Will that be a cone or a cup?

In Chicago in 1988, a Häagen Dazs ice cream shop stood at the intersection of Clark, Broadway, and Diversey. Getting there was a 1 1/2 mile straight shot walk down Clark Street from our apartment on West Newport, but I walked it happily, even in the cold, even when about seven months pregnant. I love ice cream that much. Back then I loved the shop’s Coffee Chip – coffee ice cream flecked with dark Belgian chocolate – so much that I would have walked twice as far, through a biting wind and deep snow, and uphill both ways if someone promised to buy me a cone.

My husband was buying that time. After paying, back out on the sidewalk for the walk home – him with his dish of something, me with my coffee chip (soon to be replaced by the lesser Java Chip: Coffee flavored chips? Identity crisis mocha ice cream? No, thanks) – I leaned in for my first lick. Plop! The unanchored scoop tumbled off the cone and landed right at my feet. I burst into tears.

Granted, I was hormonal, but I would have cried even if not pregnant. The loss of a favorite and much anticipated food, the suddenness and gone-ness of it, was too overwhelming.

Quick thinker and all around stand up guy, my husband ran right back in a bought a replacement cone. But even appeased I had quite a case of giggle-tears during the entire walk home, my emotions as confused as any overtired four-year-old’s.

One thing is clear: my love for ice cream runs deep. As it does for many New Englanders.

Early this summer I had an idea it might be fun to drive around my little northeast corner of Massachusetts and sample cones from our many roadside ice cream stands, my way to share with you some of our area’s best. As I thought about this as a blog project, albeit an unscientific one, I determined a few standards:

  • The ice cream stand must be on the north shore and must sell their own made-on-the-premises ice cream.
  • I would taste a vanilla-based flavor so that any dairy that was less than fresh wouldn’t be masked by a bolder flavor, like chocolate. Okay, I allowed myself a chocolate mix-in, but the vanilla had to be prominent.
  • I would avoid ice cream stands that I already knew I didn’t like. I’m not in the business of reviewing or panning someone’s livelihood.
Of course, summer sped by and I made it to only 3 of the local places on my list. Lucky for you, they are my number one favorite and two others I happily call tied for second. Others in the know might argue about the order, but I don’t think I’ll get much grief about the selection.
# 1. Richardson’s, Middleton, Massachusetts
It doesn’t get any better – or fresher – than Richardson’s. The land has been farmed by the Richardson family since 1695, but became primarily a dairy farm at the turn of the 20th century. While they still bottle and sell hormone-free milk and cream, much of the product now goes into the ice cream operation. I’m grateful; I’ll take a cone over a glass of milk any day. I’ll go out on a limb and say that Richardson’s has the perfect balance of butterfat (16%), mixed in air (just enough), and temperature (it’s never served too cold and it never contains ice crystals) that I look for in ice cream. It’s creamy without being dense, rich without leaving a fatty mouthfeel, and never fluffy and marred with too much air. The milk and cream always taste fresh. I love, love, love this ice cream.
#2 (Tie) Down River Ice Cream, Essex, Massachusetts
Oh, such a worthy and tough competitor! Down River had been recommended to me by Jill and Kristen of North Shore Dish, two fine people who know their North Shore food. For some reason it took me over a year to get to Essex for a sample, and now I wish I hadn’t been so lazy. Like Richardson’s, Down River uses quality milk and cream – not their own, but supplied by a local dairy they know and trust – and make all the flavors right in the little shop sitting by the side of scenic Route 133. The cookies and cream I sampled was fresh and meltily lickable in the heat of a summer’s day. The sugar cone was thinner than I like, without that satisfying snap and crunch, but we’re going for ice cream anyway, so what does that really matter. The shop also strives to be as green as it is possible to be by using only compostable and biodegradable dishes, spoons, and napkins, a thoughtful touch. Of the three ice cream stands, Down River as the newest of the bunch has perhaps the most imaginative flavor combinations. If you like your traditional New England ice cream with an inventive side, this is the place for you.
#2 Benson’s Home Made Ice Cream, West Boxford, Massachusetts
If the ice cream at Down River doesn’t fill you up, you could drive a bit further west on 133 to arrive at Benson’s. Or you could make a separate trip on another day to fully enjoy the drive and the different feel of the more inland part of this east-west route. Benson’s was first mentioned to me about 10 years ago by the foodie members of a local book group. They had asked me if I would join them in their book discussion of my first novel, Hunger. We met at a restaurant for dinner (they always discussed books over dinner) and somehow talk turned to ice cream. “You have to go to Benson’s” I was told. “When the raspberries come in they make fresh red raspberry ice cream and raspberry sundaes.” Not long after and following the tip, I took my kids for an end-of-summer treat. The raspberry sundaes were indeed heavenly. I hadn’t been back since, and thought it was time for a re-visit. This time, the only time during the project that I drove for ice cream by myself, I had to take a dish to be able to snap a photo. I can’t judge the cone quality but no matter, the ice cream tastes almost as good from a dish: more cream than vanilla taste, but velvety smooth and chunky with chocolate sandwich cookies. Benson’s has a special regard for our area’s local fruits, so in season you will have fresh-seasonal-local strawberry, blueberry, red raspberry, peach, apple – and sometimes even blackberry – ice creams and sundae sauces. It’s what sets them apart. Portions are generous too.
In a fun twist, right before leaving for Arizona in July, I discovered Bon Appetit‘s list of top ice cream shops in the country. One – Sweet Republic – calls Scottsdale home, so we were able to visit. The visit didn’t meet the established criteria so well, but the adventure was a fun and rare treat. I thought you might not mind if I shared anyway.
The ice cream at Sweet Republic was sophisticated. Complex, even unlikely, flavors such as lavender, real mint chip, peaberry, and Medjool date far outweighed the simpler childhood standbys of chocolate or vanilla.
After sampling the honey blue cheese and sweet corn ice creams, we decided on a combo dish of Belgian chocolate and salted butter caramel. The flavors were subtle, developing on the tongue as the ice cream settled there for a bit, and the texture was more like that of gelato (lower in butterfat and air content) than the traditional ice creams we had been tasting all over New England.
Lighter ice cream for a warmer climate? It makes sense; you won’t miss the creaminess of the fat. You won’t miss a New England-style roadside ice cream stand either. The thermometer in the car registered 107 degrees as we pulled into the lot. Eating indoors made a whole lot of sense too.
©2011 Jane A. Ward