PX marks the spot

November 27, 2009

Other brands are available, but make sure the label says PX

 

 H, it must be admitted, has not posted on this blog for some time. A casual observer might assume that the freezing temperatures of November, following the downpours of late October, meant that she stopped eating ice cream and thus it vanished from her mind.  More astute readers, however, will realise from the level of ice-cream obsession displayed in her earlier posts that this was unlikely.  Indeed, she and V remember fondly their weekend in London last February when they toured several ice cream parlours, but that is for another post.

 The absence of posts has more to do with the absence of V from H’s home; she misses her terribly, and that’s been horrible.  It’s also the case that V is a very good photographer, and H is not, and posts without any photos can be dull, so that’s been another reason for the silence.  But V is due home soon, and will bring her camera with her, so it’s about time H shared some of the ice-cream thoughts she has, of course, been having during the past few months.

 It is true that the change of season does lead to a subtle alteration in ice-cream consumption (though nothing remotely resembling a falling-away).  The flavours of summer – raspberry sorbet, strawberry and balsamic vinegar – still taste delicious, and are a welcome reminder that sunshine will come again.  Other flavours worth mentioning are Speculoos (Haagen-Dazs’ best-ever limited edition) which goes very well with autumnal apple-based hot desserts, and tickety-moo banoffee which sits as well alongside a steamed pudding as it does in a summer cone.

 But what surprised H recently was the vital necessity for the ice cream whose flavour is hard to describe, but which is variously styled “natural dairy”, “plain”, or simply “white”.  This is not – it is really not- vanilla ice cream.  The phrase “plain vanilla” should not be allowed in the lexicon of any true ice-cream lover; real vanilla comes from pods, and has seeds and bits in it, and tastes of vanilla.  It does not taste of “plain”.  Nor am I thinking of the ersatz varieties which might lurk in freezers hidden within ice-lollies, or at the nasty end of the supermarket frozen foods aisle, and which I remember from my childhood as tasting mainly of the cardboard they were wrapped in.  No, I’m thinking more of something like this:

From a traditional producer in Scotland

Mackie's Luxury Dairy Ice Cream

 

…which does exactly what it says on the, erm, carton.  It is made with fresh milk and double cream – those two ingredients account for 80% of the ice cream, before you even get to “sugar” in the list.  And it tastes of milk, cream and sugar, with a clean flavour that has no artificial aftertaste, as well as having no hint of vanilla, or caramel, or anything else.  This means that it is the perfect ice cream to act as a foil to anything which has a strong flavour of its own, and would even be acceptable to those strange people who reply to waitresses asking “would you like cream or ice-cream with that?” with the former rather than the latter.  I venture to suggest that it might work extremely well with Christmas pudding.

It certainly worked extremely well with the recipe I found in a recent Sunday Telegraph magazine article, giving “an alphabet of recipes” and needing something for X.  To their credit they didn’t go for something like “X-rated chocolate cake” but put the research in and came up with a recipe using PX (Pedro Ximenez) sherry as the star ingredient.  I’ve halved the quantities, because I only had two old drunks alcohol connoisseurs to cater for at the time I made the recipe, and it still lasted us them two days.

Heat 100ml PX sherry in a small saucepan, until hot but not boiling.  Pour this over 50g raisins in a bowl, cover and leave to cool.  Put in fridge for about an hour to let the flavours develop and the raisins become chewy.  Then serve, poured generously over a helping of plain/ natural/ white/ BUT NOT VANILLA ice cream.

As the ice cream melts a little, you may wish to stir the sauce into it some more, to remind yourself of past experiences of rum ‘n’ raisin ice cream while feeling smug at how very much better the taste of this version is.

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Hand it over slowly.....that's it.....

Hand it over slowly.....that's it.....

H is feeling rather lonely at the moment; V departed at the weekend to research ice-cream provision on the eastern side of the UK, and although H realises that any organisation must constantly refresh its knowledge base, she’s missing her a lot.  Luckily, H has techniques to call upon, developed and refined through the various ups and downs of her life to date, which are designed to target this sort of malaise.

