Concerning The 99 Flake

Every once in a while, instead of the standard restaurant review, it’s nice to take a few steps back and discuss broader food topics, or those sorts of things that don’t really lend themselves to a review, per se.

With this being my first visit to Britiain since 2008 during "summer" (in this case, the trailing edge of it), I was able to finally try one of those British traditions of summer, the "99 Flake". Okay, at this point, my UK readers are probably rolling their eyes and saying to themselves, “Great, now he’s rambling on about 99 Flakes. What’s next, the finer points of Jaffa Cakes?” While my US and other readers are probably asking themselves, “WTF is a 99 Flake?”

Well, the 99 Flake is a standard British dairy treat. At it’s most basic, it’s basically what us Yanks call as soft serve cone, with a large dollop of soft serve ice cream served on one of those wafer cones. And, to top it off, the very pièce de résistance is the insertion of a half-length Cadbury Flake into the ice cream. This is the unique British bit, since, aside from a few “Imported Food” sections at higher-end grocers, the Cadbury Flake is a unique British confection. The concept for the Flake came from a particularly industrious Cadbury worker, who observed chocolate spilling over the sides of a Cadbury chocolate vat and congealing into flaky ribbons and decided “Hey, we could sell that!” Well, sell it they did, with the resulting Flake being one of Cadbury’s top sellers (and, indeed, they’ve even been making the special bulk-pack half-length Flakes for ice cream use since the 1930s).

There is something about the Flake that just works in a 99 Flake. I don’t care for a Flake by itself; I’m not particularly a fan of milk chocolate in general, or Cadbury milk chocolate in particular. And the unique flaky texture of the 99 tends to, at least with my eating style, result in a fragile bar that’s likely to burst into soft chocolate bits upon the first bite. But combining it with soft serve? The result is a fairly pleasant example of complementing textures: like chocolate chips, it adds a bit of flavor to the vanilla ice cream, while the creaminess of the ice cream nicely enhances the otherwise slightly dry note of the Flake. It’s obviously a successful combination, since it’s almost impossible to walk through a London park in the summer without encountering multiple 99 Flake Vendors (although it is definitely a summertime treat—by mid-September the vendors all seem to have packed it in for the season).

This is also one of those sorts of treats where people take the fine details in the preparation. There’s an art to the ice cream, it’s definitely a softer and less cold variant of your typical soft ice cream (usually with a lot of air whipped into it), with a slightly stronger vanilla note than your typical US soft serve. And indeed, there’s also an art to the dispensing of it as well: whereas other soft ice cream treats may be spiraled or extruded onto the cone, for a proper 99 Flake the ice cream is more piled on in a sort of back-and-forth manner (see the picture). There’s even a particular way you are supposed to apply the Flake. Indeed, a search of the literature includes a study about the strong preference for the Flake to be inserted at a 45 degree angle (I can’t even make this stuff up!).

And finally, there’s the matter of the name. While the actual menu name may vary (indeed, my exemplar was purchased as an “ice cream single with Flake™”), these are universally recognized as “99 Flakes”. But where does the 99 come from? Even the maker of the Flake, Cadbury, claims the origin as unknown. It’s not from the price (although I’m sure there was a time in the 80s, post-decimalization, where one did cost 99p), that much is sure, since the name goes back to at least the 1930s, when 99p (which would have been an odd price in the £sd days) would have bought you a rather large volume of ice cream, more than you’d be sticking on a cone. I guess, like Chess Pie, the history has been lost.

In any case, the 99 Flake is a good summertime treat (the one pictured here is from a vendor in Hyde Park), one with no direct US equivalent. Now off to find some Jaffa Cakes.

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