SUNDAE BEST

TRIED & TESTED: Temperatures are rising and thoughts turn to sun, sea and those sundae moments. Our panel goes in search of ice-cream dreams
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The Independent Culture
Cool, Creamy and comforting, ice-cream is the delight of summer afternoons, licked from mammalian domes snuggled in cones or sucked from little silver spoons used to demolish melting towers. Alas, all too often what manufacturers term "dairy" ice-cream is in reality frozen milk derivatives combined with chemicals, cheaply and conveniently packaged in blocks. We couldn't bring ourselves to sample the economy end of the take-home ice-cream market. Instead, we decided to turn the spotlight on the burgeoning ranks of pre-mium and super-premium ice-cream brands, whose cost clearly destines them to be an entire dessert rather than a mere substitute for cream or custard.

THE TEST

We chose vanilla ice-cream for our blind tastings as a benchmark of producers' skills, not only because it is almost universally popular, but because stronger flavours mask the quality of other ingredients. In order to discover the testers' unbiased perceptions of each brand, we didn't reveal the identity of the ice-creams tested until the end of each of the three separate tasting sessions. It is a little known fact that ice-cream is sold legally by volume rather than by weight, so the size of a container cannot be used by consumers to make easy cost comparisons. We list the volume of each product as stated on the packaging, but only to indicate similar size: you get more or less for your money, depending on the amount of air whipped into the mixture, known in the trade as over-run.

THE PANEL

The expert taster on our panel had to be an ice-cream maker: Michelin- starred chef Bruno Loubet of London's Chelsea Hotel is well known for his daring flavours, including mascarpone and basil, elderflower and lemon, and pina colada. The flavour of a specific ice-cream should, he says "hit you straight away. Most commercial ice-creams are far too sweet, which stretches the product but spoils the flavour." Loubet was joined by his colleague Adam Gray. The other panellists were all ice-cream lovers with only the vaguest notions of how ice-cream is made. They were as follows: Nick Raffin, Mort Hudson, Steve Caplan, Carol Homden and Simon Gallimore. I took up the middle ground as a mediocre cook who knows how hard it is to get ice-cream just right.

**LOSELEY OLD FASHIONED VANILLA

pounds 2.49 for 500ml

Produced on a farm with a Jersey herd attached to Loseley Manor in Surrey, Loseley was well-known to our panellists as "the best ice-cream you can get in little tubs at the theatre" (Carol Hom-den). That wasn't saying very much, as it turned out, since the blind tastings, uninfluenced by visions of pastoral purity, yielded few compliments for this vanilla ice- cream. "It's very sweet and solid," said Nick Raffin, "in fact, it has a very bad texture. It's not very vanilla-y, either." Mort Hudson found it, "very heavy, too homogeneous for me, a comment echoed later by Steve Caplan when he described it as "rather thick and stodgy". Simon Gallimore protested: "It has a pleasant, if mild flavour. It seems nice and natural, but it has a cloying texture, as if it has gum in it." Bruno Loubet was Gallic in his dismissal. "The texture is a disaster," he said. "It has no consistency. It tastes of milk powder." Despite this, Loseley was awarded two stars as it still outshone the worst products sampled.

WALL'S CARTE D'OR VANILLA

pounds 1.99 for 500ml

"This looks like that soap that's got bits in it," said Carol Homden when presented with a mystery spoonful of Wall's up-market effort, Carte d'Or. Her conclusion on tasting was no more flattering. "Eeeugh! It is soap. It's like some form of mousse, I can't even finish the spoonful." The "bits" resembled specks of vanilla pod, as seen in the best home-made ice-creams, but the chefs tutted over their appearance. "This isn't vanilla," scoffed Adam Gray, "It's brown. It should be black. And it obviously has yellow colouring in it." Bruno Loubet thought it tasted of "that rice pudding - what's it called? Ambrosia." Steve Caplan was equally disparaging. "This is ice-cream made by someone who has never tasted ice-cream," he said, adding a helpful analogy: "It's a bit like when you mean to buy orange juice and come home with some of that awful orange-flavoured drink by mistake." The packaging does the product no favours. Carte d'Or is sold in a low, rounded, oblong plastic dish horribly similar to a margarine tub. Inside, a foil cover alerts consumers to the treat in store for them in meaningless marketing-speak: "When you peel back the foil seal on this tub, you will savour the true taste of the finest ingredients ... so now you can enjoy true taste at its very best." "It actually tastes of stale milk," said Mort Hudson, damning what is still the world's largest ice- cream manufacturer.

