Sea urchin, locally produced dairy, organic Norwegian butter and Sicilian pistachios. These are ingredients that would be right at home in any fine dining restaurant, yet they’re finding their way in casual eateries and cafes – in of all things – your ice cream.
Indeed, there’s a trend of ice cream makers in Singapore going gourmet, not just in dreaming up bold flavours but diving deep into the origin of their ingredients and pulling out all stops in techniques.
Take for instance the newly opened Norwegian eatery Fisk Seafood bar & Market, which is behind the uni ice cream. It’s made using neri uni – a sea urchin paste which affords consistency in flavour and quality for the ice cream.
Over at artisanal sourdough bakery Firebake, two flavours are on the menu: Røros Smør ice cream where the central ingredient is beurre noisette made from organic Norwegian butter as well as ice cream made with cream fermented in-house using kombucha culture.
All this, to tantalise the tastebuds of diners that’s growing increasingly sophisticated.
The conceptual palate
Indeed, Singapore has made nothing less than a quantum leap when it comes to food experiences – and it’s extended to something as simple as ice cream. In fact, the market was dominated by big brands like Wall’s and Magnolia just 15 years ago, reports Stanley Kwok, founder of Island Creamery – Singapore’s pioneering independent ice cream parlor which started in 2003. “The quality is basically high over run [and] mass market,” he explains.
Today, the country marches to a different drum. “The dining scene in Singapore is one where people are quite open to different experiences, and they actively look for it,” says Markus Dybwad – general manager and executive chef of Fisk who hails from Norway. “It’s nice because that’s not always the case elsewhere. In Norway for instance, it would be hard to be so conceptual. Here, you need to be conceptual.”
Over at Firebake, the focus is on flavour. “The idea was to identify a butter that could re-create the exact memory of the “creamy” butter experience which I’m used to from growing up in Switzerland,” says Konstantino Blokbergen, owner of the establishment. “My family would get [this butter] from small farmers in the alpine villages.”
To be sure, it’s a lot easier for a restaurant to serve up these experimental flavours, even if they’re small scale and casual outfits. The kitchens are already equipped with the right appliances and guests come ready to try out the menu. Singapore’s top restaurants has also been seeing everything from beetroot sorbet as part of a larger dish at Odette to smoked hay ice cream at Rhubarb le Restaurant and not forgetting Restaurant Andre’s detailed version of Snickers ice cream.
The challenge is in taking that notion out of the four walls of a restaurant and into the hands of the every day ice cream lover — the mass market.
Everybody is a gourmand
Just ask Travis Goh, director and co-owner of Apiary Creamery & Desserts. The café at Neil Road is selective over its ingredients — from using only Sicilian pistachio paste for its pistachio ice cream (Sicilian pistachios are grown on volcanic soil resulting in a stronger, sharper taste) and Tahitian vanilla for its vanilla ice cream.
He also goes through great lengths to extract maximum taste. The caramelised strawberry flavour for instance, features fresh strawberries roasted in the oven to reduce water content, hence increasing its natural sweetness. The raisins in the rum and raisin ice cream are also soaked in rum between two to three weeks.
The café has even collaborated with pop up restaurant Bistro November for its flavour combinations like turmeric leaf ice cream folded with single origin cacao nibs.
“It’s good for guests to know [the techniques and origin] because for one, they can enjoy the food better if they know more about it,” he shares. “Some of them might not care, but those that do are genuinely interested and it helps us build a relationship.”
For Travis, the drive to go gourmet is thanks to his training as a pastry chef in fine dining. He spent a year working at Iggy’s which now has a Michelin star as well as a three month stage at Attica – an award winning restaurant in Melbourne ranked 33rd on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017 list.
“It really instilled a sense to pay attention to detail and give exceptional products each time,” he adds.
Not to be outdone, Island Creamery has also been churning out a flavour made from local cow’s milk from Vishnu Dairy Farm – one that customers have been raving as comparable to Hokkaido milk ice cream.
“Not many Singaporeans, especially the younger ones, realise that in the old days, Singapore had cow farms and they even offered delivery service,” says Stanley of Island Creamery. “Now there are basically two such farms left in the Lim Chu Kang area. We felt that their effort deserves promoting and turning the milk into ice cream will widen the appeal. If Singaporeans like ice cream made with Hokkaido milk, I think they will be pleasantly surprised by Singapore milk.”
The challenges of creating gourmet ice cream
But not all is peachy when it comes to going gourmet. The journey is fraught with potholes — most of which have to do with balancing cost, quality as well as customer demand.
“The main concerns are the milk quality and quantity but they have been more than satisfactory,” says Stanley. “Pricing is another challenge due to the high labour and operating costs of producing milk in Singapore.”
Like Stanley, cost is also a prime factor for Travis. The café is currently weathering increased global prices for fresh vanilla – even though vanilla ice cream is often viewed as the most rudimentary of flavours by those who don’t realise that vanilla pods do not come cheap.
Citing another example, he says: “Sicilian pistachios are really expensive. We were previously using an Australian variety which was good, but the sicilian pistachios are a lot more nutty and intense. It’s a very big price difference – almost twice – but we still don’t pass the increase to our customers. Not everyone can understand that pistachios from another region can cost so much more.”
Even so, the pistachio ice cream has proven to be such a hit that the café has increased production by at 20 to 30 per cent from the time it switched over from Australian pistachios.
“[Customers] are aware of rising trends in food such as being vegan, going organic and supporting local produce,” concludes Stanley. “Being in F&B, we need to offer such food choices to our customers to remain relevant.”