A Gelato Chef and a Distiller Walk Into a Bar
A gelato chef and a distiller walk into a bar. No bad jokes here. That’s Donato Toce, Head Chef at Gelato Messina, who works his magic at Messina HQ across the road from the Archie Rose Bar and Distillery in Rosebery and our Master Distiller Dave Withers. In the lead up to the launch of our latest collaboration—the throwback Neapolitan ice cream, reimagined in spirit form— we brought these two creative minds together to chat all things flavour, farms and why it took 300 trials to get to the final product. In Dave’s own words? “More than a few.”
Turns out, a lot can happen when you’re neighbours and share a love of quality ingredients that borders on obsession.
From the top! How did this idea come about between the two teams?
DW: Well, we are kinda neighbours with benefits. It’s pretty common for the team to jump over to Messina for a gelato when the weather gets warm and you’ll often find Messina staff sipping a cocktail in the bar after knock-offs. I mean, who doesn't love gelato and a relaxing drink? Really though, it came from the realisation that we’re both enormously focused on the ingredients that go into our products.
DT: Exactly. Ever since both businesses have been open in Rosebery, we’ve been friends and have worked on multiple projects together (as well as us drinking copious amounts of Archie Rose Gin and Whisky). We’ve always loved collaborating with the AR team, and one day cheekily asked them if they would ever make a Messina flavoured gin…the idea was born from there.
This is a deeply nostalgic ice-cream. Do you have any early memories of eating it as a kid?
DT: As a kid, I always remember that the vanilla would be left in the tub and the strawberry and chocolate would be eaten perfectly. Nowadays, I rank vanilla as one of my favourite flavours, so I think I would demolish the entire tub!
DW: It’s interesting because for me the memories of the Neapolitan were not great. In my childhood, it was the cheap supermarket brand stuff that we only bought when our favourite brands were out of stock. But you talk to most people and they have such fond memories of fighting their siblings for one of the flavours—the jostling for more of the flavour you favour is part of the ritual. More than any other ice cream, I think the Neapolitan is a real conversation starter.
Did you have your own weird way of eating it?
DT: I would start off at one end, and then drag the spoon all the way across the three flavours to the other end to create one super flavour. And repeat…
DW: For me I was always into the chocolate first, then vanilla and finally strawberry. I seem to recall, as a grubby kid, trying to mix the flavours up to make new and wonderful flavours. Strawberry and vanilla was a pretty good combo.
Dave, as a distiller, you’re often working with growers—but head chefs, not so much. Did you find there was a certain understanding of one another’s craft?
DW: Absolutely. In a way, Donato made our job so easy. When we started looking at strawberries, we were both immediately on the same page as what was going to work for us. Donnie let us know when the peak of the season was going to be for the flavour profile we were after. We could then prepare for the fruit in advance and get some trials under our belt in time. Whereas, typically we would need to figure out the details of the produce from the grower and translate farmer speak into distiller speak.
DT: To Dave’s point, I think it came about in our first meeting with Dave and the AR team – we really wanted to focus on using our amazing produce rather than creating an ‘ice cream gin,’ and they were on the same page. When someone said ‘Neapolitan’, it was a bit of an epiphany and seemed like the only way to go. That’s when the fun started.
For a project like this, what are you looking for when sourcing an ingredient from one of Messina’s own farms and partnering producers?
DT: We’re always looking for the best ingredients for our gelato – what you put in really shows at the other end in a customer’s scoop. We’ve been making all our own gelato bases and additions for our gelato from the very beginning and having the best product to make these is the basis of everything we do.
We make every single thing that goes into our gelato (apart from the amaretti biscuits) and are continually looking for ways to make our product better and better. Now we have our own milk supply, make our own chocolate and can supply our own strawberries and hazelnuts. We also love using our produce in other mediums that are not familiar to us and letting it shine. This project has been an amazing way to do that!
What does an average day look like at each of your farms?
DT: The days are long and hard to work, but beautiful to visit – kudos to all the farmers who do such an amazing job, not just on our farm but everywhere. Our strawberry farm is in Dural NSW and is managed by Tony and Anna, an amazing couple, along with our production manager Alex. They have been growing strawberries for over 40 years and Tony is often referred to as ‘The King of Strawberries’ in the local area. We grow an Albion variety which is the juiciest, sweetest strawberry we’ve ever tasted. Picking season is September – May and we go there daily to pick and bring back to Messina HQ.
Our dairy farm is in Numurkah, Country VIC, and is home to 450+ jersey cows. Milking starts at about 6.30am, and our cows are only milked once a day meaning they are happier and their milk also is naturally higher in fat. The cows are completely pasture-fed, which also aids the quality of their milk.
