Explore Your Freedom That Is Made in Montco: Ice Cream at Merrymead Farm
Happy Ice Cream Month!
Each July celebrates a dessert that goes back to the Persian Empire and that took a major leap forward in being served in a cone 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.
The recipe for quality ice cream begins with fresh cream, naturally.
But where does the recipe for cream begin?
As explained by members of the Rothenberger family at Merrymead Farm, the process goes something like this:
- Take 150 cows
- Encourage the daily ingestion of moistened hay, ground corn stalks, grain and sweet corn
- Add water of up to 50 gallons per cow per day in summer
- Promote liberal grazing
- Allow ingredients to simmer
- Twice a day, every day (4 a.m. and 4 p.m.), extract the creamy results
At Merrymead Farm, visitors can watch this process daily, and after touring, taste the multiple products that flow through its network of steel pipes and tanks. The refrigerated shelves of Merrymead's onsite store are laden with freshly bottled whole milk, skim milk, buttermilk, half-and-half and chocolate milk.
And tubs and tubs of ice cream.
Step one is a visit to the milking parlor. John Carr, grandson-in-law of the founder, describes the intricate machinery that automates a task once done completely by hand.
"The cows line up, waiting for a bell to ring. They form two lines on their own, which match up to milking machines on the left and right. When the door opens, they walk in and pick the same station every day."
He shows me the milking mechanism, which looks like a small octopus. He turns it on and invites me to insert a finger into the rubber-lined shaft. When I do, suction catches my finger, and a gentle pulsation begins inside.
But when attached to a cow and left in place for 12 minutes, eight gallons of raw milk result. The cow then exits, off for more grazing, and is quickly replaced until all 150 have been through the parlor.
Rothenberger's grandfather made a unique decision in those early days that makes Merrymead unique. Grandson Jared Quigley says: "When it was time to build the storefront in 1971, he put it close to the road rather than nearby the milking parlor and used pipes to connect to the processing room. A lot of dairies put them side-by-side for convenience sake. Grandpa thought separating them made a nice atmosphere for customers, who maybe weren't interested in the ‘farm fresh smell' of a working dairy farm."
Merrymead boasts an impressive statistic of 36 hours from cow to shelf. Raw milk is pasteurized, homogenized and cooled. From there, if it's a Tuesday or Thursday (the days that Merrymead makes ice cream), it's a good chance it will end up in a cone or cup and drizzled with hot fudge.
"Every flavor starts with vanilla," Carr says, adding the flavoring to the milk. "It's the basis of everything else we make except chocolate." The liquid is stirred and poured into a machine that both churns it and freezes it. "If we're making chocolate chip or cookies and cream, those additions go in before the freezing process so that it gets fully incorporated. There's nothing worse than spoonfuls of cookies and cream with no cookies in them. If we're making peanut butter ribbon or chocolate swirl, those flavors are stirred in after the ice cream comes out."
For purposes of cleanliness and flavor consistency, Merrymead makes vanilla first - including all its mixed-in variations - and then goes onto chocolate.
Carr flips a switch and the machinery begins to hum. He sets a timer for 9-15 minutes. Different timings can produce different varieties, including gelato and, using non-dairy ingredients, water ice.
Since the farm produces so much ice cream, I wonder if the staff still eats it or if they've lost their taste for it from overexposure.
"I had some for a midnight snack last night," Carr laughs. Quigley chimes in: "When we experiment with a flavor that doesn't quite work out, we get to eat that." Carr verifies: "Yes, I was eating raspberry/Oreo, which didn't look very good but tasted terrific."
Best-selling flavors at Merrymead are very traditional: vanilla, mint chip and strawberry.
When the timer goes off, Carr dispenses it into a tub for final freezing. The frosty ice cream plops heavily from the spout, and Carr thumps the bucket to remove air bubbles.
He then grabs three small cups and a trio of spoons. And although it is not quite 11 a.m., we toast the cows of Merrymead with a sample of some of the best vanilla ice cream I've ever had.
Merrymead offers tours of its dairy-making operation in a program called "Moo to You." While geared toward school children, it's an informative session for all. The farm has a number of animals onsite in addition to its Registered Holstein cows that supply National Quality Award winning milk; these may be viewed and visited but not petted.
Ice cream is a wonderfully cool escape from the summer's heat. Likewise, a long weekend in one of our recommended hotels can also provide a respite from steamy temperatures. Relax poolside. Or dive into a refreshing beverage at a lively hotel bar. It's a sure-fire way to ensure your summer goes swimmingly.