In the case of many of life’s ills, as is well known, chocolate is the answer: this is one of those clichés that happens to be true.   Insomnia, stress, anxiety, muscle pain, isolation, headache and lovesickness are just some of the conditions for which chocolate is the recommended treatment, although the word “chocolate” is perhaps so generalised in that sentence to be almost meaningless.  The pharmacopeia is extensive, and nuanced; one would not, for example, use chocolate buttons to treat a condition for which the solution was Divine Dark, nor imagine that Terry’s Chocolate Orange would be an adequate substitute for Maltesers.

In the case of missing your ice-cream partner, what’s required is chocolate ice cream, and the prescription here is equally specific.  Chocolate ice cream, in my childhood, was the brown side of a slab of Neapolitan: sweet and brown, yes, but no more chocolatey than another product of that era, chocolate cake covering.  Sadly, many restaurant outlets have evolved very little since then; if you have the choice, you’re often better to go for something like mint choc chip, which will actually taste of something, albeit occasionally toothpaste.  No, what is needed in a situation of extreme bereftness, when one’s ice-cream collaborator has headed off with a large suitcase and the expectation that she will not be back for 8 weeks, is real chocolate ice cream, tasting of real chocolate despite being in ice-cream form.

This is not the first time I have felt the need of chocolate ice cream; my quest began almost a decade ago and (having first had a go with a very simple recipe) saw me turning, as so often, to Robin Weir and Caroline Liddell.  Their book Ices has a reassuringly long chocolate-related list in the index, demonstrating that they do not subscribe to the heresy that “chocolate” is an undifferentiated term.  So they have Everyday Chocolate Ice Cream (I must admit to finding the idea of Everyday equally reassuring), Chocolate and Spice Biscuit, Chocolate Malted, Chocolate Parfait, Mars Bar, Rich Chocolate, Rocky Road: 14 recipes in all, 17 if you count white chocolate, which I don’t (but V would). And finally, The Ultimate Chocolate Ice Cream.  The Ultimate.  As in: no need to try any of the others; this will put all the rest in the shade; you have arrived at your journey’s end.

Except that I hadn’t; quite the opposite, in fact.  The method was too complicated for the novice ice-cream-maker I then was.  The text, though, was interesting, revealing that the recipe was an attempt to replicate the superlative chocolate ice cream produced by superlative Parisian glaciers, Maison Berthillon.  This was very useful information, because H and V were just about to decide on the destination for their annual holiday, and Paris seemed as good a choice as any.

So that summer, as soon as seemed decent after accomplishing things like passport control, we headed for the Ile St-Louis, just along from Notre-Dame which is, itself, apparently seen by some as a necessary stop on the tourist itinerary.  As we walked, we talked about what else we might do, in between daily (or possibly twice-daily) trips to Maison Berthillon; the Arc de Triomphe, perhaps, the Eiffel Tower less likely, given its distance from the Ile St-Louis.  Lesser-known attractions such as the Musée Cluny and the Eglise St-Severin took on a new appeal, given that they are only one stop away on the RER.  Such were our thoughts as we strolled along in the early-August sunshine, past the boulangerie, the delicatessen, the chocolaterie, the cafés, until we reached the doors of Maison Berthillon.

Great doors they were, too; unfortunately, they were closed, with a notice proclaiming the dread words “Fermeture Annuelle”.  Yes, the greatest manufacturer of chocolate ice cream, a delicacy which one might think would be in greatest demand during the warmer months, closes for five or six weeks every summer.  Just to be clear about this:  Every.  Summer.  V and I used to think it was only in August, so the next year we booked our holiday in late July, to no avail.

