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.
If the “Mr Whippy” van is dying, the emerging street-food movement may hold its successor. Kitty Travers, a former pastry chef at St John Bread and Wine, runs her ice-cream company, La Grotta Ices, from the back of a small Piaggio truck at London’s Maltby Street market and the set-up is far removed from bubblegum screwballs and 99s with extra Monkey’s Blood.
Flavours here might include ricotta and candied peel; a grapefruit, bay and verjuice sorbet; and blood-orange choc-ices for the children who visit with their well-heeled mothers. The van’s only decoration is a hand-painted scene of a Tuscan grotto.
Kitty is still a hostage to the seasons (she trades from March to October), but this is as much to do with the seasonality of produce as it is the weather. “After October the ingredients dry up,” she explains. “All the soft fruits are over, it’s before the citrus starts, and the apples and pears get a bit boring after a while. Then January comes and you start getting the clementines and lemons from Spain and you start again.”
Small independent start-ups like this could be the future of ice cream vans. La Grotta takes the gourmet approach, but it’s not necessarily the only recipe for success. Any homemade product marks a business out from the chain-store competition. Moreover, unlike the traditional vans, market traders sell from private land, making them exempt from the councils’ red tape.
Street ices will evolve. Any incarnation, be it a Mr Whippy or an artisan gelato, should be welcomed so long as it continues to do what ice cream has always done; that is, broadly, to make people happy on a summer’s day, or, as one Mrs AB Marshall describes in her 1888 Book of Cookery, “[to] convey to the palate the greatest possible amount of pleasure and taste, whilst [being] in no way either suggestive of nourishment or solidity.” When put like that, how could anyone refuse?