Best Bites: In Hadley, ice cream is king

There’s local food. There’s hyper-local food. And then there’s farm ice cream in Hadley.

I’m talking about two places in particular, just down the street from each other: Scoop at the Silo and Flayvors of Cook Farm. Imagine this: You’re sitting there in the sunshine, licking away, and the cow who made the milk that went into your ice cream is walking around and mooing right in front of you.

For this week’s ice cream tasting adventure, I enlisted my most trusted junior food critic: my 7-year-old nephew Azai, who also happens to be one of the world’s most enthusiastic ice cream lovers.

Because ice cream is so instinctual, we all know our own preferences very well. You have some ice cream lickers who are laser-focused on whatever permutations of hazelnut, caramel and chocolate are available. You’ll also find fruit fanatics, cookies-and-creamers, and a few contrarian rum-and-raisinettes.

Azai is a chocolate chip cookie dough man to the core. He decided to undertake a controlled experiment and compare the cookie dough ice cream at each stop on our trip.

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect spot to enjoy ice cream outdoors than Scoop at the Silo, which is part of the Maple Valley Creamery. The scoops are served out of a little window in a creaky wooden barn that’s decorated in deliciously quirky style, framed by rolling hills and grassy pastures.

Around the back of the barn is a stage that sometimes hosts live music. Beyond this, umbrella-equipped tables are scattered around a field. And then there are the cows. Cows everywhere. You can walk right up to them and hang out together.

On the Saturday when we visited, there was also an authentic taco and Mexican food truck, El Durango, parked by the two big silos that inspired the place’s name.

But we weren’t there for tacos. Azai gave a thumbs-up to the cookie dough ice cream. The underlying vanilla was smooth and rich. A surprise, though, was how much Azai liked my choice too — something he would never have normally ordered.

It was called “fruit soft serve.” They start with vanilla ice cream (or frozen yogurt, or a non-dairy concoction). Then they add in some fruit — I chose blueberries — and spin it all in a blender. The result is a unique infused ice-cream creation that mimics the texture and classic twisty appearance of old-school soft-serve.

At the Maple Valley Creamery’s excellent shop next door, you can also find packaged treats including cheese curds, raw milk, chocolate-dipped ice cream sandwiches, and skyr, a thick Icelandic version of yogurt — try it with maple.

Flayvors of Cook Farm, just down the road, matches Scoop cow for cow. You order from a window, and then you can enjoy before a spectacular view of a giant cow pasture and the whole surrounding countryside.

Azai nodded his approval as he licked his Flayvors ice cream, although he noted that the chocolate chips in the cookie dough were a bit big for his taste. I ordered “vanilla malt,” a unique western Massachusetts specialty that was surely inspired by the great tradition of Herrell’s (see below). Flayvors’ interpretation was on the mild side, more vanilla than malt, with just a kiss of barleyness.

Two ice creams were enough for one afternoon, but a few days later, Azai and I continued on our travels with a stop at Herrell’s in downtown Northampton, where most of my earliest ice cream memories were formed.

This time we brought along Clare, one of my oldest and dearest friends, who now lives in Uganda. She was also co-author of “The Menu,” my restaurant guide to the area so many years ago.

Herrell’s doesn’t have cows, but it does have teddy bears. Back in the day, there was a whole teddy bear’s picnic mounted on the ceiling. Today’s teddy bears sit on the floor of the shop with the customers, but they’re as fun and welcoming as ever.

Steve Herrell is a founding father of the whole premium American ice cream industry — his new book, “Ice Cream and Me,” tells the story — and you’ll still see him pass through from time to time. He describes himself as a “vanilla man” deep down, just like me. Herrell’s plain vanilla is more thick cream than faraway orchid but still a delicate interaction between the two.

Clare and I agreed that what really distinguishes Herrell’s ice cream is its elasticity. Lift your spoon from the cup, and a ribbon of ice cream will follow it up as high as you can lift your arm. This corresponds to a uniquely smooth and satisfying texture in your mouth.

For me, Herrell’s malted vanilla is the standard against which all other ice cream should be judged (and judged inferior). The creative use of sprouted barley yields even better results than beer and makes for what might be the most magnificent original taste sensation ever to come out of Northampton. It’s dreamy in a milkshake, too.

Herrell’s also invented the much-emulated “smoosh-in,” where they spread the ice cream on a counter and bang in your choice of candy. (I like Heath bars.) An underappreciated gem, and great value for money, is the cookie dough pie. Azai also loved the cookie dough ice cream here. But for him, the best was still yet to come.

Azai was clear from the start that he already knew where his favorite ice cream was going to be: Northampton’s Absolute Zero, whose crowd-pleasing gimmick is to make the ice cream fresh from milk, right in front of you. This is squarely in the “eatertainment” category that was pioneered in the 1960s with hibachi grills, and later followed by table-side guacamole.

This is the Benihana of ice cream. They pour the milk onto an icy platter, roll it out like a crêpe, use a spatula to turn it into delicate rolls, and artfully arrange it in a cup.

Absolute Zero’s style, which has only recently come into vogue around America, is variously referred to as “rolled ice cream” or “Thai ice cream,” and it doesn’t come cheap. But for Azai, nothing else can compare — not even cows or teddy bears. He loves watching the alchemy of ice cream, its formation right before his eyes as the anticipation builds in his stomach.

I’ll briefly mention a few more of my local favorites. Mount Tom’s in downtown Easthampton is a kitschy classic that’s part candy shop, part ice cream shop, with a 1950s feel.

Bart’s was a longtime Northampton and Amherst veteran whose only remaining walk-in scoop shop is in Greenfield. Bart’s makes an excellent malted vanilla too, and unlike Herrell’s, you can find their stuff at many grocery stores in the area (including State Street Fruit Store in downtown Northampton). Finally, Mr. cone in Chicopee has a unique recipe for soft-serve that devotees swear by.

I can’t remember the first time I tried ice cream. It’s like trying to remember my first taste of milk. Like smiles and birthday parties, these are parts of childhood that transcend our registries of time and melt into the gentle nothingness of pre-existence.

After two delicious days with Azai, I was convinced that the best way to rediscover your inner ice cream child is to do it with an actual ice cream child by your side.

Robin Goldstein is the author of “The Menu: Restaurant Guide to Northampton, Amherst, and the Five-College Area.” He serves remotely on the agricultural economics faculty of the University of California, Davis. He can be reached at rgoldstein@ucdavis.edu.

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