Ice Cream Dreams

Although the history of Edinburgh ice cream lies with the Italians, with many of the family businesses dying out there's a new market emerging
Feature by Rachel Edwards.
Published 15 June 2006

For a country where summer seems to last only a matter of weeks, we eat a lot of ice cream. Any local will tell you fondly of the days when a 99 cost 99p; will debate at length whether it's called a slider or a black man; or will argue the merits of the soft whip versus hard ice cream cones. Somewhat fitting then, that this city, where we eat ice cream year round without baking heat and tropical weather, is perhaps the birthplace of the 99.

Earlier this year, a BBC show called "Balderdash and Piffle" explored the origins of words and phrases now in common use and tried to improve the definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary. The 99 - a vanilla ice cream cone with a flake stuck in the top - was one such entry. The show was overwhelmed with people claiming to know how the name arose and one answer came from 99 Portobello High Street where, from the 1920s until last year, an ice cream shop stood. Although they say they have always known that the 99 was invented there and named after the shop's address, there is no written proof and unfortunately, several other shops in the UK laid the same claim. While the debate continues, the show did uncover that the 99 dates back to at least the 1930s, and was not named because it cost 99p. Although the Oxford English Dictionary dithers on the origin of the name, one thing is clear: the 99 seems to be everyone's favourite ice cream treat.

One place where the 99 is by far the top seller on the menu is Luca's of Musselburgh (and Bruntsfield). Luca's began in Musselburgh in 1908, the product of an Italian immigrant who actually learned the trade here in Edinburgh, from a Swiss chef at the North British hotel. Lucas is still a family business, now in its third generation of 'Lucas', and 75 year-old Tino still visits the factory in Musselburgh every morning.

With the likes of Nardini's of Largs and Di Rollos still in Edinburgh, the Italian ice cream supremacy is still evident, but where did it come from? In the late 1800s, one by one the Italians came to Scotland, settling in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Because of the low set-up costs, they established fish and chip shops, needing only a fat fryer and a day's supply of fish. As these business prospered, more and more Italians came over and with them came ice cream.

At the Luca's cafe in Morningside, assistant manager Kate Russell talks about the ice cream today. As one of the last of the Italian ice cream dynasties in Edinburgh, Luca's now does a lot of wholesale business but still pays attention to the details. The ice cream is still made fresh daily, and still in only three flavours at the counter: chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. I asked Kate what to look for in an ice cream and she stresses the importance of freshness and simplicity - both rules which Luca's is run by. On a busy day, they'll make and go through six or seven batches of ice cream. And how does it taste? Creamy, thick, and elegant - this is textbook, excellent ice cream.

Although the history of Edinburgh ice cream lies with the Italians, since many of the family businesses are dying out there's a new market emerging and one of the leaders is Brazilian Sensations on Buccleuch Street. Owner John Falconer proudly calls his tropical fruit ice cream an "artisan" product and it's easy to see why. The ice cream is handmade and would be impossible to mass produce, with a fruit content so high that your ice cream could probably count as one of your five a day. There's no chocolate or vanilla here but there is passion fruit, guava, mango, and a range of flavours whose names are unpronouncable but whose colours are brilliant. One such flavour is acai, a thick brown ice cream made from what is touted as the healthiest berry in the world. Finally, what we've been waiting for - healthy ice cream!

John's experience comes from years of travelling in South America where he became fascinated by the fruits. His ice creams complement this beautifully, with a sharpness of flavours totally unlike other ice creams. He prides himself above all on his ingredients, all of the highest quality available and imported from South America. With a scoop at £1.50 and a tub for £5, this is the most affordable decadence of the summer. Buy a tub, watch Brazil in the World Cup, and if you pretend really hard, it may actually feel like summer in the city.