Cooler than ever: The reinvention of ice-cream
We still love a 99, but with radical new flavours, high-protein and even vegan options available, this summer staple has come a long way, writes Alex Meehan
Choosing an ice-cream used to be a simple task - chocolate flake or no chocolate flake, strawberry or raspberry syrup on top and maybe, if you were feeling adventurous, a few sprinkles to top it off.
But where once a 99 dispensed from a machine in your local corner shop or a super split picked from the freezer were as fancy as it got, these days we're just as likely to be eating soft serve, gelato and even ice-creams made with liquid nitrogen.
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Irish people eat 20,100 tonnes of ice-cream each year, amounting to a market worth around €169 million. According to figures from the consumer research agency Passport, last year the company with the biggest slice of this ice-cream pie was Unilever Ireland, with around 57pc of the market through brands such as HB, Ben & Jerry's and Magnum.
But a new crop of entrepreneurs are carving out a share of this market through innovative ingredients, and tapping into the desire among consumers for something a little bit out of the ordinary.
"People are looking for a bit more of an experience and they're looking for higher quality. We use no additives, stabilisers or preservatives in our ice-cream - it's just organic cream, milk and sugar. It has a shelf-life of three to four days and we freeze it to order with liquid nitrogen," says Steven Murphy, co-owner with Stephen O'Reilly of the Three Twenty Ice Cream Lab on Drury Street in Dublin city centre.
Liquid nitrogen has been used in high-end restaurants to make ice-cream for a long time, and is probably best known for being used by Heston Blumenthal at his famous Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant in Britain. But Three Twenty Ice Cream Lab is one of the first to use liquid nitrogen, which freezes ice-cream extremely, resulting in smaller ice crystals and a smoother, creamier flavour, in a normal retail setting.
"It's made to order in front of the customer's eyes and it's extremely tasty. The proof is in the eating, and the taste and texture is what people love. Traditional ice-cream is still very popular, but tastes are changing and the arrival of gelato and parlours like ours is making a difference," Murphy says.
He has seen Irish people begin to adopt the continental habit of going for a walk in the evening and stopping to pick up an ice-cream as they go. Where once evenings were spent in the pub, now people are increasingly looking for ways to entertain themselves that don't just revolve around alcohol, yet still feel indulgent. That said, tradition still has a role to play in terms of what they choose.
"The reality is that people travel a lot more than they did, and while gelato has become very popular with all its different flavours, we're still one of the greatest consumers of soft serve ice-cream in the world. We've moved with the times and stay on top of demand, but our most popular ice-cream is still the standard 99," says Yasmin Kahn of Teddy's Ice-Cream, a family-owned business that's been in existence for almost 70 years in Dublin.
"We started selling ice-cream in Dún Laoghaire in July 1950. Originally it was powder-based and had to be whipped up in metal buckets. Things have moved on enormously since then. In April we opened in South Anne Street in Dublin, we're also in Bray and have three outlets in Dún Laoghaire"
Kahn said that while the bulk of the company's sales happen in summer, ice-cream isn't as much of a seasonal product as you might think. It's eaten all year round and for many people, is considered a mood-lifting treat.
"July is our peak month but even when it's dark and cold in the winter, people still want to lift their spirits," she says. "If the product is good and the customer service is good, they'll come back even out of season."
According to Mintel's The Future of Ice-Cream 2019 report, there are a number of trends emerging in the market. Ice-creams which are high in protein and at the same time have a low or no sugar content are increasingly available as health-conscious customers want a cold treat without the calories. And of course veganism, one of the most prevalent food trends of recent times, is also having an impact.
This summer Teddy's is experimenting with a pop-up ice-cream parlour on Marine Road in Dún Laoghaire selling only vegan ice-creams.
"My brother is testing some recipes to see what the public thinks. We're nearly there with our vegan gelato - it's still a little heavy but it's seriously tasty, and we're constantly refining it. If we can produce the quality, we'll proudly present it to the customers. Anyone can make a non-dairy sorbet but we want to know if we can make a serious whipped ice-cream that happens to be vegan," Yasmin Kahn says.
"We're also trying to be proactive with our ice-creams and trying to get rid of as much plastic as we can from our business. We want to reduce our carbon footprint and we have a plan on where we want to be in terms of that in around two years' time."
Murphy's Ice Cream opened in 2000 and today has outlets in Dingle and Killarney in County Kerry, as well as in Dublin and Galway. According to Niamh O'Kennedy, head of marketing and new product development for the chain, a big component of the success of ice-cream parlours in Ireland is tourism.
While anyone can sell ice-cream in the summer, to do it out of season you have to be able to offer a really good product that people are willing to pay for.
"One of our big things is that we make our ice-creams from scratch. The company was started by two brothers from the US, Seán and Kieran Murphy, who visited Dingle on holiday and were blown away by the quality of Irish dairy compared to what they were used to in the US and who wanted to see what ice-cream made from it would be like," she says.
"The ice-cream market was pretty basic back then - it was all knickerbocker glories and tinned fruit with vanilla - and they were able to make some pretty amazing ice-cream. Initially we offered cakes and coffees as well but it quickly became apparent that ice-cream was what people wanted, and that's what we focus on now."
Fast forward to today and their product is eagerly bought all year round not just by locals, but by tourists and in particular Americans visiting Ireland.
"Americans in particular really adore ice-cream and will eat it at any time of the day and in any weather. At the same time, Ireland is one of the biggest consumers of ice-cream in the world. Our best-selling ice-cream is sea salt flavour - we don't do a vanilla because it's become so difficult to get real vanilla pods and we won't compromise and use extract or essence," she says.
"It still has a custard vanilla base, but we boil down Kerry sea water to make our own salt and flavour it with that. It's gorgeous and was an instant hit."