Local Heroes

September 29, 2009

Some people come to Streamvale for the farm animals.

Some people come to Streamvale for the farm animals.

As keen observers of the meteorological and astronomical calendars, H and V made the astonishing discovery today that there is only about a month left until the end of October, also known as “Hallowe’en”, also known as “All Souls’ Eve”, also known as “The Day Streamvale Farm Shuts for the Winter”. 

Streamvale is special.  It’s where V and H first discovered the sheer joy that is an ice cream made with good natural ingredients.  It’s not just us, either; we’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t go into raptures about the raspberry sorbet, which really tastes like frozen quintessence of pure raspberry.  (So does the one we made, which we’ll post about later, but Streamvale’s has a better texture than ours, painful as that admission is.)  They also do a fabulous vanilla, and make the point that this is NOT the same as their “natural dairy” which really is “just plain”.  Chocolate, of course; but also chocolate hazelnut, or chocolate orange.  Honeycomb, of course (well, this is Northern Ireland) but also sometimes cocoa and caramel.  And the specialities: lemon meringue, coffee and cinnamon, forest fruit sorbet, tiramisu, Guinness.  No wonder we got hooked, and hooked fast; and they vary the flavours every week or so, so you’ve no chance to build up immunity.

Leaving aside the ice cream (though why would you do that?) they are an excellent example of an enterprising local business, which very much deserves to be supported.  Children love visiting; H and V have a small relative who celebrated both 5th and 6th birthday parties at the farm, where the children were safe, interested (whatever their age), well-fed on the child-friendly good food available in the café, and able to burn off lots of energy on the adventure playground and the haybale slides.  Result: happy, non-fractious children, who have had fresh air and exercise and sleep well for their parents that night; I call that something of a win-win.  We’ve made many visits, sometimes for the full farm experience but more often just to the café for their wonderful ice cream.  The enjoyment is enhanced by the fact that there is a safe, enclosed adventure playground, visible from the café windows, where small relatives can play while H and V sample yet more flavours, and H drinks very acceptable Americano coffee.

But yesterday’s visit was different.  The car park, where usually you take your chance squeezing up against a tree, was almost deserted.  The café, normally crowded and with queues, was almost empty too.  It wasn’t a scorchingly hot day, but Northern Ireland visitors have learned the hard way not to rely on such things – it certainly didn’t seem to make a difference throughout the cold, wet summer.   H and V took advantage of the peace and quiet to chat to Ben, who was staffing the café single-handedly; it was by far the longest conversation we’ve ever been able to have with any of the Streamvale staff, who are always friendly but usually rushing to the next customer.

The peace and quiet was, apparently, because of the latest media panic about E.Coli on farms.  Ben was upset about this; E.Coli exists in the world, inside humans as much as anywhere else, and infection can happen anywhere that simple hygiene isn’t followed.  But farms get blamed.  This has ceased to surprise him, as farms can get blamed for things like rabbits nibbling on fingers placed near their mouths (the fact that rabbits are rodents and thus unavoidably have sharp teeth doesn’t seem to occur to the people who occasionally attempt to sue the farm over such incidents).

It’s hard for a local business trying to make a go of a great idea; despite your enterprise and hard work, something like a tabloid panic can have a huge effect, and can end up destroying some of the diversity that’s so important.  We could just all agree to bring our children only to soft play areas, and make sure they never go anywhere out of doors, or with unfamiliar wildlife, or prickly surfaces – would we really be so much better off?  H and V don’t know a great deal about farming, although we were fascinated to hear Ben’s description of such things as the social hierarchy operating within Streamvale’s red deer herd. 

But we do (coughs modestly) know a bit about ice cream; and Streamvale Farm’s ice cream is superb.  We already knew that.  But here are some fascinating facts we found out from Ben:

  • When making pistachio ice cream, Streamvale have to be very careful due to nut allergies of customers and potential contamination of other ice creams – therefore they make it only at the beginning and end of season. Cleaning the machine afterwards is hard work too.  But V tasted the pistachio (before surrendering to the delights of lemon meringue), and H had a whole cone of it the better to form an opinion, concluding that  it’s wonderful stuff.
  • Streamvale’s ice cream is more dense than others – it’s not been aerated, giving suppliers better value per large tub of Streamvale ice cream (Ben quoted approximate values of 40 as against 80 scoops per large tub).
  • All their flavours are natural – some people expect the artificial flavour and are disappointed by anything else.  Some other manufacturers (nameless) use “vanilla soup”; Streamvale use vanilla pods.
  • Staff like Ben don’t just work in the café; they are involved in the whole farm process.  He also drives the kids on the Barrel Ride, very popular among small relatives and their friends.
  • The quality of the ice cream is already well known.  A recent group of Italian visitors were very impressed both by the ice cream itself, and by the fact that Stephanie the manageress already knew how to make affogato without having to have it explained to her; a rare phenomenon outside Italy, apparently.

