This summer, our family has been taking an Ice Cream Tour of Virginia. There is no website for this tour. You don’t need tickets. There’s no printed schedule, and, mercifully, no tour guide with bad jokes. We simply looked up the best-reviewed establishments in the state and worked our way down the list, also adding a few of our own. We haven’t hit them all; some are too far or out of our way, but someday we’ll go. I mean, there’s always room for ice cream.
First up, we hit Kline’s Dairy Bar in Harrisonburg. Kline’s has been making small-batch specialty flavored premium ice cream in house since 1943. There’s a reason they’re still in business. Their flavors change every week, too, so there’s no shame in going again and again. I had Peanut Butter Cookies & Cream, my perfect dream flavor. It was how I knew this tour thing was a very. Very. Good idea.
The Split Banana Co. in Staunton gave us our first gelato of the tour. This shop does not kid around with their products. The dairy and produce are locally sourced when possible, and their flavors are AMAZING. They also rotate their menu, offering 18 of their 50 total flavors each day, with three featured as flavors of the month. It is very convenient to tour as a family; you can sample so many more flavors that way. Among us we had Papaya Pineapple sorbet, Mint Stracciatella, M&M Birthday Cake, Cocoa Ancho, and my personal favorite, Sticky Rice.
Then there was Pack’s Frozen Custard in Winchester, a standard stop on the way out to my parents’ cabin in West Virginia. A place so small it has no website, only a Facebook page, but I’m all for small if it serves up that kind of heaven. On the other side of town, on the way home from the cabin, Red Fox Creamery called to us, where we got delectable cones of classic flavors, then walked the pedestrian mall in Old Town Winchester.
Moo Thru on Route 29 in Remington is well-known to anyone who travels between northern and central Virginia. The big red barn and cow statue on the side of the road halfway between Warrenton and Culpeper beckon all who would eat or drink from its creamy cold stores handed out through windows. The first time I had their chocolate milk, I felt perfect fulfillment. Their ice cream is also extremely popular with our family, and many others we know.
Closer to home, and over about two months, we ventured to The Dairy Godmother in Alexandria, Nielsen’s Frozen Custard in Vienna, free cone day at the local Haagen Dazs (May 12), Pops Ice Cream in Old Town Alexandria, and Nice Cream Factory in Arlington. At Nice Cream, they make your ice cream to order by churning the base in very small batches with liquid nitrogen, about one batch per three orders, giving customers a space-age looking experience, and an extremely fresh, dense product.
So what is the difference between ice cream, gelato, frozen custard, and sorbet? My first answer is, who cares? They are all delicious! But then I remember I’m a mom, and there are interesting things to be learned wherever we go, whatever we do. So we did a little research project. As we toured, the girls looked for clues in the shops – many had signs or notes on the menu explaining their products. They took notes. They also asked around. Most employees were kids at summer jobs, but occasionally we got a manager or owner who knew their dairy and could answer our questions. So here’s the really short answer. In the U.S., ice cream must have >10% milk fat, and many premium brands have up to 16-17%. Gelato is the Italian word for “frozen” and is traditionally made with whole milk, not cream, thus having a lower fat content, while remaining dense and creamy because very little air is incorporated during the mixing process. Frozen custard is like ice cream with egg yolks (at least 10% milk fat and 1.4% egg yolk). Yolks serve as an emulsifier, making the custard very smooth; frozen custard is denser than ice cream and usually prepared the same day it is served. Sorbet is for the dairy-free and fruit-loving of this world; it is typically made of fruit, sugar, water, and a little lemon juice – blended, strained, churned. It’s my 8-year-old’s very favorite.
July is National Ice Cream Month, and the third Sunday in July (this Sunday) is National Ice Cream Day. What a day to celebrate! Make homemade ice cream or sorbet together, go on an ice cream tour of your town, make family ice cream t-shirts, host a sundae bar, or just enjoy a scoop with your family. There’s always room for ice cream.
More to whet your whistle:
IceCream.com – Learn lots of ice cream facts like the top ice cream consuming countries and when the waffle cone was invented. Also take the quiz – what flavor are you?
Ice Cream Freaks has lots of ideas for how to celebrate ice cream month including movies with ice cream scenes, ice cream games, and ice cream books.