As for strawberries and hazelnuts?
DT: Our hazelnut farm is also in country VIC, and is a longer-term project. We’re getting a small crop at the moment and are cultivating the trees to hopefully be enough for our own production in about 3 year’s time. We did a lot of research based on climate and suitability for the region of course, but we also did huge amounts of taste testing. Not just the raw nut, but we trialled different roasting techniques, a variety of recipes and used each in a number of products. In all sorts of things including gelato, pralines, nut pastes, chocolates and our own version of nutella.
After eating our weight in hazelnuts, we decided to grow a few types to give us our preferred flavour profile - The Tonda Di Giffoni, the Lewis and the Barcelona. The best for gelato. Overall, it’s a slow process that is extremely laborious – you pick for one week of the year and the other 51 weeks are spent taking care of the orchards! But it’s so worth it.
In terms of the strawberries, they are given such care and attention, and we don’t use harmful chemicals to promote growth and kill bugs. We pick them when they are super ripe for the fullest flavour and because we are not at the mercy of transport, we use them when they are their most delicious. A lot of farms have to pick early before they are ripe to allow days for transport, but we are just bringing them back from Dural to our factory in Rosebery, so we get to use them at their very best.
You’ve got the raw ingredients in front of you. Now, what has to happen before it becomes gelato?
DT: That depends on the ingredient. For nuts, we roast them, pre-grind, peel them, then mill them which can take a few hours to turn into a finished paste ready for use in our gelato. Fruits like the strawberries need to be tested to determine their intensity and the amount needed in the gelato. They also need to be processed and used immediately, or dehydrated to increase flavour. No two ingredients are handled the same way.
What about what has to happen before it becomes a whisky, a vodka and a gin?
DW: More than a few trials. We typically go into the process with a really solid idea of what flavour profile we are after and some of the techniques we would need to test. However, it always evolves. We may start with a dozen trials in the first round which yields a good result but requires fifty more to prove that the spirit we produced straight up was the right one. In other situations, we may strike out a hundred times before we crack the flavour we are after.
We have an awesome team at Archie Rose who are used to wrestling with tough ingredients. It takes a certain type of person to be able to run a dozen or so distillations, and at the end of the process, end up with either a distillate that isn't right or a dozen more trials to run to perfect it. Rohan, our technical lead on white spirits, has probably run over two thousand trials in his time with us. He is pretty good at intuiting where the product needs to land, while working with the team and myself to get it there. A great example is his use of cacao husk from Hyggelig for the Cacao Husk & Hazelnut Whisky. Rohan worked with the provider to get samples, bulk quantities and got it heading in the direction we wanted. The result is a pretty stunning spirit.
When it came to distilling, was the flavour and spirit matches obvious, or did it require a bit of workshopping?
DW: It would have been pretty easy to rely on the distinctive flavours of strawberry, vanilla and chocolate. But that isn't really Archie Rose or Messina's vibe. We wanted to use the amazing produce from Messina but add a twist to the profile and give it a grown-up edge. That meant having the sweeter flavours but really using a strong savoury element as a counterpoint. A great example is the Cacao Husk & Hazelnut Whisky which has a strong dark chocolate character mingled with raisins and peanut brittle. While all of these elements offer a touch of sweetness, they are restrained. A proper adult interpretation of a chocolate ice cream.
How many versions did you go through to get the final result?
DW: We completed over three hundred in total for this product. It's always been very important to the distilling team to get the very best out of an ingredient. That typically means quite a bit of patience, focus and tasting of spirit.
It’s time to sign off now, with a toast! What are you reaching for most, and how are you making it your own?
DW: Depends on the mood I guess. Quite keen on the Strawberry & Pink Peppercorn Gin straight over ice with a dash of soda. There is no added sugar to the gin but the natural sweetness of the strawberries brought into check by the woody foraged pink peppercorns and juniper is quite lovely.
DT: In the office, we’re all reaching for a different bottle. The Strawberry & Pink Peppercorn Gin is amazing with a scoop of vanilla as a spider, and I’ve seen a fair few of our development chefs drinking the whisky over ice on a Friday afternoon.
Before we sign off too, we wanted to send out a massive thanks to all of the growers, farmers, ingredient experts who helped yield some of the best ingredients we’ve worked with.
Specially roasted blend of hazelnuts from the Messina farm in Seymour, VIC and from the Piedmont region of Italy.
Albion strawberries from Messina's farm in Dural, NSW
Tongan grown vanilla beans from Messina partner Heilala Vanilla
Husks from a blend of rare cacao beans from Hyggelig