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Nice Cream Labs

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Locating the Nice Cream Labs stall amongst the crowds and clamour in Fremantle market is not a hard task. The queue of inquisitive customers, the clouds of white vapour and the candy-coloured signs give the game away. I am here to speak to Tristan White, about his range of smooth gourmet ice cream which is flash frozen with liquid nitrogen right in front of the customer’s eyes.  I manage to dislodge Tristan from his front of house position as Mad Scientist/ Ice Cream Willy Wonka for a few minutes, leaving his two white-coated glamourous assistants to mix’n’freeze away, and ask him about the origins and aspirations of Nice Cream Labs.

Tristan came to Perth from Suffolk in the UK three years ago to work in computer programming. He also brought his highly popular hobby of ice-cream making with him. “Australia gave me plenty of inspiration for new ice cream flavours and my uncle had access to food grade liquid nitrogen so it seemed a good fit. ” Tristan tells me. The second co-proprietor of Nice Cream Labs is Scottish business lawyer Steve Bell who has a similarly keen interest in ice cream innovations. Together they launched the business earlier this year.

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Co-Proprietor Steve Bell

The stall at Fremantle Market was opened in May and has queues three-deep on this Sunday afternoon. I push my children forward so it looks like I have a legitimate right to be here and watch Tristan’s natural enthusiasm light up his face as he hands them free-samples of just-frozen creamy goodness through the wisps of liquid nitrogen. Nice Cream Labs’ free trials are usually irresistable, that is unless you are a nine year old boy with vivid memories of having your veruccas burned off by the GP. I reassure him that was an entirely different application of this versatile chemical, but to no avail. Whilst one child steadfastly refuses to try the other immediately orders a tub of Turkish Delight flavoured Pink-Lady pink deliciousness.

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Pink Lady: Turkish delight flavoured ice cream served with chopped pistachios. Pure Class.

“The market is a fabulous place for inspiration,” explains Tristan who doesn’t seem to have taken the refusal personally. “Last week I took a fresh coconut from the Vietnamese fruit stall opposite, cracked it open, blended the flesh and milk with sugar, worked the magic with the liquid nitrogen and handed it out to the watching crowd. We really value a good vibe in the community market, and we can get sensory evaluation feed back pretty much instantly on new flavours, like the Spontaneous Coconut, which was a hit.”

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Tristan and his Lab Techs

When Tristan can see the unguarded responses to his new creations on consumers’ faces it counts for pages and pages of the sensory evaluation questionnaires gathered by conventional research and development departments. There is always a “Safe” flavour (Caramelt with home made dulce du leche on the day I visited) and a guest-try out. “While we can tell what people think straight away, we have learned to be a bit cautious.” The Chocolate, Orange and Chilli flavour was a hit in the test kitchen amongst the Ice Cream Makers, but any adverse reaction in a consumer is immediately visible. “I guess that batch was a bit too hot for the average person.” Tristan adds.  While testing innovations on the spot in uncontrolled conditions has its constraints they are outweighed by the benefits which include a positive response to the visual spectacle of the flash freezing process.

“One of the main aims of having a Laboratory as a  stall is to use it as a base for market research with the aim of selecting popular flavours that we can then reproduce accurately in other outlets,” Tristan tells me. The focus on reproducability is growing increasingly urgent;  since I paid a visit to the Freo Market Stall in July there  have been dozens of requests to open up outlets all across Perth and in major tourist locations in the south of Western Australia.

The Process

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Liquid Nitrogen at work

Amongst the practitioners of Cryogenic Cooking, LN2 can be used to solidify foams, flash freeze blackberries in to individual drupelets and shatter drops of flavour-infused oil in to smithereens that melt in seconds. According to Wyat Gibbs, editor of the Modernist Cuisine series of books, speed is crucial for freezing foods without damaging their texture and the faster the freezing process, the smaller the ice crystals and the less they disrupt the cellular structure of the food. Which is why Nice Cream Lab’s products are so decadently smooth.

Only natural flavourings are added to the universally acclaimed standard custard base of eggs, sugar, cream and milk. The custard is poured in to the bowl of an ordinary Kitchen-Aide bench top mixer. And then the magic happens.  The Nice Cream Lab technicians pour the Liquid Nitrogen (henceforth known as LN2) directly in to the mixer bowl and in a matter of seconds the custard is frozen to a perfectly smooth gelati-style confection. It looks terribly impressive. “There are plenty of ice cream parlours in Perth, so the need to be remembered and recognised is paramount,” Tristan tells me. “The LN2 is completely safe,  and when handled properly it won’t freeze or burn skin, due to something called the Leidenfrost Effect*.” One of the assistants proves this point in the manner of a Fire Eater, pouring a puff of the stuff across her own hand to demonstrate how harmless it can be when treated with due care and respect. There is also a perspex screen to protect any over-enthusiastic punters at the front of the stall.

Tristan and Steve can get through 180 litres of LN2 a week, 1litre of LN2 makes 1 litre of ice cream. The Kitchen Aid mixers can produce up to 5 litres at a time so, I wonder, how does Tristan ensure the product’s quality will not alter during storage in a conventional home freezer operating at -180C if a customer should take a tub home rather than eating it on the spot?

The answer is through a great deal of personal involvement;  “If a customer lives more than 20 minutes away I would not sell them a take home pack because it would not be ice cream after 20 minutes,” says Tristan. Currently, storing in a home freezer is discouraged as crystalisation could occur and spoil the texture, although not the flavour.  I wonder too about how this impacts on sales volumes. “We are experimenting with flash freezing to a much lower temperature for take away ice cream and achieving some good results,” Tristan is keen to point out. “By increasing cream content and freezing the ice cream right down we can move it straight into a conventional freezer without additional crystalisation.” Take-home packs should be available in the near future, which is good news for summer.

The strong Science element of Nice Cream Labs’ work has won them a residency at Scitech, Perth over the summer school holidays. You can also catch Tristan and Steve demonstrating in Perth Cultural Centre as part of National Science Week from the 10th – 18th August 2013.

The next flavour project for Tristan and Steve is strawberry cheesecake.

Please come back and let me know if you spot it at the Market and how it tastes via the Crackling Comments box below – over 900 people have visited this post, don’t make me feel paraonoid, leave a comment please.

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*Science behind the Safety: The Leidenfrost Effect:

People are significantly hotter than Liquid Nitrogen’s boiling point and when the two come in to contact the Liquid Nitrogen produces an insulating layer of vapour suspending it less than a millimetre above your skin preventing direct contact. The vapour also encourages the LN to be mobile and produces the undulating and seductive “wisps of smoke” effect.

Pictures 2, 5 and 6  by Bohdan Warchomij, reproduced with thanks

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