An iconic ice cream institution in New Zealand opens its doors for a peek into every child’s dream world, writes Karen Ho.
The bluest of blue skies. The greenest of green meadows. The plumpest, healthiest sheep and cows I’ve ever seen. I can still fondly remember the South Island mornings greeting me with bright cheerful sunshine and despite a chill in the air, my heart being warmed by the beautiful rays casting their light upon a picturesque scene, framed by distant snow-capped mountains.
This was Mother Nature’s work at her finest, a kaleidoscope of vibrant vistas and pristine natural wonders, synonymous with New Zealand.
But this particular day in Auckland isn’t that kind of day. As the minivan manoeuvres through mid-morning traffic down the highway to our destination, there must be around 10 shades of cloudy grey above the city and another 40 shades of urban grey sprawled across the concrete landscape.
Frowning at the moody sky which threatens to unleash more seasonal showers, I comfort myself with the thought of what lies ahead. Because at our destination, there would be sunshine. The kind you get in a tub, on a stick, in a cone.
When it comes to the biggest ice cream eaters in the world, New Zealanders come out tops by consuming 23 litres a year per average person, more than Australia and even the USA! That’s a lot for a nation populated by only 4.5 million people.
One of the biggest names in the business is Tip Top, an iconic ice cream institution. It’s the commonly used name for Fonterra Brands New Zealand, which is owned by Fonterra, a global dairy cooperative. Within the walls of its upgraded manufacturing plant in Auckland, lies precious production secrets, some as old as the plant itself which was first established in 1962.
But the company’s legacy goes back even further to 1936 when it began as a humble ice cream parlour in Wellington, the brainchild of two friends. This year, Tip Top celebrates its 80th anniversary, a proud milestone made even sweeter for another reason.
“Today is a very big day for ice cream in NZ,” announces Steve Thomson, business development manager for Tip Top export, excitedly. “We’d class ourselves as the best country in the world for producing ice cream. Every year, the New Zealand manufacturers enter awards and today they’re judged.”
At the 2015 New Zealand Ice-cream Manufacturers Association Awards last year, Tip Top won the prized accolade. This year, they did it again. Their Tip Top Hokey Pokey Ice Cream earned the Supreme Award for a Large Manufacturer after winning over the judges who described it as “very creamy, excellent body, good flavour with perfect sweetness balance”.
Anyone outside of New Zealand might think Hokey Pokey is a children’s song and dance but to the locals, it’s the term for honeycomb toffee. Hokey Pokey is a quintessential Kiwi flavour, second in popularity here after the classic vanilla. It’s so ingrained in New Zealand culture and consciousness that the locals are as enthusiastic about this caramelised flavour as a Malaysian durian lover waxing lyrical over the king of fruit.
The secrets to award-winning ice cream are safeguarded so well inside the Tip Top premises that the security guards at the main entrance hold us back a wee bit longer. Good thing we have a legitimate appointment and are as well-behaved as the 7-year-olds in the school bus entering ahead of us.
The basics of ice cream making are quite universal, traditionally involving a mixture of cream or milk products or both, sweetener and flavouring. But each manufacturer develops its own special recipes.
While the inner sanctum of Tip Top is off-limits to visitors, the factory tour takes us to some enclosed viewing galleries where we witness vanilla ice cream being filled into 2-litre tubs. I gaze down upon a world of stainless steel, populated with big stainless steel tanks, metallic production lines, mechanical gizmos, moving conveyor belts, and several staff in white coats and hair nets. A percentage of the processes are still manual but around 60 to 70 per cent of the production is automated.
With astonishing speed, the Ventura machine can fill up to 40 tubs in one minute. Another machine can make up to 200 Trumpets (their cone ice cream brand), also in a minute. With seven production lines, Tip Top can produce a staggering 50 million litres of ice cream a year, with a potential to even double that volume.
Such massive production of global proportions calls for impressive technologies and engineering infrastructure. One of their innovations allowed them to create the world’s first triple-dipped ice cream. In 1999, the Dino dipping line was added to the plant.
“The Dino line can do things that a lot of manufacturers throughout the world can’t do. For example, we can put really hot marshmallow on ice cream without it melting,” shares Thomson.
“But you won’t see that because it’s in a secret place in the factory.”
I groan quietly with disappointment as he continues to share that the last product which used this line was for Australia called Rocky Road.
“We dip the ice cream in marshmallow, put nice sweet things on it and coat the whole thing in chocolate,” he adds.
The stroll to the viewing galleries and listening to the informative guides is unbelievably strenuous work so my appetite quickly develops. On returning to the meeting room, it’s as if everyone’s minds are read because we are treated to a fantastic “appearing act” involving tubs of ice cream which have seemingly come from nowhere.
Frosted containers are opened up revealing the classic hokey pokey flavour, chocolate sundae, peaches and cream, Tiger Time, and from the Top Notch range, saucy caramel and mango sorbet.
The enviable job of creating ice cream flavours belongs to the likes of Esraa El Shall and Akarin Opassathavorn, who are both Research and Development technologists at Tip Top. “It’s more like project management,” explains the youthful Akarin. “We each have our own project. If it’s not complex, it would take six to eight months but a complex one could take a year or more.”
His colleague adds: “A complex project would be if you have to reformulate the base or create a new base. For example, our sorbets, which we launched last summer for Kapiti, that entailed creating a sorbet base, creating a new shell base and everything. We’d never run a sorbet with a ripple and a shell before.”
Out of all the projects, Esraa is most proud of her work on the Kapiti sorbet range. She shares: “To say I started a new range of sorbets is really cool. Kapiti usually does ice creams and cheeses. That was the first time Kapiti went into sorbets.”
Meanwhile, Akarin is credited with creating the tri-coloured Tiger Time flavour, a fun project he enjoyed the most, partly because it was aimed at children and the project involved working with the Auckland Zoo to raise money for tiger conservation through sales of the ice cream.
TESTS AND STANDARDS
The sweetest part of their job has to be the sensory tests and there are probably more rigorous tests carried out here. Even after the R&D stage, on-site labs in the factory facilitate sampling during production, during packaging and even after the product has been packaged. Shelf life testing is conducted as well to examine how the product texture would change over time. But the key test is for taste — is it too sweet, is it not sweet enough, will it appeal to children and so on.
When asked how to distinguish a good quality ice cream from the dizzying array in the stores, the two R&D experts recommend reading the product label.
Esraa explains: “People don’t really know the difference between an ice cream and a frozen dessert. For example, if they see Tip Top and a cheaper brand, they’ll go for the cheaper option. But if you look at the milk fat percentage, our ice cream meets the legal requirement to be ice cream — it contains a minimum 10 per cent milk fat.”
An old proverb goes “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” but in this situation, the proof of the ice cream is in the ingredients list.
Tip Top and other New Zealand ice cream makers have the fortune of using high quality fresh milk and cream to begin with, dairy products which are world-famous and produced on home turf, where the environment is clean and the cattle graze year-round on verdant outdoor pastures.
Greedily unwrapping another complimentary ice cream while exiting the building, I’m delighted by the sight of sunshine outside. I walk out savouring my extra helping of creamy goodness which has evolved along a complex but seamless chain starting from the bluest of blue skies, the greenest of green meadows, and the plumpest, healthiest cows and sheep.