If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this – you don’t know your vanilla. Don’t believe me? Try this. Visit Xanath, the ice cream shop at 951 Valencia (Valencia and 21st), and sample two types of vanilla ice cream. One is the Madagascar vanilla – creamy, white, and delicious – a good, solid vanilla.
The other, Mexican vanilla bean, is putty-colored, with many bits of dark vanilla bean crumbled in. The taste? It’s in a whole other (extract-free) vanilla dimension.
That’s exactly what Juan San Mames and his wife Rose Maria want their customers to experience. A 62-year old native Missionite, San Mames is a vanilla evangelist. Instead of business cards, the San Mameses give away single vanilla beans in thin Ziploc bags with the store’s information attached. They named Xanath after the original vanilla flower from Mexico, the source of most of the world’s vanilla until the mid-nineteenth century.
They opened Xanath the summer of 2009, after five years in the making, because they didn’t see the type of premium organic vanilla ice cream they wanted available. A graduate of Samuel Gompers in 1967 (formerly at Valencia and 22nd, now part of City College), San Mames requires his workers to be college-bound or enrolled in college, even reorganizing shifts so employees can attend classes.
San Mames’s love of vanilla took root when he taught world history at City College and became captivated by the spice trade’s role in history. He started a wholesale spice business, Vanilla, Saffron Imports at 981 Valencia St., that since 1978 has served more than 5,000 clients, including gourmet food shops like Lucca Ravioli and Valencia Whole Foods, restaurants like Delfina and wholesale vendors like Italfoods in South San Francisco.
On any given day, San Mames can be found at his import shop amidst cardboard boxes and the scent of vanilla and saffron. Rose Maria sits at a computer nearby where she works on the business’s accounting. His glasses, which fall down his nose, his unkempt gray hair and his habit of examining the vanilla specimens around him give him the air of a mad scientist.
“Like in a banana, you don’t need the peel, but it has a lot of aroma in it,” he says, holding the vanilla bean up as explanation for why at Xanath they use the whole bean in their vanilla flavors.
He’s no less captivated by his saffron, approaching the clear plastic boxes containing the spice as if it were a treasure chest. He opens a box and presses down on the thin red strands, producing a soft crackle, which shows that the saffron has dried completely, he explains. Then, he takes a whiff.
“This saffron has this beautiful honey aroma to it,” he says, before carefully closing the box.
These moments are a reprieve from the number crunching San Mames does in his head, constantly comparing lab scores and comparing the prices of spices in different parts of the world. San Mames is shocked by how many of his customers don’t realize what a great deal they are getting on Xanath’s saffron and saffron ginger ice cream, a $2.99 saffron ice cream cone which he says is worth at least $9.99 because of current saffron prices. He goes through a stack of papers, poring over inspection reports for his saffron, pointing out its high scores.
“230-250 degrees of color,” he says, his finger pointing at the numbers. “Exquisite.”
Staying true to his background, San Mames can launch into a mini-history lecture at any given moment. One of his recurring anecdotes is how Benjamin Franklin, while in France securing funding for the War for Independence, sent Mexican vanilla beans to Thomas Jefferson.
“It was this ‘new flavor’ that inspired Jefferson to do his “ice cream,” he says. It’s that Jeffersonian spirit that Xanath wants to return to, with an emphasis on organic ingredients.
Xanath’s use of almost entirely organic ingredients (including organic cups, spoons, and cones) is a point of pride for San Mames. Maintaining this means, for example, finding California organic certified red walnuts for his red walnut & chocolate and deciding on milder “Madagascar cinnamon from Ceylon” instead of the stronger and more common Vietnamese or Chinese cinnamon for his creamy apple & cinnamon.
“People go the easy way; they like to use extracts,” San Mames says. “But most of the extracts contain alcohol—a fruit is a fruit.”
The result: pumpkin pie ice cream that tastes like pumpkin, the strawberry ice cream tastes like strawberries, and the fig, well, you get the point.
Brownish vanilla ice cream and whitish strawberry ice cream isn’t for everyone, though. Some Yelpers have disparaged Xanath from everything from its name to the store window displays that showcase vanilla beans. San Mames is okay with that.
“We don’t want to be considered “hipster”, he says. “We just want to serve all kinds of people, families, older folk.”
Xanath has its fans. On a recent visit to the shop Adam Lewis, 25, says he returned to Xanath because of how different the vanilla tastes – “not too sweet and nicely strong”.
Linda Saraf, 65, a self-proclaimed ice cream junkie, was even more emphatic about supporting her saffron-ginger scoop.
“It’s the most authentic saffron flavor,” Saraf marvels. “I love saffron. I love ginger – to get it into combination is amazing. It’s like pure heaven, what can I say.”
San Mames says he’s happy with the response from customers, that from the very first days, people came in asking for specific flavors, like Mexican vanilla bean, saffron ginger, and huckleberry. While he won’t speak about his competitors in the neighborhood, San Mames knows what drives Xanath, “What we aim to do is to go back to Jeffersonian use of natural ingredients and flavors. When Franklin was ambassador at the French Court …”