Ice cream is so vanilla. And chocolate and strawberry. But while these traditional flavours have stood the test of time, experimentation is churning away in this area.
Brits devour an estimated 337m litres of ice cream each year, more than 5 litres per person. It’s predicted £1.3bn of ice cream will be sold annually by 2020.
While London has seen the likes of some crazy ice creams flavours like salt and vinegar sorbet, cornflake and beetroot, artisan companies are leading the charge with unusual tastes that are more considered.
“Gelato is fun, it makes everyone smile, it reminds most people of being kids and there is a great, wonderful, fun quality about it that allows people to play around,” says Richard Crampton-Platt, operations manager at London artisan gelato shop Gelupo.
So what’s the scoop on innovation in this area?
A tasting tour of Asia
Tapping into the British desire for Asian flavours, as well as the lack of barrier in Asian culture towards eating cold things even when its freezing outside, has been a winner for Gelupo.
The Soho store has launched a campaign called the ‘Tour Of Asia Festival’ to create seven new flavours from Japan, China, Thailand and Malaysia.
The flavours include ones Brits would be more familiar with like matcha, pandan and mango sticky rice, while more exotic ones range from red bean paste, yuzu and black sesame to the pungent durian fruit.
Crampton-Platt tells Food Spark it’s been great to experiment with flavours that you wouldn’t expect at an Italian gelateria, and it’s also a good tactic to draw in crowds during the colder month. But it required some trial and error to balance the oddness and sweetness of the different ingredients.
Black sesame has a nutty flavour, while yuzu is like lemon, giving Gelupo a good excuse to do a lemon-style sorbet (usually too “boring” for the group). Red bean was less about the taste and more about the chalky texture, explains Crampton-Platt.
While durian wasn’t too hard to put into ice cream, it was the actual ingredient that was the unknown, as they wouldn’t know if the fruit was rotten on the inside until they opened it.
“The most difficult one was pandan because the taste can be quite strong and overpowering if it’s on its own and not balanced with anything. We tried 10 versions of the pandan with different quantities and having cream and having milk and different amounts of sugar,” Crampton-Platt says.
“The problem with the pandan is on day one it would taste very mild, and then by day three it would be so strong it would be overpowering and you wouldn’t want it, because it would just develop over time. You know if you leave cooked food in the fridge and it develops over time? It was like that times ten with the pandan, so it was really hard to find the correct balance. Then eventually we decided to combine it with coconut, to give it more balance.”
Putting rice into gelato also presented an interesting challenge for the chef, Crampton-Platt says.
“Rice is a difficult one with gelato because it’s a frozen product, so you cook the rice and then it goes solid, so you have to oddly enough overcook it. It has to become gelatinous so when you freeze it, it’s still soft,” he says.
Gelupo also collaborated with Korean cafe and deli Mee Market to create a scorched rice flavour, inspired by authentic treat nurungji – the crispy, nutty toasted rice served by home cooks.
While the flavours were meant to be limited editions, Crampton-Platt says that matcha – which they have been selling eight litres of a day during winter – and black sesame are set to make it on the summer menu.
But wait, there’s more...
Gelupo is not stopping its Asian experimentation, though, with a raft of innovations coming up. For spring, they are making gelato based around flowers, herbs and spices such as violet, saffron and wild rose, plus a basil and white chocolate combo.
To attract the adult crowd and “bearded hipsters,” there is beer ice cream in development for summer, plus whisky, cigar and cardamom flavours, says Crampton-Platt. In autumn, they are going to collaborate with some chefs that grow produce in and around London, while the head chef also wants to do breakfast twists.
The wackiest flavour they have ever done is a coronation chicken gelato for the Queen’s jubilee.
Handcrafted by chefs
While the Sussex Ice Cream Co has the traditional offerings, owner Daniel Clarke says a lot of the flavours are inspired by his chef background making desserts.
One includes homemade gluten-free brownie, another is a banana and caramel ice cream inspired by banoffee pie. Then there’s lemon meringue, raspberry pavlova and marmalade and honeycomb. Clarke even has a gingerbread ice cream, which comes from a 200-year-old adapted recipe.
As a caterer, Clarke also makes bespoke ice creams that are featured at events and in restaurants, including bloody mary sorbet, horseradish ice cream, avocado ice cream and chocolate and chilli ice cream. He even developed a ‘seagull poo’ icecream with lemon and mini chocolate meringues (the client’s marketing department decided it could be a hard sell).
There are two elements to the ice cream markets, says Clarke: the fat-free, dairy-free, lactose-free, low in sugar ones like Halo Top and the everyday luxury side, which is the camp he sits in.
Clarke says they are only one of few UK companies that use bottled water to make their ice cream, while local ingredients from Sussex feature heavily as well, which is a key selling point.
“Our ice cream is made with full double cream, no milk and no milk powder, and if you can tell that story and try and get it across in your packaging and website, then it’s going to be quite eye catching and a USP when people pick it up,” he says.
“We looked at it last year when we rebranded to tell our story, which is predominantly about local ingredients, being handcrafted and made by chefs – it’s these key factors that helped us getting into Waitrose and being listed seven weeks ago.”
International ice cream
Over in the US, ice cream is taking a different turn too. Food Spark’s trend spotter Aaron Arizpe says the dish that left the biggest impression on him recently was the birchwood ice cream with black trumpet mushrooms and woodruff at Aska in Brooklyn.
“Aside from being absolutely delicious, it felt like a thoughtful and novel end to the meal,” he notes.
Fredrik Berselius, the chef at Aska, is not the first to do an ice cream from wood though. That was Jordan Kahn, currently of Destroyer and Vespertine in LA.
Over in New Zealand, scientists are experimenting with putting meat-derived ingredients into ice cream to help older people consume adequate levels of protein and other nutrients. Sensory tests with flavoured ice cream passed the consumer test, but the unflavoured items were less successful.
While meat ice cream might be a stretch for now, is Sparkie screaming out for novel takes on an age-old sweet treat?
The unusual flavours of ice cream have been doing the rounds for quite some time. Strangely, this seems to be turning into a small trend in its own right, as consumer desires grow to eat the strangest ice cream. The definition of 'strange' varies from person to person though, as most of the ice creams that may be strange here in the UK would be quite common to anyone who has spent any time in Asia.
Provenance is definitely a factor in some of these flavour choices and being the first to bring over some of the more obscure flavours from around the world may pull in the people that are following.
A lot of the high-end restaurants in the UK went through a phase of using savoury ice creams to offer texture variation to a dish in the height of molecular gastronomy.
Compared to the small ice cream shops and artisan producers, the retailers are barely out of vanilla and they are not going to be changing any time soon. Convincing the big guys that something unusual may benefit them is a struggle, but they may well open up to the less creative flavours if the product is outstanding.