Montaigne on Ice Cream


Chapman's frozen yogurtNo, Michel de Montaigne did not write about ice cream. I just used his name to entice you into this musing. But given the wide variety of topics he did write about, you’d think he might have at least penned a few words on it. Had it been available in his time, that is. It would suit his style to muse on its flavours, texture, ingredients, and digestibility. 

Unfortunately, while Montaigne does mention food and eating several times, he really didn’t write any gastronomic essays, much less about ice cream. In his essay On Experience, he wrote, “The art of dining well is no slight art, the pleasure not a slight pleasure; neither the greatest captains nor the greatest philosophers have disdained the use or science of eating well.” I like to think that dining well includes ice cream, at least sometimes. And only some ice creams.

The history of the product we eat as a dessert after dinner, in cones on a summer day, or sandwiched between slabs of chocolate-soaked bread is murky. In the classical era, legend has it, Alexander the Great enjoyed crushed ice or snow, topped with honey and nectar, and Nero had ice mixed with fruits. Marco Polo allegedly returned to Italy from his travels to China and the Far East with a recipe that would today be called sherbet or sorbet. Making a dessert from milk may have come from Shang, China, where King Tang (618-97 C.E.) allegedly created ice and milk concoctions. 

The modern form using iced milk or cream (and more recently yogurt), similar to what we eat today, was made perhaps as early as the late 17th or early 18th centuries,. It doesn’t start showing up as a commercial product until the 1770s (The first ice cream parlor in America opened in New York City in 1776). Advertising for a confectionary in the New York Gazette, May 12, 1777, offered ice cream. But until the invention of an insulated building to store ice in, ice cream was not often enjoyed by the average consumer. And, of course, the invention of household iceboxes created a home market that accelerated in the 1920s when electric refrigerators and freezers changed everything.

In Canada, according to the Univesity of Guelph, Torontonian confectioner Thomas Webb of Toronto started selling ice cream around 1850, and the first commercial ice cream maker was William Neilson, in 1893.

Originally sold in specialty “ice cream parlours” and soda bars, it moved into supermarkets as the parlours themselves faded from popularity and cold-storage technology improved, especially in home appliances. Nowadays, you can find large sections of store freezers dedicated to ice cream and related products.

And slowly, very slowly, we start to see more exotic and unusual flavours being offered (albeit very few locally: you need to go to an Asian market like Centra in Barrie to get some unique and non-traditional flavours).

I admit to liking a little ice cream now and then, after a meal. It’s a weakness, I know, but a scoop or two once or twice a week is a small indulgence I allow myself. At my age, and given the reasonable care I’ve taken with my diet over the years, I think I’ve earned it. I might have a scoop of sorbet (sherbet) instead. Not a lot; just enough to finish a meal, refresh the palette with a little sweetness. Particularly after a spicy curry or stir-fry.

Susan and I try to avoid sugary products in general, at least the excessively sweetened ones. I don’t take sugar with tea or coffee, very seldom eat store-bought muffins or doughnuts (last time I had a doughnut was pre-pandemic; maybe mid-late 2019?). We don’t drink pop (I haven’t had a soda since the early ’70s), drink cocktails or sugary mixed drinks, or eat many sweets (I haven’t had a candy bar for so long, I can’t recall the last one). I also avoid many candies because they have meat in them (gelatine, also found in some yogurts).

But a scoop of ice cream, sorbet, or frozen yogurt after a meal every now and then just seems like a nice treat. A little indulgence.

Well, some ice creams. They’re not all equal or tasty (or even use actual cream). Far too many are too sweet for our taste. We tend to stick to vanilla (Chapman’s Three Vanilla Frozen Yogurt is a favourite here) with rare excursions into other flavours such as cherry or strawberry. We never buy those candy-like concoctions that suggest cookies or fudge or caramel.

I have tried some of the pistachio and tiger-tail (orange and licorice) flavours, and as much as I like the ingredients, I find most range between a little sweet and much too sweet (excess sugar, like salt, tends to mask the other flavours, like a ringing fire alarm masks the sounds from a radio playing nearby). 

I, however, like a couple of particular flavours: ginger and green tea are my personal favourites for ice cream. The former is impossible to get locally, the latter only in the small, over-priced Hagen-Daaz containers (their brand is also a trifle too sweet, although creamy). 

