FOOD & DRINK / Cold Comfort Food: Robin Weir is dedicated to ice-cream, the real thing not the frozen froth we're often sold. Michael Bateman meets him

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ICE-CREAM has found its first champion. For an eternity and without complaint, we have suffered an imposter that calls itself ice-cream but is nothing but chilled, sweetened shaving foam made with the world's cheapest ingredients, none of them cream, for sure.

The Ice-cream Man who cometh is Robin Weir. Author, historian and lecturer, Weir believes it is time that the scam of commercial ice-cream was exposed. He wants the government to act against soft scoop ice-cream pumped up with air. He wants to shame the big companies into improving their products.

'Ice-cream technology has overtaken common sense,' he says. 'The most sophisticated equipment is dedicated to making the cheapest possible ice-cream, which it does extremely efficiently.'

Weir's standing as an authority on ice-cream was established with the publication last year of Ices, which he wrote with his partner Caroline Liddell (Hodder and Stoughton, pounds 18.99). It is a definitive work, the fruit of five years' intensive research. No one (with the exception perhaps of Elizabeth David, who interested herself in the early history of ice-cream making) has produced such a passionate study which is also scientifically sound; it put him on the shortlist for both the Andre Simon and Glenfiddich food book awards.

Robin Weir dreams of promoting a Real Ice-cream Campaign. But ice-cream is not a cornerstone of our culture like bread and beer, both of which sustained successful consumer campaigns. Ice-cream is the stuff of dreams, insubstantial. Now you see it, now it's gone, a transient thing of beauty.

But surely not all commercial ice-cream is terrible? What about the premium brands such as Haagen-Dazs? 'Why should it be called a premium brand?' asks Robin Weir. 'There should be one standard, real ice-cream, and no others.'

He questions why some soft scoop ice-cream is allowed at all. This is the stuff sold from vans, squirted from taps by compressed air to make foamy peaks on cornets. The ingredients are the cheapest imaginable, and 'the cheapest is air. There's no law in Britain yet to limit the amount of air manufacturers pump in. You couldn't sell that sort of stuff in the US or France; they won't have it.'

After air, which is free, the next main ingredient is sugar, and the cheapest type. Then milk powder and vegetable oil. And because it's not real ice-cream, it has to be held together with emulsifiers and stabilisers, mostly extracts of seaweed, called alginates.

'They put alginates, which are soapy substances, into beer to give it a foamy head,' says Weir, 'and they put them into ice-cream to provide bulk.' This enables manufacturers to inflate it ad infinitum.

But isn't cheap ice-cream a service to those who are not well off enough to afford the hiked-up prices of premium brands? Soft ice-cream is not cheap, argues Robin Weir. 'I once persuaded a street-van vendor to sell me two litres of soft ice-cream. I took it home and left it overnight to thaw alongside two litres of Haagen-Dazs. When I weighed them, Haagen-Dazs was better value, at pounds 7.56 a kilo against the soft ice-cream at pounds 8.69 a kilo.'

The middle-range ice-creams win grudging praise from Weir, the most innovative of recent years being the Mars Bar. He respects Walls for its brilliant Viennetta technology, crinkling waves of thin chocolate separating the soapy foam of ice-cream. 'But while the big companies (Nestle, which makes Lyons ices, and Walls) invest in the best technology, why can't they also invest in improving the product, using better ingredients?

'They use cheap oils instead of good cream and milk, and artificial flavourings instead of the real thing, cheap vanilla essence rather than good vanilla bean extract, and so on. They exploit the fact that the British are very tolerant about what they eat.'

You only have to read the label on a tutti frutti from the market leaders, the stylishly advertised Gino Ginelli (Walls), to see what Weir is getting at. It contains xanthan gum, guar gum, carob gum, carrageenan (an extract of seaweed), modified starch, Emulsifier E471, whey solids, citric acid, colouring and so on; that's excluding the skimmed milk, vegetable fat, sugar, dextrose and glucose syrup.

Weir concedes that there are some good modern ice-creams. His own favourite is Marks and Spencer's Cornish ice-cream with its hauntingly good vanilla flavour. Very nice, but isn't there too much cream for modern views of diet? 'You eat less of a good ice-cream. It's like eating good chocolate. People only binge on cheap bars of chocolate. I defy anyone to binge on Valrona; it's so strong, so satisfying.'

The golden era of ice-cream making, he considers, was in Victorian times, when Mrs Agnes B Marshall, a beauty who owned a famous cookery school, wrote some important works on ice-creams as desserts befitting the Victorian dinner table. Her ice-creams were rich enough, many of them in the French style using an egg custard as the base, rather than the modern American style, based on pure cream with fresh fruit purees. But the popular taste for ice-cream owes its origins to the Italian immigrants who arrived from the second half of the last century.

