It is the Hutt Valley in the 1970s. Out the back of Y. H. Joe’s Chinese green-grocer shop, a young boy bundles spring onions and dreams of ice cream. Hokey-pokey, to be precise. Little does he know that one day he’ll taste the sweet, icy fruits of success.
Wellington city on a winter’s day, June 2012. A grown-up Graham Joe grins like the cat who got the cream, as he welcomes me warmly to Gelissimo Gelato. A small gelateria on the waterfront with a manufacturing plant out the back, this boutique gelato-maker started in Eastbourne in 2009. Graham bought the company – ‘a bit of equipment, some know-how, and a few customers – eighteen months ago after two decades in IT and a stint looking after the Sunday Harbourside market. ‘I travelled the world during my career in IT, and that’s where I developed my love of food,’ he explains.
For a lad who lapped up hokey-pokey ‘by the gallon’, owning an ice cream factory must be a dream come true? Well, it would be if he did, but gelato and sorbetto aren’t technically ice creams. As the New Zealand Ice Cream Manufacturers’ Association defines it, ice cream contains a minimum of 10 per cent fat, sometimes up to 20. The bulk ingredient of ice cream is air, whipped into the mix during churning. That’s why ice cream is so light and melts quickly.
With much less air and very little fat – 3–6% in the case of Gelissimo – gelato is considerably heavier and melts slowly. Sorbetto is churned fruity ice, making it dairy-free and virtually devoid of fat.
Healthier and frankly more fancy, it’s no surprise that these exotic ices are gaining in popularity in New Zealand. In the 2012 New Zealand Ice Cream Awards they made up the two biggest categories, with 56 gelati and 50 sorbetti out of a total of 285 entries.
Gelissimo won four awards: a gold for their passionfruit gelato, and a silver each for dark chocolate gelato, pomegranate & berries sorbetto, and mango & pineapple sorbetto. Graham was understandably rather proud. ‘We won two golds and a silver last year, too, so this really cements our position amongst the best hand-made gelato manufacturers in New Zealand.’
Graham uses Zany Zeus organic milk and as much local fruit as possible, despite the fact that this pushes up the cost of manufacture. ‘We took a long, hard look early on, and decided not to try to be the biggest, but to be the best,’ he says.
Gelissimo still has a shop in Eastbourne village, and runs a kiosk on Freyberg beach in summer. The flagship gelateria shares its home in the historic Odlin Building with the folks from TradeMe, who double as taste-testers when a new batch emerges from the lab. With an infinite number of flavour combinations and local partners keen to join forces (such as Hardieboys Beverages, contributor to Gelissimo’s ginger beer, lemonade, and lime sorbetti), this is alchemy: ‘I’m experimenting with tamarillo, and a maple-walnut-praline. Another work in progress is chocolate-stout.’
Graham and his (m)ilk would do well to keep it coming, because Kiwis are in the top three consumers of ice cream in the world. The average is estimated at 22 litres per person per year, but as I’m not eating anywhere near this much, who is?
‘Me,’ says Graham.