On another Slow Food taste walk I took part in on Saturday, we met the inspiring Christine Waignein from Nanouk Ice-Pops. Her story is a great one, mixing equal parts idealism, determination and an overwhelming joie de vivre that reflect in her products.
For Christine, everything changed on a trip to Italy with her family. Having worked in a bank for 15 years prior, she was sick of never working on anything real, and more and more convinced that there needed to be more to life. As she was eating an Italian popsicle (‘gelato su stecco’), she told her husband: “If I ever changed my career, I would make ice cream like that. Look how happy it makes people!” How often we say things like that, right? Her trip continued uneventfully until she exchanged the Italian sun for Brussels drizzle again.
However, one night, already firmly returned back to her normal life, Christine woke up with a start. “How stupid! If it is so clear to me that doing this thing would fulfill me, why don’t I just… do it?!” And so, she did.
Or maybe not just so. She had never before made ice cream.
So she signed up for a class in ice cream making, and made space in her basement for an industrial-sized ice cream maker. As she learned more and more about the shortcuts traditional ice cream makers use, she vowed to stick to natural ingredients and work only with raw materials. The fruit base is as often as possible from regional sources – right now, pear ice cream is on offer, but throughout the summer, berries and stone fruit make appearances. The only problem she has had, she says, is to find Belgian-grown pineapple and other exotic fruit. 🙂 The milk, cream and eggs she uses are all organic. Of course. Asked about stabilizers and preservatives, she said she didn’t use any. This is especially impressive when making ice cream on a stick – rather than scoopable ice cream, since you need to achieve firmness without making it too hard to enjoy. For instance, have you ever wondered why your Magnum keeps its shape so well, but is super creamy when you bite into it? Stabilizers. Magic trick. And if you go without, you need other tricks and tips. For instance, to avoid overly large ice crystals, she shock freezes the shaped popsicles at -40 degrees Celsius. And you always start with a sugar syrup in order to get the necessary viscosity. So much science at work here!
One detail I loved: in addition to ice cream, she also sells meringues. For ice cream, you only need egg yolks, leaving her with buckets of egg whites leftover. Rather than throwing them out, she thus makes little delicacies you can have instead of – or in addition to – an ice cream. What a great idea!
Christine makes both sorbets – on a basis of sugar syrup – and cream-based ice cream. “Originally, I only wanted to make fruit-based treats, but my husband convinced me otherwise. He said that nobody could call themselves an ice cream maker that didn’t offer vanilla ice cream.” And indeed, though her fruit flavors are wildly popular, there will always be one or two in a group that veers toward the traditional – vanilla, chocolate, nuts. Soul food – but all natural.
Since she is self-employed and just serves the popsicles out of her own cart, she allows her creativity to run wild. Every batch may be different. From raspberry hibiscus over pineapple ginger to marzipan almond, she makes it all. Her inspiration, she says, can strike everywhere – a favorite fruit drink of her daughter (banana-lemon), a taste-pairing cookbook, or the aim to reinvent a classic (say, ‘Magnum’) in a more natural way. She loves to work herself, Christine says. “After working in a team for 15 years, I cherish the possibility of doing what I want, when I want, according to my own schedule.” This is also why she declined the request to massively scale up her enterprise soon after she started. “They wanted me to make 300 popsicles a week. That is just impossible on my scale. And then I would have to employ people, manage them, pay them, and the creativity would get lost. You just have to weigh those alternatives.”
Instead, she makes ice cream on Mondays and Tuesdays, sells it on various markets from Wednesday through the weekend, connects with her customers, and dreams up new creations. Her only regret? “Ice cream season is nearly over, and I have so many more ideas!”
This, I find, is Slow Food personified. Good quality. Great mindset. And a perfect work-life balance. Respect!