*DAYVILLE'S VANILLA DAIRY ICE-CREAM

pounds 1.74 for 550ml

Immediately rejected by all panellists on a single spoonful, Dayville's "Original American Old Fashioned Real Vanilla Dairy Ice-Cream", to give it its full and over insistent title, was judged "very light and very bad quality," by Nick Raffin and Mort Hudson. "This is insubstantial and anaemic, as if it's been aerated," said Simon Gallimore. "It's icy, almost granular," sniffed Bruno Loubet. Other tasters noted, "It's as light as a milkshake. No wonder they can afford to give you '10 per cent extra free' - it's all air." Carol Homden put her finger on it: "You somehow feel that you're being cheated." Dayville's, despite its protestations on the tub, has all the usual additives - guar gum, Carrageen, emulsifier, vanilla flavouring. "This is the sort of thing that gives vanilla ice-cream a bad name," summarised Steve Caplan.

****ROCOMBE FARM LUXURY DEVONSHIRE ICE-CREAM

pounds 3.45 for 500ml

Rocombe Farm, a dairy farm with an organic Jersey herd in Devon, produces a new flavour every day in its Torquay shop, but its vanilla is widely available in independent stores up and down the country. It was the only organic ice-cream tasted, and it turned out to be the preferred sample of the two chefs, who found it "less sweet, very milky, with not much vanilla flavour but still good, yes, not bad." "I would give it four and a half stars," said perfectionist Bruno Loubet. The other panellists didn't like it as much as the Haagen Dazs. "It tastes weird, as if it has eggs in it, or honey perhaps," said Simon Gallimore. "You can tell it's good stuff," said Carol Homden, "but it's slightly sickly and too light." On hearing that it was entirely organic, several panellists said they would buy it in future. "It must be better for you," said Mort Hudson with unerring logic.

***BEN & JERRY'S VANILLA ICE-CREAM

pounds 3.29 for 500ml

"This is much better, I like it," said Simon Gallimore of Ben and Jerry's Vanilla, adding thoughtfully, "it tastes as if it's got eggs in it." Most panellists felt it was too sweet, but Bruno Loubet conceded that its texture was better than some and it seemed creamier. Steve Caplan thought he could detect "a slightly more distinct flavour" and Nick Raffin said, "the vanilla is more up front." Since the problem with all the ice-creams that we tried was their lack of vanilla flavour, this became a theme at all three tasting sessions. "I suppose I never noticed it before because if you're hot and hungry you'll eat almost anything," said Mort Hudson. "But when you actually sit down to enjoy it, it's really pretty disappointing." When presented with the packaging, most panellists were surprised by this American ice-cream's identity. Ben and Jerry's was thought to have "a very personalised image" with a humorous element in the names given to its flavours (Rain-forest Crunch, Cool Britannia, Fudge Behaving Badly etc) and, given its price, the discovery of stabilisers and emulsifiers in the list of ingredients, which usually indicates a cheaper product, did not go down well. It was voted third favourite in our selection.

*****HAAGEN-DAZS

pounds 3.59 for 500ml

"Now, I could eat this," said the jaded Nick Raffin of Haagen-Dazs' white, super creamy vanilla. "It has a nice texture," said Simon Gallimore, "although it's too sweet. Maybe it tastes of honey?" Other tasters agreed that there is "something a bit toffee-ish" about this product, but that "it's definitely got real milk in it." Bruno Loubet put his seal of quasi-approval on it. "This one is finer, more delicate. I would prefer it with more vanilla." Regardless of the Scandinavian-sounding name (a marketing ploy designed to create an image of something cold, pure and Nordic), Haagen-Dazs is an American ice-cream which at least benefits from pure ingredients with no additives and uses double cream instead of reconstituted milk powder. Panellists were either irritated or amused by its "sexy" advertising campaigns, but they were all surprised by Haagen-Dazs's meagre 1 per cent share of the ice-cream market. It was voted the winner in our survey, proving that good ingredients do matter.

STOCKISTS

Rocombe Farm is available by mail order, tel: 01626 872291 (more conveniently, they also produce Waitrose's Organic Vanilla Ice-cream); other products are available in supermarkets and grocery stores nationwide.

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