McConnell's Ice Cream has been dedicated to using all-natural, local, and sustainable ingredients in its ice cream since being founded by World War II vet Gordon F. McConnell more than 70 years ago. That's part of why McConnell's became a West coast favorite; the kind of place people insist you go if you're ever in the Santa Barbara area.
In 2011, Michael Palmer, with his wife and two other partners, purchased the historic dairy brand. While the ice cream-making process has not changed, they have been slowly expanding. Its first brick-and-mortar scoop shop outside of the Santa Barbara area opens in downtown Los Angeles in June. They also introduced five new flavors the first year, with four more launching next month. "We're not racing to grow," Palmer says, "because every pint that leaves the dairy has to be perfect."
The fact that McConnell's is a dairy sets it apart from many ice cream makers. It allows them to make the base from scratch with raw milk and cream, which is pasteurized and homogenized in-house before being mixed with organic eggs and pure cane sugar. The finished product has a higher than average milk fat percentage of 18.5%. In addition, they don't use any stabilizers, commonly used to extend the shelf life and reduce iciness. The last difference is in the freezing process: McConnell's uses a custom-built machine that gently stirs and slowly freezes the ice cream rather than a batch freezer, which, as Palmer puts it, "beats the crap" out of it, forcing air into the final product. "The result? Inconsistent texture and mouthfeel in the finished ice cream," Palmer says.
And you can definitely taste the difference—each of the four new flavors I tried was perfectly dense and creamy. There's no pudding-like quality, and every bite is smooth and clean. While the Milk Chocolate and Raspberry Jam was a strong combination of fruit and chocolate, and Eureka Lemon and Marionberries was tart and refreshing, I couldn't get enough of both the Olive Oil and Salted Almonds and the Oaxacan Chocolate.
The former is made with ingredients from California's Central Valley, including Arbequina (a Spanish varietal) extra virgin olive oil from a local olive ranch. The almonds, from a farm nearby, are salt roasted in olive oil and kosher salt. I happen to love "stuff" in my ice cream, so at first I was disappointed that there weren't more almond chunks, and that the chunks are best described as tiny. But after a few spoonfuls I quickly realized that the ice cream is better off that way; the scoop felt more pure, allowing the fruit-forward, slightly peppery olive oil flavor to shine while adding just enough texture.
The Oaxacan Chocolate is a much richer, more complex product, made with dark chocolate sourced from San Francisco's 145-year-old chocolate company Guittard. The chocolate is mixed with cinnamon, chipotle chili, and brandy. Because of the addition of alcohol, it melts faster. But even in soupier form, the flavor still hits all the perfect notes of smoky and spicy without being too savory.