As we said, Streamvale is open for another month.  They have a big event at Hallowe’en, but are open every day between now and then as well.  If you have small relatives, make them your friend for life by offering them a trip around the farm; let them feed the baby goats, stroke the rabbits, do some pretend milking and throw some food to the elegant poultry.   (Don’t just take our word for it, either; here’s another blogger describing a visit a few months ago.) Bring some baby wipes for afterwards, or use the washing facilities which are always well equipped with soap and paper towels.  And then stop off for an ice cream.  When your new young friend for life has finished theirs, let them run around the safe playground while you have another flavour, look out over the green hills, and give thanks for local, natural pleasures while we still have them.

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All the right boxes…

September 25, 2009

The first scoop is the best, especially when it's gone a little bit melty around the edge.

Tickety Moo's banoffee ice cream

H and V were entertaining a guest from across the Irish Sea, and where better to take them than Fermanagh, one of Northern Ireland’s loveliest locations, with so much to offer the tourist: breathtaking lakes, check; beautiful islands, check; historic castles, check; assorted water-based activities, such as boating and fishing, check.  But if you choose V and H as your holiday reps, you can hardly expect to have an ice-cream-free experience.

We stopped for lunch at the converted railway station in Augher, then found ourselves heading for Fivemiletown (though strangely the signs always informed us we were at a distance of either 4 or 6 miles from the place).  Rather than stay on the main road to Enniskillen, we took the pretty route through Tempo, along roads with canopies of autumn leaves, dappled in the late summer warm sunshine.  Through Coa and Ballinamallard, then along the shore of Lough Erne until we reached Killadeas.

Killadeas is the home of the premium ice-cream brand tickety-moo.  In advance of our visit, we had done considerable research, finding an outlet in East Belfast selling cones and tubs of the brand.  H was particularly impressed by the fact that their chocolate ice cream is made using Valrhona; V almost wept for joy at discovering that their banoffee tastes of bananas, not banana flavouring, and is coloured mashed-banana-beige, not yellow.  We’d also sampled the apple and blackcurrant crumble, but didn’t say much about it, as we were each too intent on getting the next spoonful into our mouths before the other person.

Our research had also led us to the website, and the decision to go to Fermanagh on that date was based on reading that from 28th September the creamery’s shop would be closing for the winter.  (It certainly wasn’t based on the suitability of the 200-mile round trip for our guest, who was running a fever and should really have been at home in bed, but who knew better than to come between us and our ice cream.)

From the road, there was a brown sign pointing us along the lane towards tickety-moo, and we soon saw the distinctive lime-green of the notices telling us we’d arrived.  There were some tankers; there was a tractor in the field; and there was the shop, with a notice on the door.  We parked the car and strolled along to read the notice, which said “Closed on weekdays from 13th September.”

Stunned, we returned to the car, pondering the cruelty of fate, the fickleness of websites, the irony of existence, and were just about to get around to pondering the rubbishness of Northern Ireland customer service when the concerned face of one of the owners appeared beside the car, explaining politely that the shop was, indeed, shut.  I attempted to look philosophical, but from my distressed inner child emerged the plaintive wail “but we’ve come all the way from Belfast……specially.”

Naturally, someone who makes premium ice cream for a living does not have a heart of stone, and so he relented and opened the shop.  He apologised for having run out of cones, and for not having the full range of flavours, but offered us an extra scoop in each of our tubs so that we could sample an extra flavour each.  We all liked the look of raspberry and pannacotta, but opted for different second flavours – mango and passionfruit, lemon sorbet, wild strawberry.  That should have come to £6 but the nice owner, Gareth, refused to take any money, despite my best efforts to insist.  So we all smiled at each other, and especially at Gareth, who shut up the shop again while we strolled out into the sunshine to sit at the picnic table and enjoy our ice creams.  And enjoy them we did; the flavours were fresh and delicious.  The lemon sorbet was sharp, mouthwatering and pure white; fascinating.  We all sampled each others’ flavours and smiled some more. 

Then our mouths dropped open with something resembling horror.  For into the car park, deserted but for our car, drove a larger vehicle, with two parents in the front and three children in the back.  All five emerged, smiling, and walked in the direction of the shop.  We tried our best to look as though we were not eating large tubs of delicious tickety-moo ice cream, but this is a difficult look to pull off when you are, in fact, eating large tubs of delicious tickety-moo ice cream; especially when there are three of you, with a large tub each.  The children looked at us; the parents looked at us; the parents looked at the notice on the shop door; the children looked at the parents; and pandemonium was about to break out when our guest volunteered “What we had to do was hassle the owner; you could try that.”  So the children enthusiastically set about their task of hassling.  Poor Gareth emerged from the farmyard again, smiled slightly more weakly, and re-opened the shop.  The children emerged with their tubs – we couldn’t tell whether or not the parents had had to pay – and peace was restored.

