Ice cream days: growing up in an old school ice cream parlour

Mary Contini of Valvonna & Crolla describes her enviable upbringing

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Ice cream

The softest ice cream required the hardest work from generations of Italian immigrants to Scotland

It took two men, my father and Tommy Dougal, to lift up each milk churn and tip it into the stainless-steel vat. It could be four or five churns at a time – even more in July and August when the factory was working at full capacity. Once the 20-gallon vat was full of creamy full-fat milk, the alchemy began. Bags of sugar; scoops of white powder; packets of yellow butter, peeled from their shiny greaseproof wrapping; pint bottles of cream and dark, voluptuous drips of glossy vanilla were added in a mesmerising ritual.

Often work went on into the night as the men decanted the mix from the vat along stainless-steel pipes and down corrugated coolers into waiting pails. There they lay, full of steaming, creamy, vanilla-flavoured custard, lined up oh-so-temptingly,waiting to cool. If left alone, I would guiltily stick my fingers in, sucking up the sweet concoction with delight.

And still the magical transformation into ice cream was not yet complete. The next morning I would be woken by the jolt of the compressor starting up and the long, low rumbling of the mixer, churning steadily, back and forth, while the custard was whisked into ice-cold deliciousness.

To me it was second nature to eat fresh ice cream from morning till dusk. I don’t recall ever drinking milk. There was no need: I licked cones instead.

The Italian ice cream trade in Scotland dates back over 150 years, started by impoverished immigrant families from the south of Italy. Few came directly to Scotland, many having started in London before returning to Italy and bringing back youths and family to Britain to start the next shop, in the next town.

Although records exist of ice cream being made in Clerkenwell, London, as early as 1850, it was no more than a boiled concoction of milk and sugar chilled in a hand-cranked freezer in the street and offered to passers by on a ‘licking glass’. This unhygienic practice resulted in a law that forbade the selling of ice cream in the streets, forcing the itinerant immigrants to go home, or settle.

Those who arrived first seized the opportunity and quickly built up businesses – not in ice cream but in chain migration. They built up trade in one area then returned to the impoverished south of Italy to cajole, tempt and con an inexperienced and naïve set of new migrants to rent from them and work in their trade.

A process of renting properties developed right across Britain so that by 1905 men and families could set up shop in Glasgow by committing £150 for rent and stock. Records from that year show 89 such shops in Glasgow. Within ten years there were 336, and thousands more across the rest of Scotland.

With the shop's rent came an ice cream recipe, most likely repeated by word of mouth as few immigrants were literate. But these men were all shepherds, with an instinctive knowledge of milk, seasons, food preservation and survival. They were also Italian and so understood the value of a ‘brand’.

It was survival of the fittest: only the strongest took the risk and left their homes in Italy, and only the strongest of those made that scrap of a chance, a rented shop and a recipe into a brand. The brands that have survived are testament to their family’s sacrifice, hard work and integrity: Nardini in Ayr; Gizzi in Hamilton; Conetta in Glasgow; Yanetta in Fife; Luca in Musselburgh; Crolla in Edinburgh and, sadly no longer, my father, Di Ciacca in Cockenzie.

Mary Contini is a director of Valvona & Crolla, which runs three establishments in Edinburgh: the original shop and caffe bar on Elm Row, VinCaffè on Multrees Walk and the Foodhall at Jenners on Princes Street. www.valvonacrolla.co.uk

Big Licks

David Pollock gets the scoop on the modern Scottish farmhouse ice-cream scene.

‘Ice cream is a very competitive market,’ says Wilma Finlay, managing director of Castle Douglas’ farm-based ice cream producers Cream o’ Galloway, ‘and the big boys can always do it cheaper than you can. The difference is that the smaller manufacturer can try lots of different flavours, whereas those at the top end of the scale have to concentrate on maybe six lines that sell and produce a huge amount of each.’

With the price of milk having taken a battering recently, many smaller but more entrepreneurial farms have taken to making ice cream as a means of maximising their return. Cream o’ Galloway’s line of flavours, distributed nationally to supermarkets and delis, complemented by small specialist runs for restaurants. Previous orders have included Roquefort, spruce oil and lavender flavours.

Improved technology plays a part in small producers’ ability to diversify. Thorntonhall Farmhouse Ice Cream began production three years ago, after seeing an advert in Scottish Farmer for a machine that would allow them to create ice cream at home. Says Thorntonhall’s Micki Henderson: ‘The machine actually pasteurises the milk first and then freezes the ice cream, which most small farms like ours wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.’

Yet beyond their obvious enthusiasm for the product, just why might farm ice creams be better than the big brands? ‘Some farms might tell you that theirs is best because it comes from a certain type of dairy cow,’ says Finlay, ‘but the real reason it’s good is because there’s a lot of cream in it. There are three things which make a good farm ice cream: lots of cream, good quality fruit or chocolate, and not putting in too much air, so that the finished product is nice and solid rather than ready to disintegrate.’

Cream O’ Galloway Dairy Co, Rainton, Gatehouse of Fleet, Castle Douglas, 01557 814040, www.creamogalloway.co.uk

Thorntonhall Farmhouse Ice Cream, Meikle Dripps Farm, Waterfoot Road, Thorntonhall, 0141 644 2226, www.thorntonhallicecream.co.uk

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