Super scoops: Ice-cream vans turn deluxe

The new model is more likely to serve sea-salt and smoked olive oil flavour cones than a soft-serve 99 Flake. Holly Williams climbs aboard
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Indy Lifestyle Online

In Bath's Victoria Park, picnic blankets and wicker baskets pepper the rolling green, children run around excitedly while grannies get out the deck chairs. And across our pleasant land this summer you can expect to see plenty more scenes like this, as we collectively indulge in a national fondness for community-centred, often nostalgia-themed, outdoor gatherings.

There will be village fêtes, foodie fairs, music festivals (now just as likely to be family affairs as lost weekends), country shows and vintage fairs. And all one needs on a nice sunny day (or even a damply grey one, as Bath's patriotic residents discover) is a good old-fashioned 99 Flake.

Which shouldn't be a problem. Perched in a corner of this field is a pastel-hued VW ice-cream van serving scoops to eager children – and their parents, once they've tried a lick. This is the Split-Screen Ice-Cream Company, and they're just one of many street-food vendors combining nostalgia for the tinkling tune-playing vans of our youth with high-quality, delicious ice-cream.

Britain's mobile food units have undergone something of a revolution in recent years. Where festivals and fêtes used to feature a few greasy burger vans and hotdog stalls, punters can now expect organic rare-breed burgers, washed down not with tepid Carling, but a homemade scrumpy or micro-brewery beer. Ice-cream vans have perhaps been a bit slow to follow – I've had many frustrating waits at festivals for what turn out to be slightly disappointing, vaguely-vanilla flavoured swirls with a sub-Cadbury's flake, all doled out from identikit vehicles that rumble away un-enticingly at the back of a field. But a new breed of entrepreneurial dessert-lovers has recently realised ice-cream vans are ripe for reinvention.

In Victoria Park, I join Dan Dimbleby and Aimee Dickinson inside their van, the hatch open as they scoop merrily away. This is one of very few split-screen VW vans left in the world – they were made in the Sixties for commercial uses including the selling of ice-cream. It was a big job to restore it, but the couple now have a mint-choc-chip-green vehicle that proves as much of a draw as the West Country ice-cream they serve.

Compared to the garishly-coloured Walls or Whippy monster trucks, it's a rather dinky affair. As I duck my head to get inside the low-ceilinged interior, Dimbleby acknowledges that it's a good job they're both petite of frame, and with three of us inside its tiny interior, serving ice-cream becomes quite a cosy activity.

My scooping of a Toffee Fudge Fiasco (a rich affair combining swirling toffee ice-cream with lumps of fudge) isn't too disastrous – although Dimbleby informs me I'd need "less air" in the middle when serving the public. It's not as speedy as the pull-and-twirl of a soft ice-cream machine, but the pair have had to learn to go at quite a pace when there's a queue on; three days after scooping his first-ever cone, Dimbleby was serving over 150 people in half an hour at a wedding. "Scooping ice-cream is really hard work, I'm going to end up with Popeye arms!" he jokes.

Up in Edinburgh, the Luca family can hardly be said to be riding on a wave of street food fashion – ice-cream has been the family business since 1908 – but their van has also been known to draw a crowd. A vintage 1923 Rolls-Royce, it must be one of the smallest ice-cream vans in the country, and certainly one of the classiest.

In Manchester, Claire Kelsey's Ginger's Comfort Emporium takes a less traditional approach, selling what she calls "grown-up" flavours for people willing to go way beyond tutti-frutti: think white chocolate and pink peppercorn, extra virgin olive oil and sea salt, or liquorice Mr Whippy. A member of the Experimental Food Society, Kelsey's homemade confections are out to prove ice-cream can cut it in the culinary stakes. London also has the gourmet La Grotta Ices, run by Kitty Travers, whose career got a boost after she was included in a worldwide top 100 up-and-coming culinary stars list, compiled by superstar chefs (she got her nomination from Fergus Henderson). Her scoops include the unlikely sounding bergamot sherbet, orange juice and crème fraîche, or French kiwi sorbet.

For others, it's less about fancy flavours and more about the experience: the ice-cream van can offer a chance to trundle down memory lane.

Hayley Southwood sets up her own little picket fence and potted hydrangeas alongside her pretty van, and admits she's benefiting from the trend for all things vintage – she sells other retro products such as ginger beer and sherbet lemons. During a recession, she suggests, we start harking back to bygone days and "enjoying the simple pleasures in life".

For Matt O'Connor, founder of The Icecreamists, it's certainly not about being traditional (if the name sounds familiar, it's probably because their Baby Gaga breast milk ice-cream caused such a fuss when launched in February). Their vehicle – currently on tour in America – is a "subversive take on the ice-cream van". "We painted all sorts of political slogans on it and converted the back with black latex seating," he explains. "I wanted to do something that was challenging, provocative, political, sexual, and I thought ice-cream was the perfect medium."

From retro takes on Fifties seaside glamour to experimental, gourmet flavours, from vintage vans in the cupcakes'n'Cath Kidston vein to punk-inspired, political scoops, this summer there are plenty of people proving ice-cream vans can be anything but vanilla.

Dan Dimbleby

The Split-Screen Ice-Cream Company, Bath

"We had a normal VW, and were sitting on a beach in Cornwall, looking at a normal ice-cream van – it was a lightbulb moment.

We'd just come from the Big Chill festival. The food at festivals has really stepped up, but I wanted ice-cream, and they only had that Whippy kind.I thought, 'There's an opportunity here'. We just knew people would love the combo of the VW and really good ice-cream.

