This time of year brings many cheering sights: parents running after children on new bikes, one man’s dog eating another man’s picnic, and, of course, ice cream vans.
Yes, it’s true that a lot of what passes for soft-serve ice cream is actually made with concentrated butter, not cream. And alright, it’s irritating that a “99” costs considerably more than 99p these days.
But does any of that matter in the parching, sweltering heat of the moment? Ice cream is cold and sweet and compellingly unctuous—two words not often seen together. It is proof that summer is here. It is childhood on a stick, or in a cone, depending on your preference. Oh, and remember: if you want raspberry syrup on yours, it is proper and correct to ask for “Monkey’s Blood.”
When people began selling ice cream from the back of horse-drawn carts in mid-19th century London, the process was lengthy and troublesome, involving wax-sealed moulds, saltpetre, rocksalt and ice. Henry Mayhew, the great Victorian chronicler of the working class, was doubtful it would catch on, declaring it a “novel and aristocratic luxury.”
Technological advances have simplified matters, but ice cream traders continue to struggle. No other business is so completely at the mercy of the seasons. Those gaudily painted vans (“Full Flavour!”, “Super Soft!”, “Mind That Child!”) make few sales when they emerge in spring; by October, they are in hibernation for the winter. A profit is turned only when the sun is out, which in England is about as financially reliable as letting a chimp buy and sell shares.
It’s not just the weather either. The ice-cream trade has many caveats. Sefer Huseyin, who runs a traditional ice-cream business in southeast London, has a long list of reasons why the trade’s summers are numbered. Many local councils have banned the vans from operating outside schools and prohibit them from remaining in one street for more than 15 minutes a day. Trading permits are hard to come by. Sefer claims he has been on Westminster Council’s permit waiting list since 1980. Other regulations seem unnecessarily draconian: for instance, vans are only allowed to play their chimes for a maximum of four seconds at a time. Traditional businesses such as Sefer’s also face new competition from major fast-food chains.
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