On the wall of a small new shop on a cobbled lane in Camden, north London is a tiny flashing light, the only hint that something unusual is going on inside. It’s the kind of light normally found in science laboratories, a visible indicator that oxygen levels are at a safe level. Peer through the window and things get stranger still – amid clouds of white gas, two figures in white coats busy themselves with beakers of multicoloured liquid. On Sunday, when the doors open to the public for the first time, all will finally become clear – behind the anonymous brick exterior is Europe’s first “nitrogen ice-cream parlour”.
The Chin Chin Laboratorists, an ice-cream parlour and confectionery shop, is the brainchild of a young couple, Ahrash Akbari-Kalhur and his wife Nyisha Weber. A former city broker and marketing co-ordinator for an art gallery respectively, they gave up their jobs and have been researching “nitro” ice-cream for almost two years, after deciding there was a gap in the market to bring what was the preserve of high-end restaurants to the masses. “We took inspiration from the top chefs – Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal – but we wanted to do similar things at an affordable level,” says Weber.
So where a normal ice-cream parlour would have a freezer, instead there is a 180-litre tank of nitrogen, complete with pressure gauge. Akbari-Kalhur demonstrates the ice-cream making process, hosing the liquid nitrogen into a metal jug before mixing it into an egg custard ice-cream mix. Cold nitrogen gas streams out and spreads across the counter. (The process is not without its hazards and Akbari-Kalhur has the frostbite marks on his hands to prove it. Chin Chin must be the only ice-cream parlour in the country where staff wear leather gloves and safety glasses to comply with health and safety regulations.)
But then, like magic, the custard mix has turned into ice-cream. It takes just seconds, and, although the process is a fabulous gimmick, Akbari-Kalhur and Weber say it also results in better ice-cream. “When you freeze the mixture instantly, you avoid ice crystals so it is a smoother, denser finish on the tongue,” says Akbari-Kalhur.
I was sceptical at first but, after working my way through numerous samples, I can report that it does work: the ice-cream is astonishingly smooth, almost chewy, with not even the faintest grain of ice.
As well as the taste and the texture, the other key difference is personalisation. For around £4, customers can choose whichever flavours they like from a list that ranges from vanilla to basil, then watch as these are then mixed together and frozen before their eyes. Finally it is “dressed”, with homemade toppings such as violet marshmallows and peanut brittle. “It is all about concocting a personal ice-cream,” says Akbari-Kalhur.
They claim the Chin Chin Laboratorists is unique in Europe if not the world, but it is also part of a wider trend in Britain. Here ice-cream has long been the preserve of children, but a series of entrepreneurs is attempting to make it more of an adult indulgence, as well as introducing new variations, such as the ice-cream sandwich, which they hope will capture popular imagination in the same way as cupcakes have.
Laverstoke Farm, the organic farm owned by former Formula One driver Jodie Scheckter, is this week due to open an ice-cream parlour in Selfridges, the famous Oxford Street department store. Designed to appeal to adult shoppers, it will be located not in the ground-floor food hall, but on the fifth floor, close to designer concessions and the lingerie store Agent Provocateur. Flavours are similarly adult, including liquorice, dark chocolate and coffee, and all are made with organic buffalo milk. The ice-cream is also about to be launched in supermarket Sainsbury’s.
Last month Jacob Kenedy opened Gelupo, a new gelateria opposite his popular restaurant, Bocca di Lupo in Soho, central London. With its sparkling cream and blue tiles and marble bar, it looks inviting and evokes Italian romance. “The techniques we use are not groundbreaking but the flavours hopefully are,” he says.
These include ricotta, coffee and honey or his most recent concoction, “Bonet” – chocolate, egg yolks, coffee, rum and amaretto. He insists upon making me an ice-cream sandwich; a freshly-baked brioche filled with hazelnut gelato and whipped cream. Kenedy says these sandwiches, usually made from brioches or focaccia, are classic ice-cream fare in Bologna and Sicily. In some parts of Italy, the gelato is replaced with coffee granitas (a sort of slush puppy) and eaten at breakfast. It is hardly elegant (it is all but impossible to keep it in the bun and off the chin) but, as Kenedy explains, “There is a textural and temperature thing going on.”
Kenedy is passionate about the social side of ice-cream and Gelupo stays open until 1am to provide a place for friends to meet or eat an ice-cream sandwich in the street. “In other parts of the world, going for ice-cream is a very social activity, and that is what we are trying to create,” he says.
And the ice-cream innovation doesn’t stop there. “I’m working on glow-in-the-dark ice-cream and ice-cream noodles using piping bags. I think this sort of ice-cream is the future,” says Akbari-Kalhur.
A royal luxury
The year is 1671. Charles II is celebrating the 10th anniversary of his return to the English throne after a seemingly hopeless exile. Ever since then, he has envied Louis XIV’s courts at Marly and the new palace of Versailles, writes Anthony Capella.
Now that his own coffers have been filled with a secret French bribe, Charles can rebuild Windsor as another Versailles, starting with the banqueting hall. He summons a thousand nobles to what he hopes will be the first of many great feasts, on St George’s Day.
No dried-out roast beef or larks in aspic here: instead they eat fresh, seasonal food in the new French style: asparagus, strawberries, lobster, chicken. The courses are even served separately, like the acts of a play, instead of all at once in the English manner. And, as the menu’s highlight, there is “one plate of white strawberries and one plate of iced cream”, a luxury so extraordinary that it is served to the king’s table alone.
You see, the art of freezing foodstuffs, using salt to lower the temperature of ice, is a secret known only to a few confectioners at the greatest courts of Europe, and it is thus the ultimate status symbol. Even before he started work on Windsor, Charles had commissioned an ice house, one of the first in the country, the remains of which can still be seen near the Ritz. Indeed, the words “iced cream” are themselves a new coinage: the French and Italians have so far confined themselves to the simpler business of making sorbets, without eggs or cream.
That dish of ice-cream is not only the first recorded appearance in history of a remarkable pleasure – it is also a political statement, a symbol of arbitrary royal power and ambition that shows Charles is now on a collision course with the parliament that restored him. Within 20 years, England would experience the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, and the first recipe for ice-cream would be published. Were the two connected? What is certain is that ice-cream was never again to be a symbol of privilege.
‘The Empress of Ice-Cream’ (Sphere, RRP£6.99), Anthony Capella’s novel based on the history of ice-cream, is published next month