One of the best things about Europe in summer, apart from extended hours of daylight, is the legitimate excuse to eat lots of ice cream (although, who really needs an excuse?). And it needn’t be the tried and true varieties you can easily get at home, either.
Forget about mint chip and rocky road. From tar-flavored frozen treats to a signature sundae designed to look like a bowl of pasta, these European ice creams have been around since long before artisanal deserts were en vogue, and they offer unlikely insight into local taste buds. Read on for some of our favorites and suggestions on where to find them.
Brown-bread ice cream
A traditional recipe among home cooks that probably originated with the need to use up leftover soda bread, this particular ice cream flavor can be tough to find in ice cream parlors, even in Ireland, but it’s worth the effort. The original recipe, which was featured in the classic cookbook Mrs. Beeton’s Everyday Cooking (first printed in 1868), calls for brown soda bread, eggs, double cream, sugar, and sultana raisins. You don’t need an ice cream maker for this treat, and the end result tastes like a cross between ice cream and bread pudding. Try it at Murphy’s Ice Cream Shop in Dingle, Ireland, where they sell a caramelized version called aran donn.
Turrón ice cream
You can find this popular Spanish ice cream flavor almost anywhere in Spain—ice cream parlors, horchata shops, supermarkets, you name it. It’s inspired by the traditional Spanish Christmas treat turrón de jijona, which is a firm but oily almond paste bar typically served in tiny portions like fudge. The ice cream version tastes like a cross between almond butter and heavy cream. Order up a generous scoop served in a glass dish at Orxateria Torroneria in Barcelona.
If you’re something of a traditionalist when it comes to ice cream flavors, this may be the European specialty for you because the novelty lies in the presentation, not the flavor. Invented in the late 1960s, spaghettieis looks like a cartoon version of a plate of noodles doused in red sauce and sprinkled with Parmesan. The resemblance is so strong that the dish’s creator, Dario Fontanella, says sometimes children would cry in disappointment when he served it, certain they’d been tricked out of dessert. To create it, vanilla ice cream is pushed through a noodle press and onto a bed of frozen whipped cream, then topped it with strawberry sauce and a sprinkle of coconut flakes, grated almonds, or white chocolate shavings. Try this dessert “pasta” at Fräulein Frost in Berlin.
Resin-flavored ice cream
This chewier-than-usual ice cream, called pagoto kaimaki in Greek, uses gum mastic (the resin of the mastic tree) and salep (an orchid root powder) as thickening agents. While the texture is lovely and holds up to the high temperatures in Greece (and Turkey and Iran, where similar versions of this recipe exist), the slightly piney flavor is an acquired taste. If you enjoy retsina, Greece’s resin-scented wine, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to finish a full scoop. For a traditional version topped with sour cherries, head to Hara in Athens’s old town.
Tar ice cream
Tar is so popular in Finland that it has its very own festival. From there it’s not such a leap to using terva (Finnish for tar) in marinades, hard candies, and desserts. Note that this isn’t the same kind of tar used in paving roads. Made from burning wood, terva is used as a natural flavoring (much like smoked wood in barbecues) and medicine in Finland and has been for generations. In ice cream form, it tastes a bit like smoky caramelized toffee with an intense aftertaste that’s not unlike the smell of just-laid asphalt. Pick it up in a tub at any supermarket, or if you’re understandably not sure you’ll want seconds, grab a serving to go from one of the kiosks around any town—most of the fancier ice cream shops don’t make it.
English soup ice cream
Zuppa Inglese, or English soup, is an Italian dessert closely resembling English trifle. The story goes that in the 16th century, the Dukes of Este had their cooks try to recreate the layer cake they’d sampled at the English royal court. The very yellow ice cream version of the treat includes bits of sponge cake and a dash of Alchermes liqueur; unlike most gelato, it is made with egg yolks and heavy cream. Try the decadent treat at Fiocco di Neve in Rome on its own or with a second scoop of raspberry or dark chocolate to set it off.
Swiss chard pie ice cream
A popular street food and regional specialty from southern France, tourte de blettes is a savory-sweet tart made with Swiss chard, golden raisins, pine nuts, Parmesan, and sometimes apples in an olive-oil crust. In ice cream form the yellow-green color can be somewhat off-putting, but the taste is surprisingly good: earthy, nutty, and sweet with bitter undertones from the chard. Fans of sweets made with vegetables, such as carrot cake or rhubarb pie, are more likely to enjoy this one than those who think vegetables have no place in a dessert course. Since the tourte is originally from Nice, sample the ice cream there, at Fenocchio.
Licorice ice cream
Black licorice is one of those flavors people love or hate, and in Sweden, locals love it so much, they make it into heavy metal–looking ice cream flavors. Regular black licorice ice cream is known as lakrit, and it has a salty cousin made with ammonium chloride and called saltlakrit (salmiak in Finland and other parts of Scandinavia). Both are simultaneously spicy, salty, bitter, and sweet—not for licorice dissenters or casual beginners. If you’re into it, grab a cone at Fryst in Stockholm.