Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ice Cream Not for the Masses

When, where, why and how to find the best flavors

I’m going to let you in on a little secret of hardcore ice cream eaters: make the most of the frigid weather.

I’m not talking about some kooka-mamie cold storage tip, nor some fanciful notion that you should travel to warmer climes and eat ice cream there. Nope. The secret about cold weather is it allows ice cream vendors to put their more creative flavors in the case.

When the weather turns and business slows, ice cream sellers have a few options. For one, they can close for the season, but that’s a pretty undesirable option. They can order less ice cream from the distributor and cover up some of the spots in their case, or even shut down one of their cases, thus saving on electricity as well—which is a pretty common option for towns that get little foot traffic in the winter months and even less tourism. Finally, they may just get daring, pulling some of the more staple flavors and swapping them for something a little more inventive. After all, the customers who will continue to visit the ice cream shop even in the dead of winter are likely to be slightly more adventurous than the vanilla-demanding public of May through September.

For about two years, I worked in a sweet shop in Buffalo, N.Y., that had a sizable ice cream counter. In the summer, we often dedicated four slots in the freezers to vanilla: one for vanilla frozen yogurt, one for French vanilla, and two for regular vanilla (we sometimes needed two tubs on hand since we burned through it so quickly making shakes, sundaes, and the run-of-the-mill scoop, or as they’re often called in Buffalo, “dips,” as in, “I’ll have a double-dip of vanilla”). On top of that, there were a few flavors that the owners demanded be available in the peak season, including chocolate, strawberry, butter pecan, mint chocolate chip, chocolate chip, pistachio, coffee, cookie dough, and a handful of other flavors that sold particularly well in that market. I recall a mandate that so long as peach frozen yogurt was available from the supplier, it would have a permanent home in our case.

We employees, in fact, would have heated debates when a slot opened up that wasn’t dedicated to one of the most popular flavors. Should it be filled with strawberry frozen yogurt or espresso chip? Chocolate almond or raspberry cheesecake? And I recall on more than one occasion coming to near blows with a girl who refused to see the importance of having at least one peanut butter flavor on deck at all times. I damn near knocked her over wrestling a five-gallon tub of Moose tracks into place, a quart of which I intended to take home for myself.

But in the winter months, no one really bats an eye if peach frozen yogurt isn’t on the menu. If you’ve got the tantalizing seasonal flavors, like apple pie, pumpkin pie, and peppermint stick, no one usually notices the absence of cookies-n-cream. The most adventurous flavors move because, in the winter, the only people out buying ice cream are the ones who set their minds to it well in advance. There aren’t any impulse shoppers. There’s no foot traffic. It’s just you, me, and the die-hard ice cream fans.

One little caveat before I go on: I’m using the words “ice cream” when I should, technically speaking, say “frozen dessert.” Gelato, sorbetto, sorbet, frozen yogurt—I do appreciate that there is a difference, but quite frankly it’s not all that important to me. If it’s cold and sweet (and more importantly, contains peanut butter) I’m in. What makes it even more of a moot point is the popularity of gelato in San Francisco. Still, the principle is the same, so let’s not get too uppity about terminology.

San Francisco, unlike Buffalo, N.Y., doesn’t really have a peak season/off-peak season for ice cream. It’s 55 degrees in January and it’s 55 degrees in August. Still, there are streaks of warmer weather when ice cream sales do pick up, and conversely, there are cold spells that drive the business into near-hibernation, two of which we’ve already seen in 2007.

Around October, at the start of the rainy season, I began to take notes on what creative flavors were slowly budding from local ice cream vendors. At the somewhat recently opened Holy Gelato in the Inner Sunset neighborhood, I nabbed a scoop of rice pudding gelato and one of Jameson and cookies right around the time the thermometer started to drop. At Ciao Bella in the Ferry Building, I’ve been scribbling the names of available flavors over the last two or three months, irresistibly creative flavors that we might not be seeing once the warmer weather sets back in, like grapefruit Campari, maple gingersnap, and malted milk ball. From Gelateria Naia, which admittedly has imaginative concoctions all year round, I recently saw marzipan-chocolate, panna cotta, and the company’s flavor of the month from November, cannoli. Tango Gelato has listed on its web site flavors I’d imagine are more popular in the cold, like olive oil and plum wine. Mitchell’s, probably San Francisco’s most well recognized ice cream shop, carries a wide array of flavors all year round but offers a few specialty flavors for the season, like Irish coffee in March for St. Patrick’s Day.

The gelaterias out here, close as we are to Napa and Sonoma, adore pleasing their oenophile customers, offering flavors like Merryvale Merlot Grape (Gelateria Naia), Pink Champagne sorbet (Ciao Bella), and blackberry cabernet (Tango Gelato). San Francisco has a great Asian influence, so it’s not uncommon to see Thai tea, green tea, red bean, ginger, and fruit flavors from the far East (lychee, jackfruit, et cetera). One of my dream flavors is Vietnamese coffee, made sweetened condensed milk-flavored ice cream (maybe employing a similar technique as used in Cold Stone Creamery’s “cake batter” flavored ice cream) and powered by the caffeine bite of strong espresso.

Before it’s too late, bundle up and trek out into the driving rain to your favorite ice cream parlor before the masses drive out the best flavors.

—Jill Duffy

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