It started this time last year when, at a warm alfresco birthday dinner — of the sort that one can only dream of now — a friend produced two cardboard pots covered with waxed paper, tied with string. “This is my new obsession,” she said. “One pot is sea salt, rosemary and pine nut, and the other is strawberry salad.”
She had recently invested in a rather expensive ice-cream maker and these were two freshly churned flavours inspired by some ice cream she had tried from La Grotta Ices. She encountered this artisanal producer in London’s Bermondsey, where La Grotta’s creator Kitty Travers parks her Piaggio Ape van to sell her sumptuous ice creams in seasonal fruity flavours. As we sunk our spoons into each pot — the creamy rosemary-laced ice studded with crunchy pine-nut brittle, the strawberry salad so smooth and tangy it reminded me of Fruitella sweets — she explained that she’d bought Travers’ 2018 book, La Grotta Ices, and become hooked on making home-made ice cream.
Things happened swiftly after that. Another friend present, visiting from Paris, bought a £40 Magimix 1.1l ice-cream maker from Amazon as well as “the book”, as it soon became known. I followed suit, envious of discussions about how long prune and Earl Grey mix has to steep before you churn, or whether round or flat white peaches work best for Travers’ mouth-watering tomato-and-white-peach ice. A WhatsApp group we coined Gelato sprung up — a space to discuss flavours, technique and equipment (“Do you really need a thermometer to make sure the custard is 82C?” Answer: yes). Requests came in: “Is it OK to add Nick, he is really into making ice cream?”; “My husband would like to join!”
Over the past year, discussions have taken in everything from one member’s pilgrimage to The Museum of Ice Cream in San Francisco (disappointing) to another’s excitement at tracking down a sole bergamot in east London to make blood-orange-and-bergamot sorbet. We have brought our ice-cream makers on holiday to make figleaf ice, from leaves stolen from a neighbour’s garden in Brittany, and apricot-noyau ice, from Italian apricot kernels. We have mused on flavours to meet the national mood — marmalade, for comfort, on Brexit Day — and ice creams to suit the season; “Corsican kumquats are now in the markets!” exclaimed my Paris friend in January. As well as La Grotta Ices, we sourced second-hand copies of the original ice-cream bible, Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati: The Definitive Guide (2010) by Caroline and Robin Weir. My copy arrived, gratifyingly, with splats and smears on the crinkled pages of the chocolate section.
We have kept going during the pandemic, albeit with limited resources. There have been experiments with UHT milk and times when sugar has been scarce (and it’s sugar that gives ice cream that creamy texture, not the cream, which just hardens). When I revealed to the group I would be interviewing Travers, the first question put forward was: “What flavours has she been making during lockdown?”
When I rang, Travers was at home in Walworth, south London, with her five-year-old daughter, rather than at her greengrocer’s shed in Elephant & Castle where, before lockdown, she was churning 100l of ice cream per week to sell at five outlets. Now, with only a domestic ice-cream maker and a small freezer to hand, she has been making it exclusively for her family. And the main flavour she has been testing? “Vanilla. This is the first year I’ve really been interested in vanilla. And I’ve really got into it.” In particular, she says, she has been recreating a fresh vanilla ice that she tasted in an ice-cream sandwich in San Francisco. What’s so special about it, I asked? “It contains vodka! The vodka stops the ice cream from freezing really hard and it has this amazing clean taste (see recipe). We’ve been eating it with salty chocolate sable biscuits.”
Lockdown has coincided with the “driest months” for fruit, Travers tells me. “In March, you get the tail-end of the Italian citrus season; in April, you’re really just working with outdoor green rhubarb, which makes a rather murky green ice.” Then the first of the juicy Alphonso mangoes appear but, as Travers says, “I haven’t been able to go on my mango jaunts in Southall and Tooting and Tottenham. You can find six or seven varieties of mangoes in the greengrocers there.” In the past few weeks, loquats, the very first stone fruits of the year, have started to appear at the Turkish greengrocers at the end of her road. “They taste like very juicy apples, with a hint of strawberry. I’m hoping to make loquat-and-mango sorbet.”
At this time of year, Travers would usually be sourcing unusual citrus varieties in the groves around Lake Garda or sniffing the first strawberries in Nice. “I wanted to go to Corsica for the citrus season. Now is the time for citrus on the French and Italian riviera,” she says wistfully.
