What Happens When an Ice-Cream Maker and an Ice-Cream Van Driver Meet

Wednesday August 08, 2018 Written by Suzi

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What are the odds. An ex-baker moves to a country town, dreams of becoming a full-time ice-cream maker, throws a house-warming party and meets a fellow whose own dream is to drive an ice-cream truck. It’s the ultimate meet-cute, the stuff that rom com screenwriters concoct as their bread and butter. Only this meet-cute happened, in the Central Victorian country town of Elphinstone, to Helen Addison-Smith and Craig MacDonald. They feature in the latest frankie press book, Look What We Made, an eclectic collection of stories about makers and creators around the country.   

In an earlier life, Helen worked as a pastry chef at a busy artisan bakery in Melbourne’s inner north. She excelled in the kitchen, but something about the business left a bad taste in her mouth. “You make all this stuff and if it’s not sold by 3pm, you throw it all away. It’s just too sad.” After some soul-searching, she realised ice cream was the perfect alternative: not only does the stuff keep, but making it scratches many of the same itches as baking croissants and Danishes.

Just like baking, ice-cream recipes are steeped in mathematics – a field Helen excels at. (“I’m a big maths nerd,” she confesses.) There are unbreakable milk-to-sugar ratios, and innumerable finicky variables that, to an outsider, can make the process seem closer to chemistry than cooking. After some early successes at home, Helen left the bakery and set off to focus on making her icy creations. It was a decidedly backyard affair.

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The first step involved MacGyvering an ice-cream machine out of an old cake mixer. To freeze her mixtures, Helen used liquid nitrogen, which she had somehow talked a contact at the University of Melbourne physics department into giving her. The only guidance they offered as she took off with a jar of the stuff: don’t crash the car.

The plan was to serve the ice cream at a café Helen had opened a suburb over from her old bakery. But when the building was sold out from under her, she did what a growing number of rent-squeezed Melburnians have done and moved to the country.

“Helen was having a housewarming party,” remembers Craig MacDonald, Helen’s landlord, who works as a sculptor and runs the town’s foundry. “I went along, and she offered me a plate of what looked like lamingtons. I bit into one and realised it was made of ice cream.” As luck would have it, Craig had long harboured ambitions of driving an ice-cream van, but had never met anyone else who shared his passion. Suddenly he realised this could be a match made in heaven. “I said to Helen, ‘You could sell this. When you’re ready, I’m in.’ That’s how it started.”

With the division of labour established – Helen on food, Craig on everything else – the duo set to work. They leased some commercial machines and moved into a small factory in Castlemaine. Things shifted gear when they bought an old ice-cream van on eBay, which Craig set about fixing up and decorating. The final step saw them build a bricks-and-mortar store in an old pub, with a hole in the wall for takeaway orders.

Craig rolled up his sleeves, fashioning the 1950s-style booths from scratch and casting ice-cream paraphernalia and other sculptures at his forge.

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Icecream Social hasn’t been around long, but with its penchant for adventurous flavours and a regularly changing menu, it’s already making a name for itself.

“Blue cheese, quince and walnut is probably our strangest flavour so far,” Helen says.

As a small-batch ice creamery, they’re also able to do custom orders. Think: hemp oil ice cream, and rosemary and olive. They are feeling confident about the future – probably because it’s easy to pursue something you love doing, Helen says. “You know you have a vocation when you do the same thing every day and you’re happy.”

Read more of Helen and Craig’s story in Look What We Made, available here

Photography: Bri Hammond