Not all coconut ice-cream is created equal. The coconut gelato that I have just spooned into my mouth, for instance, is a complex creation, its a pure hit of coconut modulated with a smoky sub-note and an unexpected crunch.
"We caramelise the coconut kernel with kithul honey, then add it to the gelato to enhance the texture and flavour," explains Shalini Fernando, Sri Lanka's only artisanal gelato maker.
Kithul honey – made with the sap of the fishtail palm tree – is just one of the indigenous ingredients that Fernando and her husband, Suranjan Perera, showcase in their Isle of Gelato range. Others include jackfruit, wood apple and cardamom.
"The range changes according to what is in season," Fernando says, scooping some rich avocado gelato out of the display cabinet and offering it to me. I would never have thought to use avocado as a sweet flavour, but Fernando tells me that it is a local tradition. "In Sri Lanka, we eat avocado with sugar," she says.
In the year since the couple launched their flagship store inside Galle Fort – one of Sri Lanka's most popular tourist destinations, a World Heritage-listed historic site packed with a beguiling mix of boutiques, cafes, gem dealers, bars and restaurants – demand has proven so great that they have opened two other Isle of Gelato outlets in Colombo and Negombo. Perera says the initial flash of inspiration for their venture came during a trip to Australia.
"When we ate at Quay restaurant in Sydney, we tried the famous snow egg," he says. "That was our first taste of jackfruit sorbet, and we both thought, jackfruit is such a Sri Lankan flavour, why don't we have this at home?"
It took another overseas trip, this time an Italian holiday that involved plenty of gelato tastings, before inspiration crystallised into a plan and the couple decided to ditch their careers in finance to launch their own business, with Fernando becoming an accredited gelato maker.
From the beginning, working with local flavours was part of the plan. "Wherever you travel in Italy, you realise that there is a lot of local pride, and an emphasis on local produce," Fernando says. "We have so many amazing fruits and spices here, from mangos and bananas to tamarind, turmeric and ginger, that we have a lot to work with."
Fernando created all the recipes for flavours such as Puttalam sea salt and caramel, and zesty orange and cardamom, herself. "It was a case of trial and error," she explains. "The percentage of sugar, the percentage of protein, it all affects the texture. You're trying to find the balance where it's not too hard, too sweet, too bitter, too soft."
Getting the texture right is vitally important, Fernando says. "That's where you realise the difference between gelato and ice-cream. Because gelato is made primarily with milk, unlike ice-cream which is made with cream, gelato can be slow-churned, which means it has very little air. That means you can serve it at a warmer temperature, you can taste the flavour better and it doesn't melt as fast, because it has less air in it."
The crowds at Isle of Gelato often spill out the door. In order to keep up with demand, Fernando and her small team churn out up to 120 kilos of gelato a day. At any given time, the range will include at least eight sorbets and 18 gelato flavours. Alongside the local flavours, the range includes some classic options. Chocolate is always in the range; during my visit, the choices include dark chocolate and chocolate brownie flavours.
"The Sri Lankan palate loves chocolate," says Perera with a smile. "When we started we didn't have it all the time; we soon realised that that was a big mistake."
Ute Junker travelled as a guest of Sri Lankan Airlines, World Expeditions and Aman Resorts.
Sri Lankan Airlines offers daily direct flights from Melbourne to Colombo, and has recently introduced new A330-300 aircraft. See srilankairlines.com
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Galle Fort, Amangalla delivers colonial chic in a heritage setting. Rates from $US550 per night. See aman.com