831 ice cream flavors – and more to come
I went for the pumpkin ice cream. That was, I will admit, a bit unadventurous. I did take a little taste of the smoked trout. I forced down a spoonful of black beans and rice and actually rather liked the avocado concoction. The fried pork rind I simply refused. "No, just pumpkin," I said firmly before relenting: "OK. With chocolate sprinkles."
Welcome to Heladería Coromoto, the ice cream parlor in Mérida, Venezuela, nestled in the Andean hills at the base of the 16,000-foot-high Pico Bolívar. It has the world's largest selection of flavors – 831 and counting, proudly says longtime ice cream scooper and part owner Jose Ramirez.
Stumbling upon an ice cream parlor here that holds a place in the Guinness Book of World Records is, well, a surprise. But Venezuela is like that.
Forget about the Cappuccino Commotion at Häagen-Dazs. Skip the Cherry Garcia at Ben & Jerry's. Heladería Coromoto is where ice cream variety truly breaks loose.
"Oh, we Venezuelans will try anything out of the ordinary, anything different ... look at our government," half jokes customer Manuel Moya, who proclaims his two scoops of shrimps in wine ice cream to be "superb."
His girlfriend, Silvia Sambrando, meanwhile, asks for a child-size scoop of diet Coca-Cola, proving, perhaps, that Venezuelan women are not so different from the rest of us after all.
When Portuguese immigrant and former chef Manuel Da Silva Oliveira opened the store 26 years ago, he offered four flavors – vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, and coconut. He branched out into avocado for the novelty of it. It was a hit, and the rest is history. When the maestro hit flavor No. 593 – that was "Chipi Chipi," a small saltwater shellfish – Guinness ushered him in.
The store typically has about 70 to 80 flavors available at any one time. "It depends what we can pick up that week," explains Mr. Ramirez, who says the ice cream makers scour the fruit and vegetable markets, butcher shops, and other stores of the city for ingredients. No chemicals are added.
Some of the all-time favorites here are tuna with real chunks of the fish, chili pepper, asparagus, and rose petal. Corn is big this season. Beet root and cream is selling well. But ham and cheese, for some reason, has been a bit of a failure.
As more and more flavors are invented, coming up with names for them is becoming a creative challenge, admits the ice cream man.
The amaretto and caramel mix, for example, is called "For My Love," and is completely different from "I Love You," which, as any schoolboy could guess, is simply bubble gum and honey.
"We try to capture the essence of the flavor," says Melina Da Silva, Mr.Da Silva's daughter, who is married to Ramirez and spends most of her days in the back kitchen, inventing the latest recipes (sardine ice cream was one of her prouder moments.)
Owner Da Silva was not in town this week. He is back in Portugal, where his eldest son, also named Manuel Da Silva Oliveira, is opening the first Coromoto franchise in the southern fishing port of Portimao, 185 miles south of Lisbon.
They are starting modestly, with 60 flavors. "You know how old-fashioned Europeans can be," says Melina apologetically.
Sitting on the bench in Coromoto, underneath a massive blackboard listing all current and past flavors, Margali Mocera, an accountant, is enjoying a cone topped by a scoop of vanilla.
"I come here at least once a week," she says. "I always get vanilla."
I take a lick of my pumpkin with sprinkles. Maybe I'm not so unadventurous after all. Some might call me a rebel.