Coffee surely makes everything better. But it is also undeniable that ice cream can be a good source of happiness and comfort, too. With the rising temperature and the traffic congestion in the capital, who would not want to stop for a cone or a pint of a cold, sweet treat? An ice cream shop in Phnom Penh’s busy Street 208 offers delightful flavours you surely wouldn’t want to miss. Rama Ariadi introduces us to Bonbon Ice Cream.
The modest façade of the Bonbon Ice Cream store hides within it the creativity and the incredible production capacity of a relatively small set-up. With a total staff of just seven, the shop churns out around 3000 liters of ice cream flavours to meet the demand of this sweet treat across the country – especially considering that the mercury is about to peak soon as the dry season inches forward. Spearheaded by French maître-artisan glacier Antoine Crivelli, Bonbon offers over thirty different flavours of ice cream, which ranges from traditional, tropical, as well as the experimental.
But Bonbon’s story is very different when it first opened its doors in 2011, when Mr Crivelli first came to Cambodia. “Initially I focused on flavours that are quintessentially French – think vanilla, pistachio and what not,” he explained. “But the whole idea was to be the first French ice cream maker in Cambodia, because that’s what I set out to do.”
By that, Mr Crivelli didn’t mean that he set out to be a Frenchman who makes ice creams in Cambodia, but to be the first person who makes ice cream – or crème glacée – the French way. “Ice creams are not as simple as they seem to be, because there are different styles of producing ice cream that will result in different end products with different characteristics,” he explained. “Because not unlike wine, there are requisites that need to be met for a product to be legally called an ice cream – and it differs from region to region.”
French ice cream, continued Mr Crivelli, contains custard, and has to contain at least 55 percent of air in its final form prior to packaging. “Italian gelato starts out with the same custard base but are churned at a much slower rate, which makes it denser than French ice creams,” he explained. “Whereas in the United States, ice creams are generally made with just cream, sugar and flavouring.” And this is what Mr Crivelli and his staff have been consistently producing for seven years.
As Mr Crivelli’s business expands, so does his repertoire of flavours as the fruits of his trial and error as the master glacier of Bonbon. “In baking, one follows the recipe to a tee,” he said. “If baking is like science, then ice cream making is more akin to alchemy – we can’t know for sure how different ingredients will react with custard base.”
Indeed, achieving the right consistency every time is a gargantuan task because there are plenty of factors that affect how an ice cream sets after the ingredients are mixed together. Sugar, for instance, lowers the freezing point of the emulsion, and so does alcohol. “At first, it can take me a month or more to create a consistent product with new ingredients. But these days, I’m generally quite satisfied with the first trial”.
Mr Crivelli then offered a taste of a batch that was commissioned by a customer – whom of course, he is not at liberty to say. But his swagger comes out to be quite justified once his cinnamon-basil creation was served. After all, Mr Crivelli is no amateur – he specifically acquired this know-how as a Lenôtre Paris graduate.
The warmth of the cinnamon floods the palate, in contrast to the cooling, sweet basil aftertaste as the cold cream melts. Not more than 10 minutes after, Mr Crivelli presented another experiment of his, an apple-shaped ice-cream that is supposed to be served with a chocolate stick – a throwback to a fun fair favourite toffee apple.
A sneak peek through the kitchen, courtesy of Mr Crivelli, shows how he and his staff manage the seemingly complex production process. There are people cracking eggs, making custard, mixing in flavours – Mr Crivelli himself personally doing quality controls. It is very much a very tightly run operation run by seven people, which makes it more surprising because their products could be found from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville. “Either me or my right hand man has to taste everything that comes out of that churn to make sure that the quality is just right,” he said.
“Everything except during our experiments with durian. I have to let my wife taste because I hate the smell of durian,” he laughed.
Mr Crivelli also uses all natural ingredients for his products, which ranges from carob bean gum as a stabilising agent, to vanilla beans from Madagascar – which is flown from the island via Paris to Phnom Penh to meet Bonbon’s demand.
However, the most important thing that provides a degree of relief to see, is the fact that there are actually people delivering eggs and making custard up in Bonbon’s kitchen.
“In France, a special permit is required by producers to use fresh eggs in their production process to prevent a salmonella outbreak, which means that many producers have to use powdered or frozen eggs instead,” explained Mr Crivelli.
Considering that custard is one part of the heart of a French-style ice cream, perhaps, it is justifiable to say that Mr Crivelli’s ice cream, is “more French” than most ice creams in France – apart from the master glacier himself.