Weir has virtually rewritten the history of ice-cream, disposing of many fond myths. He rejects the notion that Marco Polo brought the idea back from China, or that Catherine de Medici's Italian cooks took it to France with them when she married the Duc d'Orleans (later King Henry II). The method of freezing water artificially (with salt and saltpetre) was unknown to chefs in France in 1533.

Nor did ice-cream surface here in the court of King Charles I, as is often claimed. It was Charles II who ate the first English ice-cream, on 19 May 1671, following the fashion which had started on the Continent for eaux glacees, eaux d'Italie and acque gelate.

Weir also collects ice-cream paraphernalia. He has everything from ice-cream stamps (there are 12) to fridge magnets. He has the world's largest collection of ice-cream licks - glass goblets for serving ices at the seaside before cornets were invented. He also has assorted metal and wooden ice churns and metal moulds and 'bombes', one of which he picked up at the Elizabeth David sale earlier this year which set record prices for kitchenalia. 'How much did that cost, Robin?' 'Er, not much, actually.'

Ice-cream is far from being the main source of Weir's livelihood - in fact, his last book was on mustard. He runs a product development company and, with partners, he creates schemes as diverse as computer games (with the Lotus car company) or strategies for selling English foods to Japan (on behalf of Burberry, the countrywear people). Vanilla essence is another pet subject (with applications to ice-cream) and so are chillis. He's even exploring the bizarre possibility of producing a chocolate and chilli ice-cream.

Here are two of Weir's less bizarre ice-creams, his own favourites, taken from his book. They really need to be made in an ice-cream machine for good, smooth results, but those not yet converted to the idea can take the laborious path of freezing the ice-cream mixture, and removing and beating it at hourly intervals until a satisfactory result is achieved.

LEMON ICE-CREAM

Quick, fresh-tasting and light (it contains no eggs), this lemon ice is better served as part of a selection of other ice-creams and/or sorbets. Use very fresh cream or there is a danger that the lemon juice will curdle it. Eat within three days, not because something dreadful happens to the ice-cream at the 73rd hour, but just because the bright edge of freshness is all but gone from the flavour by then.

Makes about 28fl oz/875ml

3 lemons

7oz/200g granulated sugar

16fl oz/500ml chilled whipping cream

good pinch of salt

Thoroughly scrub the lemons in warm, soapy water, then rinse and dry. Using a potato peeler, remove the zest (only the coloured part, making sure all the white pith is removed). Put the peel and sugar into a food processor or blender and blend for about 4 minutes, or until the peel is so fine it 'disappears' into the sugar. Squeeze the lemons and add 6 tablespoons of juice to the sugar. Keep the remaining juice. Blend again for 30 seconds then stir slowly and steadily into a jug containing the chilled cream. Cover and chill for about 1 hour. When ready, taste the mixture and add more lemon juice if preferred; a further tablespoon will usually suffice. Now either still- freeze or start the ice-cream machine.

For still-freezing, pour the chilled mixture into a strong plastic container to a depth of 4cm/1 1/2 in. Cover with a lid and put in the coldest part of the freezer. Check after 1-1 1/2 hours; the mixture should have frozen to a firm ring of ice around the sides and base of the box, with a soft slush in the centre. Beat the mixture for few seconds until it forms a uniform slush. Return to the freezer. Repeat the beating at least twice at intervals of 1-1 1/2 hours. After the third beating freeze for a further 30-60 minutes. Transfer to the main body of the fridge about 20 minutes before serving.

If you are using an ice-cream machine, pour in the flavoured cream via a plastic sieve. Churn until the mixture has the consistency of softly whipped cream. Then quickly scrape into plastic freezer boxes and cover with waxed or greaseproof paper and a lid and freeze. Eat in about 1 hour. If you have stored it and it is frozen solid, transfer the ice-cream to the fridge for about

20-25 minutes to soften it before serving.

STRAWBERRY ICE-CREAM WITH BALSAMIC VINEGAR

This owes a debt to Anna Del Conte, the Italian cookery writer.

Makes about 28fl oz/875 ml

1lb/450g fresh strawberries

5 1/4 oz/150g caster sugar

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

5 1/4 fl oz/150ml whipping cream

Wash and hull the strawberries. Dry them thoroughly with kitchen paper then put them in a food processor or blender with the sugar. Set the machine in motion and add the balsamic vinegar through the lid or funnel. Continue to blend until the ingredients have combined to a smooth puree, then pour this into a bowl. Cover and refrigerate for 2-3 hours. The sugar and vinegar will bring out the flavour of the fruit.

When ready, combine the strawberry puree and cream and either still-freeze (see description for lemon ice-cream above) or start the ice-cream machine. Follow the manufacturer's instructions or see above. Finally label, then freeze. Freeze for 1 hour or until just firm enough to serve. If stored longer and frozen solid, transfer to the fridge for 20-25 minutes to soften before serving.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments