One scoop or two? Fancy flavours or plain vanilla? Kim Knight considers the enduring popularity of icecream in a cone and asks why New Zealand consumes more of the sweet treat than almost any other nation.
Of course I wanted him to kiss me.
The sky was the colour of a high-vis vest and the air tasted like salt. The sun drowned and the waves crashed and we walked until we reached the cliffs that fell into the sea and then we walked all the way back again. We said good night shyly. His name was Maple Walnut.
When I was 14, I made $4.50 an hour at Punakaiki's Pancake Rock Tea Rooms. I stirred instant coffees for tour bus drivers, cut ham sandwiches on the diagonal and nicknamed teenage boys according to what flavour icecream they asked me to scoop.
Summer is for falling desperately in love - and eating icecream.
New Zealanders frequently top world rankings for icecream consumption. One global statistics company estimates we eat an average 28 litres each, annually. Mel McKenzie, Tip Top's head of marketing, says we currently eat more icecream per capita than Americans and only slightly less than Australians.The 16-litre cardboard containers of hokey pokey et al behind the counter at corner dairies are evidence of our national appetite - across the Tasman, a five-litre box is considered "large format".
You can't beat a Trumpet. Our Gooey Caramel Memphis Meltdown was a triple-dipped technological world-first. We loved Choc Bars best and longest until Whittaker's Peanut Slab Ice Cream bars finally claimed a top quarterly sales spot. There's no denying this country's novelty, single-serve icecream game is strong - but our love of the scooped cone endures. Ask any New Zealander what their favourite icecream is, and odds are they'll reply with a flavour, not a product.
"Salted caramel," says the Uber driver, en-route to the Tip Top factory in Auckland's Mt Wellington. It's one of those days where you need to be in air-conditioning or swimming togs. "When I was a child," he continues, "I wanted to live in a palace made of icecream and covered in chocolate. I would break off the rooms ... "
And now the driver is grabbing chunks of air and making small eating noises. I can see the broken minarets, the cracked chocolate and dripping, golden icecream. The driver sighs. "My wife tries to get me to eat yoghurt ... "
Oddly, the distance between the dream of icecream and the reality of icecream is most notable at the factory where the stuff is made. Outside, it smells faintly of chemicals and cleaning. Inside, you can't take photographs or see the rooms where specialty products are poured and dipped and wrapped. I stare at giant silver vats and squiggly metal pipes. The only sign of magic is an icy frosting that indicates icecream is passing through. The most interesting thing I learn is that workers must walk through a wind tunnel en route to the factory floor - a whoosh of air blows away stray hairs and dust.
Tip Top (recently sold by Fonterra to global dairy giant Froneri) is the country's largest icecream producer. It makes around 55 million litres annually and, at any given moment, has around 200 products on the market and another 50 in development. Remember the lipstick popsicle? The tubs of Moritz Extreme with their mini after-dinner mints? How about Eskimo Pies? (In fact, complaints about the derogatory nature of the word "Eskimo" are finally being acted on and change is imminent. Tip Top won't confirm the new name for the product it has been licensed to make since 1954, however, an Intellectual Property Office search reveals it has registered the phrase "Polar Pie").
On the factory floor, those steel tubes are pumping premium-priced black doris plum and creme fraiche. At the supermarket, our favourite tastes are plainer. The best-selling two-litre tub is vanilla, followed by French vanilla. There is a difference, insists McKenzie. "French vanilla flavouring has eggy, custardy notes to it." For the record, vanilla is also the top scooped flavour in dairies and icecream parlours, followed, in order, by Cookies & Cream, boysenberry, hokey pokey and chocolate.
McKenzie thinks scooped ice cream on a cone has lasted the distance because it's usually a shared experience.
"It's synonymous with Kiwi summers at the beach. It's endured, because of the consistent quality and great icecream eating experience that friends and family can share together . scoop icecream on a cone definitely brings people together."
Duck Island Ice Cream was born from its owners' desires for a great scoop icecream store in their Hamilton hometown. Co-founder Cameron Farmilo says the cone versus cup debate is ongoing but, when you lick an icecream, "the fat is melting on your mouth and it kind of gets into your nose and you get the full sensory thing; and I think that's a big moment for people, that brings back memories".
The owners of the small-batch icecream company (currently preparing to move into a seven times bigger production space) used to run a restaurant. Their breakthrough icecream - roasted white chocolate and miso - started life on a dessert menu. The icecream business, says Farmilo, is much nicer.
"In a restaurant you're constantly up for review by anyone who feels like having a go at you. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, people are just really happy to have an icecream!"
At its most basic, icecream is cream and sugar. New Zealand's first dairy herd was bred from the Durham shorthorn cows missionary Samuel Marsden brought here in 1814. Sugar was shipped from Australia. More difficult to procure (in the absence of electricity) was the ice needed to freeze the finished product.
