The estate where my grandparents lived was unremittingly grey. Concrete semis darkened by coal fires. I spent a lot of time there, making things – toy snakes out of old spools, a miniature garden in a soup plate – following the instructions in a Ladybird book. Our world was small but busy and we rarely went anywhere.
The one thing that crossed our boundaries was the ice-cream van. That tinny tune and the smell – a mixture of wafers, sugar and exhaust fumes – made your tummy do somersaults. It came once a week in spring and summer and my granny would have thought it neglectful not to buy me a cone. I never asked for a 99 because they were too expensive. I had a whorl of vanilla with rivulets of squirty strawberry sauce. Everyone came out in their summer clothes and suddenly the world was technicoloured. The sad thing is I never really enjoyed the ice cream. I loved the event, but after I’d licked the strawberry sauce off, only sweetness and air remained. Mr Whippy made big promises but didn’t deliver.
I didn’t think much about ice cream – though I loved the odd sundae – until years later when Baskin-Robbins opened. This wasn’t soft like Mr Whippy and, even better, there were 31 flavours. We used to gaze at the array, our coins hot in sweaty hands, panicking about choice. They had turned bubble-gum, blueberries, chocolate-chip cookie dough and, the one the grown-ups liked – rum and raisins – into ice cream.
For years after that I was aware of the new kids on the block: Häagen-Daz, so expensive it catapulted ice cream into the luxury category, and Ben & Jerry’s. But it was cookbooks that made me consider what ice cream could be. It didn’t have to be childish, like Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food, but could capture and fuse flavours. I’d only ever done this with preserves, making fig and Earl Grey jam or quince and star anise jelly, enjoying the poetry of binding ingredients that otherwise remained separate. The custard used for ice cream can be infused with tea, fig leaves, port. The resulting ices offer flavour in stage whispers, flavours you’ve never before experienced in this form.
They can also be fused with another element, Darjeeling with prunes, fig leaves with peaches, port with blackberries. The chef Joyce Molyneux had a recipe for lemon and basil in her book, The Carved Angel; the Chez Panisse Desserts book, from the American restaurant of the same name, offered blackcurrant-leaf ice cream and Beaumes-de-Venise ice cream to eat with sliced peaches. You could create something other-worldly with just cream and ice.
I learnt, from books, the different approaches to ices. Most were based on custard, some were just fruit purée and whipped cream, others could be made by the ‘meringue Italienne’ method, where you beat egg whites until stiff then pour on hot sugar syrup – it produces glossy clouds – to blend with puréed fruit and whipped cream.
I churned my ice creams by hand, taking them in and out of the freezer section of my small fridge, but when I got married my siblings gave me an ice-cream machine. It was far and away the most expensive bit of kit I owned. It’s a workhorse and has stayed with me through divorces and separations and gallons of ice cream. It looks slightly bashed and the Gaggia lettering is worn away in parts. I often pat it.
Ice-cream machines are much cheaper now – Lakeland’s Digital Ice-Cream Maker is just shy of £40. Mr Whippy sold the idea that ice cream would make you happy, three licks in and you’d be in heaven. The ice cream you make yourself will deliver.