by Sabine Rhyne
He’s been making gelato since 2008, but Peter Solley still feels his heart leap when he sees a pint of Vermont Gelato in a fellow customer’s shopping basket at the store. The feeling is similar to the one he had in his early days as a session musician and producer when he heard a tune he produced on the radio.
It’s a classic Vermont story: a couple decides to move to Vermont for an idyllic life with a small business, and before you know it, the second career takes on a life of its own, and off they go. Peter and Susan started the Newfane Café & Creamery with partners back in 2008, and Peter began to “play around at home” to make gelato for the retail store. One thing led to another and they left the café about a year later, but the gelato had begun to take off. Peter went to “gelato school” in New York for formal training, but he found his instincts and experience gave him the best foundation. He discovered a space opening up in the Cotton Mill, and the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC) assisted his company with a few months rent-free while he purchased and installed larger equipment (including a Kickstarter project for a pasteurizer). The Vermont Gelato Company was off and running hard. “Our sales are up 250% from last year,” Peter says. He still makes all of the gelatos, though his wife and one part-time employee assist him with labeling and pasteurizing. This growth is now pushing him to think about distribution, as his deliveries can only extend to western Massachusetts, western New Hampshire, and Vermont. “I’m not actively selling anything,” he explains. “People just call or email, having tasted our gelato here or there, and then we are in a new retail or restaurant.” With distribution, more gelato and more employees will almost certainly be needed, so this new frontier is being carefully strategized.
Vermont Gelato is sold in pints in retail stores, on menus in restaurants, and in cups with spoons at the Brattleboro Farmers’ Market, among others. Peter has tried lots of flavors over the years. He’s pretty much settled on eight regular flavors in pints, introducing a new flavor approximately every quarter. The retail pints reflect several delicious but less surprising flavors, like Vanilla, Caramel, Mango, Coconut, Dark Chocolate, Chocolate Hazelnut, and Roast Hazelnut, but also Chipotle Chocolate and Fig Brulée, a somewhat unusual flavor born of a restaurant request. “The restaurants often suggest something, I play around with it, and then come up with something a little weird, like Maple Bacon Cayenne, or a beer gelato for the Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery.” He still finds that the more conservative flavors do best in the scoop cart.
Peter uses Thomas’ Dairy in Rutland for his milk source, and is very happy with the milk quality. For fruits and other ingredients, he often sources organic, but finds the price point for his product will not support a totally organic product, at least not now.
Observing a production cycle for his ginger gelato, we learned just how artisanal this confection can be. “Ginger can come from Hawaii one week, and Brazil the next; so I crush it in my juicer and add it to the mixture, judging the texture, color, and taste batch by batch.” Peter tasted, observed, and added more ginger. Gelato machines have larger paddles than ice cream machines and move more slowly, so far less air is introduced into the product. Ice cream machines whip air into the product, sometimes as much as 70%. Despite this, gelato has roughly 1/3 less fat than most ice creams, since it is made from whole milk without adding more cream. American guidelines insist that ice cream have at least 10% fat, and often, artisan ice creams use quite a bit more. Instead, the delicate balance of fats and proteins, liquids and solids in gelato is reached by measuring nonfat dried milk powder, whole fluid milk, and other ingredients that may have more or less liquid, all affected differently by the freezing process. Whatever the secret to the delicate balance, the result is an unequivocal hit of smooth, creamy deliciousness best served slightly melty, in our experience.
“I love what I do,” Peter says. “The feedback is wonderful. People email me after having my gelato in a restaurant, and it feels really great. I’m having as much fun as when I played rock and roll.” Well, that suits us fine; the secret ingredient to the best food is always love.
Visit the Co-op on Thursday, July 10, from 11am-1pm, and meet Peter of Vermont Gelato, & try a frozen tasty treat!