We returned to the car to finish the last scrapings of our tubs, leaving the picnic table to the children.  And then we heard the sound of an engine; this new arrival was a smaller car, with two elderly ladies in the front, with what were clearly their grandchildren in the back.  They walked towards the shop, where Gareth was just locking up.  We decided to leave before anything else happened.

V has a conscience, and briefly felt a bit guilty that we might have cost a nice man like Gareth huge amounts of profit, if he’d felt obliged to give out free ice creams all afternoon.  But I pointed out that customer satisfaction cannot be measured so simply; that the good publicity gained by generosity, along with the superlative nature of the ice cream itself, would generate more profits than could possibly have been lost.  Plus, as a result of our visit, tickety-moo takes its place, in H and V’s opinion, as the best local brand available, with an excellent choice of flavours (listed, though not available on our visit, was Balsamic Strawberry – see previous post for details of what a good thing this is).  Taste, ingredients, location, service, variety and love – all the boxes.

Frusís in happier times

Frusí was born several years ago in the freezer compartment of all reputable UK supermarkets. From an early age, it enchanted even the staunchest ice-cream-lovers with its tantalising offer of creamy frozen yoghurt on a bed of delicious cinnamony-oaty crumble, topped by zingy fruit combinations. In its short life as a member of the Walls family, Frusí underwent several transformations, with the introduction of new flavours – of which arguably the best was ‘Raspberry and Mango’.

Although Frusí was always understated in its approach, its charms were undeniable and its contribution to dessert life will be cherished for years to come by experts in the field. Indeed, one such expert lamented: “I simply cannot describe the impact of the traumatic disappearance of the Frusí. The world in general – and the dessert world in particular – has been left infinitely poorer by its loss.”1 Unlike many of its close relatives, such as the sorbet and fresh fruit, Frusí allowed its fans that hint of creaminess and biscuit one always secretly craves. However, Frusí also found time to be singularly virtuous as it was indeed a frozen yoghurt with fruit and oats and was, therefore, always justified after any meal. Frusí was immensely popular with friends. Indeed, it was never to be seen alone, sold – as it was – in packs of two.

Its disappearance has greatly shocked all those with taste buds who report having been unable to get in contact with Frusí since last spring. Some hope remains for those in Europe, where sightings of 3-packs of Frusís have been reported in freezer sections in Brussels. However, for those in the UK who have been left without Frusí, this is of little comfort. The knowledge that any attempt to bring Frusí back from a holiday to Europe would be doomed to fail, by Frusí’s very frozen nature, only makes it harder to bear. Instead, it only remains to salute the Frusí for its invaluable service during its fleeting life and to reflect on desserts gone by.

 

 

1 V, speaking earlier this year.

Strange as it may seem in the middle of September (when the only shades that graced our August skies were those of grey and greyer), the sun is actually shining today, the sky is blue and it feels like summer again. So what could be more summery than strawberries and cream?

Well, possibly Strawberry (and Balsamic Vinegar) Ice Cream. You get the strawberries and the cream but then make it all so much better by making them into ice cream. Before today, I – unlike H – had never made this ice cream. Unacquainted as I was with the ways of Italian gourmets and as one who recoils at most of Heston Blumenthal’s inventions, when H told me we were going to ruin enhance our ice cream with balsamic vinegar, I was horrified as only an ice-cream-lover who has been promised the best ever strawberry ice cream can be. It is with my own reaction in mind that I, unlike the recipe book from which this fabulous recipe came (‘Ices’ by Caroline Liddell and Robin Weir (Grub Street, 1995)), put ‘and Balsamic Vinegar’ in brackets, lest anyone should not attempt this recipe and miss out on what truly did reveal itself to be the best strawberry ice cream ever!

For, today I made an invaluable discovery which has forced me to eat humble ice cream (in large quantities). By adding balsamic vinegar to the strawberries – along with a little sugar – one does not end up with a sweet-and-sour frozen experiment. Instead, the balsamic vinegar brings out the flavour of the strawberries so that the ice cream tastes like pure strawberries – it really is so, so strawberry-y – but with no vinegar aftertaste whatsoever. At the moment, the mixture is busy freezing (tastes were, of course, necessary when transferring the ice cream from the ice-cream maker to its box) and because we made so much that even the ice cream maker thought we’d overdone it, I will need to take it out in an hour or so and give it a further whisk with an electric beater. No doubt this will create some drips on the worktop that only a highly undedicated and irresponsible ice-cream-lover would allow to be swept by kitchen towel into oblivion…

This is all you need - all the components of the best strawberry ice cream!

