Today I attended the funeral of John Marshall, a.k.a Mr Frugii, Canberra’s Willy Wonka and Godfather of fine ice creams. I first met John when he worked full time as an IT guy in the public service. But he loved sweets and spent his Saturdays selling his wares at the Capital Region Farmers Market at EPIC. His story echoed with me, as a foodie writing and cooking very passionately while stuck in a public service job I wasn’t very passionate about. I liked him a lot.
He’d taken some high-end pastry courses and begun specialising in ice cream. Boy, did he make some incredible ice creams! He hit the press for crazy flavours like laksa and roast potato. I bought his pavlova ice cream for Christmas more than once, and his blue cheese ice cream was amazing. But his chocolate ice cream was truly one of a kind. What sounds like a run of the mill ice cream flavour was anything but in the hands of this master, he had worked hard on it. In fact, he even made his own chocolate, from scratch, especially for the ice cream.
I’ve had many wonderful, in depth conversations with John about fine quality chocolate, and his was the first 100% cocoa bar that I ate. I am incredibly grateful for all that I learned from him. He shared his passion freely with foodies great and small. Never seeking the spotlight, he didn’t wish to share the celebrity despite several seeking his insights. I know of at least a few of the early successful Masterchef contestants who sought him out for his expertise.
When the property developers offered him a space to open a shop in the redeveloping Lonsdale St, Braddon, it was his chance to make his dream a reality, leave the public service for good and open his dessert laboratory. Oh how I waited in anticipation! Even now, all these years later, despite buying a delicious sesame bun filled with red bean paste from the new stall holders there each week, I think of that stall as Mr Frugii’s spot. I missed his presence at market so much. But was so happy for his exciting new venture!
Frugii Desert Laboratory quickly became a Canberra institution. Groups of students from the university colleges coming in to satisfy late night cravings; Canberra foodie tours showing off our finest; hipsters coming in with their beards trimmed; families coming in for a regular treat; couples and maybe-couples on dates and not-quite-dates enjoying themselves in the welcoming atmosphere. My personal favourite of the deserts remains the lemon meringue choux, but all those speared with pipettes certainly evoke the ‘laboratory’ vibe.
Frugii showed that Canberra is a market ready for high end ice cream. Eventually, Messina set up shop down the road. Now we have Spilt Milk Bar in Dickson. They too have their devotees. I believe we owe the elevation of the Canberra market to John Marshall. But I firmly believe neither of those ice creameries make a chocolate ice cream as good as Frugii and the Dessert Lab is something else entirely.