Buenos Aires in a cone

In Palermo, a residential neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, an elegant
speciality store called Persicco doles out a confection called chocuquinna.
Inspired by a popular Argentine birthday cake, it has a sweet dulce de leche
base balanced with hints of cream cheese and laced with chocolate chunks of
what could be described as a cross between a crunchy cookie and a spongy cake.
This version comes in a particular sort of serving dish – an ice cream cone.

The flavour is one of many new ice
creams that incorporate the traditional South American ingredient dulce de
leche, a creamy jam made by slowly simmering milk and sugar. While this jam
turns up in almost every kind of dessert – filling crepes and tarts, topping
flans and cakes – it’s especially versatile as a frozen treat.

In the last few years, Buenos
Aires’ heladerias, or ice cream parlours, have introduced a heap of varieties
that include some form of dulce de leche, transforming one of the most
traditional local flavours into an exotic scoop. Many of the city’s more than
2,000 creameries now carry up to 10 options in this category, in what seems
like a race to out-sweet one another with elaborate inventions. It is as if peanut
butter suddenly became an epicurean ingredient, served with raspberry coulis
and creme fraiche on a sugar cone.

“The gourmet ice cream trend has
reached a peak,” said Horacio Spinetto, whose book “Heladerias de Buenos Aires”
was released in March. “The flavour that sells the most, by far, is dulce de
leche. It represents the ice cream of Argentina.”

Dulce de leche scoops are nothing
new. But lately, this flavour has been the object of much experimentation.

“My family broke with the custom of
keeping traditional flavours plain,” said Juan Martin Guarracino, one of
Persicco’s founders. His parents and uncles started one of the nation’s largest
ice cream chains, Freddo, in 1969 and sold it to an investment group 30 years
later. During Freddo’s heyday in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the company began offering crema
tramontana – which contains dulce de leche jam and specks of malted chocolate
balls – and banana split, two innovative dulce de leche flavours that had
patrons lined up at the counter.

“Dulce de leche has always been a
top seller,” Guarracino said. Since Persicco opened in 2001, he said, the store
has used it in several new recipes, including one with brownie bites, and
another, called dolcatta, with poached strawberries and baked meringue. “We are
leaders in development; the others come and look at us.”

Fellow ice cream makers disagree.
“Different creameries create different ice creams,” said Ariel Davalli, a
co-owner of a chain called Chungo. “Our clients want novelty, and we have to be
ingenious. Every season we come up with new flavours.”

Chungo has a dulce de leche and
cream cheese helado, or ice cream, marbled with pure dulce de leche and cookie
crumbs, named cucuruccino. Sitting at its new Palermo Hollywood branch, a
modern spot with funky wallpaper and white leather chairs, I pondered the similarities
between this cone and one sampled recently at a competitor’s. It was milder in
taste and creamier in texture – and gobbled before any further conclusions
could be reached.

This year, Chungo added rice
pudding, cheese with sweet potato jam, and flan with dulce de leche ice creams,
honouring three desserts considered emblematic of the national cuisine for
Argentina’s bicentennial. Although the precise origins of dulce de leche are
unknown, Argentina likes to think of it as homegrown. In fact, the government
recently declared it part of the nation’s cultural patrimony, to the irritation
of some neighbours. What’s indisputable is the Argentines’ adoration of this
treat.

“We were raised on dulce de leche,”
said Francis Mallmann, a prominent chef. “It’s deeply rooted in our way of
life.”

To unaccustomed palates, dulce de
leche on its own can taste overly sweet. But as an ice cream, it has a global
appeal. Haagen-Dazs introduced it in the United States in the late ‘90s with
great success, followed by Ciao Bella, Ben & Jerry’s and others.

To hear the heladeros, or ice cream
makers, in Buenos Aires tell it, their versions may be hard to beat.

“Argentine ice cream is known
throughout the world because it’s still done the old-fashioned way,” said
Davalli of Chungo, noting that natural ingredients like fresh eggs and fruits
are often used.

Buenos Aires’ first ice cream
stores were opened in the early 1900s by Italian immigrants, and their
popularity surged in the ‘40s. Today, many of the city’s creameries advertise
their products as artisanal and natural. The top shops include Freddo, which is
ubiquitous – along with smaller chains like Persicco, Chungo and Un’Altra
Volta.

The market is big and keeps
growing. Jauja, a Patagonian brand, opened its first Buenos Aires branch nine
months ago on Avenida Cervino, home to a handful of casual spots. Jauja’s
latest flavor is called mousse del piltri, inspired by a mountain at the foot
of the Andes called Piltriquitron: it’s a dulce de leche mousse ice cream with
slivers of caramelized almonds. The base is fluffy and sweet but not overbearing,
the almonds perfectly toasted, with just enough crunch.

Purists tend to brush off these
newfangled varieties.

“I prefer the plain dulce de
leche,” said Spinetto, who has also written a book on pizzerias and said he
prefers simple pies, with just cheese. “That way you can really tell if it’s
good.”

A new quality seal might assuage
sceptics like Spinetto. This year, the Argentine milk industry created a
contest for best dulce de leche ice cream and awarded the top prize to Chungo.

“We’re very proud,” said Jorge
Davalli, a co-owner, who founded the company in 1973. “We always choose the
best natural ingredients.”

For their dulce de leche ice cream,
the Davallis buy a confectioners’ version of the jam that’s custom-made by a
respected local producer. Well aware of Argentines’ tastes, Chungo’s new
advertising campaign is all about their award-winning dulce de leche.

“When Argentines move to another
country, one of the things they miss, aside from their family, is dulce de
leche,” Jorge Davalli said.

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