It wasn’t my first taste of ice cream, but it was the first ice cream I remember. My mother made it, and she set the bar high. It was white–very white–and in it she’d put all sorts of things: dried fruit, curls of crystallised, candied citrus peel, and half spheres of toasted hazelnuts from my aunt’s farm in Italy. It was the perfect “ice cream with bits”: each mouthful yielded some crunch, some chew. But I was horribly cheated. As I remember it, I ate some–my mother hadn’t made very much–and then it went back into the fridge. I opened and closed the icebox’s plasticky little door many times, shaving off bits of overgrown ice as I did so, wondering if I could justify stealing the last few mouthfuls without sharing. And then, with no such indecision, someone else ate it. I never got to taste that ice cream again; when I asked my mother if she could remake it, she said she couldn’t remember how she’d done it, which just made it more precious than ever. I’ve been searching for it ever since.
Ice cream has always featured large in my life. On Sunday, after church, my father, sister and I would go to Bobby’s newsagent for ice cream: the choice was limited. We always wanted raspberry ripple, but sometimes we had to have Neapolitan, a striped brick of red, white and brown meant to be strawberry, vanilla and chocolate flavour, but which didn’t taste like any of them. Sometimes, on hot summer afternoons, my mother would buy us small vanilla blocks and square wafer cones to fit them into, on the way home from school.
All of this changed the day after my seventh birthday. My parents opened a cafe on London’s Bayswater Road. It was 1973 and we sold cappuccino; in those days this was practically unheard of outside of Soho, so we had to explain endlessly that it was frothy coffee. We also sold Marine Ices: ice cream from a factory in Chalk Farm, which arrived in tall, thin, churn-like tins. These resided, about eight of them, in an orange, lean-into fridge, and featured pistachio, hazelnut, fior di latte and zabaglione (the last two, regarded as too foreign, were soon dropped)–flavours I’d previously only seen for sale in Italy, where even the most modest village has an ice-cream parlour with a choice running into double figures. It meant we never had to buy ice cream again–although none of the flavours my father sold had bits in. And I wanted bits.
When my father was 60 he retired. But he was restless. The year he turned 70, he bought the shop next door to his old cafÃ©. He announced he was going to make and sell proper Italian ice cream–which has a softer texture than other recipes, although without descending to Mr Whippy’s levels of aeration. He learnt how to make ice cream, and bought lots of machinery, the principal piece of which looked like a large washing machine and was called il mantecatore–the churner. I later found out it had been a boyhood dream of his to open an ice-cream parlour but he’d never had the money for the equipment.
The ingredients were simple: cream, milk, sugar and the relevant extras (high cocoa-content chocolate, pistachio nuts, strawberries, mangoes). Water, sugar and fruit for sorbets. They went into the churner and glooped in creamy soft folds, just minutes later, into their containers. Italian ice cream should be made regularly: after as little as 48 hours it doesn’t taste the same any more. Three times a week, my father would start making ice cream at 5am. He always worked alone.
He opened on August Bank Holiday, 1999. I entered full of trepidation: my father had never made any sort of sweet thing before. What if it was rubbish? He stood behind his ice-cream display cabinet, all glass and stainless steel, with 24 flavours and tiny testing cones to help people navigate them. The little orange fridge seemed a long time ago. Some customers seemed confused by the vast choice and ended up going for safe flavours they knew: vanilla, chocolate, strawberry. My father didn’t want this; he wanted people to experiment. I tasted. It was excellent. I could scarcely believe someone I knew could make something this good. My father was an ice-cream maker!
Just-made, my father’s ice cream was truly perfect: dense but soft. There was no pointless licking involved, like with some ice creams in cones: each flick of the tongue made progress, a groove. If you were particularly fierce, you could actually move the whole scoop practically off the cone. I tried the tiramisu: coffee ice cream layered with a sponge steeped in liqueur and dusted with cocoa. I tried the apple crumble; not strictly speaking Italian, but soon one of my favourites. But the best flavour of all, despite no bits, was the chocolate-chestnut ice cream. It was wonderful: throat-fillingly thick and gooey.
My father had unorthodox methods of sourcing ingredients. The sweet chestnuts he harvested himself, in September. He’d tie a piece of wood to some rope, throw it up into the tree and down they’d fall. But then he had always been a forager. Lemons came direct from Sorrento, where the fruit are big, and sweet. He had a deal with the coach driver from a nearby hotel, who went to Italy once a week. On his return journey he’d find room for a crate of lemons for my father.
For five years the parlour was an enormous success. My father would occasionally tell me that some famous person had asked him to supply ice cream for their party, or that an expensive restaurant wanted to serve his gelato. He always said no, because he was a one-man band (although my mother and I were allowed to help serve behind the counter). Ultimately, this was his downfall. He worked seven days a week, sometimes 18-hour days. By 2004, we had pressed him into selling up–a decision I think we’ve all regretted ever since.
After my father closed his shop, all bought ice cream, even the really good stuff, disappointed. So I started making my own. I bought a Panasonic ice-cream maker (a steal at £35). The recipe leaflet gives a recipe for an excellent chocolate ice cream; luckily my father can still get me tiny, tasting cones (a big hit with children) because a small scoop is all you need. The vanilla recipe, with some modification (it asks for way too much vanilla extract) is very, very good.
Ice cream, for all that it’s a happy clappy food with–surely–no negative associations for anyone, is ill served in the recipe-book department. I bought books from around the world, but there’s only one that is really any good (although it’s already out of print, despite having only been published three years ago), “The Ice Cream Handbook”, by Vicki Smallwood. In it I found a contender for best ice cream with bits in: almond praline. It doesn’t rival my mother’s but it tries hard. You have to make a caramel first, and boil it to 220°F. This takes courage, and time. Then you have to act fast, to pour it over the toasted almonds, before blitzing the lot, making the bits as big or small as you like. The ice cream itself is made with egg yolk, cream, milk and sugar. It’s a splendid dessert served in sugar-cones after even the most sophisticated dinner party: hardly anyone says no to ice cream.
For the last three years I’ve worked my ice-cream maker hard, experimenting in my kitchen with flavours, textures and how many bits I can cram in, while still allowing the cream bit to actually ice. I am the ice-cream maker now.