On a recent sunny day in the woods near Tiger Mountain, Salt & Straw co-founder Tyler Malek and his research and development specialist Sally Bowers wander the trails alongside foraging expert Langdon Cook and watch with interest as Cook unearths a fiddlehead fern, describing the flavor as being like asparagus, but with a “wild edge.”
However, Malek and Bowers are ice-cream people on a foraging trip with new ice-cream flavors in mind, so of course the big question on their minds is, “Would it work in ice cream?”
“I don’t know,” Cook says.
“You’d be surprised,” Bowers quips, pausing to consider.
Cook, Bowers and Malek’s main objective on this excursion is to find nettles, an integral ingredient of an ice-cream flavor for Salt & Straw’s upcoming “Camping Series,” the June theme of the artisan ice cream shop’s monthly rotating seasonal menu. But they’re always on the lookout for other quirky or unexpected ingredients they can use in their ice cream.
That’s how they’ve managed to come up with an array of “Camping Series” flavors even the most die-hard ice cream fans have never come across. (Also worth noting: A percentage of sales from scoops and pints from this series will be donated to the National Park Foundation.)
The Camping Series includes an honestly fun Campfire S’mores that takes the “fire” part of roasting s’mores literally, with scotch and smoky tea-spiked marshmallows. There’s also a chocolate ice-cream base with fir-needle essence and crackles of Pop Rock-studded chocolate-covered graham crackers, a bonkers Mushroom Muddy Buddies that takes a favorite chocolate-and-peanut-butter childhood snack and infuses it with an overwhelming mushroom flavor, and a polarizing Buttermilk Pancakes, Bacon & Eggs — a flavor that, for better or worse, has bits of candied bacon lurking amid an incredibly rich pancake ice cream complete with an eggy ribbon of caramel. The Tiger Mountain-sourced nettles have been turned into a sweet, crunchy brittle with roasted pine nuts freckling a brown-butter ice cream thick with crumbly bits of cornbread; a pint of which inexplicably keeps drawing your spoon back in for another bite.
This is what sets Salt & Straw apart from many other ice-cream makers — they’re always open to partnering with artisanal food brands and experimenting with interesting ingredients. Salt & Straw released 165 new flavors in 2018, and each one had a story. One person on their research and development team specializes in “story hunting,” as Malek puts it — meaning if they ever considered using fiddleheads, that person would spend time researching the culinary history of the ingredients and determining whether anything with a similar flavor profile has ever been used in sweet applications.
“Instead of ‘Let’s try it,’ it’s more like, ‘Let’s learn about this and how has this been used in culinary purposes over the last 1,000 years and is there any intersection that can inspire us from that perspective?’ ” Malek says. “Internally we call ourselves the taste provocateurs. You don’t provoke people just to piss them off, you provoke people to have a conversation to dive into something.”
Ice cream with unique missions
Indeed, Seattle is a haven for scoop shops looking to have conversations with customers, and hitting up multiple shops even in one day is easier than one might think. A few blocks from Salt & Straw’s Capitol Hill shop, there’s vegan delight Frankie & Jo’s, the original farm-to-scoop shop Molly Moon’s, and Kurt Timmermeister’s pocket-size gem Kurt Farm Shop. And that’s not counting places dishing up soft serve, milkshakes, gelato and other frozen desserts.
Each is unique. Molly Moon’s leans heavily on partnerships with local farmers while Kurt Farm Shop creates its custard base from cream and milk procured from Jersey cows right at the farm. The creaminess of Frankie & Jo’s is redefining what people think of when it comes to vegan ice cream.
But instead of fearing the competition, Malek says it’s “freeing knowing there are other people doing it and finding their own niche because it means I get to delve deeper into my own niche.”
“Honestly, I think there’s easily room to go to five different ice-cream spaces in one day and enjoy all of them,” he says.
Near Malek’s other shop in Ballard, there are also a plethora of local ice-cream choices from Full Tilt to Parfait. With so many local ice-cream purveyors, there’s something for every palate. And, if you’re the kind to keep a freezer full of pints, there are two new kids in town to fight for space in your ice cream-loving heart — Acme and Upside Down.
Newcomers to local freezers
Acme, now helmed by CEO Erin Fray, got its start in 2011 in tiny Acme, Whatcom County — population 248. You’ve been able to get it in Bellingham and a few other select towns up and down the I-5 corridor, but summer 2018 was the first time you could get Acme pints in and around Seattle at two Eat Local shops; one in Queen Anne and the other in Capitol Hill.
Since it’s 2019, the fact that Acme ice cream is made with cream from local Whatcom County cows and ingredients from Whatcom County fields and farmers doesn’t get top billing. Instead, the hook with Acme is its consistency.
“Ours has zero air and more cream, so it really has a punch in terms of the bite. It’s a more taffylike texture, and more flavor in every bite because you’re getting 100% density in every bite,” Fray says during a recent phone call.
Fray claims that Acme is the only pint of ice cream in stores that weighs a full pound, noting that some can be up to 50% air. For a nonscientific test, just heft any pint before you buy — the heavier the pint, the more actual ice cream you’re getting.
Instead of — as Malek would say — “provocative” flavors, Acme skews classic: vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, espresso, butter pecan and mint chip among a couple of additional variations. But that taffylike texture, which translates to a strange hybrid between hard pack and soft-serve consistency, is unlike almost any other.
However, if the phrase “voting with your dollars” is one of your mantras, look to the other new kid on the block, Upside Down. Sold in pints that sit upside down on shelves, this ice-cream maker donates 25% of profits to Special Olympics.
Upside Down is made in Anacortes and launched in stores throughout the Pacific Northwest in mid-May. Currently, there are eight flavors: classic-feeling vanilla, chocolate, mint chocolate chip, alongside a seven-layer bar, coconut, S’mores, brownie and blackberry crumble.
Upside Down CEO Dan Samson has a long history in ice cream. He started a label called Dankin’s in the late ’90s and in 2009 had a brand called Lovin’ Scoopful. He has been friends with Tim Shriver (whose late mother, Eunice, started Special Olympics in 1968) since college and has partnered with Special Olympics since Lovin’ Scoopful began.
Samson created both the ice-cream base and all the flavors for Upside Down, a rarity for many large-scale ice-cream operations. Samson says most ice-cream companies whose products you find in your grocery store’s freezer case use the same ice-cream base and just add their unique flavors.
“But I wanted a product that had really smooth texture and a distinct flavor profile,” Samson says.
Upside Down is comparable in butterfat and air content to super premium ice-cream brands such as Jeni’s Splendid and McConnell’s. The Serious Seven Layerbar is incredibly creamy and packed with chocolate and butterscotch chips, pecans, shredded coconut and streusel crumble.
Samson hopes the flavors will “turn your world upside down,” just as he’s done with the packaging.
“It’s a huge gamble, but people seem to be receptive so far,” he says.
Whether its a matter of unique packaging for a good cause, doing the classics well, focusing on consistency or just offering quirky, off-the-wall flavors, there’s clearly room for lots of different ice cream in Seattle, and each of these companies has carved out its own little niche.
You could even say the ice-cream options in Seattle have never been sweeter.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.