Vegan ice-cream hits two sweet spots: it's healthier than traditional ice-cream yet it's also an indulgent treat. Will Hawkes samples the best on the market along with some other delicious desserts.
At first glance, the ice-cream stand outside Planet Organic in Muswell Hill in London is like any other. Its pale-blue, highly branded livery is more elegant than most, it's true, but the essentials are there: a selection of cones and a variety of classic flavours: strawberry, raspberry, chocolate chip, mint choc chip and pistachio, all under a glass screen in its refrigerated belly. On the side a sign reads: "Ice-cream made the way it should be".
It's only when you look a little closer that you realise this isn't ordinary ice-cream. There, on the front of the stand, below ‘Beau's Feel-Good Gelato' is: ‘Dairy-free; gluten-free; lactose-free; soy-free'. This is vegan ice-cream, but it hasn't put off the line of customers waiting for their cone.
And why would it? There's something about vegan ice-cream – both indulgent and virtuous at the same time – that captures so much of what's happening in British food at the moment, specifically desserts. In a nation emerging gingerly from 18 months where nobody could go out to eat and drink for long periods, an item that is both a treat and a tribute to goodness is very appealing.
"I think there's been a demand for something like this for a while, but it's never been sated," says Beau's Gelato 37-year-old co-founder Joseph Eyre. "There's absolutely an appetite for it. A lot of options have come to market [over the past few years] saying they were going to fill that space, but they weren't quite the treat they promised, or they couldn't quite stand by the statements they were making."
As ideas go, Beau's Gelato has been in germination for a long time. The thought first lodged itself in the heads of Eyre and business partner and wife Amber Fox-Eyre when they visited New York a decade ago and popped into a Lower East Side vegan ice-cream parlour called Lula's Sweet Apothecary (which changed its name and then closed in 2016). Further trips to Italy demonstrated the potential of vegan ice-cream, but there wasn't anything available in the UK.
"We kept coming back to the UK and not finding similar options here," says Eyre, who lived in London at the time. That frustration led them to set up Beau's in the Isle of Wight after taking a course in vegan ice-cream making in Bologna. Lured by funding, they're now based in the north-east, and they're about to expand their operations from 20,000 litres a month to as much as 250,000 by the end of October. It's very possible that you'll be discovering a lot more about Beau's over the next year or so.
Crucial to the brand's success so far has been the texture of its gelato, which is made with cashews, raw cane sugar, salt and water. On top of that are the flavourings: 41% of the raspberry flavour is whole raspberries, for example, while 10% of the pistachio ice-cream is pistachios. "One thing that was really important was getting the mouthfeel, that taste," says Eyre. "We work with cashews because they give a great creaminess, they're nutritionally dense and they have a well-rounded flavour."
Unlike many of the new breed of vegan producers, Beau's Gelato is very focused on the catering segment. "An awful lot of high-quality vegan products don't look at it like they should," says Eyre. "I think consumers are coming to vegan food for a variety of reasons, but there's an awful lot of quality still to come through [in the restaurant world]."
Healthy dessert options
Beau's isn't the only vegan ice-cream option around. New Forest Ice Cream has a dedicated vegan range, in vanilla pod, chocolate and salted caramel flavours. "We have worked hard to create a vegan ice-cream recipe so that caterers can offer a vegan dessert offering with ease," says Christina Veal, director at New Forest. "They're three of our classic flavours [so] we know how popular they already are."
Suncream Ice Cream, meanwhile, recently launched its Gelato Lusso range, which includes two healthier options: Amarena cherry ripple fat-free yogurt and vegan coconut and passion fruit. "Lockdown gave consumers more time to reflect on what they eat and make changes to benefit their own and their family's health," says Rebecca Manfredi, managing director of Suncream Ice Cream.
"Though people are keen to eat out and treat themselves to a dessert after such a long time of confinement, there are going to be some consumers that will want to continue their newly adopted healthy habits when eating out."
Gold & Green Foods has created a plant-based protein, Pulled Oats, for those wanting to build vegan dishes. According to Simon Solway, the brand's country manager for UK and Ireland, "oats tick the boxes when it comes to texture, taste and protein." Pulled Oats, a mix of oats, fava beans and peas, are vegan-approved by the Vegetarian Society.
