There's no wrong way to eat ice cream. Whether heaped into a bowl, stacked onto a cone, blended into a milkshake, floating in a glass of root beer, molded around a stick or sandwiched between two cookies, ice cream serves a critical role in society: It's a great equalizer, a source of joy that nearly everyone can agree is never a bad idea.
Ice cream can satisfy the most sophisticated palates while also being a convenient and socially acceptable delivery system for your favorite candy bar and mound of whipped cream.
Discussions about this issue led to the quick agreement that a taste test should be involved. So many local ice cream makers are churning out creative products, but how could we compare something like the croissants and jam flavor at Scoop to Nightingale's raspberry white chocolate ice cream sandwich?
Vying for Vanilla
In the name of fairness and objectivity, we landed on sampling vanilla across the board within three categories: ice cream, gelato and dairy-free desserts. Part of our rationale was that even if vanilla isn't most people's first choice, they can still objectively assess it on its merits. We also figured that because vanilla should be so clean and pure, there's no hiding behind it — subpar ice cream could be covered up with a strong dark chocolate or the distraction of crunchy or chewy mix-ins.
According to Charm School co-owner Alex Zavaleta, who could (and often does) wax poetic about this subject for hours, quality vanilla is difficult to grow and surprisingly expensive to buy, up there with saffron. A gallon of highly concentrated vanilla could cost anywhere from $150 to $350, he says, and many shop owners will "joke that they put it in their safe along with their money."
In Good Taste
A panel of eight judges, which included Style's food writers and a few ice cream fanatics whose responses to the invitation included a half-dozen exclamation marks and phrases like "This is the best text I've ever gotten," gathered in our conference room one Wednesday evening.
I facilitated the tasting, keeping the samples anonymous to remove any biases. Each person tasted a total of 13 products — three dairy-free desserts, four gelatos and six ice creams — and rated each on a scale of one to five in appearance, texture and flavor. Production cycles and limited offerings on rotation meant not everybody could be included, but we see you, Spotty Dog Ice Cream and North End Juice Co.
The small number of dairy-free contenders is not at all indicative of the availability of vegan frozen desserts in Richmond, as several shops in town have committed to providing creamy, flavorful products for dairy-free customers. It is, however, indicative of the challenges that come with using vanilla — anything but plain, vanilla is a deceptively complex flavor that pairs best with, turns out, dairy. The group tasted O'My Dairy-Free Gelato and sorbettos from Stoplight Gelato Cafe and DeLuca Gelato. Nobody was particularly enamored by any of them, though overall they agreed that O'My had the best texture and flavor, even though that flavor was more coconut than vanilla.
Next up were vanilla gelatos from Stoplight, DeLuca, Frost and Taste. Plot twist: The gelato from DeLuca was actually the sweet cream flavor, with no vanilla added. We decided to include it because, according to the store's manager, that's what is served to anyone who asks for a scoop of vanilla. Ironically, one judge wrote on his survey that of all the gelatos, DeLuca's had the warmest vanilla flavor. The power of suggestion. Frost, a chain with 13 locations across six states, proved to be the most divisive. Everyone could agree that the flavor was rich and intense, delivering an experience more like frosting than gelato; four people named it their favorite for that reason, while others said the overwhelming sweetness was "too much" and tasted manufactured. The toasted vanilla from Stoplight and the nonvanilla from DeLuca were neck-and-neck with two top votes each. The gelato from Taste, which is comes from Confetti Cafe and Gelato in Virginia Beach, put many people off with a texture described as "goopy" and "grainy."
By the time the first ice cream sample hit the table, several folks remarked on an overall lack of pure vanilla flavor thus far, and everyone seemed to miss the little black flecks that are often associated with vanilla ice cream. In the third and final round, judges sampled ice creams from Kilwins, La Michoacana, Homestead Creamery, Charm School, Bev's and Gelati Celesti. Kilwins, a franchise known for being present in touristy cities like Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, took home the most points, with six judges giving it either a four or five in the flavor category. Homestead and Charm School also earned high praises on flavor and texture. The perplexing yellow-orange tinge was enough to dock overall points from La Michoacana, but it scored well in texture and was the overall favorite of the one person at the table who said she always orders vanilla.
The closest we could come to a consensus was that ice cream is, overall, superior to gelato and dairy-free desserts. But if we'd committed to unanimously agreeing on one product as the best and walking out of there a united front, we'd still be in that conference room. Might as well be members of Congress.
The moral of the story? Not all ice cream is created equal, there's no accounting for taste and we have no shortage of options. Which is precisely why we decided to dedicate an entire feature to some of the sweetest treats Richmond has to offer and the creative minds behind them.Back to the Ice Cream Issue