As we stand in his colorful York Castle shop, with muted gray light drifting through the front windows on this overcast day in Rockville, Calver “Cal” Headley asks me if I can taste the soursop in his ice cream, and I confess that I can’t. His disappointment fills the air as thickly as the aroma of the nearby sugar cones. He insists that I give it another try — and offers an in-store demonstration.
Jamaican ice cream scoop: It’s fruit-forward
Headley takes an indiscriminate spoonful of the ice cream, almost as large as a baked potato, and places the monstrous dollop in his mouth. As he talks about the slow-building, long-lingering flavor of the tropical soursop fruit, I can see the baked potato in the back of his tongue dripping down his throat. I follow suit and let my own mini-glacier of soursop ice cream slowly melt down my gullet.
I initially taste vanilla, which is the flavor that always hits my palate first when I eat soursop. But as the seconds tick by and I allow the ice cream to camp out in my mouth, my palate is alerted to other trespassers. There’s a distinct tartness creeping across my tongue, a quiet tickle of acid that’s hard to define in any meaningful way, which is what I tell Headley. I ask him to describe the flavor.
“It’s almost like milk on the edge of spoiling,” he says.
This description, I think, is brilliant, though I can’t imagine it will cause anyone to rush out to York Castle to sample the soursop. But as the minutes continue to roll by and I allow the soursop flavors to linger, undisturbed by a bite of another ice cream, a strange thing happens: More discernible flavors appear. I taste something reminiscent of pineapple, its razorlike tartness undercut with the vegetal funk of papaya. The simple, childlike pleasure of eating ice cream, I realize, has just been transformed into something much more sophisticated, and I’m hooked.
For better or for worse, soursop is the anomaly of the Jamaican ice cream world. It speaks in a whisper that can be easily stifled by the bold party boat of flavors typically found in local shops such as York Castle Tropical Ice Cream or Tropical Ice Cream Cafe in Silver Spring or Island Style Ice Cream in Mount Rainier. Think: passion fruit, rum raisin, mango, Guinness Stout, ginger and Grape-Nuts (see the sidebar).
“The flavor is very intense,” says Headley about most Jamaican ice creams. “So if you’re having mango, you know what it is.”
If anything defines Jamaican ice cream, it’s the use of fruits found in the tropics. Headley’s shop is a library of tropical fruits. He not only has two different “Exotic Fruit” posters hanging on his walls, he has compiled a binder of laminated pages on which he has slapped a cheap cover page: “My Book of Caribbean Fruits.” It details each fruit’s common and scientific names, its cultivation areas, its importance and its various seedy cousins.
In this way, Jamaican ice cream vendors are more dependent on the seasons than your typical frozen-treat chain like Baskin-Robbins, which may suffer through a winter sales decline but can continue to crank out rocky road and chocolate chip cookie dough all year long (and, incidentally, roll out such “seasonal” favorites as cotton candy and pink bubblegum). The proprietors of York Castle, Tropical Ice Cream Cafe and Island Style Ice Cream all say they use mostly fresh fruits, although there is something of a caveat here. Because certain fruits cannot be imported fresh to the States and because it’s cheaper and easier for overseas companies to harvest, de-seed and flash-freeze fresh tropical fruits, the Jamaican ice cream industry in the D.C. regionregularly relies on frozen products.