Saturday, August 28, 2010

Forbidden Flavors Ice Cream

Forbidden Flavors is business just started in Terre Haute in June, by Andrew Conner.  They specialize in making ice creams (and sorbets and gelatos and granitas) in bizarre flavors.  Now Andrew Conner himself is amazing guy.  If there is anything good happening in Terre Haute there are at least 50/50 odds that Andrew is on a board of directors somewhere behind the scenes trying to help it occur, the Blueberry Festival, the Farmer's Market, the Cultural Trail, etc. but that's all a topic for another day.  Today I just want to talk about his new business.

At the moment, Forbidden Flavors sells very small servings of ice cream at the Farmer's Market, very cheaply.  A condiment cup sized "taste" for 50 cents, or a flight of 3 for a dollar.  And they have a whole raft of bizarre flavors.  Today, they sold Black Pepper, Burnt Caramel, Blackberry-Lime Sorbet, Cinnamon-Basil, Italian Parsley, Aztec Hot Chocolate, Ricotta, and Savory Dijon.  Hot ice creams, spicy ice creams, herby ice creams, savory ice creams, even some mostly just sweet ones.  They are scaling up to being able to sell small containers of their ice cream (this was the first week for a 4$ container, and they didn't have many yet).  Andrew hopes to scale up to buying the next size up of ice cream maker in a few more weeks, and is hoping for grocery store distribution before long too.  Several of the flavors would make good palate-cleansing lagniappes between courses at fancy restaurants too, so that angle may develop in the future.  But for now Andrew Conner happily hands out small samples cheap every Saturday morning at the Farmer's Market he helped so much to set up.  (Oh, and yes, he uses a lot of local ingredients in the process, the cinnamon-basil I had today was not flavored with cinnamon and basil, but by the more obscure cinnamon-basil plant, which had been grown by local chef Jack Daniel).

Now first notice how innovative Conner's business model is.  He sells small servings very cheaply, as small treats, with extremely low overhead, while working on scaling up.  Nearly every other food business I can think of focuses on meals or large snacks, rather than very small treats.  (Although I suppose cupcakes have gotten hot in the last few years).  I'm a fan of chef Thomas Keller (of the French Laundry in Napa Valley, famous among many other things for being the consulting chef for the movie Ratatouille).  Keller argues that when we enjoy a great dish, we find the first bite fabulous, and the second bite good, and on third and subsequent bites the flavor begins to deaden and we eat for comfort or some other psychological reason rather than the pure delight and curiosity that guides us on the first few bites.  So instead of a standard meal, Keller serves 5-10 very small courses.  He says "I want you to say, 'God, I wish I had just one more bite of that.' And then the next plate comes and the same thing happens, but it's a different experience, a whole new flavor and feel."  Andrew hasn't heard of this particular culinary ideology (I asked him), but he's the first person I've seen really try to adapt this point to inexpensive foods.  For a buck, you get a few bites of something curious and surprising, and then just when you're getting used to it, it is done and you get to have another strange flavor experience, and another.       

Forbidden Flavors is relentlessly experimental, and so not everything works, but most of them do work and in spades.  Today the cinnamon-basil was subtle and yummy.  The Aztec Hot Chocolate was indeed exceedingly hot, as many different chili peppers were used to mix with the chocolate flavor.  I'm usually a heat wimp for chili pepper, this may actually have been the hottest thing I've ever enjoyed.  But the chili flavor meshed well with the chocolate and you could taste the balance of both flavors in every bite, and the combination of cold serving temperature and hot flavor was pleasurably strange.  The Aztecs really did drink their hot chocolate with lots of chili pepper so the dish even echoed an old and mostly abandoned tradition.  But the black pepper ice cream was too peppery, a bludgeon without subtly or balance, maybe it would work better with another flavor to balance it, or maybe the black pepper and sweetness would balance if you backed off a bit on the pepper.  But even it was perfectly edible, easily worth the cheap price, and was a curiosity for a few bites.  In the past I've had the Strawberry-Balsamic vinegar which was a wonderful combination of tradition and subtlety, the cilantro-lime sorbet, which was heavenly for a few bites at a time, but probably wouldn't work by the bowlful, and the ricotta ice cream which was a lot more complex and flavorful than I would have guessed, and probably would work even by the bowlful.  I've had the parsley, the Guinness-milk chocolate, the rhubarb sorbet, the rice gelato, the sweet corn, the nutella, the goat's milk and brown sugar ice cream, and probably a few more I'm not remembering.  Forbidden flavors are fabulous at least 75% of the time, and are at least worthwhile curiosities the other 25%.  More to the point, here is a new business in Terre Haute, an innovative business, something that is innovative at the level of culinary artistry, but still aimed at regular folk as well.  Today I was in line with three Amish kids, and I saw them order different things, and try tiny tastes of each other's ice creams.  How many people get to help Amish kids explore their palates?  I'm pretty serious about local food, but when I think of them I usually imagine heirloom tomatoes, or Royer's bacon, but honestly rhubarb sorbet fits the bill too.  So Forbidden Flavors Ice Cream is ...

Just one more reason I'm proud of Terre Haute.

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