The secret to New England’s best ice cream is a rich custard base made with the freshest ingredients.My first taste of Susanna’s Ice Cream happened on a chilly March day at a farmers’ market in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. Stuffed with pastries and fixated on the piles of oysters and root vegetables, I almost walked past the tall woman with corkscrew hair standing behind a red Igloo cooler. But a friend, a market regular, called me over, and I was drawn by Susanna’s toothy grin and outstretched sample of tangerine-vanilla swirl.
The first spoonful was a cold wash of silk, rich with egg yolks and cut through with a bright orange sorbet that tasted like a fresh wedge of tangerine. It was as smooth as gelato, but with a purer cream flavor.
“Wow,” I said. “Do you use fresh-squeezed juice?”
“Yes,” Susanna replied.
“And is that tangerine zest?” I asked, noticing the fine slivers of fragrant peel.
“Of course,” she replied, as if to make a tangerine-swirl ice cream without hand-zesting several cases of fresh fruit would be a sacrilege.
“And you make the ice cream yourself? No commercial bases?” I asked.
“Yes,” she beamed. “The cream is from Tiverton.”
I tasted another sample, this one Irish Coffee, just as delicious. Well, I thought, there it is: the best ice cream in New England.Susanna Williams came to ice-cream making by a circuitous route. Born in a small village in Devon, England, she studied theater at Oxford and McGill universities, eventually becoming a professor at the National Theatre School of Canada. There in Montreal she would’ve remained but for meeting a fellow academic named Herb Zornow, whom she married in 1990. After several summers in Herb’s hometown, Newport, the couple decided to make Rhode Island their home.
Susanna still had no ambitions to become a professional cook, “but the English tradition of dessert- and jam-making runs deep in my family,” she says. “I’ve always loved making jam. As children, we went out picking gooseberries and black currants, which make the best jams of all.”
In 2001, she started experimenting with ice cream–in particular, a big batch of strawberry for an anniversary party–all to rave reviews. She began combing the fields at Sweet Berry Farm, a 100-acre property in Middletown, where owners Jan and Michelle Eckhart grow excellent strawberries, peaches, blueberries, and apples, as well as gooseberries and black currants. Grateful for those familiar British flavors, Susanna made a batch of gooseberry-elderflower ice cream for the Eckharts, and they were so taken with it that they suggested she start making ice cream in their commercial kitchen.
What makes Susanna’s ice cream extraordinary aren’t just the flavors, which are seasonal, often exotic, and intense: white peach and ginger, Damson plum, strawberry-champagne. It’s also the hard work that goes into sourcing, prepping, and hand-mixing every ingredient. Many ice creameries–even local, award-winning ones–buy commercial bases of cream, sugar, and natural stabilizers such as guar gum and carrageenan and then customize them with their own flavors. Susanna, on the other hand, makes custard-based ice creams from scratch, cooking egg yolks, fresh cream from Arruda’s Dairy, and sugar together, and then slowly chilling the result to produce a base that’s both richer and lighter than you’ll find elsewhere. It’s a labor of love and a production method that’s costly and difficult to scale up, which is why Susanna’s ice cream is available only at Sweet Berry Farm and at the Coastal Growers’ Market in Saunderstown (summer) or North Kingstown (winter); it’s $9.99 a pint, $5.49 a half-pint.
We’d argue that something this good is well worth a drive and a splurge. But if you can’t get down to Rhode Island, you can make it at home from Susanna’s recipe.
Sweet Berry Farm, 915 Mitchell’s Lane, Middletown, RI. 401-847-3912; sweetberryfarmri.com/susannasicecream.html