Local ice cream makers combine the exotic and the familiar | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Local ice cream makers combine the exotic and the familiar 

Paletas at La Monarca Michoacana in Durham

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Paletas at La Monarca Michoacana in Durham

It's 9 o'clock on a Monday night at the Cookery, and Vanessa Mazuz of The Parlour ice cream bus, chops fresh figs. Wrapped round her neck is a string of coffee beans, a gift she received while working as a barista at Guglhupf. She hails from Saba, a volcanic island of just five square miles in the West Indies, where agriculture is limited and most of the food is imported.

"I don't even think I ate a berry until I was an adult," Vanessa, 31, says.

Now berries, guava, chocolate, vanilla, dates and other flavors are mainstays on Vanessa's varied menu of artisan ice creams. She is one of several Durhamites who handcraft their ice cream. In addition to The Parlour, La Monarca Michoacana brings the exotic flavors of Mexico to American palates, while musician Justin Robinson, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and now of Justin Robinson & the Mary Annettes, has launched his first flavor.

At 5 feet 1 inch, Vanessa tiptoes up a stepladder to stir a vat containing 2 pounds of butter and 20 cups of sugar that will smoothly burn into a salted caramel, a mainstay of The Parlour menu. She peers into the 8-gallon pot spread across at least three burners and gently lifts a gallon of cream ready to pour.

"This is the part where I'm probably going to curse a lot," she says.

The high-pitched chorus of Jay Z's "A Hard Knock Life" blares from a stereo at a nearby prep table while Vanessa turns a palm-size dial on the stovetop with her fingertips—like a deejay—while using the other hand, and all her arm strength, to spin a wooden spoon around the sticky pot.

This isn't your traditional ice cream parlor. First, you won't find pointy paper chef hats on these guys, or tall, grooved milkshake glasses foaming at the top. The employees wear bandanas and sport tattoos (Vanessa's husband, Yoni, has a garlic bulb on one elbow, a multicolored onion on the other) and serve ice cream floats with vegan options, the remainder of your root beer served on the side in its original bottle.

Secondly, it's on wheels. In a town where there always seems to be room for another food truck, The Parlour ice cream bus regularly pops up all over Durham: Motorco on Sundays, Fullsteam on Wednesdays, Erwin Square lunch hour two Wednesdays a month and Oval Park on the first Thursday evening. It was one of the most popular vendors at every food truck rodeo this summer, and the hype is warranted.

The Parlour uses local dairy products from Jackson Dairy and Homeland Creamery. The Vietnamese coffee flavor incorporates beans from Joe Van Gogh. Vanessa and Yoni grind their own spices, buy local fruit from Lyon Farms and sometimes pick their own. If you had a chance to try the blueberry buttermilk, those berries came from an 80-pound batch the pair picked themselves.

Vanessa and Yoni are young entrepreneurs, viewing their business venture as a creative outlet to a mundane corporate lifestyle. Yoni, 35, still works his day job as a customer service representative, but quit graduate school, where he was studying neuroscience, to run the business end, and to help inspire Vanessa's culinary creativity.

The result is a loyal, steady customer base that knows where to find simple, perfectly executed vanilla or more adventurous flavors like guava black pepper, chocolate masala (with bits of candied ginger) and roasted banana coconut, a creamy vegan option that actually tastes like ice cream. Yoni, born in Israel of Tunisian roots, came up with his first flavor—candied orange with dates—which Vanessa is tweaking.

Iiny La Monarca Michoacana is tucked across from Compare Foods and among a string of panaderias and tiendas on Avondale Road. Azucena Morales opened the store with her sister, Carmen, last year. The sisters, who speak mostly Spanish, smile and point at a translated menu of more than 80 flavors of authentic Mexican-style homemade ice creams, nieves—a sorbet style named after snow, with the same consistency—and paletas, or popsicles.

The family (Morales' teenage daughter, husband and sister) congregates on the weekends to clean, chop and dice fresh fruit, churn cream and sugar and prepare molds for the paletas. "We learned how to make ice cream in Mexico," she says in Spanish. She and her family come from the state of Michoacán. "The taste is exactly the same. And all the Hispanic customers say the same."

Some of the fruity popsicles are reminiscent of Frida Kahlo's still-life paintings, with whole slices of kiwi splattered on the sides. Others feature decidedly American ingredients, such as whole Oreos packed into cream and molded onto the stick. The most popular flavor, according to Morales, is the mango con chamoy: diced fresh mango speckled with a spicy but savory chamoy chili pepper powder.

Many of the flavors will be foreign to the American palate. Mamey, a fruit distinct to Mexico and the Dominican Republic, grows on a sprawling tree that is often compared to Southern magnolias. Mamey is smooth in taste and texture, almost like papaya. Chongo zamorano, or curdled milk, slams your sweet tooth with bite-size chunks of caramelized milk. Cola de tigre alludes to its appearance, like a striped tiger's tail, and tastes like butter pecan. Queso fresco is churned into a stand-alone ice cream best paired with a scoop of strawberry or blackberry to add sweetness.

Morales says the American clientele has also been very receptive, with Duke students becoming regulars and practicing their Spanish with her and her sister. "Even though we don't speak much English, we know and talk to everyone."

New folks on the scene are dabbling in the business with a perfectionist flair and, so far, succeeding in flavor and technique.

Justin Robinson recently launched Pearl Gray Frozen Custard—while learning to strum the harp, performing and starting a graduate program in forestry at N.C. State.

As a teenager, Robinson went through a phase in which he ate Moose Tracks ice cream for breakfast, and too many Dairy Queen pineapple sundaes, until his mother stopped him. Now the self-proclaimed picky eater sits at his dining room table among jars of pickled peaches and recounts stories of being the "annoying" one on the road with the Carolina Chocolate Drops by choosing "good" places to eat. He's a chocolate snob, too, describing Tollhouse chocolate chips as "too regular." But with a mission to feed the masses great ice cream that nods to Southern heritage, he's combining ingredients like quality Belgian chocolate, local Latta Farms eggs and Homeland Creamery dairy to make a frozen custard as old-fashioned as his great-great-aunt Pearl Gray.

Pearl Gray was born in 1903 and cooked on a wood stove until she quit cooking in the '90s, Robinson, 28, says. "She was a tough old bird, and represented the seriousness of which my family takes food. I come from a generation of foodies."

The custard, in vanilla and chocolate, debuted last weekend at a concert in Bynum and at the Casbah's I Heart Chocolate event, where the custard was sandwiched between two of Kukia's Chocolate Lavender Cookies.

Robinson plans to scour the Southern landscape for more flavors, like the elusive pawpaw fruit that animals often get to before humans do.

"I'm super proud to be Southern and producing this experience of eating ice cream," Robinson says. "It's something kind of special. It feels like childhood."

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