Remember when Ben & Jerry's was considered Vermont ice cream? A lot has changed since the company's 2000 sale to multinational Unilever. A new generation of über-local, premium ice cream makers now shares the freezer shelves with the corporation that produces Chunky Monkey and Phish Food. The two biggest natural-food stores in Chittenden County -- City Market and Healthy Living -- carry a combined total of four Green Mountain brands, from Leonardo's Italian and Blue Moon sorbets to Wilcox Dairy and Strafford Organic ice cream.
You have to work a little harder to find Island Homemade Ice Cream, which Gary and Patty Sundberg started making, and serving, two years ago at the seasonal snack bar next to their home in Grand Isle. Last year the couple closed the savory side of their business to focus on their frozen assets; they went on to win two awards from the National Ice Cream Retailers Association. Their "Dew Fresh Strawberry" and "French Vanilla" wowed judges, who sampled stuff from 50 other contenders.
Despite the national acclaim, only four establishments carry pints of Island Homemade, and they're all within 10 miles of Grand Isle: A&B Beverage, Dick Mazza's General Store, Sam Mazza's Farm Stand and Keelers Bay Variety. Cone-sized portions are available at Burlington Bay, Z Scoops in Shelburne and the Alburgh Country Store.
The Sundbergs, who are middle-aged retirees, do it all themselves and have no plans to expand. "We don't want to be in every gas station," says Patty, a former school bus driver. She and husband Gary handle deliveries -- with occasional help from their son -- as well as sales, production and, this summer, dishing. In addition to regular Wednesday gigs at the South Hero Farmers Market, they've worked the Green Mountain Chew Chew, concerts at the Champlain Valley Expo and two recent back-to-back weekend Craftproducer festivals, in Stowe and Manchester. They haven't had a day off since May.
The Sundbergs' four-hand operation is in full swing on a Thursday night at Snow Farm Winery in South Hero; the Island Ice Cream stand has become a fixture at the weekly musical picnic, strategically positioned next to the live band. Wearing tropical blue and yellow company T-shirts, the couple cheerfully and ceaselessly serves up nine flavors of fresh sorbet and ice cream. A long line forms -- and some people come back more than once -- to taste their Vermont Maple Walnut ice cream sweetened with organic syrup from Underhill's Walker Hill Sugarbush. The fruit in the refreshing indigo blueberry-raspberry sorbet? Mazza's, seeds and all.
Along with their mousse-y Chocolate Supreme, French Vanilla and Cake Batter, Gary and Patty have brought along two other berry good local creations: a black raspberry ice cream, and a raspberry sorbet made with Splenda -- a special request from a diabetic customer.
Whenever they can, the Sundbergs incorporate local, in-season products into their fruitful blends. "On the way home, we'll see a watermelon on sale in the supermarket. We'll just buy it, and the next day we've got sorbet," Gary says, offering a sample from a tub of pale pink ice in the freezer that looks, and tastes, like a distillation of summer. Coming soon, "the cantaloupe and musk-melon are killer," he promises. A little later in the season, Allenholm Orchards in South Hero supplies the raw materials for an end-of-the-summer "apple-pice cream."
"I do think people appreciate it when you use local ingredients. It gives you a fresher take on things," says Gary, 51, a former Verizon engineer who still works a few days a week for his old employer.
Vermont chefs certainly notice the difference. Custom work for area restaurants, from Shore Acres to the Daily Planet, is a huge part of the Sundbergs' business. They make green-tea ice cream for A Single Pebble and coconut and ginger for Adrianas in Burlington. South Hero's Blue Paddle has an exclusive on their pink grapefruit sorbet, while Tuscan Kitchen on Shelburne Road serves a pistachio, black cherry and strawberry-packed spumoni. Vanilla-buying Leunig's had a shot at Bailey's Irish Cream, but "it never made it onto the menu," Gary says, "'cause the employees ate it all."
At Taste of Burlington, where the owner has replaced all the old ice cream with Island varieties, the Sundbergs' blackberry sorbet recently ended up in a duck entrée. The meat "traditionally pairs well with acidic berries," Chef Brent Leary explains, "and their sorbets are made out of nothing but that -- pure fruit." He brought the sorbet to room temperature and infused it into a demi-glace made with veal stock. "It saved me the step of having to macerate the berries and cook them down into a liquid form." Leary adds, "You have to have pure, fresh ingredients if you're going to add them into something like this."
What makes one frozen fruit creation better than another? Like the owners of Strafford Organic, the Sundbergs took a course at Penn State to learn the science of ice cream making. Trial and error played a role, too -- not just in designing the product but in familiarizing themselves with regulations that get increasingly onerous as an ice cream operation expands.
Gary attributes Island's uniqueness to a combination of high-quality ingredients, minimal air incorporation and a "magic elixir" that cuts through the milk mixture, which is 14 percent butterfat, to give it a "heavier consistency without that greasy-mouth taste." The Sundbergs currently buy their ice cream mix from Booth Brothers, but would happily switch to an all-Vermont supplier if there were one.
Another secret is small batches -- a gallon and a half is the minimum order -- served fresh. The hundreds of scoops the Sundbergs pressed into cones and dishes on Thursday were probably made two or three days earlier. "That's the low-down on the whole thing. We take care of it; we make sure it stays at the right temperature. You know what happens to ice cream when you open and close your freezer?" Gary says.
The right taste is Patty's territory. Even without a professional food background, she has a feel for frozen flavors. "I'll try the stuff and say, 'This tastes pretty good,'" Gary confesses. "But she'll say, add a little more sugar, or berries. She's got all that." Both Sundbergs like to experiment with ingredients, as evidenced by the Number 9 sorbet they cooked up for Magic Hat. "It was excellent," Gary reports, noting a similar Guinness experiment failed because it "got foamy and expanded too much."
Such concoctions would have been inconceivable before Ben & Jerry's. So would the price of Island Homemade's premium pints: They sell for $4.29 at A&B. Thanks to a couple of goofy Vermont guys, people have higher expectations for ice cream than they did 50 years ago, when it came in half-gallons of vanilla, chocolate or strawberry. Higher even, perhaps, than when it went the way of Cookie Dough and Heath Bar Crunch.
"Ben & Jerry's opened the market for guys like us -- little ice cream makers," Gary observes. And that's a good thing, especially if you live in the Champlain Islands. Here you can have black raspberry ice cream -- made from fruit picked down the street. Next week? Peach.