- Photo: Julian Hom
- The ice cream cooler at Alleyway Ice Cream.
If you were to mark the passage of seasons in the Hudson Valley by their signature foods, fall would be all about cider doughnuts and pumpkin spice everything. Winter menus would be dominated by squash and root vegetables. And nothing screams summer like a line of people snaking around the block for ice cream. After a long, cold winter (and an endlessly rainy spring), there's nothing sweeter than that first race finish an ice cream cone faster than the heat can melt it. "Ice cream makes people happy," says Katie Ferris, owner of Zoe's Ice Cream Barn in Lagrangeville. "I love the fact that it is often enjoyed together by friends and family. At my store you will see people connecting, chatting, and unwinding from their hectic schedules."
We practically trip over ice cream joints in every town, village, and city in the valley. But among the sea of Dairy Queens and roadside stands offering mass-produced ice cream, cones, and toppings trucked in from who-knows-where, a niche yet fast-growing market for artisanal ice cream is drawing discerning sweet teeth from far and wide.
But ice cream is ice cream, right? Not if you ask the proprietors of these small-batch, high-quality ice cream businesses that attract cult followings of locals, weekenders, and tourists alike.
- Photo: Julian Hom
- Belgian chocolate ice cream from Alleyway Ice Cream in Saugerties.
"It's very creamy and very dense, which is the opposite of soft serve or a scooping store, where they're pumping air into the product," says Steven Astorino, chef and owner of Zora Dora's Small Batch in Beacon, which specializes in paletas (or desserts on sticks). "We don't pump any air into our product. It's just straight up, which gives it a whole different characteristic."
When you listen to Kathryn Spata, co-owner of Nancy's of Woodstock Artisanal Creamery, describe the process of cooking, blending, and pureeing three dozen bananas with brown sugar, butter, and rum to yield one three-gallon bucket of banana ice cream, the only words that come to mind are "labor of love."
"It might not necessarily be a unique flavor—it's how we make it," says Spata, who, with husband Sam, opened Nancy's after permanently moving to Shandaken from New York City in 2015. "People recognize quality when they taste it."
The growing popularity of artisanal ice cream in the region can be directly tied to this surge in customer awareness, or what Amy Keller, co-owner of Jane's Ice Cream, calls "the food revolution." Consumers now, more than ever, care deeply about where their food comes from and how it's made, and they prioritize supporting their communities' micro-economies.
"If it's not fresh, then why bother?" says Astorino, a former pastry chef from Staten Island who moved to Beacon 17 years ago for the then-cheap rents. "If I wanted to open a scoop shop and order stuff from a commercial ice cream [company], stick a three-gallon tub into a frostbitten freezer, and scoop it onto a commercial cone, I think anyone could do that. But I'm anal about what I eat, so I want people to experience the same freshness—local dairy, local vegetables, and local fruits."
- Photo: Sam Spata
- Happy customers enjoying cones at Nancy’s of Woodstock Artisanal Creamery.
Indeed, across the board, the artisanal ice cream market in the Hudson Valley is centered on a common theme of keeping it local. With the abundance of local farms and robust selection of regional dairy, it's become easier and more meaningful for customers to seek out products made with resources from their proverbial backyards.
For Ferris, growing up on a farm in Dutchess County meant that the concept of local food was simply second nature—a way of life for her and her family.
"My father and his family had a local dairy farm until the 1960s," says Ferris, a Culinary Institute of America alumna who cut her teeth in the ice cream biz as an employee of now-defunct Heinchon Dairy in Pawling. "It was never an option to not use a local product."
Ferris says Zoe's slogan, "From Cow to Cone in 3 Days," draws people from all over the state. She makes all her ice cream with milk from Hudson Valley Fresh, a collective of family-run dairy farms in Ulster, Dutchess, Columbia, and Rensselaer counties, as does Zora Dora's and Alleyway Ice Cream in Saugerties. Spata works with Farms2Tables of Rhinebeck, which sources thousands of local products from more than 100 farms in the region, to secure all her milk, heavy cream, eggs, and fruit. Kingston-based wholesalers Jane's emphasize their use of New York State hormone-free milk.
- Photo: Cait Brewster
- Jane’s Ice Cream’s Apricot and Lavender.