Once a week, a van arrives at a harbour in Galway with a cargo of five-generations-crafted ‘iced heaven’, ready to transfer it onto a ferry to cross to the remote Aran Islands.
That delicious cargo is, in fact, the award-winning Morelli’s ice cream - so long regarded as the preserve of the Causeway Coast - but now so sought after that the Italian treat is now stocked in 200 different outlets the length and breadth of Northern Ireland as well as the Republic of Ireland...and one of its furthest flung islands.
The man behind the family business is Portrush man Arnaldo Morelli who has been managing director of the internationally lauded ice cream company since taking over the reins of the family business from his father Guido in 1997.
Arnaldo carries the responsibility of upholding the precious family tradition and high standards of Morelli’s ice cream while also forging ahead into the ever-changing business world of technology and “foodie fads”.
In the early 1900s, a young man named Pietro Morelli from Italy opened a small cafe in Coleraine selling fish and chips and home-made ice cream. Over 100 years later, Morelli’s Ice Cream is now Northern Ireland’s most recognisable Italian ice cream brand.
Arnaldo is working hard to ensure that his great uncle’s legacy grows and expands throughout Northern Ireland and beyond.
Meeting Arnaldo at the company’s manufacturing hub in Coleraine, we are surrounded by the sights and sounds of building and reorganisation as the business goes through an expansion into extended premises.
“We have 200 customers dotted all around Ireland and we made the decision to expand three years ago. We moved to the Coleraine site in 2006 from the original factory behind our shop in Portrush. We thought then that the Coleraine site provided us with plenty of space but thanks to the success of the business we now need to expand even further!
“The process of making the ice cream itself doesn’t take up much room but we now need much more space for storage of packaging, raw materials and ingredients. Our decision to expand coincided with the unit next door becoming available so we secured that and now here we are in the middle of the expansion.
“The long term plan is to expand into the GB market and further into the Republic of Ireland.
“Northern Ireland has had a love affair with ice cream for years and the tradition of going for a Sunday drive and stopping off in Portrush or Portstewart for a Morelli’s ice cream is still alive and well and that has helped to build up our name but we have really increased in vogue and we are on sale in more diverse places.
“Twenty years ago you could only have bought Morelli’s ice cream in either Portrush or Portstewart but now that people are more interested in what goes into their food and where the ingredients come from, more and more people are interested in our product for its quality and tradition.
“In our grandparents day, there was one flavour available...vanilla. Now we have 50 flavours in our scoop range, four flavours in our supermarket packs and five flavours in our individual pots. Young people want different things all the time and we are reacting to that constantly.
“It used to be that we picked the flavours that we liked personally! It was really a case of trial and error but now we have grown so much that we have a much more scientific approach to testing new flavours.”
Each January, the Morelli representatives will travel to Rimini in Italy to an annual show which is a mecca for ice cream producers.
“That gives us the opportunity to see all the suppliers who are showing what’s new and allows us to try different products and tastes. We also attend the trade show in Harrogate every year to keep up to date with what’s happening in product development.
“We have also established a strong link with Ulster University and their Consumer Studies course. Each Spring we present the students there with new flavours to trial. They will critique and test the flavours in the university’s sensory suite and provide feedback. There are six or seven flavours every year which we replace.
“And while creating new flavours is much more scientific than it was before, it’s really interesting to note that vanilla and honeycomb still account for 30% of our total sales.
“I think that comes down to the quality of our ingredients and standards. So while we constantly look for new ideas and tastes, we ensure that the very best of ingredients are always used. Northern Ireland is renowned for the quality of its milk and cream and we harness that by using the very best - in our case Ballyrashane double cream from a local dairy in Coleraine. Any ice cream - whatever the flavour - is only as good as the ingredients you put into it.”
And it’s not just the Northern Ireland ice cream buying public who recognise the quality of Morelli’s ice cream.
“We have won 16 first prizes in UK competitions.
‘‘We have no doubt in the quality of our product so it’s lovely to be rewarded for that but it’s all the more special to have won awards from the Ice Cream Alliance as we are being judged by our peers. They are experts in this industry so to be recognised by them makes us very proud.”