Our source for these two is Centra in Barrie, about 60 km away (although the Superstore in Wasaga Beach has a green tea ice cream). Centra has many other flavours of ice and ice cream you can’t get locally, so you should visit them if you are an ice-cream aficionado. I even tried their sweet-corn popsicles (fascinating taste, but again a trifle sweet). They also have some tropical fruit flavours I have yet to try, and even a curry-flavoured ice cream I’m keen to test (Susan isn’t).

If it’s called ice CREAM, why don’t all brands contain cream? Isn’t that false advertising? And why do so many brands require all those “extra” ingredients? Shouldn’t it be a lot more simple? Shouldn’t just be just milk, cream, sugar, and flavours or fruit? And maybe eggs? I realize the food industry requires various additives to ensure consistency and portability, but too many companies go overboard. I look for minimalist additives.

I have experimented with adding peanut butter and/or ginger marmalade from a jar to vanilla ice cream, but they cannot be mixed sufficiently by hand. The result is not as satisfying because the flavours do not blend as well as in pre-mixed ice cream. I have considered blending some and refreezing it, but that will likely thaw it, too. Refreezing tends to change the texture of the ice cream, and alter the mouth-feel.

And tasty as it is on toast, ginger marmalade is rather sweet itself, which, with the sugar in the ice cream, makes it much sweeter than the ginger ice cream I have bought. I expect I should get some ginger root, cook it to soften it, chop, mix the pieces into ice cream, then freeze it to see how that works. How much simpler to simply be able to buy it.

We discovered both ginger and green tea ice cream flavours many years ago, served in Japanese restaurants we frequented, and I have liked them ever since. Neither should be overly sweet, and green tea ice cream should even have a mild bitterness; the metallic tang of the tea should be there. Ginger should be in small pieces that subtly delight and sparkle the palette.

We’ve also had some red and black bean ice creams in those restaurants, both of which I liked but Susan doesn’t care for. These tend to be a trifle sweeter than the ginger or green tea, too, but are interesting flavours. I have bought some of both in Centra, as well.

I have tried many types of mango ice cream and sorbets, too. Mangos are naturally sweet and should not require much if any added sugar, yet most manufacturers insist on adding more. As a result, as much as I love the flavour of mangos, the mango ice creams I’ve tried tend to be too sweet and candy-like. And few if any have noticeable pieces of mango in them.

I’ve had mango ices (as well as other fruits; called paletas, sometimes made with frozen milk or cream, often just juice) in Mexico that were unsweetened and they are simply the best; bursting with natural flavours and fruit pulp. The rich flavours and the included fruit pulp contrast sharply with the watery, overly-sweet ices I’ve had here. None of the frozen-ice cream-popsicle products I’ve tried in Canada are nearly as good as these paletas, although some of the flavours are an acquired taste (tamarind, for example). But I never saw peanut butter paletas, so perhaps we could teach them something, too.

[By the way, some Asian restaurants make a mango-tini; a cocktail made with mango juice (or sometimes mango pulp for a thicker, tastier drink), vodka, and a mint leaf. Delicious! But I digress…]

I’ve tried ice cream flavours like coconut and pina-colada (pineapple-coconut) in several brands, but, frankly, I find them relatively tasteless and sorely lacking in the advertised flavours. Especially the coconut. The Hagen-Daaz version is utterly bland. Sugary disappointments, all. I have yet to find even minute pieces of coconut in any ice cream that has it in the name.  There should be chunks or flakes or coconut, and diced pineapple within. (Similarly, most coconut yogurts fail by lacking sufficient coconut to make them worthy of the name.)

(Maybe I need to make my own ice cream from scratch to get something that tastes like the name it bears!)

I have a weakness for peanut butter that extends to peanut butter ice cream, but that’s another road to disappointment. Peanut butter has been a staple in my diet for decades, and I still enjoy it on toast some mornings. But every brand of peanut butter ice cream I can find locally has chocolate mixed in. Chocolate! This tells me these companies don’t understand flavour profiling and treat ice cream like candy instead of a dessert (yes, there is quite a difference between them).

Chocolate generally makes the ice cream far sweeter than necessary because it’s never unsweetened dark chocolate. And the chocolate flavour easily over-powers the peanut butter. To me, it’s like mixing butternut squash with tomatoes in soup: a poor combination that dulls the profile of each ingredient and makes for muddy flavours. Flavours should stand out and when mixed enhance and complement, not overpower or undercut the others. Even a jaded palette like mine deserves distinct flavours.

