Long has it languished at the bottom of the dessert menu; the budget-friendly space-filler you’ll plump for if nothing else appeals. And in the supermarket aisles, things aren’t looking too hot for the cold stuff either, with latest figures showing that sales have melted by 22% in the last year (Mintel).
Yet elsewhere there is a renaissance happening. Parlours have become tourist traps and hipster haunts, customers prepared to queue around the block for whichever crazy, photogenic concoction has made it a go-to destination. Ice cream hasn’t been this cool since banana splits were the height of sweet sophistication. So 1978, basically.
So what can manufacturers learn from the new-wave ice cream scene? “Trends are born in the parlours where they can afford to take a gamble,” says Alex Beckett, global food and drink analyst at Mintel. “They become fashionable. Then they travel from Brooklyn to LA and Chicago, then to Sydney, London, Berlin.”
In other words, it’s innovation that’s keeping things exciting. The same lesson can be seen repeated in the Asia Pacific retail market, where ice cream sales buck the trend, having increased by 5% over a three-year period. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that one in three of the world’s ice cream products were launched in the region in 2016, showing that customers respond to innovation.
So what are the trends out there worth taking note of? Get yourself a Mr Whippy and read on…
If you haven’t seen it, where have you been? Black activated charcoal ice cream is inescapable. Possibly an antidote to the rainbows and unicorns that have been trending of late, it’s made from the charred remains of coconut shells, mixed with coconut flakes, coconut milk and coconut cream. It was first served in New York last year (where, by the way, there are still queues of over an hour to get them every Saturday morning), but the Japanese have been making black sesame ice cream, which has a nutty taste, for years.
Where: Asia, the US
If you’re not quite ready to embrace your dark side with charcoal, swirls of purple ube ice cream from the Philippines are popping up in desserts across America, and now London too – Mamasons in Kentish Town sells out of ube ice cream every day by 4pm). Perfect Instagram fodder, it comes in hard-packed and soft-serve, sandwiched between cookies and slices of brioche, and inside macaron sandwiches.
What: ice cream rolls
Where: Asia, the US, London, Liverpool
Rolled ice cream has been a street staple of Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and the Philippines for at least eight years, but began popping up in America recently. Now Snobby Whale in London’s Camden has just joined in on the act, and Roll House is set to open in Liverpool this month. To make it, a liquid base is poured onto a hyper cold anti-griddle, mixed with flavourings, allowed to harden and then scraped into rolls with a spatula.
What: fairy floss
Where: Australia, Asia, the US, London
Some are putting candy floss on as an ice cream topping, while others create an ethereal effect with ice cream floating on a sugary cloud. Milk Train in London claims to have been the first to pick up the trend over here, but it seemingly all started in Australia. Sydney ice cream parlour Aqua S started the ball rolling, and the floss has reached our shores via Asia and the US. It’s pink, it’s sweet, it’s fluffy – 'nuff said. You can expect a queue in excess of 20 minutes to get your sticky mitts on one of these at Covent Garden’s Milk Train.
What: cold-brew coffee floats
Where: selected US Starbucks
Millennials are driving the growth of cold-brew coffee, as it has a smoother, less acidic taste compared to its iced coffee counterpart. Recognising this as a growth opportunity, Starbucks has started selling it in ice cream form in selected US stores. This has allowed for creations such as cold-brew floats and cold-brew malted shakes, and consumers are loving it. There are just shy of 200,000 Instagram posts on the subject, if further proof was needed.
What: soft serve
Where: Asia, America
It's dipped in melted chocolate before being slathered in toppings as the coatings harden. It's stuffed into cone-shaped pastries, layered on top of popcorn, topped with candy floss and rolled in breakfast cereals. And it’s coming in every flavour and colour of the rainbow, taking social media by storm. Soft serve is back. In Asia, in America and – anytime now, mark our words – here.
The fruits of his labour
Renowned innovator Dominique Ansel – recently crowned the World’s Best Pastry Chef and inventor of the Cronut – is currently serving a watermelon-flavoured treat called What-a-Melon Soft Serve in New York, which is soft serve presented inside a real slice of watermelon, sprinkled with chocolate ‘seeds’ and accompanied by a container of sea salt to sprinkle on top.
Also in his NY store are desserts in oversized waffle cones, which combine grown-up flavours (such as cold-brew coffee, peach tea and burrata) and garnishes (anise biscotti, milk foam, lemon powder).
And in his Japan outlet he’s gone one step further, whipping up caramel sweetcorn soft serve, dotting it with caramel corn (not popcorn, real corn), and serving it in a grilled corn on the cob with soy sauce and butter. Edgy.
What: doughnuts with ice cream centres
Known as Halos, these are said to have been created by the B Sweet Dessert Bar in Los Angeles. As they succinctly put it, “Hot on the outside, cold on the inside and yummy all over!” The Halo has been much celebrated in the UK press (there were over 1,330 articles written about it), but we have yet to hear of anyone selling it over here. Hint, hint.
What: ice cream ramen
Where: New York
Two Asian classics get an icy twist here, and everything foodie and Japanese is hot property right now. At the Dessert Kitchen in New York, they’ve taken the traditional Japanese kanten jelly dessert and served it in the form of stringy noodles. It starts with agar (extracted from seaweed), which is mixed with water and sugar to create the kanten. This is then hand-cut like pasta to give it the noodle shape. Served over shaved ice, fruit and with condensed milk, they come in flavours from grape to green tea, in a spectrum of colours.
What: bubble waffles
Where: Hong Kong, the US, London
Having been a big hit in the US last year, they recently landed at newly opened restaurant Bufle in Soho (where it was reported “hordes of hungry Londoners lined the streets” to get one on the opening day), Bubblewrap Waffle in Covent Garden and Nosteagia in Piccadilly. Made from delicate batter and cooked fresh to order in special moulds that give them their distinct bubble-like appearance, these are primed to be paired with gelato, toppings and garnishes galore.
What: taiyaki cones
Where: Japan, the US, London
These fish-shaped cones, which hail from Hong Kong and debuted in New York last autumn, come warm and full of soft serve, and have now swum the Atlantic and arrived in London. Chinatown Bakery and Bake, both in Soho, have led the way and are getting on swimmingly with this trend – both encourage customers to enjoy the cones offsite, because they get so crowded. (Fish are good luck symbols in Asia, if it all seems a little random.)
Hold it together
The unmeltable ice cream? It may well have arrived. This as-yet-unnamed innovation retains its original shape at 28°C, according to Japan’s biotherapy development research centre. A strawberry extract stops the oil and water from separating so quickly (melting, to you and me). It was created unintentionally by a pastry chef who was looking to make use of odd-shaped strawberries.