FOOD & DRINK; Soft scoop, hard sell

Haagen-Dazs chooses sex, Ben and Jerry have ethics. What's left for British ice cream, asks Michael Bateman
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The Independent Culture
WHY DO we need to import American, Italian and French super-premium ice cream, the stuff that costs nearly four quid for a half-litre tub? Why can't we just make our own and cut the import costs?

Good question. It was the American ice cream Haagen-Dazs that paved the way for the upmarket ice with the inflated price. And, a funny thing this, we have to pay nearly twice as much for a Haagen-Dazs here as people pay in the United States.

This is not, as you might think, because the company has to pay 40 per cent import duty to bring the stuff in from the States. Indeed not, for Haagen-Dazs is now British-owned (by Grand Metropolitan), even though it makes its product in a brand-new pounds 20m creamery in France. Part of the mark-up is to do with high advertising overheads, part of it with the start-up costs of installing custom-made freezer cabinets in all the Haagen- Dazs outlets in the United Kingdom.

Hard on the company's high-priced heels comes its big American rival, Ben and Jerry, which got an icy toe into Sainsbury's freezer cabinets last year. These two are now being chased by an Italian-made super-premium ice, Ranieri, imported by Unilever - which owns Birds Eye Wall's. And that's not all. A leading French company, Jeff de Bruges, is mounting a Norman invasion this summer to bring in its own super-premium range.

What have these companies got that we haven't? The answer is probably a big advertising budget or marketing skills, and usually both. For example, both Haagen-Dazs and newcomers Ranieri will spend pounds 12m this summer promoting their ranges.

Ben and Jerry will certainly spend less, thanks to an ingenious marketing and PR strategy that is the envy of the rest of the food business. We had a taste of it last month when the charismatic T-shirted couple, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, whose grinning faces adorn their every carton, arrived in the UK to promote their brand.

Ben and Jerry rely largely on free publicity generated by their anti- Big Business ethic, what they call their "Social Mission". They donate 7.5 per cent of pre-tax profits to a charity foundation, for example, which funds community projects; they organise "Green Teams" working for the environment; and there is profit-sharing among staff.

When you buy a B&J Rainforest Crunch, you can be sure it is made with nuts from an otherwise endangered rainforest. You are supposed to feel better when you eat B&J Wild Maine Blueberry Ice Cream, in the knowledge that you are helping "to sustain the traditional economy of the Passamoquoddy Indians". In other words, these Indians were the guys who picked the blueberries.

You would no more question the integrity of Ben and Jerry's excellent ice cream than question Jimmy Savile's good works or the ethical stance of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. On the other hand, you might just think that pounds 3.39 is a lot to pay for a 473ml tub of ice cream.

These imported ice creams may be better promoted than the British product, but are they actually better eating? In comparative tastings organised by magazines and trade fairs, the best of our premium ice creams often beat the imports. Unfortunately, you can usually only buy these home-made goodies locally rather than nationally.

Oddly, it is easier to make good ice cream than bad ice cream. Bad ice cream, made with cheap vegetable oils, milk powder, sugar, artificial flavourings and stabilisers, demands expensive technology and chemical skills. A good ice cream is the sum total of a few superb but expensive natural ingredients.

It's the old story of big business and small business. In the States, Haagen-Dazs sells $237m (pounds 150m) worth of ice cream a year, and Ben and Jerry $162m (pounds 100m). By comparison, a British company like Lakenham Creamery, which makes the acclaimed Norfolk County Dairy Ice Cream, sells a mere pounds 12m worth in a year. "We don't have the money to spend on sexy whole- page ads in the weekly mags," says Lakenham's Simon Coughlan. But he's good enough to make Harrods' own-label ice cream.

One of the most applauded British ice- cream makers is Rocombe Farm in Devon. In her Foodlover's Guide, Henrietta Green chose Rocombe ice cream as the best in Britain, and the company has come top in many comparative tastings. Rocombe's vanilla ice cream won the silver medal (ahead of Haagen- Dazs's bronze) in last year's Good Food Retailing Great Taste Awards at Wembley, an annual event that is organised by the grocery trade.

Rocombe's owners are Suzanne and Peter Redstone, dairy farmers who diversified; they farm organically and decided to make ice cream from their herd of Jerseys, starting a hand-churning operation in a shop in Torquay. As a gimmick, they decided to create a new flavour every day - to date they have made 2,200. Some have stood the test of time (like toasted almond, and Irish cream liqueur); others were quickly binned (such as Marmite and peanut butter). Rocombe's present range is about 30.

"We use no emulsifiers, stabilisers, colourings, preservatives, additives or artificial flavourings," says Redstone. It's not difficult to make good ice- cream, he says, if you are using the best fresh organic milk from Jersey cows, organic double cream, free-range eggs and unrefined cane sugar. "Into this we mix a wealth of delicious delicacies," he says, "including rich Belgian chocolate, Canadian maple syrup and a multitude of fresh fruits, nuts and liqueurs."

Rocombe Farm's ice creams are sold mostly in the West Country, but you can get them in good stores around the country (at Harvey Nichols, Harrods and Selfridges in London, for example; and ring the number below for retail outlets elsewhere).

Another sucessful home-produced premium ice cream, Mackie's, comes from Scotland. The company, which reckons to come in the top 10 of any comparative tasting, won the gold award at Wembley last year for its vanilla ice cream, ahead of Rocombe's and pushing Haagen- Dazs into third place.

Mackie's is a comparatively new product, made by an Aberdeenshire dairy farmer who is the fourth generation working a 2,000-acre farm. He went into ice cream when people started to buy skimmed milk for a healthier lifestyle, and cream prices dropped. Mackie's marketing consultant, Bill Marlow, wryly observes: "People avoid cream all week, using healthy skimmed milk, then put it all back with a blinder at the weekend by eating super- premium cream ices."

