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Kitty Travers’s kitchen is stacked with Amalfi lemons, bottles of home-made vanilla essence and well-thumbed old cookbooks. Unusually for a professional ice cream maker, she also has two Pacojets: Swiss-made machines designed to micro-cut frozen liquid so that it forms a textured cream. They are an essential part of her business, La Grotta Ices, based since 2010 in an old greengrocer’s in Maltby Street market, Bermondsey, where she sells confections as delicate as they are intense, such as cucumber and dill flower ice cream or a raspberry and fig leaf choc ice.
Travers, formerly a pastry chef at St John in Smithfield, is one of a number of inventive new entrepreneurs in the ice cream business. In 2008, she started selling seasonal home-made ices from the back of a retro-van, a Piaggio Ape, at farmers’ markets in London. Others soon followed: Suzanna Austin and Pedro Confessore, the husband and wife team behind Sorbitium Ices; Francesco Prati of Gelateria 3BIS; and Julie Fisher of Ruby Violet.
All have rejected common practices such as the addition of milk powder, vegetable oil or artificial flavourings. They also disdain high “over-run”, in which air is whipped into the ice cream to make it soft, so that less can be sold as more. These ice creams are about good quality ingredients, and you have to be prepared to pay for them: Sorbitium, La Grotta and Ruby Violet charge £2.50 for a single scoop in a cone, while Gelateria 3BIS starts at £3.20 for an ice cream.
Sorbitium Ices started with Confessore and Austin daydreaming over a bottle of wine by the Serpentine in 2010. “It was a beautiful hot day and we couldn’t find any good ice cream,” says Austin, who has worked as a chef at the River Café and Petersham Nurseries. “We felt that we really needed to change that.”
Working as chefs, they saved up enough to start a business from their home in Richmond, Surrey. “We needed around £15,000 to buy our van, ice cream maker and freezers,” recalls Austin. “Our Mehen ice cream machine was so heavy, we were worried it would go through the floor.” After six months, they moved into a small commercial unit in Park Royal, in northwest London.
From the start, they adopted a very British style. “A lot of our ice creams are made with egg-based custards and we just add fresh fruit, nuts or herbs,” says Austin. “In the early days we’d use fruit from our allotment, but now we choose what looks really good at Western International Market in Southall and work with that.” The results, in flavours such as peach leaf and cherry ripple, or lavender, pistachio and honey brittle, are impressive.
Gelateria 3BIS in Borough Market sells a very different style of ice cream. The shop is a partnership between Prati and a childhood friend, who had already established a gelateria in Rimini, and many of the ingredients, such as Amarena cherries and ground hazelnuts, are imported from Italy. “We use Cattabriga gelato makers here, which are some of the best,” Prati enthuses, as the gleaming silver machines quietly hum behind the counter. “They have a vertical as opposed to horizontal drum which means they take longer to churn the ice cream, which gives it a smoother texture and a lower over-run.”
Organic milk, cream and sugar are pasteurised as the ice cream base, with egg yolks added to some of the richer varieties such as panna cotta, pistachio and chocolate. “We’ve started making some English variations as well,” says Prati. “Last year we tried goat’s curd, from Neal’s Yard Dairy next door, and a sherry trifle ice cream.”
Fisher, who established Ruby Violet in 2011, finds her customers to be a good source of ideas. “We have a suggestion box and we get loads of feedback which we’ll turn into ice creams where possible.” But every batch is different: “The melons this week weren’t as sweet as last week, so we added lime juice. I think that this variability adds to the charm of artisan ice cream.”
Now that Heston Blumenthal has launched a machine (which plays a tune like a vendor’s van when your sorbet is ready) perhaps it’s only a matter of time before ice cream becomes the new cupcake.
‘The Great British Vegetable Cookbook’, by Sybil Kapoor, is published by National Trust Books, £25.
La Grotta Ices
Unit 12, Dockley Road, London SE16 3SF; lagrottaices.tumblr.com
07989 977346; www.sorbitiumices.com
4 Park Street, London SE1 9AB; 020 7378 1977; www.gelateria3bis.co.uk
118 Fortess Road, London NW5 2HL; 020 7609 0444; www.rubyviolet.co.uk