The taste of summer

By Deborah Light 7 August 2017
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What tub is in your freezer?

AUSTRALIA IS A nation obsessed with consuming ice-cream. We’ve been hooked on the stuff from the moment it went on sale over a century ago. It’s true that you’re more likely than not to find a tub or two of ice-cream in Australian freezers, summer or winter. Behind this national addiction lies a fascinating history of immigration and changing tastes.

Who first brought ice cream to Australia?

It’s likely that American, Frederick Peters, filled the first churn for the ice-cream Australians enjoy today. He’d come here to check a business investment, but began to miss the ice-cream his mother made while he was a child in Michigan. A Peters publication says that in those days what passed for ice-cream in Australia “was a strange, yellow, custard-like concoction”. Frederick brought back his mum’s recipes — long since lost — after a visit home and in 1907 began making ice-cream in a converted shed in Manly, Sydney, making his deliveries in the afternoon by horse and cart.

As demand grew, Peters established factories in other States. Dry ice, which came along in the 1930s, meant Peters’ American Delicacy Co. Ltd could convey ice-cream over long distances into the bush. “The health food of a nation” was its loud and proud slogan from the early 1920s right through until the mid-1970s — laughable today perhaps, given our calorific consciousness; ironic, too, given the 2008 addition to the Peters range that promises “no sugar added”. Now owned by multinational food giant Nestle, the brand has just celebrated its centenary, still as market leader.

The pioneer of gourmet ice cream in Australia

The person credited as the pioneer of gourmet ice-cream in Australia is Alix Mandelson. She arrived here in the early 1960s with the US diplomatic service. “If you wanted ice-cream you went down to the local milk bar and it was ordinary, commercial ice-cream, with about 10 per cent butterfat. I was rather disappointed,” Alix says. “It was not very rich and there was not much choice of flavour. There was vanilla, strawberry, chocolate or neapolitan [a combination of the three]. That was about it.” Alix had childhood memories of using an old hand-churn to make ice-cream, often flavoured with fruit from the nectarine tree that grew outside the kitchen of her family’s California home. She started making her own concoctions — mango, rum and raisin, peach.

With a hand-churn she ordered from the US, she was soon catering for friends’ dinner parties and, when an admirer wrote a newspaper article about Alix’s ice-cream around 1965, “the whole thing took off”. Thus Serendipity ice-cream was founded in the kitchen of Alix’s Sydney home. These days, company headquarters — its walls and shopfront plastered with awards — is in the inner-west Sydney suburb of Enmore. Alix’s daughter Sarah now runs the business, which annually produces about a quarter of a million litres of premium ice-cream for more than 800 customers, including restaurants, food stores, caterers and several airlines. They choose from more than 100 flavours, including all the old favourites and a range of exotic new ones, such as Japanese green tea and wattleseed.

A mixture of Italian and American influences

Alix says Australian ice-cream has evolved through the influence of both American and Italian ice-cream traditions. “The Italians make gelatos, which are not nearly as rich but very strong on flavour, whereas American ice-cream tends to be richer and heavier, more creamy.”

Cream? The very suggestion prompts a sniff of Latin scorn from Luigi Barosso — an Italian-born fourth-generation ice-cream maker who learnt his craft as a teenager. “We never, ever use cream. To me, it simply doesn’t fit in the art of making ice-cream,” he says.

Luigi established Gigi’s Ice Cream on the Sunshine Coast and was the first to make certified organic ice-cream in two flavours, most gluten free and some lactose free, which is now sold through selected outlets pretty much around the country.

When they toured Australia in 1997, Luigi and his wife Carla fell in love with the multicultural mix of the country, but the ice-cream they tasted along the way disappointed them. “We realised that the ice-cream was considered junk food,” he says. Luigi hadn’t planned on going back into the ice-cream business, but when the pair returned to Australia in 1999 there seemed to be an opportunity. “There was the challenge to reinvent what ice-cream is here,” he says.

“Our product is technically closer to gelato than to ice-cream because it is cream-free — we use full-cream milk but not cream.” Luigi explains his distaste for creamier varieties: “You are cheating the customer — you are making the customer feel guilty of having sinned and I’m Italian enough not to cheat on the ladies and children. Ice-cream has to be a pleasure before, during and after.”

Old-school ice-cream recipes

From preserved milk:

Ingredients: 3 heaped tablespoons powdered milk, 1 pint water, 2 tablespoons sweetened condensed milk, 1 teaspoon gelatine dissolved in hot water, vanilla to taste. Gradually moisten the milk powder, sugar and condensed milk in a large basin with the water; when all water is added stir in vanilla and dissolve gelatine. Beat well, and place in refrigerator until 2 hours before required, then beat thoroughly and pour into refrigerator trays. When nearly frozen take out and beat again. Return to trays for about 3/4 of an hour before using. If fresh milk is available 3 tablespoons of powdered milk can be left out, and fresh milk substituted for the pint of water.

With condensed milk:

Dissolve 1/2 tin condensed milk in 1/2 pint water. Blend 1/2 tablespoon cornflour to smooth paste with cold water, add two beaten yolks, and pour on the milk. Stir over boiling water till it coats the spoon. When cold, add essence. Chill, then freeze.

This article has been edited and updated since it was first published in 2008.