The Scottish ice cream firms based in Lanarkshire
Ice cream-makers Soave's, Equi’s and Taylors of Biggar operate from central-south Scotland
‘People want quality,’ states Eric Soave, in little doubt as to the reason why his Muirhead-based family ice-cream business continues to thrive almost exactly a century since his grandparents left Cassino near Naples for the ‘sunnier climes’ of Scotland. ‘Supermarkets came in for a while, and affected the trade,’ he explains. ‘But they tend to do cheaper products. And fortunately that’s now gone full circle. Now supermarkets are even taking local companies’ ice-cream.’
Given Scotland’s less-than-sunny conditions, it may be surprising that Lanarkshire is something of a hotbed for ice-cream. As well as Soave’s, you’ll also find another of Scotland’s last few original Scots-Italian ice-cream dynasties, Equi’s, headquartered in Hamilton. Thorntonhall – based just by the boundary of East Renfrewshire – are dairy farmers successfully getting into ice-cream and sorbet production on a smaller scale and Taylors of Biggar retain a strong following in central-south Scotland.
The days when there were hundreds of Scots-Italian ice-cream and/or fish and chip shops scattered across the central belt are long gone. An improving education system helped break generations of tradition, explains Soave: ‘People weren’t going into the family business any more,’ he says, ‘they were all going on to be doctors, lawyers, architects.’ A globalised marketplace and the rise of chain restaurants have brought their own challenges.
Even the once mighty ‘aristocrats’ of Scots-Italian food, Nardini’s, went out of business in 2004, although the brand and iconic restaurant on Largs seafront was revived in 2009 by a consortium led by David Equi (while Soave’s sell ice-cream to the Nardini family’s current restaurant, the Moorings in Largs). But companies such as Soave’s continue to hold their own, a dedication to the highest of standards central to their approach.
Eric Soave took over the business from his uncle Angie in 1972. Years later he constructed a modern plant at their Muirhead base, and oversaw Soave’s expansion in the early 1990s to become a brand recognised and distributed across Scotland. It would be nice to report that all their ice-cream is made from traditional recipes, just like mama used to make ’em. But in truth innovation is every bit as important in an increasingly competitive business.
‘Passed down and perfected,’ is how Soave describes their ever-expanding variety of flavours and products. ‘We always try to improve,’ he says. ‘I know there’s the old saying “if it’s not broke don’t sort it”, but that doesn’t really apply in this instance. There’s always room for improvement; we’re always tweaking it. Looking at what’s on the market, what we can add. It’s all about quality, quality, quality.’
Boffins of ice-cream like Eric are always experimenting with the next great dessert invention, his latest being the ice-cream snowball – similar to chocolate-coated Tunnock’s or Lee’s snowball confections, but with an ice-cream instead of marshmallow filling. It’s been a solid seller, but Soave is all-too-aware that the innovation will one day melt away with all the inevitably of a 99 on a hot day. ‘I was the one that invented Scottish tablet ice cream,’ he says, ‘then everyone else jumped on the bandwagon. That was a eureka moment that one.’
In wind, rain or shine, the Scots’ taste for ice-cream stays strong – not least among the sweet-toothed younger generation of Lanarkshire. ‘People say “Oh, you just buy cheap ice-cream for the kids”,’ says Soave. ‘Not true – they’re the hardest ones to fool. They know good ice-cream. They don’t want any of that stuff from the supermarket. They want Soave’s honeycomb. They want Soave’s raspberry ripple, you name it.