Many fans might have been surprised that a fruit sorbet won the award for best new product at this year’s Eat Out Zonnebloem Produce Awards, especially amid the flurry of ice-creameries popping up in recent years. Can sorbet – essentially just fruit, sugar and ice – really be that delicious?
The answer, as the judges found, is an emphatic yes. For Berenne Cristini, the chef-turned-churner behind the Sorbetiere brand, sorbet is not a poor cousin of creamy ice cream – it’s the ultimate dessert. “I’m not an unconditional lover of ice cream; sorbet has always been my preference. Sorbet expresses purity in flavour and texture.”
The other reason is that Berenne grew up in the countryside of Burgundy, France, where her maternal grandmother used to produce the most amazing strawberry sorbet. “My goal is to make it as good as hers,” she says.
If the winning sorbets tasted by the judges are anything to go by, Berenne must be close. But don’t make the mistake of thinking these frozen treats are crystallised and crunchy between the teeth. “Many people imagine sorbet like a hard ice lolly and are often taken aback by its ‘creamy’ texture,” says Berenne. Proof of this is how Sorbetiere’s intensely flavourful and smooth mango sorbet brought the judges new insights. Abigail Donnelly, editor of Eat Out and one of the awards judges, exclaimed, “The mango sorbet! The texture and flavour are really out of this world. And the same goes for the fig sorbet with its beautiful deep pink colour.”
After two years of university, Berenne realised that what she really wanted to do was cook. She applied to the prestigious École Supérieure de Cuisine Française (Higher School of French Cuisine) in Paris where she enjoyed “three great years learning from some great people”. Berenne then spent the following years in the kitchens of Lasserre, Ledoyen and others in Paris. “But my passion was really fuelled by a very intense year working for Frank Cerruti at the Louis XV in Monte Carlo.” (A three-Michelin-starred restaurant.)
While cooking is her first love, Berenne never had the desire to open her own restaurant; the luscious produce on the southern tip of Africa gave her some other ideas: “My husband and I had been dreaming about moving to Cape Town for quite a few years, and the idea of harnessing the great quality of fruit in the Cape to make sorbet was the motivation that got us here so quickly.”
Little did she know that accolades would follow just as swiftly: it’s been just over six months since Sorbetiere opened. “I’m usually quite impatient with things,” admits Berenne, “but this happened so fast. I’m blown away.”
Using only seasonal (and organic, wherever possible) produce, Berenne set about changing South African consumers’ perception of sorbet. Her husband works in Paarl, so a lot of the more delicate seasonal fruits, like strawberries “or those black figs we have at the moment”, come from that region, explains Berenne. Otherwise, she has been changing suppliers quite regularly to root out the best fruit, especially from farmers who will leave the fruit hanging for longer (for more juice and sweetness).
As reflected by her quality sorbet, Berenne likes to keep things simple and pure. At Side Street Studios in Woodstock, Berenne and her assistant, Sephorah Mayimbi Kongolo, prepare new sorbet batches or churn those that have matured. They keep the other tenants at Side Street Studios fed with snacks, too: “It’s great having our neighbours come by during the day for some food and coffee.”
It’s still early days – Sorbetiere has just finished its first season – but there’s a steadily growing range. “Right now I’m trying to improve all the finer details and perfect what I already have. I’m also working on a few new ideas to keep it interesting over the winter.” Sorbets in the freezer at the moment include mango, pineapple and basil; fig and pinotage; and plum, granadilla and orange. (And they’re going to churn an apple sorbet soon!) The ice cream flavours include chocolate and macaroons from Ma Mère Maison (another 2014 Eat Out Zonnebloem Produce Awards Nominee), salty caramel, natural frozen yoghurt, caramel swirl, and rum and raisin.
But the product Berenne is most proud of is, of course, the award-winning mango sorbet. She also loved the strawberry and Sichuan pepper last summer, so watch out for it when strawberries are back in season. As for future plans for Sorbetiere, Berenne is working on making pièce montée (towers of confectionery, such as the croque-en-bouche) for weddings, as well as other frozen desserts.
Visit Sorbetiere at Side Street Studios, 48 Albert Road, Woodstock, from 8am to 4pm Monday to Friday, and 10am to 2pm on Saturdays. “Anyone can stop by to taste, buy, sit and have a coffee while we peel fruit and churn our latest batch,” invites Berenne. You can also catch Sorbetiere at the Oranjezicht City Farm on Saturdays. (Winners seem to stick together: this farm won the South African Heritage Award at this year’s Eat Out Zonnebloem Produce Awards, too.)
Berenne says it’s always best for customers to stop by to taste before deciding which tubs to take home, but she does take orders by email and phone. For flights of fancy, she’s your gal: “I’m always open to trying new flavours!”