We London people like ice cream more than you might think, given that our climate for most of the year is not ideal for this frozen delight. But we don’t mind not having the weather for it – in fact, I’m sure I remember reading somewhere or other that more ice cream is consumed in the UK in the winter than in the summer.
Personally speaking, this Londoner adores ice cream. I’ll eat it any old time, but it’s also my default choice on a restaurant dessert menu and my favourite prize for when I feel I deserve something special. I’ve celebrated a new job with pillowy swirls of frozen yoghurt sprinkled with my choice of toppings (brownie pieces and raspberries), and on my birthday this year I made a pilgrimage by myself to a new cafe in my neighbourhood to sample a creamy caramel “freakshake”. But my London ice cream memories stretch a long way back into my past.
Paddington Bear and his Knickerbocker Glories. How a maths textbooks – a US import, as it happens – taught me how permutations differ from combinations by asserting that “a double scoop ice cream cone with jamoca almond fudge on top and strawberry on the bottom is not the same as strawberry on the top and jamoca almond fudge on the bottom” – quite true, of course. Everyone loving impromptu hot chocolate sundaes at a New Year’s Eve party after the hostess mistakenly put salt instead of sugar into the apple pie. The Ben & Jerry’s music festivals on Clapham Common – unlimited free cones! The innovative gelaterias that make your ice cream on the spot with liquid nitrogen, require a secret password for certain flavours, or even whip up an icy treat up out of breast milk. The very traditional gelateria that has for generations been located in Primrose Hill near my parents’ house, and where I had my 29th (yes, 29th not 9th) birthday party.
But many of my most precious London ice cream memories involve my grandmother, very much a native Londoner, if mainly of its suburban south-west fringes. I think she loves ice cream almost as much as I do. I remember, when I was a only small child and she must have already been a mature lady, ordering “honey gelato, please” in unison with her in a restaurant we were at for a family party. Her coffee ice cream (recipe pictured) is legendary. To this day, we’re quite likely to both have a dame blanche for pudding if it’s on the menu when we meet for lunch.
Perhaps because it also has significant Italian immigration in its history, New Orleans of course also has a rich tradition of making and eating ice cream. I’ve been in love with the city’s ice cream parlours for almost as long as I’ve been love with the city. I think I visited La Divina in the French Quarter on my very first day there, and I also have happy memories of attending an evening poetry readings around the cast iron tables in its little alley courtyard. Angelo Brocato (pictured) meanwhile, was one of the places I made a beeline for when I began to explore Mid City.
I’ve been thinking about all these ice cream memories a lot recently. Perhaps because this September it has been unseasonably hot in London, which happily has prompted more ice cream eating. But a favourite gelateria wasn’t open when I tried to visit, as it’s actually officially autumn now. Hot weather at this time of year can also lead to storms and flooding, unfortunately suffered by parts of the world both near London and near New Orleans in recent weeks, which reminded me of Ben & Jerry’s climate change awareness campaign – tagline: “If It’s Melted, It’s No Good”.
These things show that there are ebbs and flows in ice cream that reflect those in every other part of life. The sweet stuff symbolises life’s pleasures and can be a powerful connection to the precious things in our histories, but by its very nature also represents and reminds us of their fragility and fleetingness.
I read recently that La Divina closed its original Magazine Street outlet. Angelo Brocato moved in the late 1970s/early 1980s from the French Quarter to Carrollton Avenue and then, just after celebrating its 100th birthday, was forced to shut for over a year after Hurricane Katrina, which was held to be one of an array of key signs of the trauma inflicted on the city by the storm. The return of the business and its famous lemon ice was warmly welcomed by the city and even got an honourable mention in Treme.
And on that lemon ice: I never used to like it much. Nothing against Angelo Brocato, of course – I just found the sharpness from those citrussy juices and oils, which are of course the very essence of lemon and hence of lemon ice, too much. My granny, meanwhile, loves what we call “lemon sorbet” probably more than anything else in the ice cream family.
But when I was recently in New Orleans and visited Angelo Brocato, lemon ice/lemon sorbet was suddenly the only thing I wanted. And it was very good. Maybe I’m finally growing up and getting more sophisticated tastes after all those birthday treat sundaes, I thought. I found myself thinking about my granny too, wondering if something had happened to her, if my sudden craving was some kind of cosmic message. And actually, while there was no immediate emergency then and there remains much about her life to be thankful for, she has bad days sometimes. She celebrated her 93rd birthday this summer, with all that entails. It’s the lemon in the lemon ice. But it’s still very good.
Main image: Kevin O’Mara