Most home-grown ice creams are unlikely to make it to the supermarket shelves. Supermar-kets are happy to sell top-of-the-range premium ice creams (the well-promoted Haagen- Dazs, and Ben and Jerry fit the bill perfectly), and alongside them their similar own-brand products at nearly half the price. They can keep their prices down by using a lower butterfat content, opting for a good stabiliser rather than egg, or beating in more air (called over-run; ice cream is sold by volume, not by weight).

Marks and Spencer continues to produce a very good range, tailored to the rather sweet tooth of the M&S customer. Waitrose sells a good range of "American"-style premium ice creams at pounds 1.99 for half a litre. This year, Sainsbury's is stepping up a gear with its Indulgence range (pounds 1.99 for 500ml) to nudge ahead of Safeway and Tesco.

Good as all these products are, none of them generates quite the sense of fun and pleasure that Ben and Jerry achieve with the names of their flavours, such as Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia (named after Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead). Among their most unsuccessful brands were Zsa Zsa Gaboreo and Norieggnog, named after the disgraced General Noriega of Panama.

Haagen-Dazs last year added Strawberry Shortcake Craze and Peanut Butter Burst to its blitz of varieties in its chunky Extraas range, which includes Cookie Dough Dynamo, Caramel Cone Explosion and Capuccino Commotion. After those, Ranieri's Tiramisu and Jeff de Bruges's Poire Belle-Helene sound rather tame - but not half as tame as our British brands: vanilla, strawberry, chocolate.

Could it be that there is nothing wrong with British ice cream that a copywriter with a good thesaurus couldn't put right?

GREAT BRITISH ICE CREAMS

This is a shortlist of six of the larger, regional producers of premium ice cream. Phone them for details of retail outlets near you.

Scotland: Mackie's (01467 671 466); Wales: Franks (01269 832 400); The West Country: Rocombe Farm (01626 872 291); The North-West: English Lakes (01539 721 211); East Anglia: Norfolk County Ices (01603 620 970); London and the South-East: Criterion (0181-778 7945).

For further information: the Ice Cream Alliance, which is a branch of Milk Mark, can supply details of its 850 members. Contact Lisa Grieff on 0115 985 8505.

MAKE YOUR OWN ICE CREAM

There is no mystery about making good ice cream. Commercial production is inevitably about bringing down the price, and therefore making compromises. The home ice-cream maker therefore starts with an advantage, especially since small domestic sorbet-makers and ice-cream machines are both effective and reasonably priced.

Here is the classic recipe for a vanilla ice cream of the quality you would find at a Michelin three-star restaurant, in this case The Waterside Inn at Bray. It is based on one from Michel Roux's definitive book, Desserts (Conran Octopus, pounds 20).

VANILLA ICE CREAM

Makes 34 litre

6 egg yolks

4oz/125g caster sugar

18fl oz/500ml milk

1 vanilla pod, split (or one teaspoon extract of vanilla, not essence)

4oz/100ml double cream

Make an egg custard (creme anglaise) as follows. In a bowl, beat the egg yolks with 1oz/30g of the sugar with a whisk, until the mixture lifts from the surface in ribbons.

Put the milk, the remaining sugar and the vanilla in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Pour over the egg mixture, beating well. Return to the saucepan and heat gently to thicken the mixture till it coats the back of a spoon (if you heat it too fiercely, it will turn to scrambled egg). Strain through a sieve and leave to cool.

Covered with clingfilm, this egg custard mixture will keep in the refrigerator for 24 hours. The vanilla pod can be used again. Keep it in a jar of sugar and you will have vanilla sugar.

To make the ice cream, beat the double cream into the mixture and churn in an electric ice-cream maker for 10-15 minutes. You can make the ice cream in batches if your machine is a small one. If you don't have an ice-cream maker, freeze the mixture in an ice tray, removing regularly (say every 15 minutes) to beat out any large ice crystals that have formed.

Transfer the ice cream to containers to store in a deep-freeze compartment. Although it will keep as long as you want, the taste is infinitely better when the ice cream is freshly made.

Now from the old to the new. The most stunning new taste for a sorbet is Japanese Green Tea. It was served by the Japanese master chef Hirohisa Koyama on his visit to Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons restaurant earlier this month.

In Japan it is common to end a meal with a palate-cleansing bowl of green tea (made from powdered green tea, as opposed to brown fermented tea leaves). It can be obtained from Japanese stores and specialist tea shops. This recipe is adapted from Ices by Caroline Liddell and Robin Weir, which is published in paperback in July (Grub Street, pounds 12.99). The recipe can be just as easily be used for a refreshing Earl Grey tea sorbet.

GREEN TEA SORBET

Makes about 12 litre

2 green teabags (or Earl Grey teabags)

5oz/250ml cold sugar syrup (2fl oz/125ml sugar dissolved in 212 fl oz/125ml water)

juice of 12 lemon, strained

white of 1 small egg, beaten lightly

Cover the teabags with warm, but not boiling, water and leave to steep for 24 hours, stirring occasionally (boiling water brings out a harsh tannic flavour). Discard the teabags and combine with the sugar syrup and the lemon juice.

Churn in a sorbet-maker or or ice-cream machine for 10-15 minutes. When it is running, add the egg white. Transfer to a container, cover with clingfilm and store in the freezer.

If you don't have an ice-cream machine or sorbet-maker , freeze mixture in a tray - ideally made of metal - removing it every 15 minutes or so to beat out larger ice crystals. !

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