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Ice Cream in Ashburton: how Solway has a Secret Ice Cream Shop

The door is open... for now: Alpine Ice Cream on Karnak Road

For most of us, ice cream nestles in a comfortable, happy place in our minds. It tends to invoke memories of warm summer days (remember those?), special events and treats.  

It could be the after dinner treat your Mum let you have on Sundays. The rapidly melting mess of an ice cream cake you insisted on for your 9th birthday party. Perhaps it’s the sound of the Mr Whippy van trilling out Greensleeves as it trundled down the street. Or maybe the choc-top your Dad used to buy you at the cinema on the condition you didn’t tell your brother and sister.

Unless you’re horrifically lactose intolerant, the only bad memory relating to ice cream is often the loss of it: the time you dropped the cone in the street before you finished, the time your brother ate the last Drumstick in the box, or perhaps the time your Mum refused to give you money for the Mr Whippy van.

That one hit particularly close to home.

Ashburton has an extra special relationship with the icy, creamy treat. But before we get into that, let’s learn a little history of how ice cream came to Victoria… and then Ashburton.

A short history of ice cream

The first stage of ice cream’s creation began in the mid-16th century with the development of freezing techniques. Ice and snow were highly prized but no-one had yet figured out how to store it. Then a group of Italian scientists learned that immersing a container of water in a bucket of snow mixed with potassium nitrate, or saltpetre, would freeze the water. This information spread like wildfire. One day, it reached the ears of royal cooks in Naples.

They were the ones who figured out that salt worked just as well as saltpetre. Mixing salt with ice lowered the ice’s freezing point, causing it to melt. When heat was transferred away, it froze. Not only that, but salt was far safer around food than saltpetre.

With this process, cooks started incorporating ice into all their drink and sweet treat recipes. In the Middle East, sherbets (sharâb or sharbât) emerged to great enthusiasm. European cooks began including ice with the creams and custard recipes they made from caramel, lemon, ginger, strawberries and even crumbled cookies.

Yes, cookies and cream ice cream is actually 200 years old.

But for a long time, ice cream lived only in the domain of the very wealthy. A swathe of servants churned cream by hand and laboured over creating and freezing ice-based desserts. Nobody else had the time.

It took until the mid-19th century for ice cream to move beyond its original locality. By that time, confectioners and restaurant cooks now made small amounts of ice cream and sold them directly to customers (who had to eat them straight away) or occasionally to a hotel or caterer.

Ice cream arrives in Australia

It may be very hard to remember around these parts but Australia is a hot country. While some early colonists probably worked in the rich houses of Europe and knew how to make ice cream, you still need ice to make it.

It takes little stretch of the imagination to realise that the majority of early colonial Australia was not an environment conducive to snow and ice.

However, according to the Australian Food Timeline (if you have not read this amazing blog, start now. It is excellent… I will wait), the arrival of the sailing ship the Tartar and its cargo of ice from North American lakes into Sydney Harbour prompted the first ice cream making in Australia.  Confectioner Mr Dunsdon bought the entire cargo and made the first ice cream with it.

It will not surprise you to learnt that early Australians went absolutely nuts over the new treat.

As the Sydneysiders awaited the next shipment of half-melted glacier, Melbournians set about working out how to manufacture ice. This emerged in the mid-1850s. The fledgling ice industry quickly created a local cottage industry in ice cream making.

But it took improvements in freezers, the plentiful supply of ice and the low cost of sugar - combined with the advent of the railroad to move it all at speed – for ice cream production to industrialise to any scale.

When it did, it quickly came to ice cream-hungry Australia.

Sennitts, Streets and Peters: the Ice Cream Wars

John Sennitt, an English-born engineer, acquired his employer’s firm Victorian Cold Accumulatory Proprietary Company in 1899. Around 1904, the South Melbourne factory began manufacturing and distributing Sennitts Ice Cream.

Before long, Sennitts was everywhere. According to a 1914 article written during a particularly brutal heatwave in Punch, ‘Ice cream is about the most democratic factor of which the melting-pot of summer-time can offer… it brings together all sorts and conditions of persons gasping for a common need.’

Sennitts main competitor was the Sydney-based Peters, owned and operated by the American-born Frederick Peters. A brilliant marketer, Peters concocted the idea that his ice creams were the ‘health food of a nation’. Even Don Bradman got into it, famously starring in a Peters advertising campaign. Australians licked that right up for the next 50 years.

'Bear in mind' Sennitts promotional material, c.1950. Courtesy of the Australian Food Timeline

Sennitts countered with its ‘white polar bear licking an ice cream’ logo that culminated in a striking neon sign affixed to the roof of its South Melbourne factory. In 1929, the competition heated up even more when Peters arrived in Victoria. He fought off investors; applications for the Victorian company exceeded the number of shares available by almost fifteen times.

Streets Ice Cream in Corrimal, courtesy of Looking Back, with Mick Roberts

Meanwhile, up in Wollongong, small time ice cream enthusiast Edwin Street had expanded his successful hand-churned ice cream business with a mechanical churn. In the 1930s, he purchased an ice works in Corrimal and combined the two. It became famous for a neon sign depicting a polar bear licking an ice cream – remarkably similar to Sennitts down in Melbourne - and the slogan ‘bear in mind Street’s ice cream’. Street specialised in local milk and cream with modern manufacturing equipment ensuring purity, smoothness and flavour in the final product.

