None of New Zealand’s commercial French vanilla ice creams contain the crucial ingredient. Dylan Jones busts the case wide open.
Like any good investigation, this one started as an innocuous Thursday night question among flatmates: what is French vanilla ice cream, and how is it different to regular vanilla? A quick dive into Google provided the answer: French-style ice cream contains egg yolks, and it’s been that way for centuries.
Given New Zealand’s love of the sweet treat – we consistently rank among the top ice cream consumers per capita in the world – I assumed we’d be resolute in our commitment to the authentic article. I was entirely wrong. None of New Zealand’s commercial ice creams branded as French vanilla contain any egg. Technological advances in heat transfer methods, stabilising agents and chemical flavourings meant manufacturers could swap out egg yolk and real vanilla for cheaper alternatives.
Frozen dessert historian Chris Newey tells me there was a golden age when the average supermarket-shopping Kiwi could have the pure experience of a genuine French vanilla ice cream. But in the 1950s, he says, that stopped, for the reasons given above. “The standard ice cream in supermarkets changed its flavour; it no longer had that custardy note to it.”
A Tip Top spokesperson confirms they did previously include egg in their ice creams, saying the choice to remove it was based on reducing allergy risks, not production costs. Still, French vanilla remains popular: it’s “either number one or number two” among their two-litre tub range for sales, he tells me.
When I ask if Tip Top would consider producing a real French vanilla ice cream, he says it comes down to consumer preference. “At the moment it’s not something we get many requests for,” he says. “People are pretty happy with the quality of ice cream as it is.”
It turns out consumer perception, or people being “pretty happy,” is what allows manufacturers to market their faux-French vanilla ice cream without disclosing its true nature.
This is entirely legal, though, at least currently. The Ministry of Primary Industries, the government department overseeing food standards, says that a characterising ingredient in a food “must go beyond simple flavouring, and be considered an integral part of consumers’ understanding of a product.”
And French vanilla ice cream specifically? It’s simply “a particular style, usually yellower in colour and creamier than vanilla ice cream,” according to food safety deputy director-general Vincent Arbuckle.
In other words, if consumers don’t question the definition of French vanilla, manufacturers can continue serving up a cheap imitation of it.
Not everyone is happy, or even just pretty happy, about this. Ben Bayly, owner of French restaurant Origine in Auckland, doesn’t mince his words, calling it the “supermarketisation” of our food.
“They’re trading off the legacy of the greatest chefs of the world, bastardising it and labelling it as something it’s not,” says the French-trained chef.
His ingredient list is a lot shorter and simpler than Tip Top’s: unhomogenised milk and cream from Raglan manufacturer Dreamview, real vanilla, sugar and egg yolks.
Bayly lights up as he talks about the real deal. I light up as he serves me a scoop of it, freshly churned. Egg yolk, he explains, stabilises the ice cream and stops ice crystals from forming, resulting in a creamier mouthfeel.
All I know is I’ve now been ruined for any substitute version after having a transcendent French vanilla experience.
Another real French vanilla enthusiast is Pure New Zealand Ice Cream co-owner Brian Thomas, whose vanilla bean offering contains egg yolk. It’s part of the company’s philosophy to produce “real food using real, natural ingredients,” says Thomas.
So why not claim the rightful mantle of true French vanilla in the title? Marketing, says Thomas. Some people may view the French vanilla flavour as “a bit staid and old-fashioned,” but he tells me he is willing to consider including it in the description underneath the title.
At $18.70 a litre, Pure isn’t the most budget friendly. Thomas acknowledges this, saying it’s well suited to a fancy dinner party, whereas a couple of tubs of Tip Top are great for a kid’s birthday party.
This is a common sentiment among the people I speak to: ice cream should be fun, unpretentious, and accessible to all. If that means substitute flavourings for affordable, casual consumption, so be it.
But it’s a disservice to an iconic dessert to reduce it to some chemical compounds. French vanilla ice cream deserves accurate representation, and Aotearoa will be better off for it.