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."