After World War II, the Federal Government imposed health restrictions on the manufacturing of ice cream that favoured large manufacturers like Streets, Sennitts and Peters. The small suppliers died out and the industrialisation and monopolisation of ice cream in Australia solidified.

Peters emerged the dominant player. Throughout the 1950s, Sennitts became Peters main competition in Victoria; Streets in NSW.

Sennitts in the neighbourhood

Progress Press advertisement for Jan & Tony's Milk Bar

In the 1950s and 60s, Ashburton’s High Street and the small shopping strips around Solway Primary accommodated a selection of milk bars enjoyed by young and old. The ice cream in the milkshakes was Sennitts. This is because Peters had the home ice cream market while Sennitts had the milk bar market cornered.

Sennitts ice cream did not have far to travel to Ashburton. Sometime around 1950, John Sennitt & Co expanded into cold storage. He began construction of a new ice cream factory and cold storage facility a little down the road from the Holmesglen house-manufacturing plant (now Holmesglen TAFE).

With the local Housing Commission estates only a few years old, the new Sennitts factory quickly became a major employer of unskilled labour. Back then, one could call by, ask for a few shifts moving cold storage items into vans, and find themselves a job. Sometimes you could split your time between Sennitts and the Holmesglen manufacturing plant.

‘You could only work in the cold room for 10 minutes at a time,’ one of my contacts said. ‘I remember the giant white polar bear statue outside the factory. The pay at the manufacturing plant was better but Sennitts always gave us ice creams to take home!’

Sennitts falls to corporatisation

In 1950, Streets took over Parramatta manufacturer Lynam’s Ice Cream. A few years later, the Lever Brothers, a successful British firm with a soap manufacturing plant in Balmain for fifty years, decided to expand into ice cream.  It bought Streets and then Sennitts. This allowed Streets to expand into Victoria.

As Sennitts did not have the market strength of flagship products like Streets, the Lever Brothers discontinued it.

Local women from the Streets ice cream plant in Holmesglen (courtesy of Facebook)

The Sennitts factory at Holmesglen became Streets, bringing ice creams like Paddle Pop, Splice, Golden Gaytime and Magnum to Melbourne. The Lever Brothers grew into Unilever, now the largest ice cream producer in the world and locked in a duopoly over the global ice cream market with Nestle. Peters managed to stay independent until 2012, when a series of buyouts and restructures led it under the Nestle banner in 2018.

The Streets Factory stayed in Holmesglen, still employing many locals, until the early 1980s when it moved to Mulgrave. It was last occupied by Seacol fish importers and Mitchdowd underwear.

The former Streets factory (Warrigal Road view) today

The Alpine Ice Cream Company

One of Alpine's products

During all this, small, family-owned businesses still churned out quality ice cream and sold them to locals from their own ice cream vans. In a similar way to how Brumby’s started as a rejection of the industrialised bread market just down the road, there was still people who longed for ice cream the way it used to be.

One of these was a young Greek immigrant called Alexander Kanellos. In 1977, Alex started out selling ice creams to customers from a van. But he soon realised there was a gap in the restaurant market for high-quality frozen desserts that would create higher profit margins. He began to experiment and decided to open a small factory making gelati, sorbets and frozen desserts with only 100 per cent natural ingredients, no artificial flavours, colours or preservatives.

He found the perfect property in Karnak Road, Ashburton just opposite Solway Primary School. To honour the freshness of the product, he called the company Alpine Ice Cream.

This the way ice cream used to be for Italian royalty. Made with fresh cream, up to 16 per cent butterfat, and with a weight ratio 50 per cent higher than other ice creams, there’s no ‘health of the nation’ here.

But don’t let that worry you.

‘Sometimes, on sunny Friday afternoons, we see the door to the factory open,’ a Solway mother told me. ‘The second one kid spots it, they all descend on the shop like a flock of grey nurse sharks. He’s cash only so we all have to scramble around for coins. There’s no way the kids will miss the secret Solway ice cream shop.’

Last Friday, I was fortunate enough to find the Alpine Ice Cream shop open. My APS green t-shirted nearly 10-year-old stood there amidst all the Solway Red agonising over what flavour to choose. The line snaked out the door and down the street.

Behind the counter, Alex’s son patiently took orders from little red people, went out the back and returned with a cone and a scoop of coloured ice cream in it. The little red person walked away happy and the next one steppe up. He repeated this process until there’s not a child left in line.

He charged $3 for one scoop, $4 for two.

We chatted briefly. His dad's taking it easy now but the business still runs the same. You can buy any of their products from the shop but everything is still cash only like it was in 1977. They still supply to restaurants around town, pizza places are particularly partial to Alpine.

No competition. Lickt: the other ice cream shop in Ashburton

As he handed my kid a pink ("I should have got bubblegum!") ice cream, he told me they're a factory, not an ice cream parlour. He leaves that to Lickt up on the corner of Warrigal Road. But being located right opposite a school means he gets to make the kids happy.

'It brings in some extra cash too.’ When I asked about the opening hours for the kids, he shrugged.

‘I like to keep ‘em on their toes,’ he said.

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