A trip to Italy was the catalyst to turn the dream into a reality. With 20 years of gelato making experience behind them and discerning taste buds, Ciccone and Sons are celebrating a whole year in the Sydney gelato scene. Our Sydney co-leader Georgie caught up with Sean, one half of the duo behind Redfern’s neighbourhood gelateria, to chat about life as a small producer and creating a point of difference in the competitive world of gelato.
It appears gelato is a craze that has stood the test of time in Sydney, but what sets Ciccone and Sons apart from other gelaterias?
Compared to some other gelaterias, we make (gelato) differently. The older style of machines that we use means that the texture of the gelato is different to what other gelaterias are doing, and the quality of ingredients that we can use. The flavourings that we use are things we created ourselves. We don’t buy in anything out of packets and nothing comes in a can, unless we put it into a can! The only exception I will say is that we do use imported Amarena cherries. Cutting out some of those mass produced things helps to set us apart because if you are a gelateria that is buying in a flavouring and it is the same as the next gelateria down the road, then your product tastes the same, but if you are making it yourselves, then it tastes different.
Can you talk us through the basic process involved in making gelato?
We mix dry ingredients, which include sugars, into milk, dissolve that, let that rest with the flavouring that might be going into it, caramel, vanilla or something like that. It rests overnight to mature the flavour and then it is churned in our machines, which takes about 15 – 20 minutes. We then set the gelato overnight as it has limited stabiliser, it needs time to harden up in the freezer. We then serve it the day afterwards, so within about 24 hours of the milk arriving, it has been turned into gelato and sold over the counter.
We have just two smaller gelato machines (they were imported from Italy back in the early 1980s), they are old and they have lot of history behind them. They don’t take much maintenance, they are a bit like an old Holden, there is nothing technical, and there are no computers to run them or anything like that! Mark, who is the gelato master, physically has to watch and extract the gelato. There is no alarm, no button, no beep, to tell you when it is done; it is all done by eye.
Where do you currently source your fresh produce and ingredients, and what factors affected your decision to use those suppliers?
We went on a journey through a few different styles of milk to find what the best was for us. We found that jersey milk has the best flavour and texture because of the richness of the milk, slightly higher fat content and milk solids, and also a better protein structure to it, so it made for a creamier product. We settled on Sun Gold milk (from Warrnambool, Victoria) after trying five or six different varieties. Sun Gold are still paying a fair price at the farm gate for their milk, so from our point of view it’s good that we are still ensuring the farmers are making good money from being cow raisers and doing their job. That is key for us, to know that we are using quality products and someone is being paid a fair price for it.
Some of the other key flavours that we use come from the Pepe Saya range of products. We use the buttermilk, that is a wasted product from the milk process, and then we also use the mascarpone cheese, and at the moment we are making burnt butter (gelato), so we are using the butter.
In terms of the sorbets, we use fresh fruit, either from the fruit and vegetable grocer next door, direct from Sydney’s Flemington market, or we use whole pressed juice from a company in Newtown. We are taking a product that is often leftover, which might otherwise be wasted, because it is over supply, over picked or over juiced. Matt (from the juice company) also takes the offcuts from Black Star Pastry’s watermelon cakes, which is waste, and makes it into juice. It is about ensuring that there is no loss.
There is a push at the moment for people to start eating seasonally, how do you try to make your flavours seasonal? How do consumers respond to the fact that they may or may not be able to get a certain flavour?
We recently changed our buttermilk, which we usually serve with passionfruit, and started serving it with lemon instead because they are coming into season now. There was a bit of an initial shock because we had that flavour for so long! We find it is good to talk to people about seasonality, and what is important is the freshness of the fruit. We don’t preserve fruit, we don’t make jam, we keep the fruit fresh.
The other seasonal ingredient is the jersey milk, particularly when you are using a single source of milk like we are. It all depends on what the cows have been eating, so if there has been a big ocean swell and it is blowing north, then it tastes salty naturally. If we notice that the fat content has dropped off a bit because it is winter, as the cows are preserving the fats and not calving, then you change other ingredients, for example, to make sure that the right oils are coming out of the nuts.
How are you maintaining communication with your customers and creating a business is part of the local community?
We don’t have many staff working for us, we are at the front talking to the customers about what their needs are and what they like. We can be reactive to customers as well, we know that we can adjust flavours because we are small batch (we usually make eight litres at a time, in summer we make every day and in winter we can make every couple of days), we have that effect very quickly.
When we were looking at a location we considered Redfern a good space for us, for a lot of business reasons, we obviously had to consider the socioeconomic climate of the area and it is probably more diverse than we ever really expected to be. We want to put a product into a cone that anyone can afford to eat, it is not exclusive, it is affordable, and tastes amazing. At the end of the day, we can give anybody, on any budget, something delicious to eat.
A lot of the decisions you have made to run your business have a strong ethical basis, can you tell me about your choice of packaging to reduce the impact on the environment?
In terms of our consumables we developed for paper rather than for plastic cups, we also us wooden spoons for tastings and to eat with. Our paper products are lower-waxed product, so it is more biodegradable, and the wood is all renewable. We have made a conscious effort to not use Styrofoam, which a lot of other gelaterias do use because it is sold as part of a package, but it is not so great for the environment.
What is your favourite flavour?
What would be your spirit vegetable?
I’m Irish, potatoes, does that count?
What has been your weirdest customer request?
We had someone request a potato and gorgonzola gelato!
If you were having some friends or family over for dinner, what would be your favourite dish that you would make to try and impress them?
I would be cooking a tarte tatin with Bosc pears and serving it with chocolate gelato.
Image credit: Ciccone and Sons