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Irish gourmet ice cream gets the cream

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With Ireland’s growing reputation as a foodie haven, visitors always bring their appetites, and they are not disappointed.  Smoked Salmon, prawns, oysters, spring lamb, free-range chicken, Angus beef, brown bread, artisan cheeses, Irish coffee, and Guinness all delight the palate.  But don’t forget the ice cream!

With the relatively warm days of summer in Ireland, nothing refreshes the locals or visitors quite like ice cream. And in the past 10 years, Irish ice cream has come a long way.  The boring vanilla cone has been joined by an array of gourmet colors and flavors, thanks to Sean and Kieran Murphy, two brothers from Rockland County, New York.

Sean and Kieran came to Ireland in 2000, following in the footsteps of their parents Finbarr and Sophia who were originally from Cork, settled in Chestnut Ridge, NY and raised a family, and then retired in the early 1990’s to Dingle, Co. Kerry.

A big ice cream fan, Sean missed the “decadently delicious” ice cream from New York. He realized he was not alone and soon saw a market niche for luxury ice cream flavors in Ireland.  Realizing he would have to learn about making the product, he flew back to the US and enrolled in an ice cream-making course at Pennsylvania State University taught by leading food scientists.

Returning to Dingle, Sean brought an ice cream-maker machine from the states and started to experiment in the kitchen of the family home.  The basic ingredients were easily accessible and all natural – fresh milk and cream, free range eggs, and local berries.

“We would start first thing in the morning, eating ice cream all day long, sampling and tasting, trying to get it right,” Sean remembers. “In the beginning, we poured Irish cream into the machine and it broke. We soon realized that the thick Irish cream sourced only from local Kerry cows, so different to the US product, had turned into butter. With a little help from a university professor in food science, we adapted the machine to the cream, and got it right.”

Flavors came next and the Murphy men were determined to produce ice cream with only natural ingredients, not flavorings. Ordinary product sources could not provide the goods. Instead Sean had to search out exotic food purveyors for pure chocolate, coffee, vanilla pods, mint, mangos, and more.

“We had to find fruit people, nut people, chocolate people, vanilla people, caramel people, and even Oreo cookie suppliers.”  They gathered real liqueurs – Baileys, Kalua, Irish whiskey, plus Jamaican rum and champagne. Quality ingredients cost more money, however, and Murphys Ice Cream prices would be pegged higher than the usual mass-produced varieties.

To introduce their ice cream, the Murphys rented a small shop on Strand Street in Dingle town, using the front half as a shop/café and the rear as the production area. In their first year of business, Sean and Kieran had to do a lot of explaining to the local Dingle customers who constantly asked: “Why does this ice cream cost twice as much as the ice cream at the supermarket?” The concept of using top-shelf ingredients in ice cream had to be experienced.

Once the locals tasted the product, the higher price was not an issue. The Irish, who return again and again to indulge in the gourmet ice cream, comprise 60% of the total business. There is no explanation needed for the visitors from the US, France, Italy, and other countries who make up 40% of the clientele.

With the success of Murphys Ice Cream shop in Dingle, expansion was inevitable.  The production area at the back of the shop was transferred in 2003 to a purpose-built factory outside of town, within view of the grazing cows that contribute to the success.  Besides the Murphys, the factory employs two full-time staff and produces ice cream to supply leading restaurants and shops all over Ireland. A second Murphy-owned shop opened in 2005 on Main Street, Killarney, and recently two more opened shops in Dublin at 27 Wicklow St. and Temple Bar Square.

All the Murphy shops, outfitted with distinctive blue and white décor in the style of an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, offer 16 different flavors of ice cream.  Flavors range from banana with chocolate shavings to rum raisin, chocolate whiskey truffle, brown bread and Guinness, chocolate coffee bean crunch, white chocolate and rosewater, caramel honeycomb, and cookies and cream, made with Oreo cookies. For summer, there is a new and distinctive sea salt ice cream with a “sweet taste of the sea.” For chocoholics, pure chocolate ice cream is always available, as is a vanilla, made with vanilla beans in a rich custard base, baring no resemblance to the supermarket flavor.

Dairy-free choices include raspberry, lemon-lime, mango or pink champagne sorbet.  The shops also offer a variety of sundaes such as a “Titanic Banana Split,” made with banana, three scoops of ice cream, warm chocolate sauce, toppings and cream. Sean hints that they are working on a few sugar-free options for the future.
With the ground broken for high-end ice cream in Ireland, the Murphy brothers have also attracted competition (both Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs sell their products in Ireland), and several other local Irish firms have begun producing handmade ice cream including Linnalla Pure Irish Ice Cream at New Quay, Co. Clare (www.linnalla.com), and Corrin Hill Real Dairy Ice Cream at Fermoy, Co. Cork (www.corrinhill.ie).

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