicious,” she adds.
Not content with plain old vanilla or chocolate, Saade didn’t want to open just another ice cream parlour. Instead, she drew on authentic flavours to create her range and bring punchier options to the marketing, including date, rose and achta (made with orchid powder, orange blossom water and mastic).
There are 10 flavours in the Festok repertoire so far, including vegan versions of mango and lemon sorbet, but the more interesting creations are inspired by authentic Lebanese desserts.
“I found that these were delicious desserts and no one had turned them into ice cream. Ingredients we use in these desserts are nutritious, like turmeric and carob, so why not?” explain Saade.
“In Lebanon, we have a turmeric cake which everyone loves and I turned that into a flavour, along with a carob cake flavour. There is meghli, a vegan flavour – it’s a dessert that people have when a baby is born and is made with rice milk and flour, spiced with caraway, aniseed and cinnamon, and garnished with coconut and nuts.”
Festok has featured at various festivals, as well as on Deliveroo and UberEats, but its big break has come via Harvey Nichols. It will run a pop-up store at the luxury retailer from June 15 through to the end of August.
Saade has created two bespoke flavours for the occasion – strawberry and marshmallow – to attract the family crowd.
“We were looking at some shops in London, but we are starting in Harvey Nichols to test the concept as it’s a huge investment to have your own shop,” she reveals. “Ideally, we want to be all over London and the UK.”
Saade wants to milk everything she can from her ice cream development – she has a long list of ideas, starting with coffee and pomegranate, followed by semolina pudding.
“In Lebanon, we are known for our coffee and we always use pomegranate in sauces and in salads,” she says.
There are also plans to add more to the vegan range, but there will never be sugar-free ice creams, despite the many customer requests.
“It’s not something we make as we are all about natural ingredients – we use organic, unrefined cane sugar,” she comments. “If you don’t add sugar to ice cream, you have to add a replacement like a chemical or artificial stuff so you get the same texture.”
Not all experimentation has led to success: Saade originally wanted to transform a popular Turkish and Mediterranean dessert called kanafeh – a thin noodle-like pastry dough soaked in a sugar-based syrup that is layered with cheese – into a scoop, but “it wasn’t working.”
“I then decided to turn this ice cream into another flavour that’s a bit similar, which is osmalieh,” she continues. “It’s made with achta and sweet roasted vermicelli rather than pastry dough.
“The thing is the kanafeh flavour has to have melted cheese so that the pastry dough soaks in the salty water that goes with the cheese, and because you don’t have this in ice cream it wasn’t sticking together. So then I turned to osmalieh, because the vermicelli is roasted so you can put anything on them. And it goes really well with ice cream.”