CHOOSING THE best of anything is like asking a mother to pick a favorite child. Even the naughtiest has endearing moments and hints of better days to come. This is particularly true of sherbet, a concoction whose varieties are almost as complex as its disputed history.
China boasts of enjoying water ice made from snow mixed with lemons, orannges and pomegranates thousands of years before Marco Polo stole the recipe for the Italians. Richard the Lion-Hearted is said to have learned the secret of orange ice from Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria, where they sucked out birds' eggs, filled them with sweetened water and buried the eggs overnight in the snow.
Alexander the Great ordered his minions to dig trenches and fill them with snow saturated with fruit juice. And in 9th-Century Mexico, Montezuma and one of his Aztec general co-produced a chilled concoction made from vanilla and cocoa beans.
The Italians popularized sherbet in the 10th Century by mistake. To keep drinks cold, saltpeter was added to beverage containers packed with ice, speeding up the cooling process and causing the juice to become over-chilled and slushy.
Finally, a few hundred years later a Sicilian limondier , Franceso Procope, opened the first cafe in Paris to serve sherbets or sorbet . Procope's water-and-fruit sorbet was immediately accepted and adapted. Americans added egg whites, milk and other ingredients to give it a slicker, smoother texture.
The Washington Post tasted sherbet of both kinds-the creamy, milk-based desserts and those more akin to ices. Each was judged on its color, consistency, credibility (little specks of fruit were helpful) and ability to beat the heat.
Samples were gathered from major supermarkets, ice cream parlors and specialty shops. Tasters did their best to include all available brands, omitting only house brands from the major supermarkets.
Haagen-Dazs, 1438 Wisconsin Ave., NW (also available at Wagshal's Delicatessen, 4855 Massachusettes Avenue, NW). The boysenberry and orange do not have the piquancy of Le Sorbet, but the cassis is fantastic-tart, refreshing, crisp, rich black currant flavor. Without hesitation-The Best. ($2.25 per hand-packed pint and $4.85 per quart).
Le Sorbert, 3212 O St., NW and 1810 K St., NW (also available at select Safeway stores.) Raspberry, coconut, cantaloupe, lemon, strawberry, banana, pineapple, chocolate, passion fruit and grapefruit flavors are all made with fresh fruit, water and fructose (no artificial ingredients). And they are divine. The musky, tropical taste of passion fruit is perfect medicine for spring fever. In all-around quality, these are superb. ($1.85 per pre-packed pint or $2.75 for the more exotic flavors.)
Bassetts Raspberry Sherbet, Larimer's Market. Unlike the Haagen-Dazcassis, Bassetts raspberry ice was creamy but incredibly fresh and soothing. Nice deep pink color. ($2.19 per pint and worth it.)
Swenson's Ice Cream Parlor, 1254, 4200 and 5310 Wisconsin Ave., NW. Among the available red raspberry, cherry and lime, the first had the strongest flavor. Each flavor was distinct, each color flashy, each too sweet. But at $1.70 for the pint and $3.60 for the quart (both hand-packed), well worth the cost.
Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream, 2604 Connecticut Ave., NW; Connecticut and Rhode Island Avenues NW, and other locations. Of the flavors offered (Mandarin chocolate, daiquiri ice, whipped pineapple ice and orange sherbet) the first was by far the most enterprising. Good sharp bite, not too sweet and a strong coffee-brown color. ($1.50 per pint, $2.62 per quart, handpacked.)
Howard Johnsons, 2601 Virginia Ave., NW and other locations. The orange sherbet (the same color as the famous restaurant roof) had a bitter rind taste, too creamy to be refreshing. ($1.39 per pint, $3.59 per quart, hand-packed.)
Crumpets, 1259 Wisconsin Ave., NW. Barricini sherbet served here (and sold at the 7-Eleven stores) was unimpressive and lacked distinction. The lime, orange, raspberry and rainbow flavors were bland and inoffensive.($1.85 per pint and $3.40 per quart, hand-packed. Prepacked 99 cents per pint.)
Avignone Freres, 1777 Columbia Rd., NW. Lemon, lime, raspberry, orange and pineapple sherbet is made on the premises. Nice, crunchy texture, but far too sweet. Despite the homemade taste, the lemon lacked tartness and the orange was too creamy to have spunk. (Prepacked, 80 cents per 1/2 pint, $1.40 per pint and $2.65 per quart.)
Gifford's, 7623 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda and other locations. Day-glow orange is an inappropriate color, and there was a bitter rind taste, but the texture was good and the flavor noticeable. The raspberry had reassuring specks of fruit. Both the orange and raspberry were properly sweetened. ($1.40 per hand-packed pint and $2.70 per quart)
Schrafft's Orange Sherbet, Larimer's Market, 1727 Connecticut Ave., NW. Fine pale, off-white color, creamy texture. Refreshing, but no zesty orange teste. ($1.29 per pint).
Abbotts Lemon-Lime Sherbet, Richfood Stores. The lemon-lime sherbet was artifically colored, bitter, blah, but not too sweet. An average ice at a better price-85 cents a pint.
Briggs Orange Sherbet, Giant food stores. Instant orange breakfast drink flavor, nice coral color, but a bitter rind aftertaste. ($1.19 a quart.) CAPTION: Illustration, no caption