It's a love affair in a cone

By Catherine Masters

In the second of a four-part series, CATHERINE MASTERS looks at the ice cream that sets our tastebuds fizzing.

Foreigners must assume that we have misspelled the name of the Hokey Cokey dance, but once they take their first bite of the Kiwi ice cream institution, all doubts vanish.

New Zealanders pack away about two million litres of hokey pokey a year.

Just one ice cream brand, Tip Top, accounts for that volume and to many New Zealanders it and hokey pokey are one and the same thing.

But hokey pokey is not a registered trademark and there are plenty of other ice cream companies out there catering to Kiwi tastebuds.

Hokey pokey attained Kiwiana status more than half a century ago.

It was an instant hit with our tastebuds; an icon in a cone.

When it melts in the summer sun it becomes memorable, gooey, New Zealand gold.

We fell in love with the flavour back in the 1940s, when the range was somewhat limited.

Now ice cream comes in a rainbow of tastes and different fat contents.

Not hokey pokey, though. What would be the point, asks Tip Top managing director Ray O'Connor.

Aside from the fact that it just would not be the same, low-fat ice creams tend to have fruit in them or sugarless flavourings.

But hokey pokey is made by adding toffee to vanilla ice cream.

"It's a little hard to get low-fat products when you actually put a confectionery in it," says Mr O'Connor.

Over the past five decades we have slurped our way through something like 100 million litres of Tip Top's hokey pokey and, yes, it has changed slightly.

However, the modification has mainly been confined to the crunchy pieces of toffee, which have evolved from erratic-sized chunks into more regular, smooth orbs of candy.

The reason? Big chunks, created by hammering the toffee into bits, would clog the machines.

The modification in the 1980s has not hampered sales - hokey pokey is second only to vanilla in popularity.

The blend is unlikely to change again because hokey pokey eaters are a fussy lot.

Mr O'Connor says there are two types of consumer, and the company has to get the blend just right or the complaints start flowing in.

Some people, you see, love it when it melts and goes gooey, but others like it crunchy.

"The problem we always have here is that if you err too much to the soft side all the crunchy people complain, and if you err too much the other side, the soft people complain.

"Once we've got it right we tend not to fiddle too much with it."

Why do we love the flavour so much?

Says Mr O'Connor: "If I knew the answer to that I'd bottle it and I'd be as rich as Bill Gates, I think."

But the answer probably includes nostalgia, as almost every New Zealander has a hokey pokey childhood memory.

Either we made it from the recipe in the Edmonds Cookbook or, for people like Mr O'Connor, it is the memory of "dentist's delight" - the chewy, slightly burned-tasting hokey pokey slab he would buy from the local diary.

Memories and flavours are hard to distinguish, he says.

The concept of toffee in ice cream is not a New Zealand exclusive - it is just that our type of hokey pokey has a distinctive flavour.

One theory on how the name came about is that Italian ice cream vendors would yell "Ecce pocce", which sort of means "Get it here, it's cold", and the name evolved to hokey pokey.

Tip Top exports the flavour to the Pacific and Japan, where it sells well but is not the hit it is here.

In fact, New Zealand bucks the world trend when it comes to favourite flavours.

The top three ice cream flavours in the world are always vanilla, chocolate and strawberry.

In New Zealand, it's vanilla, hokey pokey, chocolate and strawberry.

To the Japanese it may be just another flavour, but we Kiwis know better.

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