Robin Weir knows everything there is to know about ice cream, and his vast collection of memorabilia is the star of a new exhibition devoted to the cold stuff…
‘I first tasted ice cream in 1946, when I was eight or nine years old, outside Valentines Park in Ilford. My mother, my sister and I queued up for ages, because ice cream had been banned due to rationing during the Second World War. It was a hot summer day and the ice cream was so cold, unlike anything I had ever eaten before. It was a total shock: wow!
What really got me interested in ice cream, though, was one Saturday at the supermarket in Shepherd’s Bush. My three children snuck a great big tub of ice cream into the basket. At home I had a look at it, and there was hardly a single natural ingredient. It went down the waste disposal unit, and I said: Come on, we’re going out to buy an ice cream machine.
I found the recipe leaflet that came with the machine very tame, and so were most books I could find about ice cream, so I started buying very old books instead. Then I moved on to penny licks: the small glasses they used to serve ice creams in before cones. Over the course of the last 40 years, my wife and I have accumulated around 14,000 items of ice-cream memorabilia and co-written four books about ice creams, sorbets, gelati and other frozen delights.
Once I’d started experimenting and collecting, I got into the science of ice cream. I run a pharmaceutical company, and if I get involved in anything, I need to know everything about it – more about it than anyone else, if possible. Ice cream is very mathematical: you have to balance fat against sugar and solids against water.
Artisan ice cream sales have mushroomed in London over the last 20 years, because the machine-makers now make smaller-batch freezers which are ideal for small restaurants and ice-cream parlours. Restaurateurs have realised that ices are easy to make and easy to sell. They’re also one of the most profitable items on any menu.
Then there’s the fact that more and more people taking holidays abroad have come to learn that, unsurprisingly, really good ice cream tastes really good. Regulations about ices are much stricter in most European countries, whereas in the UK there are no restrictions on how much air can be added. (Soft-serve ice cream can be more than 50 percent air!) The general standard has improved vastly, although I still maintain that the Victorian era was the golden age of ice cream.
I eat ice cream at least once per day about six days a week. One of my favourites is a parmesan cheese ice cream from the early 1800s. Eaten with a fresh, ripe pear, it’s one of the greatest delights you’ll ever have in your life.
I had always hoped my collection might go on show one day, so I was delighted when Bompas & Parr got in touch to ask if they could feature it in their ‘Scoop’ exhibition. They really go the extra mile: they are genuine showmen. I find it extraordinarily sad that there is no permanent food museum in Britain yet, but hopefully we will get one. After all, I’ve only ever found one person who doesn’t like ice cream, and I think they were just being a poser. I normally won’t queue for anything, but we’ll all queue for ice cream!’
‘Scoop: A Wonderful Ice Cream World’ runs at Gasholders London from July 3.
For more unique London voices, sign up here to get Time Out features straight to your inbox.