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When we first arrived in Marseille, we heard rumblings about a most intriguing ice cream flavor. A “black vanilla” whose color and savory taste was rumored to come from squid ink, fitting for the city’s Mediterranean perch. In a city where exaggeration is the norm, we had to go check it out for ourselves.

A long line snaked from Vanille Noire, the name of both the ice cream shop and famous flavor. The vendor handed us our scoop, so black it looked like a photo negative of a vanilla cone. Our first lick was rich Madagascar vanilla. A few seconds later, the sweet became salty like the seaside air. We were hooked – regardless of what it was made of.

Vanille Noire is sandwiched between the seaside promenade along the Vieux-Port and the winding streets of Le Panier. Though the signature black vanilla gets the most press, every scoop at this artisan glacier is packed with pure, intense aromas. From the pêche blanc loaded with 80 percent peaches to the singular tomate verte (green tomato), the flavors are the fruits of the efforts of the shop’s discerning owner, Nicolas Decitre.

vanille noire ice cream

At 35, Nicolas had “hit a wall” in Paris as a telecom executive. He came to Marseille for the surf, sun and laidback living, yet had no clue what to do next. On a trip to New York City, a visit to Il Laboratorio del Gelato planted the seed: “I want to make the best ice cream in the world.” After getting a professional glacier degree at a local university, he interned with Terre Adélice, an organic ice cream maker from the Ardèche whose wares are sold in Marseille at the Glacier de Corniche shop.

Obsessed, Nicolas brought 100 samples from Terre Adélice home. His goal: to improve them, making unadulterated flavors that corresponded to his rigorous demands. Once he was confident in the recipes, and maxed out on space in his home kitchen, Nicolas set up a sliver of an ice cream lab in 2014. He hoped to sell direct to restaurants that would appreciate his gastronomic flavors. Less lucrative than expected, Nicolas began selling scoops out of his small atelier. Word of a new artisanal ice cream shop slowly spread across Marseille. By 2018, he had outgrown his little lab and opened a shop next door.

To this day, the vanilla noire is still the most popular flavor, as witnessed by an entire table of five slurping black cones during our last visit. Though it started as a smoked vanilla flavor, Nicolas switched to salted after gauging his customers’ preferences. As far as the color goes, part of it comes from activated charcoal. When we ask about the squid ink, Nicolas says, with a smile, “some things must stay secret.”

The vanilla noire has caused a stir in Marseille and across the globe – just look up #blackicecream on Instagram. Nestlé even launched a black ice cream cone. Ever passionate about his product, Nicolas tried to sue, an act of principle knowing he’d never beat the food and beverage Goliath.

However, not everyone is a fan. Some clients want their vanilla to be only sweet. To avoid any confusion, and the staff having to repeat it 250 times a day, there’s a new sign above the counter that reads: “the black vanilla is lightly salted.” Luckily, there are 20 or so other options available at any time, each made in small batches in Italian machines.

To this day, the vanilla noire is still the most popular flavor, as witnessed by an entire table of five slurping black cones during our last visit.

We’re huge fans of the sorbets that burst with fresh fruit and herbs. Fragrant basilic (basil), tart figue (fig), and the brightest red fraise that tastes like you took a bite out of a chilled strawberry. Industrial ice cream makers add food coloring to compensate for their low percentage of real fruit. Nicolas simply uses a lot of the real thing, plumping up his sorbets with 65 to 80 percent fruit. “The color determines the taste,” he explains. Which is why his latest hit, abricot romarin, is as orange as the flesh of a juicy apricot.

Other favorites include Provençal-inspired lavande (lavender) ice cream and pastis sorbet, the latter made from Marseille-born Ricard. Nicolas’ flavors are inspired by encounters. Beyrouth Nights, named by a good friend, is a fleur d’oranger (orange-flower water) ice cream with caramelized pistachios that feels right at home along the Mediterranean. For vegans, a handful of options made with almond milk, like praline and sesame, are sure to please.

Nicolas explains that big ice cream companies add air to inflate their profits, forcing them to overcompensate with aromas and coloring. Conversely, he uses little or no air at Vanille Noire. This results in an intensity of flavor – like a fantastic dark chocolate sorbet that tastes like pure cocoa. Interestingly, air gives a false sense of “creaminess” to an ice cream, so some customers think Vanille Noire isn’t creamy enough.

Those critics are far from the majority, for the glacier always has customers sitting at its umbrella-topped patio or buying scoops for their promenades. The location on the Rue Caisserie is a perfect pit stop between the Vieux-Port and the MUCEM museum. Usually, the clientele is a mix of visitors and locals due its proximity to the city center. That scale tipped this spring, when Vanille Noire beat its 2019 sales thanks to an influx of Marseillais. After being cooped up during the pandemic, they were eager for a treat – regardless of its color.

Published on July 07, 2021

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