In architecture or medicine, industry or food, innovation is so often the child of happy circumstance. Take, for example, the smoked apple pie ice cream recently available at the Weary Traveler. "I sauteed a bunch of apples, and I didn't really know what to do with them, and Joey [Dunscombe, chef at Weary Traveler] was smoking bacon," recalls Jason Borgmann, proprietor of Calliope Ice Cream. Looking at the smoker, he asked Dunscombe, "How about we put those in there?"
Wait wait wait. What is this Calliope, you ask? If Borgmann has any say, Calliope is the next big thing in the world of Madison ice cream. Those who have tried the forty-some different flavors he has made available at the Weary are likely to agree.
It was hot the day Calliope ice cream made its first major appearance in Madison, as a key part of the Black Market Ice Cream Social at the Project Lodge in August 2011. From the start, Calliope has been a venture given steam by collaboration and mutual interest.
"Greg [Walters] is a friend of mine, and I'd helped him launch Black Market itself," Borgmann says, "so he returned the favor and had that social last year, and that was kind of my introduction to the public."
Borgmann, a cook at the Weary Traveler, started tinkering with ice cream during a difficult time in his life. "I quit drinking, and for a year of sobriety, my co-workers got me a tabletop ice cream maker -- like, a hand one," he says. "I had a lot of time on my hands."
His success with early flavors like graham cracker and other intellectual cousins of the cereal milk concoctions at the Momofuku restaurants in New York eventually led to the opportunity to create ice creams for sale at the Weary -- in the same underground lair that fostered the early days of NessAlla Kombucha. Entrepreneurial success is painted on the walls down there; pay no attention to the Denny's Baconalia menu also tacked up next to the ice cream machine.
Borgmann strives for flavor profiles that can't be found elsewhere in Madison ice creams. "If you go around town to all the ice cream places, it's all ice creams with cookies and candies in it, and I'm not really into that. As much as I like cookies and candy, I'm not going to put it in ice cream."
Caramelized pear. Mexican hot chocolate. Beet and orange. Toasted walnut and honey. Campari and grapefruit. Borgmann's flavor combinations are more culinary than anything else made in Madison; the list often reads more like a dinner or cocktail menu than dessert.
Some flavors take inspiration from other ice cream successes around the country. Pear and miso is an evolving homage to San Francisco's Humphry Slocombe, while Borgmann says that the classical techniques of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams out of Ohio were on his mind when he crafted the toasted walnut and honey. I see Calliope's ice creams as most similar to Empire Ice Cream in Seattle; both strive to source as locally as possible, and the flavors are neither showy novelties nor old standards.
Calliope ice creams have a rough-hewn element to them. Borgmann doesn't endeavor to remove all trace of the mouthfeel of his ingredients; if an ice cream has pear or beet in it, then by god you're going to notice those textures on your tongue. The sweetness is often subtle, with natural flavors like caramelized sugar and honey rather than a lot of adjuncts.
Pear and miso is loaded with an almost meaty umami, and isn't for everyone. Toasted walnut and honey makes Borgmann think of Honey Nut Cheerios; my brain went to granola. Porter is a strong beer ice cream; I cried uncle and added a little malted milk powder on top, and it turned out pretty good. But with the caramelized pear, I could close my eyes and imagine a dessert of bruleed pear and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It's positively dreamy.
While Borgmann intends to continue offering his ice creams as desserts at the Weary, he's launching a partnership with Ian's Pizza on State this summer. A menu of six flavors -- expect porter, hibiscus, Mexican hot chocolate, and lemon lavender to be among the selections -- will sell for $6 per half-pint at the new Ian's location in the old Madison Children's Museum building.
A new Calliope logo is also forthcoming, as is a new Twitter account. (Borgmann lost access to the original @icecreamluvrs account. "I guess I gave it some strange email that I don't use," he says. "Otherwise I'd be all over that shit.")
Calliope's production will move to the commercial kitchen operated by Ian's, but Borgmann still has intentions of striking out on his own.
"Eventually, Calliope will be full time. I think this summer will sort of tell what happens next. I sell a fair number out of [Weary Traveler], but when it hits at Ian's, I think that's -- I'm really gonna have a lot of work."
For now, Borgmann's creations will soothe the spring and summer heat on Willy Street. Like the smoked apple pie, new flavors often sell out quickly. Calliope is growing fast, up and out of its cozy basement. If you value some of that underground cool, you better get on the ball.