Monday, 4 August 2008
Chapter 6. I Scream, You Scream...
“Assoc-i-ation. Are you ready? If so, let’s go!” “Ice Cream” … “yummy”… “tummy”… “eat”… “strawberry”… “sundae” …“treat”… The kids are rhythmically batting words in the back of the car as we drive through a Sussex summer afternoon to the local dairy farm to watch ice cream being made.
Estelle, our French teenage visitor is baffled by yet another English eccentricity and, fluency aside, can’t find enough words about ice cream to join in. In her world, dinner is a defrosted plate of haute-cuisine, heated on the hoof by a working mother bemoaning an absent father (in this case, the President of Monaco) followed by a supermarket crème brulee. It doesn’t evoke pictures and smells like ours does, mixed as it is with a spicy dash of obsession, denial and childhood memory. To her, ice-cream is, ben, ice cream. Licked on the beach in Monte Carlo it doesn’t have quite the same je ne sais quoi as a Mr Whippy at Black Rock.
For me, ice cream is an even richer blend, infused with my mother’s tales of South Wales in the 1940’s. As we queued at the Sidoli ice cream van on our annual family summer camping trip to The Gower, she would tell me about the coffee shops of her youth, the smell of espresso and steamed milk. And I would swoon as a swarthy young Welsh-Italian helping his dad out for the summer handed me my vanilla cornet, catching my eye for a brief but everlasting moment.
Around 370,000 Italians came to South Wales from the Bardi area of Italy during the mass immigration to the Welsh Coalfields between 1851 and 1911. As a result, the coffee shops of Swansea and Llanelli were unlikely pockets of sophistication in a Britain still dunking its biscuits in a nice brew. As I shyly licked my cornet, I imagined my 16-year-old-mother, tiny-waisted in post-austerity voluminous skirt and sling backs, sharing a sundae with a group of giggling teenagers to a Mantovani soundtrack. I/my mother was Sophia Loren and ice cream was the epitome of sex appeal.
“Creamy”... “cows”… “dairy”…” Luke’s farm”… the stream of consciousness in the back seat is fast-tracking me now past the cinema usherettes and the Dayvilles ice cream parlour of my own teenage years to the local source right on our doorstep. LouLou’s class mate, Luke delivers our milk twice a week, directly from his parents’ herd of 150 extensively-farmed cows at Downsview. It’s not organic but the grass the cows graze upon is pesticide-free after its initial seeds are blasted, and the only anti-biotics the girls get are for the inevitable mastitis all of us milk-producing mammals have to endure. Apparently cabbage leaves don’t work. The milk smells of cows and grass and fresh summer rain and is, according to LouLou, the best milk in the world.
We arrive at the “factory”, a super-sterile little room behind the dairy where Kate, one of the mums from school, is carefully separating by hand five dozen eggs from Barcombe for the 10 litre batch of ice cream she’s making this morning. The girls are openly dribbling now as she shows them the mix of cream, egg yolks and sugar before whisking it with something that looks like my dad’s hedge cutter and pouring it into the freezing/stirring machine.
“How long will it be before it’s ready”, Ellie asks as politely as is possible when your salivary glands are open full throttle, and blanches when Kate replies twenty minutes.
The ice-cream is finally ready to be squeezed into Downsview Farm pots and handed to the quivering children. Even Estelle is drooling now. And it is heavenly, tasting as it does of cows and grass and fresh summer rain.
As we drive home, I ask Estelle whether she ever goes across to Italy just for an ice cream and all three of them look at each other, raising left cheek and widening eyes in that way that kids do when words are beyond them. Even the English ones. It’s ok; she still thinks of ice cream as Magnum White. And my kids’ associations with ice-cream are hot summer days in Britain and cows. They know nothing of Italy, coffee and sex appeal, and for now, that’s fine by me.
It’s a long way from Ringmer to Bardi, and Kate, the mum-from-school and little Luke Farnes are a far cry from the sexy Italian boys from my mother’s childhood. But at less than one food mile from our house, it ticks my box. When the oil runs out and buying locally and seasonally is the only option, I’ll pop over to Luke’s farm for a couple of pots and settle under the oak tree with my girls, ipod scrolled down to Mantovani and dream of Italy.