A taste for adventure

Posted July 07, 2009, at 5:20 p.m.

If you’re in Bar Harbor on a hot summer afternoon, try this fun social experiment: Take a seat on a bench downtown and for five minutes count how many people you see enjoying a big, melty ice cream cone. Chances are it’s going to be a lot. On Mount Desert Island, ice cream is king.

“Ice cream is a way of life in Bar Harbor,” said Linda Parker, owner of the Mount Desert Island Ice Cream Co., which she founded in 2004. “It seems like every other person on the street during the summer has a cone or a cup in their hands. I think we consume more ice cream per capita here than anywhere else in the state.”

Mount Desert Island Ice Cream Co. is the newest addition to a long list of beloved ice cream establishments on the island. What makes Parker’s sweet business venture different? Well, where else can you get hot chili chocolate ice cream? Or Indian pudding ice cream? Nutella? Stout with fudge? MDI Ice Cream Co. is a far cry from the days of chocolate, vanilla or strawberry. Stepping into one of its two Bar Harbor shops is akin to taking a crash course in the science of sweet.

“I try to do new and interesting things, but I don’t try to be sensational,” said Parker, a former software engineer, who moved to Maine from Boston in 2004. “I just want to make things that taste amazing. If it’s unexpected, all the better. It’s all about taste, in the end. That’s what I try to express in my ice cream.”

Parker, like many caught up in the corporate world, longed for an escape to the slower-paced lifestyle Maine can offer — as well as a chance to start her own business and work for herself. She vowed that someday she would move to Bar Harbor, where she’d spent a wonderful summer while in college. Five years ago, she did just that, and immediately thereafter began to look for business opportunities. Parker wasn’t looking for ice cream specifically; instead, ice cream found her.

“I bumped into my friend Kate Boyle one day, who told me she was selling her ice cream business. I went to check it out right then and there,” said Parker. “The price was right. I went for it. She showed me some of her recipes and how her equipment worked. And it’s been Mount Desert Ice Cream Company ever since.”

Initially, Parker just wanted to make small batches of a handful of flavors and sell them to caterers, local shops and restaurants, and at farmers markets. She wasn’t prepared for the ways in which those early patrons responded.

“I was blown away by the response. People absolutely loved it,” said Parker. “I hadn’t even considered doing retail, but it really took off once I tried it.”

In 2005, Parker opened her first retail shop, at 7 Firefly Lane in downtown Bar Harbor. In 2007, responding to the demands of the ice cream-enamored culture in Bar Harbor, she opened a second location at 325 Main St. The second spot offered a much larger space that now contains MDI Ice Cream’s production facilities, as well as more seating and a cool, comfortable front porch overlooking the quieter end of bustling Main Street. Despite the bigger business model, she has stuck to her original vision of making batches of no more than five gallons at a time, and to using fresh, premium ingredients.

MDI Ice Cream Co.’s strongest selling point is, of course, its daring flavor combinations. Parker is not afraid to try something a little different — or a lot different, as is often the case.

“I think it’s kind of like reinventing sweet,” said Parker. “You give sweet another form. Take basil. Basil, to me, isn’t that far from mint, but people associate it with Italian food, with a savory taste. We pair it with blueberry in a sorbet, and it’s wonderful. I just tried making a massaman curry ice cream. It didn’t work this time, but I’ll try it again until I get it right.”

Parker is continually surprised by how many of her patrons do want to try something adventurous. Some of them go for more traditional flavors, such as mint, coffee and cookies and cream. Others boldly sample the chocolate wasabi or sherry catalana — the latter a custardlike ice cream made with cream sherry and cinnamon.

“I can’t make enough of the salt caramel, and I never expected it to be so popular. The Mexican chocolate is just Ibarra chocolate, a Mexican hot chocolate, mixed with cinnamon and curry. People love it,” said Parker. “It’s always surprising what people like and don’t like.”

New flavors to try include celery apple sorbet, candied bacon ice cream and candied chili pepper ice cream. Parker eventually would like to try an avocado-based ice cream. One of the hardest flavors to perfect? A really good lemon ice cream, which uses juice as well as candied lemon peel.

As much as she can, Parker uses local ingredients, including Garelick Farms cream — with a high butterfat content, for that extra creamy texture. There is an array of to-die-for ice cream sandwiches available at both shops, using locally made cookies, cakes and pastries. Last year, she expanded into making cocktail mixes from the fabulous fruits she uses in her ice cream. There’s always something churning in Parker’s ice cream laboratory.

“There are so many ice cream shops around, and they’re all different and great in their own way,” said Parker. “I want to provide a really unique experience. I want it to be special.”

In addition to its two Bar Harbor retail shops, Mount Desert Island Ice Cream is available at Beech Hill Farm in the town of Mount Desert, at J.M. Gerrish Provisions in Winter Harbor, and at a number of Bar Harbor restaurants. More locations will be added soon. For information, visit www.mdiic.com.

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