Viet Nam News
It was a serendipitous turn of events that led Joyce Yang, a Taiwanese businesswoman who works in southern Việt Nam, to Ralf’s Artisan Gelato in HCM City.
She and her friend were up for a weekend from Tây Ninh Province when they spotted Ralf’s shop.
“We always take a right out of Fiesta (a Tex-Mex restaurant next door), but this time we turned left,” Tang said, giggling.
Tang, who works at a factory that makes athletic shoes for famous global brands, had just returned from a cruise in Italy.
“I was missing gelato,” she said as she stood in front of Ralf’s display case, barely able to contain her glee.
That’s what happens to most customers, according to the owner, Ralf Ehresmann of Germany, who opened the shop about a year ago.
“If they aren’t in a good mood when they arrive, they are when they leave!” he said.
Ehresmann and his Vietnamese wife Trương Trâm run the shop, which is fast becoming a favorite dessert stop for people of all ages, with 80-90 per cent of the clientele Vietnamese.
Many of them are regulars, who come back again and again for the durian or phở, or the more typical flavours of chocolate, stracciatella or Amarena cherry (VNĐ40,000 a scoop).
Ehresmann, who is a certified member of the Italian group called Gelatieri per il Gelato, which promotes artisanal gelato (made in small batches to keep it fresh), wants you to know he has no tricks up his sleeves, as many gelato makers do.
“I signed an ethical code. This is a cultural movement started by many of the older gelato makers,” he said.
Unique taste: Phở, beer, and fish sauce are some of the unusual flavours offered at Ralf’s Artisan Gelato in HCM City. VNS Photo Susan Ransdell
Made from scratch
Some gelato shops use pre-mixed or semi-finished ingredients, artificial colours and additives, but Ehresmann, whose mother was Italian, makes it all from scratch.
In his back room where his beloved 40-year-old batch freezer sits alongside its digitized counterpart, he’ll gladly show you all his premium ingredients, some from Việt Nam such as cinnamon, Marou chocolate, and Quốc Hương fish sauce from Phú Quốc Island.
But most of the raw materials are imported, including French milk and cream, one of the indicators of a gelato’s quality. In fact, the milk is so important that any gelato maker who offers fior di latte, which is mostly milk and sugar, is putting his reputation on the line, as the purity of the product can be easily detected. And Ehresmann’s version is top-notch.
Using the best ingredients is indeed key in making premium gelato, which has only 4 to 8 per cent fat compared to the far higher proportion in ice cream, which can hide the taste of additives and colours. (The shop also makes sorbets, with only fruit and sugar).
And, as gelato is churned with only 20-30 per cent air, compared with up to 120 per cent in ice cream, it is much more dense, which also exposes the quality of the ingredients.
Ehresmann buys his raw materials from the best: vanilla pods from Madagascar; cocoa from the Netherlands; and 100 per cent pure pastes of pistachios from Bronte, Italy at the foot of Mt Etna (one of the best in the world); and hazelnuts from the Piemonte region in Italy that are so special they have their own geographical indication.
Black currants and Amarena cherries are also from Italy, but it’s the hazelnut and pistachio gelato that have me truly addicted. The intense, vivid flavor is even more concentrated than that of the actual raw nut.
“Some people call me their drug dealer,” said Ehresmann, laughing.
One Vietnamese-American who recently returned to the US followed Ehresmann’s Facebook page so religiously that he became anxious when he noticed that stracciatella (fior di latte gelato with drizzled melted chocolate added during churning) was running out.
“I wrote back, telling him not to worry,” Ehresmann said, adding that he regularly updates his Facebook page about available flavours.
A former PR professional, Ehresmann learned when he entered the gelato business to refrain from specific recommendations for customers.
“What’s the Latin phrase? De gustibus non est disputandum (roughly translated, there’s no accounting for taste). A regular customer of mine in Germany always ate chocolate, four scoops. I suggested another flavor, but he would never change,” he said.
In HCM City, the customers appear to be more daring, sampling the fish sauce (appropriately salty) and beer gelato. Sixteen flavours are always on offer, but as one bin empties out, a fresh batch of something else equally swoonworthy replaces it.
But customers do have their favourites. An American expat and his girlfriend (who preferred to keep their identity and gelato habit a secret) visited the shop twice in one day for scoops of durian and coconut. And Nguyễn Linh, a Vietnamese assistant manager at the Caravelle Hotel, stops by two to three times a week for durian. “I love it,” he said.
Besides gelato, the shop offers sundaes (VNĐ90,000-170,000) with homemade whipped cream, and the typical array of coffee drinks, including espresso, European iced coffee, and iced chocolate (with two scoops of gelato and whipped cream).
Located in central District 1 on 39 Đặng Thị Nhu Street, a hidden gem for small cafes and indie shops, Ralf’s Artisan Gelato is the place to be in HCM City for authentic gelato.
“I know that everything is about quality. In the end, quality is what matters. I learned that from my PR background in the fashion industry,” Ehresmann said.
Ralf’s Artisan Gelato
Address: 39 Đặng Thị Nhu St, District 1, HCM City
Hours: Tues-Friday 1pm-10pm; Sat-Sun, 11am-10pm
Comments: intimate, friendly place; premium, authentic gelato