Cold and sweet, the accessory of summer has origins in Italy and costs far less than a Fendi bag (but gives the same amount of pleasure). Gelato - a dessert made with milk instead of cream - is one of the more misunderstood of the frozen treats. Unlike its more commonplace cousin ice cream and more distant, redneck popsicle kinfolk, gelato isn't something many North American kids are exposed to at a young age. But thanks to a heightened awareness around dietary health and fat reduction, the most elegant of the frosty desserts is making inroads into everyday culture.
In Whistler, Lucia Gelato is the go-to brand, hand crafted in Whistler by long time resident Kathryn Shepherd. She started the company in response to a challenge posed by her husband and four years later she has a staff of 15 and is selling her product throughout the Sea to Sky corridor.
"I started at farmers' markets, just thinking it would be something I would do in the summertime...but the business kept growing and growing and now I'm in 10 grocery stores, 16 or 17 restaurants and cafes and two scoop-your-own stores (in Hatley and Mount Currie Coffee Co.). I'll also soon be in the Cross Country Connection (a new restaurant opening in Cheakamus Crossing)."
Shepherd recognizes that much of her success comes from a loyal fan base in Whistler, a place where locals are proud to promote their own. The rise of the local food movement has helped as well - people are interested in knowing where their products come from and how they're made - an open book who is quick to dive into her gelato and sorbetto-making processes, Shepherd fits the model.
"I think starting at something like the farmers' market, where you get to talk to all the people and you make that relationship...I know that my product is something that people like to take to dinner parties because there is a story behind it," she said.
One of the (more unfortunate) wow factors that comes with gelato is the price - scoop for scoop it's far more expensive than ice cream but for good reason - the density is entirely different.
"The reason Breyers can do a two liter tub of ice cream for the same price as 500 mils of Haagen Dazs is because it's the same amount of ingredients, but they pump air into it," continued Shepherd. "A cheaper ice cream brand will have 200 per cent air in it, while a gelato sits at 20 per cent, so it's a fairly big difference - a huge difference - and why gelato is more expensive to make - it's all actual ingredients instead of air so you get a denser, richer, more velvety type product."
I've just discovered the reason the tail end of many big brand name milkshakes and blizzards end up as a mysterious foamy broth (does it mean I'm eating fewer calories?)
Lucia Gelato also makes sorbets (sorbettos, if you're in Italy), which are all created with real fruit. Many sorbet producers rely on syrup flavouring instead of the real thing - it's easier and cheaper but Shepherd simply thinks real tastes better.
"I'm hoping families and people with kids will say 'hey, this is made with real fruit,' and try it more," she said.
The same theory applies to her gelatos - for coffee flavour she uses real espresso, for chocolate, it's pure Belgium chocolate all the way.
"My goal is to make the highest quality product that is out there on the market."
Due to her humble beginnings in a tiny closet-like room of the Beetroot, Lucia Gelato almost ended up being called Out of the Closet Gelato, but instead Shepherd chose the Italian pronunciation of her daughter's name.
"Lucy in Italian means pure and light, so the idea of my gelato is that it's pure, in its purest form and it's light, as in it has a lot less fat content than the alternative," she said.
To encourage customers to call with requests and special orders (she does special flavours and custom cakes), Shepherd puts her phone number and email on her product labels. Her most recent flavours - mojito sorbet, strawberry lime sorbet, chocolate raspberry truffle gelato and caramel macchiato gelato hit the stores this week.
(That mojito sorbet sounds like it would be good in a blender with a touch of rum.)
For more information go to www.luciagelato.com or pick up some gelato on the mountain at the Rendezvous or the Roundhouse. Lucia Gelato is also available in Squamish Nesters, Whistler Nesters, IGA, Creekside, The Grocery Store, Alpine Meadows Market, Upper Village Market and Food Plus, and Pemberton Valley Superstore.