Is there a flavour she would really like to try? “Black truffle,” she replies. “On one of my trips years ago to Menton, I remember driving through a market and there was a stall selling buttery brioche with black truffle and sugar and orange zest. It was a perfect taste of a place — a complete sensation.”
Travers, 43, grew up in suburban Twickenham. Her globetrotting took off when she dropped out of art school and spent the summer of 2000 in Marseille. Shortly after her return, she landed a job at the new London branch of French sourdough producer Poilâne. This led to a stint in Paris and then to Cannes, where, before a 16-hour waitressing shift, she would treat herself to an ice-cream sundae for breakfast from a glacier just off the Croissette. Her curiosity about how this little cavelike ice-cream parlour captured the true essence of the fruit — cerise, abricot, cassis, groseille — led her to ice-cream hop along the riviera, crossing into Italy for a scoop of nocciola in Piemonte and green lemon in Liguria. Licking ice creams from a cone, (“always from a cone,” she insists, “as that way the ice cream perfectly coats all the taste buds on your tongue”), she would explore local markets, marvelling at the produce and seeking out the ripest fruit.
Her culinary calling led Travers to do a “proper chef diploma course” in New York in 2002 at the Institute of Culinary Education, where, early on, as she recounts in her book: “My headteacher — Chef Ted — said he’d pay 30 bucks at Daniel’s to eat my coconut ice cream.” America’s ice-cream scene was freewheeling, experimental, removed from the old world’s rigid single-note flavours, she writes, describing her encounters with lychee-and-bean flavour in Chinatown and olive-oil gelato with sea salt and strawberries during a stage at Mario Batali’s Otto Enoteca.
In 2003, Travers landed a job as pastry chef at St John Bread and Wine. The first ice cream she made there was fresh mint. St John, a forward-thinking, collaborative restaurant, especially for the time, gave Travers a platform to experiment with flavours — and the confidence to set up on her own.
La Grotta Ices, named after the “grotto” of that first small dark shop in Cannes, was born in 2008. The first few ice creams were made at home, “with two freezers in a bedroom”. In the 12 years since, Travers has expanded to make about three different flavours a week, each according to the moment in the season. “As soon as I can’t get really good and ripe and cheap fruit, I start looking for other things.” She now has a coterie of trusted suppliers, whose values chime with her own: “People who care about what they make, and make delicious produce. I get delicious eggs and delicious milk from a dairy in Sussex, and lovely fruit from a company called Puntarelli in Bermondsey. Soon I will get my soft fruit from markets in Kent and Sussex.” For Travers, using the top ingredients only when they are at their best, is a truly utopian pursuit. And, she insists, ice cream can and should be eaten regularly. “There is nothing wrong with a bit of really good cream, eggs, sugar and fruit.”
What about her next move? “A children’s ice-cream book,” she confides. And with that, a question from the WhatsApp group suddenly pings into my thread. “Would you let your daughter eat a Mr Whippy or a Zoom?” “Definitely,” Travers replies. “She enjoys them so much more than my ice creams. I love ice lollies and the creativity that goes into making those flavours, it would be so mean to deprive a kid of that. And, quite often, I will go to loads of effort making an ice cream and then realise I’ve come as close as I can to replicating the flavours of a Twister or a Zoom.”
Rainbow Ripple for the FT, by Kitty Travers
This basic vanilla ice-cream recipe saw our family through the traditionally sparse fruit month of March and this year’s untypically hot days of April. Vodka makes the ice cream taste clean, cold and addictive. We ate it with green rhubarb crumble, with hot espresso, sandwiched between chocolate sablé pastry and mashed into early Spanish strawberries.
All the ingredients other than the vanilla pod should be easily bought from a local grocers but with or without the pod, this ice cream is delicious made into a fruity ripple. Choose whichever fruit is readily available and in season — or select a mix of favourites and make it a rainbow ripple.
Seasonal Fruit Syrup
Strawberries, Alphonso mango, kiwi, loquat, apricots, peaches, blackcurrants, gooseberries, raspberries, plums or figs would all work beautifully.
The woman who revolutionised home-made ice-cream – Financial Times