This is all you need - all the components of the best strawberry ice cream!

 

Well, after all that build up, I suppose you’d like the recipe. We used the metric measurements, but – as Caroline Liddell and Robin Weir were kind enough to provide three versions, I’ll share those as well so that everyone the world over can enjoy this magnificent ice cream.

 

Ingredients

450g / 1 lb  Fresh Strawberries
150g / ¾ cup / 5 ¼ oz Caster/Ultra Fine Sugar
1 Tbsp Balsamic Vinegar
150ml / ½ cup plus 2 tbsp / 5 ¼ fl oz Whipping/ Heavy Cream (36% fat)

Makes about 875ml/3½ cups/28 fl oz

 

Method:

  1. Wash and hull strawberries, then dry thoroughly on kitchen towel
  2. Put strawberries in a food processor or blender, with the sugar
  3. Set the machine in motion and add the balsamic vinegar through the lid or funnel.
  4. Continue to blend until the ingredients have combined to a smooth purée, then pour this into a bowl. Cover and refrigerate for 2-3 hours. (At this stage we’re told “The sugar and vinegar will bring out the flavour of the fruit”   Hooray!)
  5. When ready, combine the strawberry purée and cream and either still freeze* or start the ice cream machine.
  6. If using the ice cream machine, pour mixture into the machine and leave to churn until the ice cream has the consistency of softly whipped cream.
  7. Quickly scrape into plastic freezer boxes and cover with waxed/greaseproof paper and a lid.
  8. Finally label, then freeze.

Serving straight away? Allow to freeze for 1 hour until just firm enough to serve. According to the book, you should allow about 20 minutes in the fridge before serving if the ice cream has been frozen solid but we found this was not necessary (or bearable).

 

*Still Freezing. If you don’t have an ice cream maker, do not fear! After pouring the liquid mixture into a box, check after 1 – 1½ hours. The mixture should have frozen to a firm ring of ice around the sides and base of the box, with a soft slush in the centre. Either:

  • Beat for a few seconds with a sturdy electric hand beater until the mixture forms a uniform slush

or

  1. Quickly process in a food processor to a uniform slush.
  2. Quickly return the ice to the box, cover and put back in the freezer

 

    You’ll need to repeat this at least twice, every 1-1½ hours.

About a year ago, we went to visit one of England’s great Northern cities; at the time, V was contemplating moving there. 

Near the main square was a traditional sweetie shop, which also advertised its own home-made ices, including flavours like black cherry, chocolate, and – hold on a minute, did you say sticky toffee pudding?  I was worried V might go in on her own, but I managed to push my way through the door just ahead of her, which meant I was the first to receive the sour scowl of the lady behind the counter.  Timidly, we asked what the flavours were (they weren’t labelled); there was a good-sized tray of chocolate fudge, another of what was recognisably black cherry, and one almost-empty one containing the sticky toffee pudding. 

“Could we please have two single-scoop cones of sticky toffee?”
“No.”
“Er, why not?”
“There is only enough for one cone.”

One of us could have been selfless and requested another flavour; but it wasn’t going to be me, and it soon became clear that it wasn’t going to be V, either.  Luckily, my genius kicked in.

“Could we each have a cone with half a scoop of that, and half a scoop of the chocolate fudge?”
“No.”
“Er, um, why not?”
“Because I don’t do that.”

 V and I looked at each other, looked wistfully at the single portion of sticky toffee pudding, looked nervously at the stony-faced lady, and simultaneously nodded our goodbyes and made for the door.  The sticky toffee ice cream might have looked good, but under such circumstances it could never have tasted good.

 Out in the main square, an elderly man and his teenage grandson were manning a little push-along ice-cream cart.  V smiled and asked the senior partner what flavours he had; turned out it was just vanilla.  He asked where we were from, said that he’d love to visit Belfast, that everyone was happy it was a more peaceful place these days.  The grandson gave a sardonic grin, and said Belfast was bound to be more fun than the great northern city in which he was currently standing.  We ordered two single-scoop cones of vanilla spiked with a Cadbury’s flake, and were served with a smile, and an expression of hope that we’d enjoy our visit.  I don’t often order vanilla, but that was the best I can remember tasting: subtle vanilla flavour, light, slightly icy texture, much as I imagine the gelati will taste when I eventually get myself and V to Italy, though I don’t expect they will always come with a topping of Cadbury’s Flake.

 We did enjoy our visit, as it turned out, even though V eventually decided against moving there.  The day we left, we noticed that the sweetie shop was up for sale, though we have no way of knowing if that was the cause of the lady’s grim expression, or if she had driven away all the customers.  In either case, what we will take away from our visit is the memory of a fresh, unpretentious vanilla 99, served with love.

Vanilla with a smile