I’ll bet that you too, in an ice cream shop, standing before a long counter containing tubs of colourful flavours, you feel like a kid again. And when asked the question, “Which flavour?” you are caught, for a moment, in a moment of indecisiveness. Sometimes – and even worse – you don’t even get asked the question: the person behind the counter just stares at you with an interrogative air and the ice cream scooper raised in mid-air. Embarrassed, you rush to choose your cone or cup. Sometimes, I bet, you even hope that there’s a bit of a line so that you have a little more time to contemplate your choice.
It seems as though Italy has the merit of having invented gelato, and it was again an Italian, Vincenzo Agnoletti, the pantry supervisor for Marie-Louise of Austria, to draft the first classification of ice creams and sorbets. But even more importantly, it was he who formulated the first, incontestable ice cream postulate: «Every ingredient – or better – every edible element, can be transformed into gelato». And this has been taken seriously over generations of ice cream enjoyment and consumption. And today, ice cream makers, distributors and chefs, have created the most incredible flavours imaginable.
Ice cream is no longer merely a dessert, relegated to the end of a meal, or as a snack. It should be considered a food in and unto itself, with its own important place on a menu – especially when it comes to fine dining. Especially in gourmet restaurants, it’s no longer shocking or rare to see – yes, ice cream, accompanying a dish of roast duck or a warm soup.
Some examples? There’s Ferran Adrià, who’s created "Parmigiano ice cream" and "sardine sorbet";Heston Blumenthal who’s invented "Egg and Bacon Ice Cream"; there’s the "beer and tabacco air gelato" by Massimo Bottura; there’s Inaki Aizpitarte with his "yogurt-flavoured ice cream with herbs and peanut butter". Clearly, chefs have a great time experimenting with new flavours and pairings and ice cream allows their imaginations to run wild.
Even beyond the kitchens of the world’s great chefs, the list of ice cream flavours is truly infinite, and Asia takes first place for providing some of the most unusual declinations. In Japanese supermarkets, for example, next to the “classic” chocolate, you can find ice cream flavours like squid, octopus, chicken wings (in the region of Nagoya, famous for its fowl); but there’s also tulip, which is a bit more poetic than whale or beef tongue, for sure. And we can’t leave out the supposed aphrodisiac powers of "Pit Viper Ice Cream", or the London experiment of a "Natural Viagra Ice Cream". As the Latin proverb goes, “De gustibus non disputandum est”: tastes aren’t up for discussion.
Our search for unusual tastes takes us to New York, to the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory – where you’ll find flavours like green tea, red bean, ginger and lychee. At Humphry Slocombe’s in San Francisco, ask for the "Elvis" – banana ice cream with bacon and peanuts, or else they’ve also got prosciutto and foie gras ice cream as well. In Vermont, at Late Night, there’s the "Ben & Jerry" flavour: chocolate and caramel-covered French fries. They’re not kidding around.
The list could go on and on because in every corner of the world there’s an ice cream shop that’s eager to experiment with your taste buds. Like…yes, camel’s milk ice cream, straight from the Muslim world.
And the Italians? Which flavour can they boast to have invented? Well, compared to those listed above, their flavours seem almost banal: classic, with a just the right amount of creative flair. In Sorrento, near Naples, thePrimavera gelateria has taken inspiration from the First Lady, Michelle Obama, by creating a corner called "Michelle’s vegetable garden". The flavours follow the seasons: carrot, beans and peas, zucchini, carrots and orange. The more courageous customers will try out the eggplant parmesan. At Rome’s Fatamorgana, there’s the "Venere Rosa" (the Pink Venus), made from black rice and rose buds, or else the "Panacea" made from almond milk, mint and ginseng. There’s also almond and cardamomgelato.
So how many ice cream flavours exist in the world? A true estimate is impossibile to make, although for the last 15 years, the Guinness Book of World Records has given the prize to an ice cream shop, Merida, in Venezuela, which offers 892 flavours by today’s count. Fine dining loversshould consider themselves obliged to explore these new ice cream horizons, and challenge their taste buds with the most unexpected flavours and combinations. But don’t ever forget the nostalgic perfection of good, old-fashioned vanilla!