They call it the gelato flavour to measure all other flavours. In Italian, it's 'fior di latte'. In English, it's 'flower of milk'. For purists, this is the way to truly test the mettle of a gelato maker. There's no hiding behind strong flavours or off-piste flavour combinations - serving a plain milk gelato is the ultimate flex.
"It's the purest, and most simple flavour," says Lisa Valmorbida, head chef of Melbourne gelateria heavyweights Pidapipo.
Fior di latte is also a flavour on the rise now vanilla is as about as valuable as silver. Traditionally, two-thirds of the world's vanilla crop was grown in Madagascar, however, three cyclones in the past three years all but wiped out the island's vanilla crop.
Theft from local vanilla crime syndicates hasn't helped the situation either, and the global price of the bean has skyrocketed from around $200 a kilogram to more than $1200. That's roughly $8 a bean, wholesale. These prices have put real vanilla out of reach for many restaurants and gelato stores already struggling on slender margins, and it doesn't look to be dropping in price any time soon.
Madagascan vanilla is a difficult product to grow. It takes around four years from planting to picking and curing the bean, and relies on a specific microclimate that's fast being eroded through climate change and deforestation.
While there are several Australian producers with product on the market (David Soo, a tech entrepeneur is currently growing a crop in a greenhouse in Newcastle and there are many farms in Queensland), no one is currently growing the amount required by Australia's hospitality industry.
Long viewed as synonymous with things that are plain or boring, vanilla is actually a flavour that gives many dishes complexity. It helps elevate other flavours in food in a similar way to salt - a base note that lets the other ingredients shine.
Without vanilla, custard would just taste sweet and eggy, rather than rich and sumptuous. A plain sponge would be very plain indeed without the deep savour a few drops of vanilla essence adds.
When it comes to gelato, however, vanilla is a misunderstood flavour, possibly because what a lot of people are looking for in a plain scoop isn't the flavour of vanilla, it's the flavour of sweetened milk.
Co-owner of Redfern gelateria Ciccone and Sons, Sean O'Brien, says that people often use "vanilla" to mean any white, plain ice-cream.
"When we had vanilla on the menu, it was probably one of the least popular gelatos, because a lot of people think vanilla is really boring. You need to have it, but it doesn't really sell that well."
When the vanilla bean shortage came about, they simplified even further, opting to call their fior di latte flavour Jersey Milk ('because that's what it's made out of"), and it's now one of their biggest selling gelati.
"It's simple and it reminds people of vanilla ice-cream from their childhood because it doesn't have a lot of flavour, but it does have a nice creamy texture," says O'Brien.
Valmorbida says vanilla doesn't sell particularly well in her stores either, but fior di latte does.
"We put vanilla on sometimes, but fior di latte is always on - it's much more popular. I think it's also really good when you pair it with sorbets because it's kind of like a Splice [ice-block]. But vanilla just doesn't really do the same thing. Fior di latte is pure, simple and clean."
That doesn't mean it's a flavour that still doesn't need to be explained. "People still come in and think it's a kind of coffee flavour because of the word 'latte'," says Valmorbida. "Or perhaps some kind of weird cheese."
Where to try fior di latte gelato
Lisa Valmorbida first opened in Carlton in 2014, and 2021 sees Pidapipo Laboratorio land on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. The lab may be all about innovation but quality and simplicity are still at the core of the business. Stores in Carlton, Windsor and Melbourne, pidapipo.com
Although this family-owned business never stands still (two new shops opened over summer), it's all about excellent foundations when it comes to what's in the cone. Various locations, piccolinagelateria.com.au
Gelateria Primavera, Melbourne
There's a choice between 10 weekly rotating flavours, and while there are the occasional wild and fruity experiments, there's always the guarantee of the much-loved classics. 157 Spring Street, Melbourne. springstgrocery.com.au
Ciccone and Sons, Redfern
A tiny Redfern shopfront belying a freezer chest full of treasures. Here, the gelato is small-batch, hyper-seasonal and made in vintage churners. 195 Regent Street, Redfern, cicconeandsons.com.au
Chef collaborations, vegan options and fresh honey drizzled straight over a scoop of gelato are all available, but the purity of the fior di latte here is worth a visit alone.123 King Street, Newtown, maponewtown.com
Gelateria Gondola, Chatswood
Experimental flavours are the name of the game at Gondola, but its classic gelati is where you can taste the craft at this little shop off a Chatswood side street. Shop 2, 77 Archer Street, Chatswood, gelateriagondola.com.au