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Southern Craft Ice Cream Is the Frozen Pride of Florida

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[Photographs: Rabi Abonour]

This is the story of a food you probably can't buy—and why you should know about it anyway.

Meet Southern Craft Creamery, an ice cream company in Marianna, Florida. If you live in or pass through the state, you may be able to find their product at one of two dozen stores or restaurants. They don't sell outside of Florida. They don't ship. They are not, like so many other small batch food companies, seeking a partnership with Whole Foods.

"We don't think going national is the only way to be successful," Lauren O'Bryan tells me. She and her husband Zach are the owners and sole employees of Southern Craft. Their family's farm, which supplies the cream and milk for the ice cream, is just down the way. "You can be successful by setting your own boundaries."

When I first asked for a sample of their ice cream, Lauren politely turned me down. She had some unfortunate experiences with courier delays and melty pints arriving at customers' doors, and she didn't want to take the risk again. Eventually she changed her mind, and four pints soon arrived at the Serious Eats office. They were mostly devoured that afternoon.

Southern Craft's ice cream is some of the finest I've tasted on American soil. When Southern magazine Garden & Gun compiled their 2014 Made in the South awards, Southern Craft didn't just win the food category—it was the grand slam favorite. It's made by two people with no food service background of any kind, just a certificate from the University of Wisconsin's ice cream program to their names.

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We've heard this story before: young people rediscovering old foodways, cooking with local ingredients and powered by passion more than longstanding experience. Some of these self-described artisans even make good food. But few make anything extraordinary.

The O'Bryans, who don't call themselves artisans or chefs or anything but two people who really like ice cream, get something right that most others get wrong—they know their limits and how to excel within them. What they avoid is just as important as what they pursue.

Southern Craft's flavor roster evokes a specific sense of place. Buttery vanilla is brightened with the deep citrus sweetness of satsuma orange. Floral bay laurel sends you straight to Florida's groves. Lemon ice cream is made with Florida Meyer lemons, and Tupelo honey from a nearby apiary goes into an ice cream all its own. It's not righteous locavorism—the liquor in their punchy dried plum and rum flavor sure isn't from Florida—just ingredients that can best serve "the ice cream we like eating."

After learning all the ways stabilizers protect freshly churned ice cream's delicate texture, the O'Bryans went the extra dozen steps to make ice cream without them.* That means controlling the agitation and aging of their custard using a not-too-fatty base made with non-homogenized milk, which is wily to use but adds a buttery feel to the end result. Take a spoonful and you'll be impressed by how much that buttery, creamy texture hits you right away, then melts into something incomparably clean and light. Then stick that pint back in the freezer—leave it out too long and its fragile texture will never recover.

*They do also add some gelatin, but not enough to distract your tongue.

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The O'Bryans manage their own distribution, driving their product, which averages $8 a pint, to stores and restaurants. They talk to their vendors about proper storage and make sure their freezers are in good order, one of the reasons why their product is only available in a few towns and cities: where they can't drive, they don't sell.

That's small comfort to us poor saps who live outside of Florida. But rare, sought-after luxury goods are nothing new in a food economy clawing for $800 whiskey and $200 ham; would it be wrong to add ice cream to that list?

It's an unfortunate thing that for small companies that obsessively micromanage every stage of their production, expanding scope too often corresponds to shrinking quality. But the O'Bryans know what Southern Craft can and can't do, and they're sticking to their guns.

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