‘Instant’ ice cream made using liquid nitrogen? It sounds like something that you’d find on one of Heston Blumenthal’s TV shows. In actual fact, you can already book a Bristol-based company to create liquid nitrogen ice cream for private functions and corporate events. And, even more excitingly, owner of ‘Lick Me I’m Delicious‘ Charlie Francis has recently won funding in a national competition – Take One Small Step, run by Barclays Bank – which he plans to use to open an instant ice cream parlour in Bristol…
Ice cream has always been a part of Charlie’s life. His parents own an ice cream business in Pembrokeshire and have been selling to businesses for 30 years, and his mother is a food scientist by trade. “I’m drawing on those two skills I guess”, says Charlie. Plain ice cream doesn’t appeal to him, though… “I think ice cream’s so much more interesting when you start adding other things to it.” He harks back to when he was a child, and used to have a pudding that the family called “ice cream with bits” – they always had ice cream in the freezer, and were allowed to choose two “bits” to accompany it – be these cakes or biscuits that his mother had baked, or anything else that they could find in the cupboards.
Originally researching traditional ice cream making methods, he then started to look at liquid nitrogen and its potential in making frozen desserts. He uses the same base mix as is used in more traditional methods (the mix created by his parents), and there is no need for stabilisers that are used by commercial ice cream manufacturers to help the freezing process.
There are still two stages to the process – agitation and freezing – but at a much lower temperature: the liquid nitrogen is -190 degrees Celsius, as opposed to factories, where the ice cream is generally frozen at around -30 degrees Celsius. Freezing the ice cream faster means that fewer ice crystals are likely to form, and, in Charlie’s words, “this is incredibly smooth – it’s like velvet.” It’s also a very dense ice cream, as there’s less aeration – a top tip from Charlie when you’re buying ice cream is to buy on weight rather than volume, as cheaper ice creams simply have more air pockets to up the volume – you’re getting far less ice cream for your money!
Perhaps most importantly, the ice cream that Charlie makes is fresh. The liquid ice cream mix is combined with the nitrogen and his choice of flavours there and then, meaning that he can use fresh fruits and other ingredients that can easily break down when creating “conventional” ice cream unless treated slightly beforehand.
Surprisingly, Charlie doesn’t actually have a scientific background – the self-confessed “geek” actually has a history in marketing. “Once I get into something I tend to want to know how everything works! My mum’s probably more the scientist, maybe that’s where I get it from…” And he’s certainly creative. He says that many of his creations (including toast and marmalade, among others) come from simply seeing what he has in his kitchen and turning it into ice cream – and claims that they almost always work. An ice cream banquet with friends the weekend before we spoke included ice cream in each of the three courses: coconut and chilli ice cream to accompany a prawn and avocado skewer starter, roast lamb with mint sauce ice cream for the main, and a selection of weird and wonderful flavour combinations for dessert!
Charlie is all about creating his product from scratch. He won’t use pre-made confectionery, he won’t use manufactured products. “They’re not good quality on the whole. My aim with everything I do is to try and use ingredients I make myself.” And this includes the crumble topping that he used in the strawberry crumble ice cream that he made for me on the night. It looked perfectly simple: fresh, chopped strawberries blended in his KitchenAid mixer, before adding the ice cream base, blasting with liquid nitrogen from a canister sitting beside the table, and adding the crumble topping right near the end. The whole thing had an air of Willy Wonka about it (especially when Charlie donned his trademark top hat) and I can definitely see the appeal of the combination of theatre, speed, freshness and the quality of the final product.
Plans to open an instant ice cream parlour on Park Street are currently being made. The choice of location actually came from a lady in her nineties, who told Charlie that such a business used to exist many years ago on Park Street, and he’s keen to resurrect a little bit of Bristol history with a modern twist. At the moment, though, his core business is providing liquid nitrogen ice cream for private events. He’ll sit down with clients with a list of “tried and tested” combinations (and any ideas that the client has), hold a tasting session and decide on two flavours to serve at the event.
The shop will be slightly different. You’ll be able to choose from ice cream, sorbet or frozen yoghurt, choose your flavour (strawberry, chocolate and so on) then take your pick from a list of additional ingredients that you can have mixed into the ice cream – chocolate brownies, cookies, homemade fudge, praline pecans…all harking back to Charlie’s “ice cream with bits” dessert from his childhood. Custom-made food – mixing and matching the flavours that appeal the most – seems to be popular in Bristol: places such as Magic Roll, My Burrito and Mission Burrito allow customers to pick and choose what they want, and the milkshake places such as ShakeAway and Shake King always seem to be busy. I have no doubt that with his exciting product, his enthusiasm and his fantastic ideas, Charlie’s shop will be a great hit.