We were moving from Ladbroke Grove to the West Country, and we'd been looking for months for the right vehicle. On the day we completed on the flat, this van came up, 20 minutes down the road. It was fate. It used to be an ice-cream van in Germany in the Sixties and was about to end up in a museum. There are only about five left in the world.

Restoring it became an expensive labour of love. The van is called Mimi, after my grandmother. The last chat I'd had with her before she died, I'd told her about the idea for the van.

Our ice-cream is a high-quality product, and it couldn't be more local: they milk the cows and make the ice-cream on a farm, and deliver it to us four miles down the road.

There are times when we've thought, 'This is insane'. At festivals it can be 10am till 10pm. But it's nice that our dream on a beach became a reality."

Michael Luca

S Luca Ices, Edinburgh

"The business was started in 1908 by my grandfather, but I've no idea why he decided to go into making ice-cream. He came over from Italy and trained as a hairdresser, but ended up working in the kitchens in one of the big hotels in Edinburgh, and the story goes that there was a Swiss sous chef there who taught him how to make ice-cream.

My father was one of 14 children, so I suppose it was likely that some of them would carry the business on. I don't really know why I wanted to do it – it just happened.

The Rolls-Royce was my grandfather's, he bought it in 1937. I think it was an ambition to own a Rolls-Royce, and also they are very reliable. At that time it wasn't that uncommon to turn a Rolls into a commercial vehicle – they just don't break down.

Today it's a bit unusual. It is a draw: there are a lot of people who'll come over and look, even without buying ice-cream. We do have other standard vans, but if we're going to the races people prefer the Rolls-Royce. It is very popular for weddings, too.

I do still enjoy ice-cream, though I don't eat too much of it because I'll end up the size of a house. I don't think you can beat good old traditional vanilla – I like the modern ones but I'd have a fresh vanilla any day. Very popular at the moment is Irn-Bru sorbet. It's a bit Scottish.

The recipe we use is similar to my grandfather's original. There are certain things that you can't buy locally, like sugar, but the milk and cream have always come from a local farm, because that's the easiest and nearest.

We have 10 or 12 flavours on at a time in our cafés, but the van only carries vanilla and strawberry. It's very compact! Not like the modern vans, which sell everything but the kitchen sink."

Kate Drummond

Sunset Ices, Morecambe

"I moved up to Morecambe five years ago and it was something I'd always wanted to do. Morecambe has got that faded seaside thing going on. I'm doing a vintage thing, and some people don't get that, but other people appreciate it.

Obviously I do run it as a business, but it's also a bit of a project. It's an excuse to decorate, and buy lots of little old bits and bobs. It's an excuse to have a bit of fun, and be a bit daft.

I gave the van the slogan 'Everyday is Like Sundae' because I used to be massively into The Smiths.

There was a girl who came for an ice-cream, and then she e-mailed me about the van. She's a musician, called Alessi's Ark, and she came back and used it for the front cover of her album – it looks really nice.

The van is from 1981. I got it on eBay and it was a bit of a mess – I don't care to think how much work I've done on it!

Lots of people want Mr Whippy, but I've never sold anything like that. My ice-cream is Wallings, from a family-run farm near Lancaster. Serving ice-cream is quite a simple pleasure. I do parties, and kids get so excited when they see the van."

Claire Kelsey

Ginger's Comfort Emporium, Manchester

"I haven't got a nostalgic bone in my body; it's not about harking back to childhood. But then I never assumed ice-cream was a children's thing. God bless them, kids love the van, but there's nothing for them: my ice-creams are all full of caffeine, alcohol and salt.

I'm definitely not a vanilla person – it is geared to a more sophisticated palette. I just had a family holiday in Sicily, there were loads of lemon trees and I got some limoncello, and I thought, 'What would make it naughtier?'. I'm going to combine them with treacle tart. It's a bit all over the place, but anything can work as an ice-cream. I've done one with Marco Pierre White. He has a pint with JW Lees brewers, and suggested I did an ice-cream based on that – it's a really complex flavour.

It's all made by hand, at home, and if I'm not churning I'm out scooping.

All the general public want is vanilla, chocolate or strawberry. I got a van because you can be as niche as you want and take it to your audience. I sell olive oil and smoked sea salt ice-cream and I do get a lot of, 'Salt? In ice-cream? No thanks'. But I've not had anyone not like them. To me it's not unusual – I read those sorts of magazines and go to those sorts of restaurants, but for some people it's like I've put slippers and carpets in an ice-cream.

My first outing was this time last year – so much has happened in one year, I do feel like I'm on to something. I'm also a food stylist; I work with photographers and film crews on shoots, so it is a good crossover.

The van is really beautiful at night, I have lots of fairy lights inside. And it's called Ginger's because me and my mate always brainstorm, and the name came from the fact that we both really like ginger, beardy men!"

Hayley Southwood

Vintage Scoops, Whadden

"My mum passed away in February 2009, and I was at my absolute lowest. I had just had enough of being miserable and wanted to do something jolly. So I announced to my husband I was going to buy a van with my inheritance; he thought I'd gone crazy.

It was good to have a project: Betty [the van] was in a real old state. Now, she's a pure extension of me. She's pretty and girly, I love her. She is a feast for the eyes as well as the tastebuds.

It feels like a gift from my mum – she would love it, she was entrepreneurial herself. But it is a lot harder work than I thought.

I sell Beachdean ice-cream: local ice-cream in a van driven around by a local girl. I do believe in the product I sell, it's delicious!

The van is definitely about nostalgia, going back to childhood and just enjoying the simple things in life. If it makes people smile, my job is done."