What do ox tongue, Parmesan, foie gras and squid ink have in common? They all figure in the new wave of savoury ice creams. Is nothing sacred? Ed Caesar finds out who's got it licked

This summer, however, something has change - savoury ice cream is now all the rage. At the Morelli outlet in Harrods, where a bespoke ice-cream service is offered, customers are requesting such combinations as Parmesan and pear, Gorgonzola and honey, and, even weirder, Marmite. In Italy, meanwhile, the home of great ice cream, traditional flavours are being usurped by what is called gelato naturale - ice cream flavoured with all manner of vegetables and herbs, and with celery replacing the wooden lolly stick. And the less said about the barbecue-flavoured ice cream that is currently being pioneered in North Carolina the better.

It's not that savoury ice cream has never been around - there are some recipes, such as Camembert ice cream, that date back to 1800 - it's just that it has never been so terribly fashionable. The latest resurgence of the concept began with the emergence of "molecular gastronomy", and the experiments of chefs such as The Fat Duck's Heston Blumenthal in the UK, and El Bulli's Ferran Adria in Spain.

For those of you who have been looking the other way while The Fat Duck has picked up every award going, "molecular gastronomy" is the term used to define the scientific interest of chefs such as Blumenthal and Adria in the how and why of taste. It has allowed them to create combinations that would have been thought impossible, if not ridiculous, using the essence of various foods - the most famous example being Blumenthal's smoked bacon and egg ice cream.

But it was Ferran Adria who started the savoury ice-cream ball rolling at his much-fêted El Bulli restaurant in Spain(which is open only six months of the year so that Adria can dream up new taste riots for his customers). It was there that ice cream first turned up as a main course, with Adria's best-known variety being Parmesan flavoured, and his experiments in the medium have certainly played a part in his being hailed "the best chef in the world".

Anthony Flinn, who trained under Adria at El Bulli, and who is now making waves at his own restaurant, Anthony's, in Leeds, talks about the savoury ice-cream revolution with enthusiasm. No wonder: the Brie ice cream currently on his own menu is a big favourite with both diners and food critics. I ask him why he thinks savoury ice cream is so à la mode.

"It's just something different, isn't it?" he replies. "And that's got to be good. I went to a shop the other day to get peanuts for peanut ice cream, and the woman looked at me as if I were mad. So, if peanut ice cream is too much for people, then a lot of the stuff that's being made now is really going to blow their minds."

But how does Flinn discover that Brie ice cream, for example, is actually delicious? "It's all a question of playing around with taste, and seeing what works," he says. "It's about combinations. And, obviously, the more you can wow people, the better."

Flinn, though, is quick to sound a word of warning. "The whole savoury ice-cream thing has been around for seven years or so now - that's when chefs really started experimenting with it - and now it has been taken to the nth degree. It's like the whole combat-trouser thing. When Armani first brought out its first combats, they were really something, but when Topshop started selling them, you knew the value had been diminished a little.

"Everyone's doing savoury ice cream now, and that's why we're quite sparing in how much we serve in our restaurant. I've seen some terrible restaurants doing some terrible things with ice cream." Such as?

"Squid-ink ice cream? Who the hell thought of squid-ink ice cream? Why would you make it? Without sounding too pretentious, it's just a case of the controls being in the wrong hands. People are saying, what's the most insane, most provocative ice-cream flavour I can think of? And then they make it."

This certainly seems to be the mission of a number of chefs worldwide, for, as Richard Johnson, who writes on food for this paper, says: "Nothing says 'We want a Michelin star' more than savoury ice cream." So, we have Claude Bosi at Hibiscus in Ludlow serving ice cream of foie gras with a warm emulsion of brioche and balsamic vinegar. And Massimiliano Alajmo of Padua, who serves Gorgonzola ice cream with prune sauce, which sounds repulsive but is reputedly delicious. And Il Volto's chef Vittorio Fusari, who presents a summer risotto coupled with Parmesan ice cream and saffron jelly. And the Michelin judges seem to approve. Alajmo, Blumenthal and Adria all have three stars, while Claude Bosi has two.

At the other end of scale, though, there are some rank amateurs who are jumping on the bandwagon and giving savoury ice cream a bad name. It seems harsh to single out one manufacturer when there are increasing numbers of odd ice-cream related products on the market, but Udder Delight in Delaware surely takes the biscotti. The owner Chip Hearn has been pioneering barbecue-flavoured ice cream, which apparently tastes "a little like butter pecan", as well as "wasabi ginger", "black licorice", and the retch-inducing "mushroom pumpkin". The only point at which Chip had to admit defeat was with crabmeat ice cream, which wouldn't stick together. "If it doesn't work, it separates, it could freeze, it could be nasty," Hearn told The Washington Post.

Despite such nightmarish concoctions, there is clearly a huge market for savoury ice cream, a fact that was recognised two years ago by the British commercial giant Unilever. At the beginning of 2003, it announced "the biggest, most extensive programme in the history of ice cream" (whatever that means), and €100m (£71m) was invested, purely for research, with the savoury market forming a massive part of the company's investigations.

But are we really going to turn into a nation of savoury ice-cream nuts? Luca's, a well-known family-owned outlet in Edinburgh, recently decided to experiment with pea- flavoured ice cream in an attempt to encourage more children to eat vegetables. The ice cream was packed with peas, making it a vibrant green colour. It doesn't sound like anything I would have wanted to eat as a child, but apparently the youngsters up there are converts, and Luca's has ordered a new batch. "We were shocked," admits Yolanda Luca. "All the children seemed to love it, and one girl even asked for a second scoop. It was amazing. Personally, I thought it was disgusting. Whether it was just the colour that made it appealing to the kids, I don't know."

Despite such a glowing recommendation, I decide that my life will not be significantly enhanced by trying pea ice cream. At least I can count myself lucky that I'm not Japanese. In Tokyo, there has been a virulent strain of extreme ice-cream manufacture, which has thrown up such outlandish flavours as fish, chicken wings, ox tongue, eel, prawn, and octopus. The rush to create these ices has been attributed to cool summers, an elderly population, and the increasing popularity of frozen yoghurts, although the possibility of it all being a huge reality-TV stunt has not been ruled out.

Whether the entire savoury ice-cream frenzy will melt in the September sun remains to be seen. Top chefs still seem enamoured with ice cream as the stuff with which to create whole new culinary worlds, and a whole new price range on their menus. And now, with arrival of bespoke ice-cream making, anyone can satisfy their weirdest cravings. In the meantime, I'm going to stick with the flavour you're least likely to be served this summer - good old vanilla.

How to make Blumenthal's classic

SMOKED BACON AND EGG ICE CREAM

Ingredients:

300g sweet cured bacon
50g Alsace bacon
1 litre full-fat milk
25g milk powder
24 egg yolks
125g liquid glucose

Instructions:

Roast the bacon in an oven at 160C until it is slightly browned. Chop the bacon into small pieces. Add it to the cold milk, add the milk powder and leave to marinate overnight. Tip the milk and bacon into a casserole and add the milk powder. Put the egg yolks and glucose in a mixing bowl and mix at high speed with an electric whisk until they are white and increased in volume. Heat the milk mixture to simmering and pour a little on the eggs, while still mixing. Add this back to the pan with the rest of the milk and cook to 85C. Hold it for 30 seconds then remove from the heat. Cool by stirring it over ice. Pass it through a chinois sieve to remove the bacon. Put it in a blender and liquidise until smooth. Finally, churn it in an ice-cream maker.

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