Friday, September 30, 2016

5 Things to Do in Austin other than Austin City Limits or SXSW

The often photographed mural on the side of a building of West Annie Street at South 1st Street 

Hordes of festival goers descend upon Austin, Texas this week to attend the Austin City Limits Festival. Locals like me have two choices — either join the crowds to enjoy one live music concert after another or else studiously avoid the entire area until the festival is over. Personally, I like exploring Austin when there's less people around. This is getting harder and harder since the population has doubled since I moved here a few decades ago.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

In Shambles on Britain's Most Picturesque Street

You can't tell from the photo above, but in the middle of the day, this cobblestone street is packed. Throngs of tourists peer into store windows and pop into shops to buy picture postcards, jewelry or slabs of fudge. Walking tours wind through the crowds valiantly attempting to keep their group somewhat together.

What is this place and what's the big draw? It's the Shambles, a narrow street in York, England. This street is so old that it's mentioned in William the Conqueror's eleventh century Doomsday Book and is considered to be one of the best preserved medieval streets in Europe. In more recent memory, the Google Street Team named it the Most Picturesque Street in Britain, and it was part of the Olympic torch relay route in 2012.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Factory Tour

Tons of photo ops at the Ben & Jerry's factory

Visiting the Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream factory has been at the top of my list of must-see food factory tours. Available in 35 countries, I hope that you've been one of the many folks around the world to enjoy their frozen delights with the catchy names. My hubby is an ice cream purist. He prefers vanilla unsullied with any sort of mix-ins. I, on the other hand, enjoy my ice cream fully loaded with chunks of deliciousness in every scoop. Ben & Jerry's is exactly the style I crave. Add in their support of social justice issues, and it's a product that I can willingly splurge on. (Actually, Ben & Jerry's is now owned by the international conglomerate Unilever who also produces Wall's, Good Humor, Klondike, Breyers, Streets, and 和路雪 ice cream. But I will continue to pretend that it's 2 hippie dudes mixing up ice cream in the Green Mountains of Vermont.)

A few of the flavors created by Ben & Jerry's

Ben & Jerry's got its start in 1978 after they spent $5 on a ice cream making correspondence course from Penn State. Now, it's manufactured worldwide with factories in Nevada, Ontario, Italy, the Netherlands, and Tel Aviv. While I'm not sure if any of those locations offer public access, the one in Vermont welcomes crowds of people with open arms. The factory is conveniently located only one mile off of Interstate 89 in the town of Waterbury.

Ben & Jerry's posters from around the globe

If you visit, the first thing you should do is go inside and get a ticket for a factory tour. That looooooong line outside? It's for the Scoop Shop. Tickets must be purchased in-person for a same-day tour and are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Arriving mid-afternoon in the height of the summer tourist season, we had to wait an hour until our tour started, but I noticed that later in the day, the wait was only 30 minutes. Luckily, there is plenty to keep families busy while they waited.

The air around the factory smells like creme brulee... until the wind shifts, and then there's hints of cow manure.

Head up the hill behind the factory to the Flavor Graveyard. It's quite amusing to wander around and read all the epitaphs on the tombstones. I had a strange moment when I realized that Rainforest Crunch has been "deceased" since 1999. I thought I just kept missing it at the grocery store. The graveyard contains only a fraction of the retired flavors. There's always the possibility that one may be reformulated and reintroduced. Legend has it that Ben & Jerry's resurrected the White Russian flavor (coffee ice cream with coffee liqueur) in their Scoop Shops after multiple fans left a bouquets of flowers at its grave.

Flavor Graveyard

A small playground keeps kids entertained while waiting for a tour to start. In the summer, they also have tents with activities like free SpinArt and Tie Dying Shirts ($13, cash only). Hot dogs, chips, lemonade and bottled water are available for purchase if you're looking for something other than ice cream to eat. Small shacks showcase whatever social justice issue they're currently promoting. While we were there, posters encouraged Americans to exercise their right to vote in this important Election Year. The introduction of the new flavor, Empower Mint (peppermint ice cream with fudge brownies and fudge swirls), celebrates that "Democracy is in Your Hands!"

