Fourth Annual Made in the South Awards

by Elizabeth Hutchison, T. Edward Nickens and Jed Portman - December/January 2014

From heirloom-quality banjos to alligator-charred furniture to an ingenious twist on the old-fashioned, Southern artisans continue to raise the bar on craftsmanship

Left to right: Jason Wallis,Tara Donne

Overall Winner: Southern Craft Creamery

A Florida creamery closes the loop on small-batch ice cream

>Video: Take a tour of Southern Craft Creamery 

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2013 Made in the South AwardsThere’s local, and then there’s Southern Craft Creamery, in small-town Marianna, Florida, which takes the food world’s current scratch-made ethos to a whole new level. Not only do ice cream makers Lauren and Zach O’Bryan look to nearby growers for the ingredients that flavor their gelato-style cream, but they also help run the dairy and tend to the hundreds of cattle whose milk anchors their product.

The O’Bryans aren’t just making pints of standard-issue vanilla, either. Serrano chiles, blackberries, bay laurel, satsumas, and sweet corn plucked from the garden (both their own and area farmers’) translate into vibrant flavors that speak to the agricultural bounty of the Panhandle. Lauren knows local produce well. She grew up on the family farm in Marianna, a town of about nine thousand located just southwest of the Georgia-Alabama border. She met Zach in college and followed him to North Carolina after he became a Marine.They had moved on to Athens, Georgia, when Lauren’s parents, Dale and Cindy Eade, came calling.

The Eades had been selling milk from their Jersey cows through a cooperative for most of the thirty-plus years they’d been in business, but they wanted a more personal way to connect with customers. “They were essentially pooling their milk and selling it generically,” Lauren says. “So they were running into folks in Marianna who didn’t even know there was a dairy up the street. We had done a poor job of telling our story.”

So the O’Bryans proposed that the family try making ice cream, a time-tested crowd pleaser. The Eades agreed, and the young couple headed north for crash courses in ice cream­ making at the University of Wisconsin and Penn State. The methods taught there did not always align with their farm-to-table philosophy, but Lauren and Zach began to understand the science behind frozen desserts and brought those lessons home with them. Dairy farmers who make ice cream don’t often have the time to be meticulous about technique, but the O’Bryans did—and they were obsessed with getting it right. “There were several months when we kept telling my parents, ‘No, it’s not good enough,’” Lauren says. “The texture wasn’t right, or the flavor wasn’t right. I know they were thinking, ‘It’s good enough! Why can’t we sell it?’”

Those months in the kitchen paid off. Rather than craft a master ice cream base and build a range of flavors on top of it, as many others do, the O’Bryans developed each flavor on its own. It turns out that controlling every aspect of the process, beginning with the farm’s nutrient-rich grasses, does result in a better product. “There is a phenomenal purity of flavor and a wonderful milkiness that makes it different from other companies that rely on sweeteners and added ingredients to do the work,” says renowned Alabama chef and Made in the South Awards judge Frank Stitt. “And really, what they’re doing reflects something larger, where we’re rediscovering the uniqueness not just of certain products but of products from certain farms, with textures, aromas, and tastes unique to those pieces of land.”

Lauren O’Bryan says they are accomplishing what they set out to do: make dairy personal. “The hours that my parents, my sister, and my brother-in-law put into the milk before it even leaves the farm are unbelievable,” she says. “A lot of people don’t appreciate that because most dairy farmers can’t get off the farm to tell them.” With this ice cream, the O’Bryans are sending their message loud and clear.­

Price: $8-10

2013 Made in the South Awards