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James Coleridge samples some gelato at his shop Bella Gelateria in downtown Vancouver on June 29, 2011. (Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail/Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail)
James Coleridge samples some gelato at his shop Bella Gelateria in downtown Vancouver on June 29, 2011. (Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail/Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail)

Vancouver's gelato 'Father' built his dedicated customer base slowly - and it was worth the wait Add to ...

It's a busy Vancouver morning and, from his shop window, James Coleridge is witness to the rush of contemporary life: people in business suits hurrying down the sidewalk, taxis whizzing by, tourists hustling to the next attraction, maps in hand. On the other side of the glass, Mr. Coleridge gets his rush by slowing down, resurrecting a time when gelato-making was more art than business.

In his black apron, the owner of Bella Gelateria slowly pours his organic matcha tea concoction - his made-from-scratch gelato base infused with real matcha tea - into his beloved Effe, a classic Italian gelato-making machine patented in 1927. When the mixture is ready, there will be no computer beep alerting him, no automated anything. As the bright-green, freezing blend whirls around the vat, he will dip his little spoon in and give it a try. It's the taste that will tell him when it's ready.

"I'm a custodian of an Old World process and I'm protecting it in an industrialized world," says Mr. Coleridge, smiling but emphatic. "I'm preserving the past."

Eschewing such modern - and ubiquitous - gelato-making techniques as using a pre-mixed base and more efficient machinery, Mr. Coleridge brings slow-food philosophy to his work. He notes that a four-litre batch might take days to prepare and 40 minutes to mix and be gone in half an hour, compared with more modernized processes that could produce 10 times as much in half the mixing time.

For example, for his tiramisu gelato, he will infuse the base in three separate batches with real ingredients and lady fingers hand-coated with Kahlua, espresso and cocoa powder (three hours), then mix and assemble it (45 minutes). Add to that the two days it takes to create his all-natural base (as opposed to the bagged base that has become the industry standard).

"There's a place for fast food. There's a place for quick and easy. But it's not us," he says. "This is art. And art takes time."

There's something mildly evangelistic about the way Mr. Coleridge talks about gelato (do not call it ice cream). But get him talking about his other pursuits - especially mountain climbing - and there's that tone again. It's almost as if the passion comes first and he's just looking for something to do with it.

It appears he has found a winning target: Mr. Coleridge's methods are earning him accolades. In May, the 52-year-old was honoured as a gelato pioneer - "The Father," the award says - by industry giant Carpigiani Group (from which Mr. Coleridge purchased some of his equipment). He is the first person outside Italy to receive that recognition.

Next January, Mr. Coleridge will represent Canada in the World Cup of Gelato in Rimini, Italy - a biennial event that is becoming a big deal on the artisan-gelato calendar, attracting entrants from five continents.

There's no shortage of gelato in Metro Vancouver; Mr. Coleridge entered a market filled with established gelaterias. But in a year of doing business the hard, old-school way, his little shop has won a devoted following, from chief executive officers to B.C. Lions cheerleaders who stop by in groups. On warm weekends, people line up for up to an hour for the stuff. (At about $5 for a single flavour and about $6 for two, his prices are competitive with other gelato shops.)

More than 90 restaurants have inquired about serving his gelato. He has turned them all down, as well as requests to sell his gelato in bulk. Offers to open locations in other cities? He has rejected those, too.

"Five to eight people a week will go, 'You've got to open in Toronto. You would make a killing.' I know that. But I can't clone myself."

Mr. Coleridge sources local foods first, beginning with pricey organic milk and cream from B.C. Lower Mainland's Avalon Dairy. "You don't create five-star products by using one-star ingredients. To create the best, you must use the best." (You get the feeling he has used the line before.)

There are hazelnuts from Agassiz, B.C.; rosemary from Delta; lavender from Langley. If it's in season, he'll use it. Frozen anything is out - no matter how popular.

"Fresh strawberry versus frozen strawberry? Night and day," says Mr. Coleridge, who won't use the in-demand berries until they're available locally (they were late, this year).

At the same time, he goes to great lengths to source international specialties, flying in lemons from Sorrento and single-plantation chocolate from Madagascar. "It's cost-prohibitive, but once you've tasted that, you will never go back."

Mr. Coleridge speaks with authority and confidence, but he is a newcomer to the art of gelato. The Ottawa-born and long-time B.C. resident had never even tasted the stuff before he married and honeymooned in Italy in 2003, but he was quickly hooked.

Mr. Coleridge was seeking something new, after scandal forced him out of the seat he held for 22 years on White Rock City Council. His wife circulated an e-mail during the 2008 election campaign signed with fake names, alleging that other candidates were involved in a secret pro-development group. Mr. Coleridge contributed to the lie, referring to the fictitious senders of the e-mail during his campaign. He later admitted to lying, and his election was ruled invalid by a B.C. Supreme Court judge.

Climbing B.C.'s Fairweather Mountain around the time of the court ruling - and a few days after his wife gave birth to their first child - he made a decision. "On top of the mountain, I thought to myself: I've got to get home. I had done some pretty crazy things to get to the top." (He meant the mountain, but it's easy to read a double meaning into it.) "And I realized that I wanted to redirect all of that wonderful energy that I had into a family business."

The business, though, has taken Mr. Coleridge away from his family. Since Bella Gelateria opened a year ago, he has been putting in 12-to-14-hour days seven days a week. The late-night drive to his Fort Langley home became intolerable, so he now rents an apartment downtown for himself. He sees his family - he has a nine-month-old daughter now too - once a week.

His day begins as early as 7 a.m. as he scours the local markets for fresh produce and ideas. He is often still at the little gelateria at 11 p.m., mopping the floors. He talks constantly, skips lunch, doesn't sit down. It seems the "slow" in slow food does not apply to the proprietor, who displays an always-positive attitude that would befit a motivational speaker.

Mr. Coleridge keeps track of his recipes using Excel spreadsheets, noting the tweaks he has employed to perfect them. In a year, he has tried out more than 325 flavours (150 of them chocolate) and says only three have failed: prosecco, pineapple milk and papaya.

Pistachio gelato is richly nutty and smooth; Mike's Hard Lemonade sorbetto is refreshing, not boozy; lavender gelato is like a creamy bouquet. The jury's still out on bacon chocolate.

When a new batch is ready, this Old World style artisan turns to social media, tweeting out the flavour and posting it on Facebook. "Within 10 minutes," Mr. Coleridge says, typing into his laptop, "people will show up."

Mr. Coleridge's regular customers express concern that he might burn out with those 90-hour weeks. Not him, though. "This is not work," he says, paddling freshly made coconut water sorbetto into stainless-steel tubs. "This is love."

Follow on Twitter: @marshalederman

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