We recently tried Irresistibles Peanut Butter ice cream (from Metro) and I was deeply disappointed. I am hard-pressed to find ANY peanut butter within it. It merely tastes like diluted milk chocolate and drab milk chocolate at that.  There are a very few tiny nuggets of chocolate that may have a microscopic smidgen of peanut butter within, but it’s difficult to tell if that’s just wishful thinking. There ought to be veins of peanut butter that taste like it, not nanoparticles I have to hunt for.  We won’t buy that brand again.

(That leads me to another complaint: brands that advertise fruit flavours like strawberry, blueberry, or cherry should have many pieces of real fruit within them, large enough to recognize and taste, not a small amount (or worse, mere colouring and flavours) blended into indistinguishable mush; these advertised fruit flavours can only be distinguishable from additives and artificial flavours if you can taste the actual fruit. If you can’t include actual fruit, then don’t use the name.)

Because of its consistency, when frozen peanut butter should end up as chewy ribbons or small but recognizable chunks in ice cream, not blended into oblivion. You want the different types of mouth feel to be evident. And it should be unsweetened peanut butter, because you want the salt in the peanut butter to stand out in contrast to the ice cream, not just another sugary additive to homogenize the flavour. Putting Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (already overly sweet) into ice cream is simply a lazy way to make an unappetizing product.

Hagen-Daaz used to make a peanut-butter-only ice cream many years ago, but they made some bizarre marketing decision to add chocolate to it some years back and I haven’t bought it since. If I want to eat chocolate, I will buy it in its own ice cream (which I very seldom do, not being a chocolate aficionado; I don’t mind a little chocolate now and then but only in moderation and not very often).

Ben and Jerry’s has a peanut-butter-chocolate ice cream but the package shows a chocolate brownie on it, which suggests a nasty combination of sugary glop. Entirely unattractive, so I won’t bother. There is a President’s Choice brand with peanut butter and chocolate that I tried; it would be more acceptable if they reduced the amount of chocolate in it by at least half (this is the small tub size products; there is a larger tub that promises loads of chocolate but that sounds so unappetizing I won’t even try it).

I’m currently working through a tub of Chapman’s frozen yogurt/peanut butter. While marginally better than the Irresistible product — it benefits from much less chocolate — it still hasn’t enough peanut butter to deserve that name. We like Chapman’s products in part because they’re local, but also because they make good ice cream. This one is, sadly, merely mediocre.

Frozen yogurt, by the way, should also have something to distinguish it from ice cream. Its taste, for example. But far too many manufacturers dilute the natural acidity and bitterness of yogurt with sugar, so the only apparent difference is in the name. I see no particular health benefits from frozen yogurt over ice cream, but there should be a different taste profile.

(Any recommendations for a peanut butter ice cream that has reasonable amounts of peanut butter and little or no chocolate would be appreciated, if such a thing exists. Or helpful tips about making my own ice cream so I can customize the flavours will be appreciated.)

As I mentioned above, I recently tried sweet corn cream popsicles (ice cream with corn niblets on a stick), as well as condensed milk popsicles, both from Centra. These are just two of the more exotic (for me) flavours I’ve found in Asian markets. They also offer numerous mixes with tropical fruits I seldom see or buy in local grocery stores, which I intend to try sometime (most of these I’ve tried in the past tend to be much sweeter than I like). Personally, neither really moved me to want to buy more, but I will explore other flavours next time we’re there. Trying new things makes life richer and more interesting.

This post has been sitting around for a while in draft mode, and I felt it was time to publish it.

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  1. Matthew MacLean

    Well I must say, I am a Supervisor at Chapmans Ice Cream and thank you for your opinion! Helps us all go to work in confidence that we are making a quality product! Also, love your articles… I use to work for Schuller Fotography years ago (30 years ago) and remember you always coming in! Hoping your health is better and you are on the mend! We always use real Canadian milk and cream in our products!

    • Thank you for your response. Nice to hear from you again after all these years. I am glad and honoured to know you read my humble writing. Chapman’s is our favourite and first choice, although I admit to going astray and trying different brands with flavours you don’t offer. But please increase the amount of peanut butter in the frozen yogurt! When the lockdowns lift we plan to drive to Markdale and see if we can get a tour of the plant.

      And as a PS: we only buy Canadian milk, never the US imports. We always make sure all of our purchases of kefir and yogurt are made with Canadian milk, too. We mostly buy Canadian cheeses, but of course must get some international varieties because of the denomination of origin rules.

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