Joe's Ice Cream has been providing Swansea with Italian-style cold comfort for 100 years.

Instead of clutching a damp handkerchief, each of the hundred-odd mourners at Worm's Head, near Swansea, watching the ashes of their loved one disappear into the sea below, held a tiny tub of vanilla ice-cream, no doubt wondering when it would be polite to tuck in.

To the makers of the Italian dessert, the fact that a customer wanted it eaten while their ashes were being scattered came as no surprise. Joe's Ice Cream, which was first made in Swansea in 1898, is such a tradition locally that people queue for it in winter. Devotees, anxious for their next fix of the creamy smooth mixture, have carried it back in insulated containers to Australia and Singapore. Catherine Zeta Jones, who grew up in the city, is a fan, and the phrase "going for a Joe's" needs no further explanation.

Such is its popularity that, since Sainsbury's began stocking it in Wales in February 1999, Joe's now outsells all other ice-cream including Häagen-Daz. It is one of the 500 top-selling items in the Swansea branch. Joe's has also been selling well in Bristol ­ its first foray over the border ­ since February last year.

The business was started more than 100 years ago by Luigi Cascarini, a peasant from the mountainous region between Rome and Naples. According to legend, passed down to the fourth and current generation of ice-cream-makers, in 1898 Luigi was working his way through Europe to America when he arrived in Le Havre and boarded a coal steamer for Swansea. Once at the Welsh port, he abandoned his plans to travel further.

After working briefly as an organ- grinder, he was lent enough money to open a general food shop in Swansea High Street by an Italian friend. Luigi became know for his dedication, opening at 4am to cater for workers from the munitions factory in Bridgend, working every day of the year, including Christmas Day, and making his own ice-cream.

His grandson, Rico Cascarini, 69, who has worked in the family firm since he was 14, says it was made from fresh milk, sugar and cornflour. "My dad used to call it wallpaper paste," says Rico.

Luigi bought a shop in the town for each of his six children. His eldest, Joe, opened his in 1922 in St Helen's Road, and decided to concentrate solely on ice-cream. Many remember the parlour's sign, which read: "Upstairs for ladies and courting couples only". Rico explains: "Joe was a bachelor, and he thought if he couldn't pull a bird then nor should anyone else. I bet there were more marriages made in the upstairs of Joe's than in heaven."

After the war, Joe changed the recipe to include only dairy produce. "Milk is milk to some people, but there are 40 different types, each one with its own individual characteristics and tastes," says Rico. "Joe blended them until he found the taste he wanted. He used five different ones. People usually use two, with cream." The other ingredients were sugar, a stabiliser and natural vanilla extract. The recipe remains unchanged today. "If you've got queues round the corner, you don't change anything," says Rico.

There are now two Joe's parlours in Swansea: the original and still the most popular in St Helen's Road, and one in nearby Mumbles.

The one problem with the parlour ice-cream is that it doesn't keep, and has to be bought and eaten on the same day. If it is frozen it turns into a crippling hard block (hence its ability to travel safely back to Australia), and when it thaws it develops powder crystals.

So, around 20 years ago, Rico started developing a soft-scoop ice- cream made with fresh milk, skimmed milk powder, double cream, sugar, dextrose and egg yolk, which could be kept in a freezer. The recipe worked: in 1994, his chocolate version won the most prestigious industry award in the UK, the Ice-Cream Alliance's Champion of Champions cup.

The soft-scoop ice-cream comes in 11 flavours, the most exotic being Turkish Delight and Tuscan cassata (zabaglione-flavoured ice-cream with Marsala wine and mixed fruit). They produce a Christmas pudding version at Christmas. Sainsbury's stocks vanilla, cappuccino, mint choc chip, strawberry swirl and chocolate swirl, for £3.65 a litre. Other flavours are sold at the parlours.

The flavourings are all natural and they make their own sauces for the swirl ice-creams. The milk and cream are Welsh, and the chocolate and eggs come from Belgium. An entire bottle of Marsala goes into every gallon of the Tuscan cassata.

"I've tried really hard with the soft-scoop because I didn't want people used to the ice-cream parlours saying, 'This isn't Joe's', when they tried it, and I've experimented for years. But it stands on its own," says Rico.

"I think Häagen-Daz flavours and the bits that go in them are absolutely brilliant, but I judge an ice-cream by vanilla, and I defy you to say that theirs is better than ours. I always judge people by vanilla because you can't hide behind it."

Despite its enormous popularity ­ customers have been known to bang on the parlour windows at night ­ the manufacturing plant is tiny. It is operated by just four people: one fills the tubs, one puts the lids on, one catches and packs them, and the fourth takes them to the cold room. Many workers are members of the family, others stay for years.

And for the moment, at least, things are not likely to change. There are no plans to open more parlours or increase production. "We're not production managers, we're artisans," says Rico. "I like to think of us being like a little shop in Italy, where the father's making the ice- cream and the mother's selling it. We make it, we sell it, and if people don't like it they don't have to write to head office, they just get on the phone."