"They are also packed with far more protein and nutrition than chicken and beef, so bakes, pastries, confections, snacks and food-to-go options stay filling and nutritious," adds Solway. "The beauty of Pulled Oats is that they work across both savoury and sweet dishes, they can be used to add protein and texture to confectionery and cakes."
Another healthy option, of course, is to eat less. That's the advice from frozen food distributor Central Foods, which suggest cutting its pre-cut Menuserve desserts into halves. "Although people are looking to eat more healthily, they are also still fond of treating themselves – even more so in these uncertain times – so offering a half or smaller portion of dessert is a great way to encourage a purchase," says managing director Gordon Lauder.
"It's also a simple but stylish way to upsell a coffee and a great way to encourage those with smaller appetites to opt for a dessert when they don't feel able to eat a full-sized pudding."
Matthew Grenter, sales manager at Brioche Pasquier, agrees, saying that "the practice of a trio of bite-sized sweet treats instead of a plate of rich pudding is likely to be the go-to on-trend dessert of the coming year."
He suggests Pasquier macarons, which have seen a year-on-year sales increase of 49.7% since May 2020, despite the hospitality closures forced by Covid.
There's plenty of indulgence out there for those keen to find it. JM Posner is the UK supplier of Ecco! Variegato, which uses a traditional Italian technique involving rippling different sauces and textures into ice-cream or gelato to achieve a marbled effect. "Operators can easily transform a simple vanilla ice-cream base into spectacular authentic Italian gelato without the hefty price tag," says owner Justin Posner.
Then there's Jersey Dairy's Jersey Luxury and Jersey Gold soft ice-creams, or frozen French pâtisserie from Tipiak, such as its petits fours. The English Cheesecake Company also offers an extensive range of options, such as zesty lemon and mascarpone, strawberries and cream or honeycomb smash.
Nutella, meanwhile, has created the Nutella Cruffin. "This hot new creation is a cross between a croissant and a muffin and is complemented perfectly by adding a delicate amount of Nutella," says Zareen Deboo, foodservice channel operations manager at Ferrero UK and Ireland.
For those who want to make their ice-cream – vegan or otherwise – in-house, Carpigiani has a variety of options. "Creating gelato, sorbet or frozen yogurt in-house is a real profit-winner for a business, and Carpigiani has a range of equipment that can deliver delicious desserts," says Paul Ingram, managing director at Carpigiani UK.
Creating gelato, sorbet or frozen yogurt in-house is a real profit-winner for a business
"The Freeze & Go is a compact unit that is perfect for speedy small serves and for making up different flavours in smaller batches. For restaurants looking for a high-performance countertop batch freezer, the Labo 6/9 XPL P and Labo 8/12 XPL P offer an amazing array of options for a chef looking to create gelato, sorbet or slush."
DeZaan has a range of cocoa powders designed to accommodate the diversity that exists in modern customer demand. "The flavour profiles range from mild and fruity to velvety and rich, and can be paired with a variety of sweet, savoury, citrus, fruit, as well as sour flavours," says Simon Brayn-Smith, vice-president of DeZaan Cocoa. "Caterers are reinventing desserts to suit dietary requirements, such as plant-based, low-sugar, gluten-free, egg-free and butter-free. Using core ingredients such as cocoa powder is key to not only satisfying the demand but also allows operators to have the freedom to be even more creative with their flavours and colours."
The Beau's Gelato ice-cream stand, meanwhile, has shifted to Tottenham Court Road for August. Everything, it appears, is starting to move. During lockdown, Beau's introduced a Pint Club, delivering gelato to customer's homes, but focus has moved on again.
"We've loved being part of the resurgence as things have started opening up again," says Eyre. "We're really excited to work with people. You can feel there's such an appetite to get back out there."
Beau's Gelato www.beausgelato.com
Brioche Pasquier www.pasquier.fr/en_uk
Central Foods www.centralfoods.co.uk
Gold & Green Foods www.goldandgreenfoods.com
Jersey Dairy www.jerseydairy.com
JM Posner www.jmposner.co.uk
New Forest Ice Cream www.newforesticecream.com
Suncream Ice Cream www.suncreamicecream.com
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