Peter Solley, the owner and maker of Newfane Gelato, has a half-smile that registers both amusement and bafflement. His dark eyes are direct behind round glasses, and his voice winds deliberately through the long vowels and clipped consonants of his English accent. 'I've been a rock n' roll producer most of my life,' he says. 'Now I make gelato. How did this happen?'
In the simplest terms, Peter started making gelato, an Italian ice cream, because he wanted to. The son of a Cordon Bleu-trained chef who opened the first organic restaurant in London, he was a good cook. A professional musician and record producer, he knew a thing or two about creativity and adventure. And he had an ice cream maker at home, so naturally he started fooling around with it.
But when he and his wife, Susan Tondreau, moved to Newfane from Florida in the early 2000s, neither had any idea that gelato would become so important to their lives.
The move came after several years of visiting the Green Mountain State. They bought their house in Newfane as a summer retreat, then moved permanently when Florida became less and less attractive each time they went back.
'We didn't really know anything about the area,' Peter admits. 'No one and nothing! Then we started discovering what a great place it is. We built up a friendship base, and we realised, we lived in Florida for thirty years and didn't really know anyone. We're here for a few years, and we know intimately more people than all the time we were down there!'
Peter and Susan didn't particularly intend to start a business upon moving to Vermont, as both had already had rich, full careers (Peter's work included recording with the seminal prog rock band Procul Harem [sic!], playing keyboards with Eric Clapton and Peter Frampton and producing platinum and Grammy-nominated records). But both also had a strong creative drive, so it made sense to find a new expression for their energies, this time in food.
'I really got serious about the gelato when we opened the Newfane Café and Creamery four or five years ago,' Peter says. His cadence is deliberate and evenly paced. 'I even went to gelato school in New York City.'
He found quality used equipment (new gelato machines can cost up to $30,000) and made a conscious decision to use as many Vermont products as possible, such as milk and fruit. To his surprise and delight, the gelato was a hit. After a year in the café, he bought a mobile cart that let him sell the treat at the Brattleboro Farmer's Market.
'Sometimes people would say, "I was in Italy, and this is better than anything I had there!"' Peter smiles again, broadly this time, with a lingering if understated wonderment. 'I really did hear that a lot. It was really popular, and I came to really care about it.'
Peter and Susan stepped away from the café about a year ago, but Peter continued selling fresh gelato at the Brattleboro and Bellows Falls farmer's markets. He also began making pints of the frozen treat to sell in area stores and supplying it to local restaurants.
'I make each batch myself,' he says. 'Literally every single batch, so each time I make vanilla gelato – I use Tahitian vanilla, which has a little more floral aroma, but I think that sets it apart from the typical Madagascar vanilla – anyway, each batch is a little different. I like that.'
A real, if small, business had coalesced around this former hobby, and Peter could see glimmers of growth, perhaps even a larger production facility and a gelato shop.
Then came another round of 'How did this happen?' This time, though, delight did not accompany the surprise.
A chance encounter with another vendor at the Manchester farmer's market, where he and Susan had begun selling Newfane Gelato, led to a visit from an inspector from the Vermont agriculture department.
'We had our license from the health department, so that was all OK, but because we were working with dairy, the agriculture people had to visit us,' he says.
A few weeks after the inspection, Peter received a letter from the state. He would have to close up shop, it read, unless he pasteurised the fat-free dried milk needed to make the gelato.
Peter's eyes bug out at the remembered frustration. 'It was insane, because the dried milk we use is already ultra-pasteurised. But to be legal, we would have to re-pasteurize it. Or we could buy a pre-made gelato mix from out-of-state, which we really couldn't because the only place that sells it requires you to buy 1,000 pallets of mix at a time. It was insane.'
He discovered that the regulations for dairy use for ice cream were written in 1983 and hadn't been updated since. They also did not have a category for gelato, which officially made it, according to the regulations, 'mellorine', or artificial ice cream.
It was a terribly discouraging blow for Peter. The very state that he wanted to celebrate and support with Newfane Gelato was punishing him in the most arcane, bewildering way. He could close the business; he could buy a mix from out-of-state; or he could buy a pasteuriser for nearly six grand. How could that possibly happen?
He fumed. He banged some walls. Then he did two things: first, he appealed the ruling. The agriculture department accepted the appeal. Peter can continue to operate while it is under review.
Second, he decided to buy the pasteurizer, and he decided to try to raise the $5,500 on Kickstarter.com, a fundraising website.
'I had no idea if I'd be a laughingstock for trying this,' Peter admits. 'But it's a new paradigm. It's better than going to the bank with cap in hand, saying, "Will you please lend me money and I'll pay you twelce percent interest," and then do six weeks of paperwork and then they probably say, "'No," because of the economy.'
So he gulped and set up a Kickstarter page, asking for funds to buy the pasteuriser. He offered rewards for each level of giving, all the way up to the chance to create a flavour, with home delivery of fifty free pints and free cups at every Brattleboro Farmer's Market through 2012.
A slow, gobsmacked smile spreads across his face as he recognises another moment of bewildered awe, this time with a full serving of awesome.
'It was amazing. People raised the money. Of course, the site still needs to process the credit cards, so I'll have the heebie-jeebies until it's all good and done. But – amazing.'
He shakes his head. 'What an adventure. Many times, lying in bed, my wife and I turn to each other and say, "What? Gelato Boy? In Newfane? How did this happen?"'
He shrugs infinitesimally. 'It just did. We just went with it. Did you see my licence plate? It says GELATO! That's me!'
There's that grin again. Does it matter how things happen? After all, the smile is bigger this time, brighter, from a guy who, despite the shocks and upsets, is having a really, unexpectedly, rock solid brilliant time.
Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. To suggest people for this column, write to her at email@example.com.
Peter Solley's page at BtP