What goes into McConnell's ice cream: milk, flavor, history

McConnell's blends old-school dairy techniques with newfangled flavors

The marionberry jam threads through the scoop of lemon ice cream like cirrus clouds in a kind of Roald Dahl universe, dark magenta and pale yellow in an imaginary sky. The ice cream is as smooth as satin, the flavors somehow both subtle and extravagant.

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FOR THE RECORD

McConnell’s ice cream: In the May 30 Saturday section, a story about McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams said that the company didn’t have a retail store until two years ago, when one opened on State Street in Santa Barbara. There was an early McConnell’s store in Santa Barbara opened by founder Gordon McConnell on the corner of State and Mission streets. That store was sold to Bob and Jean Moss in 1989, when it moved to 201 W Mission St., and continues to sell McConnell’s ice cream.

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This is New World Order ice cream, produced with state-of-the-art equipment. Yet it is also very old-school, so much of the process varying little since Gordon McConnell started McConnell's Fine Ice Creams in 1949, after returning home to Santa Barbara from the Second World War.

On a recent Wednesday, owner Michael Palmer gave a tour of the creamery where McConnell's ice cream is still made, some 70 years after it began. Palmer, who bought the company with his wife, Eva Ein, in 2012, is the third consecutive Santa Barbara family to own the business.

Palmer walks past a 60-gallon Hamilton steam kettle, where they make all the jams and caramel that goes into the ice cream, past an enormous pasteurizer that looks like a Steampunk engine, to find Mike Vierra, the full-time dairy scientist who has worked for the company for 35 years. After a quick chat to make sure everything's going well (it is), Palmer detours through the blast freezer — it gets down to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit — filled with pints of ice cream.

"We're a 70-year-old start-up," says Palmer, who has also retrieved a pint of salted caramel chip to sample The ice cream has recently come through the machines and is not yet frozen solid, instead appearing as an ethereal combination of shards of chocolate and blissful caramel custard ice cream, like the world's best soft serve. As he spoons the ice cream, Palmer talks about McConnell, an inventor, tinkerer and health food bar specialist who, when he came home from the war, decided to make ice cream.

This is not as random as it might seem, as there's a long history of dairy culture in the Santa Barbara area. Way before Oprah Winfrey moved in and greater Santa Barbara got a reputation as a wealthy enclave, it was — and for many still is — a working-class town. In the 1950s, says Palmer, there were 10 full-scale dairies, of which McConnell's was the largest.

Almost three-quarters of a century later, McConnell's is still a dairy. This makes it different from your average ice cream factory. Not only is the ice cream made on-site but —unlike with most ice cream companies — so is the base of that ice cream.

Hence the dairy scientist. And hence the absence of additives, fillers, emulsifiers, stabilizers and anything other than milk, cream, sugar and egg yolks.

When McConnell started the business, he used cows that grazed about a mile south of the dairy, along San Ysidro Road. The raw milk was brought to the dairy, the ice cream was made and then it was distributed from Paso Robles to the San Fernando Valley.

Now McConnell's gets it milk from herds that are somewhat farther inland, closer to Paso Robles, but otherwise the process is pretty much the same. The milk comes from the cows to the dairy, where it's pasteurized, homogenized, aged and made into the ice cream base.

Palmer and Ein took one of McConnell's original ice cream-making pots and had a modern version built by a European food company. They also still have the seven original cast-iron ammonia compressors that were used to freeze the ice cream, machines that form a kind of museum in one of the unused sections of the old dairy.

Although McConnell's had licensed shops, the company didn't have an actual retail store until two years ago, when Palmer and Ein opened a shop on State Street in Santa Barbara. In the summer of 2014, they opened a stall in downtown L.A.'s Grand Central Market. This summer, they'll expand again, opening a store like their flagship shop in a 1,200-foot space on Ventura Place in Studio City.

Palmer tells the story of how he and his wife came to buy McConnell's in the first place. When his daughter (who is now among the 50 or so people who work for the company) was little, he'd joke about wanting to buy McConnell's some day. But Palmer and Ein had other jobs — he's a winemaker, she's a chef. Then, in 2008, their Santa Barbara house burned down. When it came time to use the insurance money to rebuild it, they decided to buy the ice cream company instead.

"Our job has been to turn the company into what people thought it was," Palmer says. "I just want to make the best ice cream. I don't know if that's going to save the company, but it might."

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The scoop on McConnell's ice creams

What are McConnell's most popular ice cream flavors? Salted caramel chip, Golden State vanilla, sea salt cream and cookies, and double peanut butter chip.

How many flavors does McConnell's have? About 60 flavors, in rotation, including seasonal flavors.

What's in the Eureka lemon and marionberry ice cream? Cream, milk, cane sugar, nonfat milk solids, organic egg yolks, Eureka lemon juice, Oregon marionberries, pectin.

How much jam does that mean? Last year, McConnell's made 12,000 pounds of marionberry jam.

What's the percentage of milkfat in McConnell's ice cream? 18.5% to 19%.

Most recent flavor? Boysenberry rosé milk jam.

How much does a pint of McConnell's cost? $8 to $10.

Mascots? The cow sculpture on the roof, whose name is Bossie. And Lola, a 9-year-old pitbull, who's the office mascot.

amy.scattergood@latimes.com

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