Luckily, though, this was Paris, so quality food does not remain tantalisingly out of reach for long.  Walking back along the Ile St-Louis we began to notice the words Maison Berthillon on various cafés and shops we passed, too many for it to be simply the result of wishful hallucination on our part; and discovered that Berthillon, before departing on their annual holiday, supply their wonderful products to many other outlets.  So we were able to sample the Chocolat and, thanks to the franchise which operates as far across Paris as the Champs-Elysées, had opportunity to try the similarly-flavoured cacao extra-amer (extra-dark chocolate) sorbet as well.  (Over the years we’ve tasted lots of other Berthillon offerings, which will be dealt with at salivating length elsewhere.).  It should also be added that the Ile St-Louis has a branch of Cacao et Chocolat, who make their own ice cream as well as their own chocolate, and this would have been a very acceptable alternative (though it turned out, in our case, to be more of an “as well as” than an “instead of”).

So, at last, we ordered our cones, took a taste, had another lick, savoured it, and almost purred with contentment.  “This is very good,” said V, “very very good; but hang on a minute, it reminds me of something I’ve had before.  What is it, do you think?”  (Continued below….).

Which brings me to the dilemma of how to describe Berthillon chocolate ice cream. The excellent blog Syrup and Tang  http://www.syrupandtang.com/200905/spring-harvest-in-paris/ puts it well: like cold liquid chocolate.  Of course, this gets me back into the issue of precision – does it mean cold liquid Galaxy, or cold liquid Divine, or cold liquid Lindor (now there’s a thought).  It has a good balance of sweet and darkly bitter.  The texture is excellent, like that of good chocolate, flooding the palate with beautiful flavour without any hint of greasiness.  But I realise that mere words can not convey taste.  It’s been said that “writing about music” is like “dancing about architecture” – one art cannot adequately communicate another – and writing about ice cream, particularly chocolate ice cream, particularly Berthillon chocolate ice cream, is clearly hopeless.

So the (blindingly obvious) answer is to taste it.  For this you will need to follow one of the following four methods.

1)      Visit the Ile St-Louis out of season, when Maison Berthillon will be open, and order some of their chocolate ice cream and sorbet.

2)      Visit the Ile St-Louis in the summer, when Maison Berthillon will be closed, but where many local establishments are well-supplied with the necessary chocolate ice cream and sorbet.

3)      Buy the wonderful book Ices, and either spend some time developing your ice-cream-making skills, or enrol yourself in some Boost your Self-Esteem classes, until you feel ready to tackle the recipe for The Ultimate Chocolate Ice Cream.

4)      Have a go at making the recipe below, adapted from the book that came free with my ice-cream machine before last, and which is the most simple recipe you will find for chocolate ice cream.  Unbelievably (and most unfairly for those who have followed any of the previous three steps), it also tastes identical to Berthillon’s version; the continuation of H and V’s conversation was like this: H took another taste.  “Well, it is a little bit like – no, now you come to mention it, very like – the version I made from my old book.”  V nodded. “You’re right, it’s exactly like that.  Exactly.”

So here it is, H’s version of the ultimate chocolate ice cream.  The adaptation I made from my old book was to cook the cocoa first; crucial, I think, to eliminate any raw bitterness and to allow the full chocolate aroma to emerge.

Ingredients

½ pint (250ml) cold milk, skimmed or semiskimmed
5 tablespoons cocoa – Fairtrade is always best.
400g tin condensed milk

Method

  • In a saucepan, or a bowl over hot water, mix the cocoa into a smooth paste using some of the milk.
  • Gradually add the rest of the milk, and heat until the mixture just boils.  I use a ceramic saucepan – if you only have metal, you might be better using the bowl-over-saucepan method, so that the cocoa doesn’t catch and acquire a burnt taste.
  • Remove from the heat, and stir in the condensed milk.
  • Chill in the fridge.
  • When really cold, pour into the ice-cream machine (or use the still-freeze method, beating every hour or so).

This one can be served straight from the freezer, which is another good thing about it.  Because when you are in physical, emotional or psychological distress, so that your whole being is crying out for chocolate, a twenty-minute defrosting delay is just not on.   When you need chocolate, including that in ice-cream form, you need it, how can I put this, Now.

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.

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.

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