Coffee ice cream may often rank among the top-10 flavors, but the competition is about to heat up, if Mario Leite has anything to say about it.
Leite is the owner of Norwalk-based Tea-Rrific! Ice Cream, an artisanal ice cream company. All of his flavors are -- you guessed it -- infused with tea. Given the popularity of coffee ice cream, it seems that tea-flavored would be an obvious alternative. Leite did his research, however, and wasn't able to find any other company that exclusively makes tea-infused ice cream. In a world of culinary overload, he found an undiscovered niche.
"I've been an ice cream fanatic all my life," said Leite. The former investment banker was, as he describes, "a casualty of Wall Street." His wife had bought him an ice cream maker, and with his newfound free time, he began experimenting. His first flavor was Thai Iced Tea, and it was so successful that he decided to try out other flavors. Earl Grey was next on his list, and from there, things took off.
For the past year, Leite has made his all-natural ice cream for local restaurants, cafes and tea shops, such as the Mumbai Times in Westport. Just about a month ago, though, he kicked off the retail side of things, and his ice cream is now available at several local stores, including The Pantry in Fairfield, Spic & Span Market in Fairfield and Fountain of Youth in Westport.
Four of his flavors are available in pint-sized containers: London Mist (Earl Grey tea with a hint of vanilla), Chunky London Mist (Earl Grey tea with chocolate flakes and roasted pecans), Masala Chai (black and rooibos tea with spices) and Ginger Matcha (Matcha green tea with fresh ginger).
"I wanted to make a product that I really wanted," he said. "Now that I'm an adult, I craved an ice cream with a cleaner palate and sophisticated notes. And something all natural," he said.
The ingredient lists on the containers are impressive. Take the London Mist, for example. There's cream, water, organic evaporated cane juice, eggs, nonfat dry milk, organic black tea, bergamot oil and vanilla extract.
"I take a lot of care in choosing the ingredients," he said. He tries to use as many local products as possible, such as honey from Weston's Red Bee Honey and cream from New England farms. "I won't release a flavor until I'm happy with it," he said.
Leite's hard work recently paid off when Tea-Rrific was named Best New Product in the Edibles category at this year's World Tea East Expo in Philadelphia. "When I went, I thought, `This is the real test.' If anyone was going to be critical, it would be there. But the response was absolutely phenomenal."
While the ingredients are certainly rich, the flavors of the ice creams are very clean and distinct.
London Mist is creamy and has the subtle citrus notes of the bergamot. Ginger Matcha has the bite of fresh ginger, while Masala Chai is a balance of intense spices with sweet cream. The ice cream is great on its own, but Leite said the flavors pair well with other desserts, too. He recommends London Mist with a chocolate dessert, and chai with apple pie or carrot cake.
"One of the most fun parts of this is coming up with the flavors," he said.
In the future, he might consider crafting a sorbet or a flavor with a sugar alternative. "I wanted to make something that tea aficionados and ice cream lovers would like," he said. "It's gourmet, but ice cream should always be fun."
Patti Woods is a freelance writer. Contact her at email@example.com.
Tea-Rrific Ice Cream is now available at specialty stores in Connecticut and New York, including:
"The Pantry, 1580 Post Road, Fairfield
"Spic & Span Market, 329 Pequot Ave., Southport section of Fairfield
"Fountain of Youth Whole Foods, 1789 Post Road East, Westport
"Palmer's Market, 264 Heights Road, Darien