JOYCE L. CARROLL Michael Lesser and Carlo DePrato of Leonardo’s Italian Gelato and Sorbet of Barre stand alongside their batch freezer. The business got its start in Stowe.
If you scream for ice cream, who will heed your call? Ben and Jerry’s will certainly oblige, but so might Leonardo’s. From ice cream to sorbet, local options for satiating summer’s sweet tooth abound.
Boasting micro-batch production and hand-packed products, artisan ice cream and sorbet manufacturing is a year-round enterprise in Vermont. Products made by Leonardo’s Italian Gelato and Sorbet, Strafford Creamery, Blue Moon Sorbet, Wilcox Ice Cream, and Island Ice Cream beckon locavores who frequent natural food stores, chain markets, and area restaurants. The Champlain Business Journal talked with local manufacturers about the intricacies of summertime’s favorite treat.
Whether mixing and freezing in small quantities in a batch freezer or in a continuous freezer, these manufacturers value the small-scale nature of their companies in spite of a growing product popularity that sometimes crosses state lines. Blue Moon Sorbet in Quechee distributes throughout New England, as well as in New York and New Jersey. While the geographic spread may seem vast, production using its batch freezer is limited to making just five gallons of sorbet at a time.
“Making a quality product and having positive comments from customers is very satisfying. And being so small, I deal with stores and customers all the time,” said John Donaldson, co-owner of Blue Moon Sorbet.
Following tradition and building a following
Carlo DePrato, Howard Wilcox and Earl Ransom are preserving a multi-generational livelihood, running Leonardo’s Italian Gelato & Sorbet, Wilcox Ice Cream, and Strafford Creamery, respectively. DePrato, whose ancestry is Italian, got his start in Germany, working side-by-side with his father. When DePrato moved to Vermont, he brought family recipes with him, eventually launching his own wholesale production business under the new name of Leonardo’s Italian Gelato & Sorbet, which opened in Stowe and is now located in Barre.
Revering that time-honored process is as much of an ingredient as the fresh berries that flavor the gelato. “We make it the old-fashioned way, like my grandpa and my dad did it,” said DePrato. Leonardo’s Italian Gelato & Sorbet has won awards locally in Stowe and as far away as Italy.
Wilcox is continuing a tradition born in 1928 when his grandfather bought out a local ice cream business in Manchester. “Ice cream is a designed product. [It’s a balance] between fats, solids, and sweetness levels. We’ve kept the basic formula we first used in 1928,” he said.
Likewise, Ransom of Strafford Creamery of Strafford, and his wife, Amy Huyffer, are preserving a 600-acre dairy farm that, in its heyday back in the 1960s, was a commune.
“We sat down and did our mission statement. It all centers on the land, [and] how we take care of it and of our  cows,” Huyffer said.
Whether for love of land or admiration of family, these three businesses are passing down a work ethic to a younger generation. Today, DePrato’s 15-year-old son, the business’s namesake, works with his father and his father’s business partner, Michael Lesser, at their Barre plant; Ransom and Huyffer’s four sons do chores on the family farm in Strafford, and Chris and Craig Wilcox work alongside their father making ice cream that is now produced in Gloversville, NY, but still distributed from Manchester.
Meanwhile, Patty and Gary Sundberg, owners of Island Ice Cream in Grand Isle, and Donaldson and Pamela Frantz, owners of Blue Moon Sorbet in Quechee, aren’t following family tradition: instead, they are responding to a following. Their respective products were favorites among diners at SunBurger’s in Grand Isle and The Prince and The Pauper restaurant in Woodstock. When SunBurger’s closed, and when Donaldson left his job as pastry chef at the Woodstock restaurant, customers began clamoring for the frozen confections that had been dessert menu staples.
Island Ice Cream was launched in the family garage in 2006, not long after SunBurger’s, previously housed in that same garage, closed its doors. Across the state, Donaldson and Frantz had already re-introduced their sorbet fans to Blue Moon Sorbet in 1995.
Sorbet, French for sherbet, differs from its American counterpart. Sherbet contains milk or cream, while sorbet is nothing but fruit. “Sorbet in the past was considered to be an intermezzo. In recent years, it’s [viewed] more as a dessert. It’s lighter and has no fat,” Donaldson said.
The distinction between American ice cream and Italian gelato is not only determined by ingredients, but processing as well. Churning differences and processing speed result in less overrun or overflow, a variable that affects the amount of air that remains in the container. Moreover, gelato’s lower fat content creates a denser product, because as fat crystallizes, it holds more air. These distinctions make gelato a better value for consumers, DePrato said.
Strafford Creamery boasts organic ice cream production that begins with Guernsey cows. Their milk, said Huyffer, has more butterfat and a greater percentage of protein than that of other breeds. Moreover, the finished product retains color and flavor from the cows’ feed more so than with other breeds.
Strafford Creamery sweetens its ice cream with organic sugar, and uses egg yolks over guar gum or xanthan gum as an emulsifier. The natural emulsifier creates a creamier ice cream that curls onto the spoon, rather than one that chips. Ransom and Huyffer may hand-crack 43 dozen eggs to make an 800-pound batch of ice cream.
Changes in technology also factor into play. The ice-and-salt method of yesteryear took a long time to freeze. When Wilcox’s father introduced a continuous freezer in 1948, the consistency changed again. “The molecular structure changes,” Wilcox said, adding that the product is now smoother.
Whether it’s through the purchase of ingredients or by working together in a business environment where collaboration often trumps competition, those interviewed for this article support local and regional agriculture, or economize on resources.
Beyond turning to local fruit producers for ingredients, Sundberg also looks to distilleries and breweries for creative inspiration. Island Ice Cream has made a bourbon ice cream to adorn pecan pie served at the Farmhouse Tap & Grill in Burlington, and beer ice cream for Magic Hat and Long Trail Brewery events.
Sundberg has even mixed hot with cold. His Benito’s habanera ice cream was the brainchild of two vendors who happened to cross paths at the Five Corner’s Farmers’ Market in Essex Junction last summer. Along the way, he has learned that not everything transitions well. Take sorbet made from Guinness beer: Sundberg likened it to what happens when the dishwasher has an overabundance of detergent.
At times, the manufacturers themselves pool resources. Wilcox Ice Cream distributes Leonardo’s Italian Gelato & Sorbet to distant areas outside of Leonardo’s range; Leonardo’s, meanwhile, distributes Bove’s frozen products and Goodman’s wood-fired pizza in addition to its own product.
DePrato said while refrigerated trucks are common transporters of perishables throughout Vermont, freezer trucks are less available. It’s more economical for smaller food producers to share freezer-truck space, he said. Occasionally, Leonardo’s and Blue Moon Sorbet will also place bulk orders for lids and cups together.
Long past that last lick
Enjoying a good ice cream cone transcends the immediacy of satisfying a craving for a cold treat on a hot summer’s day. Unlike that dreaded command of “Eat your lima beans,” few children will refuse to eat their ice cream. On occasion, a helpful parent may even assert the need to clean the drips that inevitably trickle down the sides of the cone.
“Ice cream is personal. It evokes something special. It’s a treat; we want to make that an experience,” Sundberg said.
Added Wilcox: “We want [the flavor] to slowly come to your taste buds, and give that sensation that when you’ve finished and the flavor disappears, you remember that experience.”MORE IN Champlain Business BriefsStacey Rousseau is one of the lucky ones who managed to join her life passions with her savvy... Full StoryAndrea King has traveled the world, working for such renowned organizations as the World Bank in... Full Story
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