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30 June 2021

Ice cream flavours are becoming ever more adventurous, but my tastes are pretty vanilla

Although options now range from cassava to ox tongue, most Brits still stick to the basics.

By Felicity Cloake

I never really liked strawberry ice cream… until I couldn’t find it. Contemplating the rows of chocolate fudge brownie, salted caramel and peanut butter, all I could think about were the Nesquik-pink tubs of childhood, now sitting alongside raspberry ripple and tutti frutti in the great frosty heaven in the sky. Yes, I can buy clotted cream and strawberry jam gelato for £5.50 at the hipster grocer’s up the road, but it’s not the same. It contains bits of fruit, for a start. 

Our ice-cream consumption habits have changed in interesting ways. First, we’re eating more of the stuff, with a particularly big jump in the popularity of “ice cream products” such as frozen yoghurt, cones and – at the risk of sounding about 104 – what used to be known as choc ices. The retail value of 
ice cream has risen from £597.5m in 2007 to more than a billion pounds in 2018, reflecting the increasing amounts we’re prepared to sink on a cold pint of pleasure.

Until recently, this was partly fuelled by the growth in “healthy” ices claiming to be low in fat and high in protein, or made with “natural” sugars – until Covid caused us to reassess our priorities. According to analysts Kantar, we bought an extra 54 million litres of ice cream last year, with trade mag The Grocer reporting that “as consumers sought out comfort in calories, indulgent lines were the biggest winners”. Whether we’ll change our habits now we have to show ourselves in public again is unclear.

Yet though we eat a lot of ice cream, Brits are not particularly adventurous; 84 per cent of parlours surveyed at the Ice Cream and Artisan Food Show last year said vanilla was their bestseller, followed by mint choc chip and chocolate (strawberry limped in a long way behind, not that far ahead of bubblegum). The pioneering Victorian “Queen of Ices” Agnes Marshall, whose 1885 collection contains 117 recipes incorporating everything from cucumber to curry, would no doubt roll her eyes at our lack of imagination.

[See also: The bacon butty is a uniquely British phenomenon – a cultural icon that unites us all]

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I suspect that the classic flavours are popular from Patagonia to Pevek, but there are always local peculiarities – dulce de leche rules in Argentina, Mexico loves its sweetcorn, and the powerfully scented durian ice cream is a big deal in Malaysia. Cheese ice cream is standard fare in the Philippines, and salted liquorice gets Finnish hearts racing. In Cape Town, Zimbabwe-born Tapiwa Guzha is determined to put more distinctively African ingredients, such as roasted millet or candied cassava, on the menu, while in Turkey Slow Food activists are battling to save Antalyan burnt milk ice cream from melting amid more internationally fashionable competition.

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Really unusual creations like haggis or oyster are usually produced for novelty value, but in the Asia-Pacific region, an industry report by the Kerry Group claims, boundary-pushing examples such as chilli crab or blue cheese are becoming “more commonplace by the day”. Indeed, an ox tongue flavour proved the surprise hit of a 2008 festival in Yokohama to celebrate the 130th anniversary of ice cream’s arrival in Japan. 

And if, in that part of the world, you ever find yourself in the Hokkaido town of Otaru, a region famous for its dairy, make haste to Kita no Ice Cream Yasan. Its selection includes bean curd, buttered potato and coenzyme Q10 – an antioxidant of the kind normally taken once a day in gel capsule form. Mind you, I bet even it still sells more vanilla.