With a climate like ours, our national love affair with ice cream may seem strange, but it’s a brand of tenacity peculiar to our nation. Summer will be marked, will be celebrated, whether or not the weather agrees. Ice cream is the dessert equivalent of standing over the barbecue with an umbrella, of wearing shorts on the flimsiest chance that the sun might peep out.
Anyone who grew up in Ireland in the 90s or earlier will remember the days when ice cream came in three flavours: strawberry, chocolate and ghostly white vanilla. On occasion, you’d see the odd mint choc chip, glowing an unnatural green, or a Neapolitan block thrown in as an exciting alternative. Looking at the fabulous variety in the artisan ice cream counters that have sprung up around the country in recent years, it’s hard to believe how far our favourite summertime treat has come.
With Ireland’s small producers turning out some truly amazing food and drink — and providing me with plenty of potential subjects for this column — I’m delighted to see this same level of care being afforded to ice cream. While we may not have the ideal weather, we definitely do have the perfect dairy, a fact that struck Seán and Kieran Murphy immediately upon moving here in the year 2000. Born and raised in the USA, they were bowled over by the quality of our milk and cream, instantly realising that it would make spectacular ice cream. Murphy’s Ice Cream was born shortly afterwards.
Murphy’s is a Dingle-based venture, with a purpose-built production factory and two of their five shops situated there (the remaining three are in Killarney, Galway and Dublin). Chief Ice Cream Maker Ciarán Ó Cinnéide works his magic alongside a team of four others, but across the company there can be over 100 people on the payroll at the peak of the summer.
The Murphys’ goal is to create the best possible luxury ice cream. To accomplish this, they begin with the best possible base ingredients: milk, cream, eggs and sugar. The Murphys source milk and cream exclusively from a herd of Kerry cows on a single farm owned by a local farmer, Colm Murphy, from whom they’ve been buying for 18 years; the milk of Kerry cows is rich and creamy, perfect for ice cream. The Kerry cow is an indigenous breed, and the Murphys loved the idea of supporting them and helping to bring their numbers up. In addition to the dairy, they use organic sugar and local, free range eggs. Quality, they say, is at the core of the brand, and this is why they use nothing artificial or with preservatives.
Once the fundamentals are in place, it’s time to add the flavour. In the search for flavours that are truly representative of our Emerald Isle, the Murphys have taken some very strange twists and turns down the rabbit hole, all inspired by nature and the beauty of the Dingle Peninsula and by other Irish food producers. They were making sea salt ice cream — now their best-seller — before anyone else in the country, and have played around with an Irish rain variety infused with herb and peat notes. Their least successful experiment was a smoked salmon ice cream, which did not go down very well; their caramelised goat’s cheese version, however, was a big hit with chefs. The team switches up the offering every quarter, and aims to introduce a brand new flavour once or twice a year.
Head of Marketing and Brand Development Niamh O’Kennedy explains, “We really are passionate about what goes into our ice cream. Instead of mint flavouring, we strip real, organic peppermint leaves grown by the local special needs community, Camphill. For other flavours, we make our own chocolate chips by hand, bake our own cookies and caramelise Irish brown bread with dark brown sugar, and we even make our own sea salt. We collect the saltwater from Beenbawn in Dingle Bay, boil it down until the water evaporates, then dry out the salt in a low temperature oven to reveal Dingle sea salt flakes. We love creating unique Irish flavours from real ingredients.” Indeed, one of the reasons you won’t currently find vanilla in their range is the difficulty of sourcing it to the level of quality they demand. “Vanilla will be back when we can get the best real vanilla.”
One of my prevailing food-related childhood memories is that my Nana’s house, in the summertime, meant ice cream floats. These were made with Coca-Cola, foaming dramatically over the rims so that our hands were always sticky, and were served in tall sundae glasses with long-handled spoons in a variety of colours. Those special spoons only ever came out for ice cream floats, and we loved them all the more for that.
While the memories remain just as sweet, my tastebuds have definitely evolved over the last few decades, and it’s time for my ice cream floats to come of age. Inspired by their dedication to Irish ingredients, I’ve combined Murphy’s two most uniquely Irish flavours — Dingle Sea Salt and Caramelised Brown Bread — with two of our country’s most iconic alcoholic drinks, a good hearty stout and an Irish cream liqueur, to make this boozy, adults-only summer treat. Read the recipe here.
Our soft rain may be an unfortunate mainstay in every season, but without it we wouldn’t have the lush grass, happy cows and rich dairy needed to produce luxury ice cream like Murphys. Incidentally, they even use distilled rainwater to make their range of sorbets! Being Irish, we’ll keep doggedly ordering those cones even when the summer isn’t really being… summer.
I love that our landscape and food culture can inspire such creativity when it comes to ice cream. Murphys turns 20 next year and they’re already planning great things for their birthday celebrations. Past that, the plan is to keep developing interesting flavours, eventually opening more shops in Ireland and abroad, too. I’ll raise a cone — or a float — to that.