Last week I received an email from Red Hen's buyer, Hannah Conner, that the Middlesex café would soon carry pints of Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream, an Ohio brand that has picked up many accolades. On her website, creator Jeni Britton Bauer extolls the virtues of Ohio cream from grass-grazing cows, as well as her eclectic ice-cream-making crew. She writes, "We create ice creams we fall madly in love with, that we want to bathe in, that make us see million-year-old stars," — in flavors as Roasted Strawberry Buttermilk, Bangkok Peanut, and Wheatgrass Pear, & Vinho Verde. For realz.
That Red Hen would cast their ice cream net way beyond our dairy motherland to Ohio was worth a peek, especially since everything here — coffee, bread, cheese, sausage, wine — is usually spot-on delicious.
So when I stopped in yesterday and lifted the top of the ice cream case, it was a tantalizing surprise to see Jeni's rubbing shoulders with a simply packaged local brand: Stowe Ice Cream. It had just been delivered that morning, the first batch that Red Hen would ever sell, and each flavor was handwritten across the top.
This may seem like a no-brainer for a die-hard locavore, but not for me. If I couldn't visit Ohio anytime soon, why not taste Ohio in ice cream form? And then compare it to a home-turf hero. It was hot enough, anyway.
Truth be told, I had never had Stowe Ice Cream, even when living near the I.C. Scoops Scoop Shop in town. I'm beholden to Ben & Jerry's, and, more specifically, to New York Super Fudge Chunk, which I've been eating since I can't remember. It soothes my soul in times of trouble, makes the rain go away, and tastes like every good thing that's ever happened.
So in ice cream, as in life, I usually go for simple: chocolate or vanilla, or something close. With Jeni's, that meant bypassing Queen City Cayenne for both Salted Caramel and a flavor called the Buckeye, which appeared to be speckled with something chocolatey. With Stowe's, however, the more complex-sounding flavors were a draw: Lavender Honey and Maple Walnut.
Jeni's isn't cheap — a pint is $11, a half-pint about $6. Perhaps this is because it tastes so concentrated: each bite is like a riptide of flavor. With only a hint of salt, the Salted Caramel packs mouth-filling, oaky, almost butterscotch-like flavors. Eating the Buckeye is like moving your mouth through a sea of peanut butter with occasional flotsam of chewy, barely sweet chocolate bits. Both flavors have an aggressive edge.
Eating Stowe Ice Cream was a softer yet more intellectual experience. The Maple Walnut was like grazing in a sugarbush — earthy, nutty, sweet, and speckled with bits of walnut. The Lavender Honey, on the other hand, was buttery, herbaceous, feminine and sublime, yet so unusual that each bite demanded pause. Rather than an ice cream to be devoured under hormonal duress or handed to a four-year-old, each felt like they belonged as an accent atop pastry, or savored in small doses.
Dozens of spoonfuls in, Jeni's emerged as a kick-in-the-tastebuds kind of girl. Stowe's hometown pints, on the other hand, were finessed, thinking-person's ice cream. Sort of like Dale Carnegie vs. the Dalai Lama. Or a bouncy ponytail vs. a taut chignon. Or maybe even Anthony Bourdain vs. Elizabeth David.
In other words, each has their merits, and their place on the table. And each is waiting at Red Hen, ready for its closeup.
Each week, Grazing highlights new finds and dishes and drinks that reflect the season. If you know of a local edible (or libation) worth seeking out, let me know: [email protected].