JOHN HARRISON is a man with seriously expensive tastes: his discerning palate is so valuable to ice-cream maker Dreyer's that the company has insured his taste buds for US$1 million (HK$7.72 million). Little wonder then that Harrison, as Dreyer's official taster and flavour developer, is careful to ensure his own quality controllers are always up to the job: to keep those taste buds tingling he does not smoke, touch alcohol, consume spicy food or wear cologne during the working week. Fourth generation in a family of ice-cream makers, Harrison joined the Oakland, California, company 12 years ago. Since then, he calculates he has tasted and approved some 600 million litres of ice-cream bound for the gigantic United States market. And the Americans certainly are sweet on this frozen fare. Last year they slurped their way through 68 billion litres of the stuff - big business for Dreyer's, which churns out 227 million litres a year or US$500 million in terms of sales, according to Harrison. Here in Hong Kong, we may not devour quite as much ice-cream as our American counterparts but we certainly scoop up our fair share. According to Hong Kong Trade and Development Council's research department some 480 million kilograms, or $105 million worth, was imported here in 1993. There's obviously a voracious market here - and to ensure its share Dreyer's not only maintains strict controls on quality but also monitors the changing tastes of the ice-cream buying public, which means a portion of Harrison's time is spent developing new and exciting flavours to whet consumers' appetites. But first, as Harrison's taste buds are at their most sensitive early in the morning, his working day begins with a tasting session. Armed with the tools of his trade - a gold-plated spoon (because it leaves no after-taste), thermometer and cleaver (to slice through cartons) - he samples about 60 tubs every day, checking for texture, temperature and an even distribution of fruit, nuts and other ingredients as well as for flavour. Like a wine taster, he starts with the light white wines of ice-cream, such as vanilla and toasted almond, and works through to the heavy Bordeaux of mocha, chocolate and fudge. 'It takes me just four or five seconds to know whether an ice-cream is right or wrong,' Harrison says. 'Anything not up to standard is not put back on the freezer shelf.' Instead, those 1.8 million litres or so that don't make Harrison's grade find their way into kitchens for the homeless every year. Harrison takes his sensory techniques all over the US, visiting Dreyer's manufacturing plants and seeking out counterparts with similar tastes. His simple test to ascertain whether a potential taster has enough sense for the job involves injecting a little spoilt milk into some samples and asking the candidate to distinguish between the good and the spoilt. 'I find that if they can't taste the spoilt milk in the ice-cream then they don't have it in them to become tasters,' he says. When it comes to developing new flavours, Harrison has to keep an eye on current trends. In the US, low-fat, low-sugar products now account for 50 per cent of ice-cream sales as consumers veer away from creamy, calorific blends. We are not so health-conscious in Hong Kong - low-fat, low-sugar varieties are not nearly as popular and are stocked by few supermarkets. According to Hong Kong Dreyer's Carol Mak, we still prefer the rich, traditional taste. And the territory's ice-cream fans are just as conservative about flavour. While the Americans can look forward to gorging on strawberry cheesecake chunk and espresso chip - just two of some 10 to 15 new flavours being introduced this year - we will be sticking to less avant-garde confections. vanilla and butter pecan, for example, which top the best-selling flavour list in the US, are also among the favourites here. Yet despite the territory's preference for high-fat, high-calorie ices, it does look as though slimmer-friendly versions are the shape of things to come. 'It makes sense to go for the health-conscious market and it's the way we see ice-cream trends going. About 50 per cent of Americans are allergic to lactose in milk, about 25 per cent are diabetic, and another 25 per cent have high cholesterol,' Harrison says. Haagen Dazs, too, is aiming at the health-conscious with its low-fat yoghurt line, as is Movenpick, a Swiss company and relative newcomer to Hong Kong whose ranges include lemon sorbet at only 84 calories per 100 grams and premium cream, half-sorbet-half-cream and yoghurt ice varieties at 150-200 calories per 100 gm. Those looking for ice cream with a lower fat content should try Glace de France, which is now made in Macau. Casino magnate Stanley Ho liked the premium French ice-cream so much when he tasted it in France last year that he decided to buy the franchise. Its distinctive taste is due to the use of fresh ingredients: local fresh milk, ripe strawberries, roasted pistachio and coconut milk (Ho's favourite flavour). Glace de France is available in Hotel Lisboa and the Macau ferry terminal. There are plans to bring it to Hong Kong soon.