Chris Newey, author of the comprehensive (and very entertaining) history section of the New Zealand Ice Cream Manufacturers Association website, reports that by the 1840s, ice sourced from frozen New England lakes was being shipped around the world. And, in 1866, it came here.
"Ice! Ice!! Ice!!!" screamed the Wellington Independent. At the Empire Hotel, Mr James Osgood had imported "at considerable expense, an article never before introduced into Wellington. To wit, Lake Wenham Ice". That Saturday, there would be icecream from 11am and, on Sunday, icecream at dinner.
Today, icecream is a 24-7 commodity and vanilla is old school. Think miso, matcha, durian or even porcini mushroom. Recently, Auckland's icecream godfather Giapo teamed up with chef Matt Lambert to create an icecream dessert that featured venison blood pudding.
Back in 1937, the Auckland Star reported icecream manufacture had a "struggling start". It was shunned by mothers and regarded as a luxury. But its fortune was on the turn. February was muggy and "Auckland has become icecream minded," said the manager of one local business. He told the Star that doctors were his greatest individual customers. "They eat more icecream than any other section of the community." The newspaper concluded that local sales were more pronounced than those in the United States and predicted "New Zealanders would soon rank among the world's largest consumers".
In 2019, the Ministry for Primary Industries estimated the retail value of the country's icecream market at $419m. Just over half of all sales (56 per cent) were "take home" - two-litre packs and the like - while 42 per cent were categorised as single portion "impulse" buys. Forecasters predicted growth in mess-free formats (like cups and bars) and more visual and sensory innovation targeting "new social media and 'eat-with-your-eyes'-focused customers".
Flamingo pink, citron yellow and berry red. Caramel (the colour that is also a flavour) and chocolate (definitely, always, the hardest to roll). Seen from above, the freezers behind the counter at Ollies Burgers and Ice Cream are an icy patchwork. Scoop the rainbow. Customers have been lining up at this Auckland store since 1973.
"Nothing's changed," says owner Colin Haines. "This was the Royal Oak Drapery. It was a beautiful old shop owned by the lovely Mr Noble. His wife had died, they'd been here forever, and we came in shopping with our little 2-year-old girl on a Thursday night and blow me down, Mr Noble's wife's twin sister gives me this really sad tale of woe ... they were trying to sell the shop and they couldn't sell it and we actually bought a drapery business."
Colin still sounds slightly surprised he has made a life out of icecream. Born in Te Kuiti, his first food service job was behind the counter at a pie cart. Remember dressed pies? "Instant potato, peas and tomato sauce!" His earliest icecream memory is chocolate-dipped cones at the movies, "and when you came out after the movie, you found the chocolate dip all down your shirt."
For a few years after they married, Colin and Carol lived in Canada. He says they nearly drove off the Royal Oak roundabout when they came home and discovered KFC had made it to Auckland. Colin worked there too, frying chicken out the back of the store that used to be right across the road from that drapery.
"And we thought, 'Why don't we be the dessert shop?' We wouldn't ever need to advertise because all the people were queued up for chicken and all they had to do was look across the street and think, 'Wow, let's get an icecream.'"
When 28-year-old Colin opened Ollies, it served 12 flavours. Now he's 76 and the staff scoop up to 30 flavours on any given day. Hokey pokey and vanilla, of course, but track New Zealand's changing tastes via the introduction of Goody Goody Gum Drops, Mango Lassi, Fairy Bread and, most recently, Candy Cane.
"The most amazing flavour was Cookies and Cream. When it came out, it was the biggest selling single icecream flavour we have ever had. And we sell an awful lot of chocolate, but I'm more a caramel and butterscotch person."
Customers, says Colin, are peculiarly loyal to their favourites.
"People will come in and say 'I'll have a single scoop of Black Forest' and you'll tell them it's out of stock and they just walk out. Truly!"
Before last year's Covid lockdowns, Ollies Burgers and Ice Cream had never been shut for two consecutive days. It is about as urban as it gets, situated on a nightmarishly busy roundabout about as far from a beach as you can get on this isthmus allows. But the front door buzzer "bing-bongs" every few seconds. This is a community hub and there is no dominant demographic. On a hot day, icecream is the ultimate democratiser. Kids in caps and men in formal lavalava; pierced teenagers and elderly women in floral dresses.
"We've got grandparents who used to bring their grandchildren in and then they've grown up and had kids and they bring them in," says Colin. Why? "You can't beat licking an icecream, can you? It's not only the eating of it, it's the mess your children get into."
Colin remembers when church groups would bring three busloads of customers across town for icecream. He and Carol have been to the weddings of couples who met working behind the counter and he sees a lot of first dates out the front. After Covid lockdowns, the store got really busy. Colin thinks people viewed icecream as a safe and manageable treat in uncertain times.
Summer is cream and sugar; science and romance. In summer, we fall in love - and we eat icecream.