A few months ago, there was a small batch, unofficial flavor called Bernie's Yearning after the Vermont senator and former Democratic candidate who Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield supported. Pints of Bernie's Yearning have a solid layer of chocolate representing the gains of the wealthy 1% that you have to break through to get to the plain mint ice cream beneath it that symbolizes the rest of us.

It's a craft project AND a souvenir.

The main building has a timeline history of the company along with maps of their global locations and international signs. The souvenir store contains everything from clever T-shirts ("I like to Spoon") to ice cream-flavored lip balms and pints of faux spilled, melted ice cream.

Finally, it was time for our 30 minute tour to start! It begins with a movie tracing the history of Ben & Jerry's back to 1978 when they opened their first Scoop Shop in a renovated gas (petrol) station in Vermont. To celebrate their first anniversary, they held a Free Cone Day, a tradition which still goes on each year. By 1980, they started packaging their ice cream in pints and selling it at stores. In 2000, they sold the company to Unilever but created an independent Board of Directors to maintain their brand identity and social mission.

The next stop on the factory tour is the mezzanine with windows looking down over the production floor. The guide pointed out the different machines and told us what each one did. While tours are offered 7 days a week, manufacturing only occurs from Monday to Friday. Since most of the the ice cream creation occurs hidden within enclosed tanks and pipes, the only big difference on weekends is that you won't see the "putting on the lids" machine in action or people walking around below you on the factory floor. After the ice cream is packaged, it goes off to the freezing tower to bring it down to the correct temperature for storage and shipping. The tower is too cold for humans, so we watched a short clip of the conveyor belt in action instead of seeing it first hand. Photography is not allowed in the movie theater or the mezzanine.

Welcome to the Flavor Room

The last portion of the tour is the Flavor Room, a workshop where wacky flavors are thought up by "Screamers." Be sure to read the labels on the containers behind the glass. There are crazy ingredient labels like Rainbow Ends and I Dunno. Most of the flavors created in this room are edible, experimental brainstorming and never see mass production. If you're lucky — or unlucky, depending on the flavor — the trial flavor will be part of the Samples that day. On the day we were there, Broccoli and Cheese was what the Screamers were offering up. Bleh! While one brave sole did try the cup of yellowish ice scream with green flecks, the rest of the tour group opted for the safer choice, Triple Caramel Chunk (caramel ice cream with a swirl of caramel and fudge covered caramel candies).

The tour has a sweet ending with a small scoop of the ice cream of the day.

After the tour, we got in line at the Scoop Shop. We had plenty of time to contemplate the menu while we were queuing. With 30 flavors of ice cream, 3 flavors of Greek Fro Yo, 4 sorbets and one non-dairy offering, it's a much bigger selection than what's in pint-size cartons at my local grocery store. The nearest Scoop Shop to my home is almost 100 miles away, so I was especially excited to be spoilt for choice. You can ask for tiny samples if you want to try a flavor before committing to it. I settled on a scoop of Empower Mint and a scoop of Coconut Seven Layer Bar.

The most impressive item on the Scoop Shop menu is the Vermonster Sundae made with 20 scoops of ice cream, four sliced bananas, three cookies, a large brownie, hot fudge or caramel or both, ten spoonfuls of chopped walnuts, whipped cream and an assortment of toppings like sprinkles and M&Ms. Weighing between 4-9 pounds, it's all served in a giant plastic tub and recommended for sharing. No way was I going to order one for my family, and I did not see anyone else eating it either. What a sight that would have been!

Full details about the Ben & Jerry's Factory Tour in Waterbury, Vermont can be found on their website. Tour tickets are $4 adults, $3 seniors, and kids 12 years and under are free. Cash, credit cards, and checks accepted at the tour ticket counter.

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