The Ice Queen
Photography by Neil Wissink
On the kitchen table is a small bag of peach leaves. Kitty Travers is going to make them into a peach leaf water ice. “Did you know we can grow peaches in Britain?” she asks. “Within a hundred miles of London? I think that’s a big magical. The fruit isn’t amazing. It doesn’t have the sun it needs, but the leaves? They taste like bitter almonds. I don’t need many of them. And they’re free. What’s important to me is that I keep my prices down – I really want people to taste what I do.”
Everyone loves ice cream. It’s the people’s dessert – and Kitty wants it to stay that way. “I love making nice little treats” she says. “But they’ve got to be nice little treats that everyone can afford. At the end of parties there are always leftovers, and I remember giving an ice cream to a homeless man – an old guy walking through Soho. He went all dreamy-eyed. He said ‘I haven’t tasted strawberries like that since my Mum cooked for me’. It was sweet. That’s what ice cream is all about.”
Kitty sells ice creams, sorbets and granita at markets, festivals and private functions – but it still doesn’t come easy. “It’s heartbreaking when people are walking past going ‘£2.50? You can get a Mr Whippy over there for £1.50’. And you’re like ‘But it’s made of fat and air!’. You might think you’ve got a fantastic idea – sweetcorn ice cream, for instance – but if it’s not what people like, you’ve got to go back to the drawing board. Selling on the street is very grounding.”
Kitty’s Sicilian lemon granita won the Best of the Best at last year’s British Street Food Awards. It was simple and elegant and — as Antony Worrall Thompson said — the best way to showcase a fresh Sicilian lemon. Check out the recipe at www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/recipes/8526638/Recipes-from-Britains-best-ice-cream-van.html, or (with other granita and ice cream recipes) in Street Food Revolution.
The little freezer in the kitchen of her South London flat is jammed with pots of mango kulfi, milk ice cream with morello cherries, and lemon granita. “Oh, and a raspberry and plum ice cream, flavoured with rose geranium from my Dad’s balcony” says Kitty. She shares the place with her sister, and likes to work late into the night on new recipes. “I’m always left with a sink full of washing up” she says. “My sister hates me sometimes.”
She should be used to Kitty’s single-mindedness by now. “I remember when I was five or six” she says, “and my Mum took me and my sister to the Circus. She looked round, halfway through the performance, and I was gone. She was like ‘Kitty, Kitty’, but I was in the litter bins, at the front of the auditorium, pulling out all the old ice cream wrappers and giving them a good lick.” In those days it was Strawberry Mivvis. And Rockets. But a love ice cream was always part of who Kitty was.
On the wall of the living room is a world map – and, in the corner, is a suitcase. Kitty has just got back from Iceland, where she made ice cream using only local ingredients. Which is quite an ask, in the land of puffin and whale blubber. “Everyone was really keen to help” she says. “They went ‘Oh yes, my grandma’s got crab apples in her garden’.” Kitty found angelica by the sea. And a wasteland of rhubarb by the offices of Iceland’s national newspaper. The result was blissful.
Round the corner from her flat is what Kitty calls her “shed” – a two-room Victorian warehouse, full of the trappings of her La Grotta ice cream business. Humming in the corner is a chest freezer, full of watermelon granita. And, dotted around the room, are tables and chairs salvaged from an East End café. Kitty dreams, one day, of converting the place into a tea room. It would be perfect. But, for now, the tea room will have to wait – the world needs ice cream.
Shelves run along the far wall, with everything from oyster ice cream moulds (Kitty wants to serve ice creams, on sticks, with ice cream pearls inside) to sundae dishes and paper napkins. Tucked out of the way are Kitty’s “fixings”, such as brandy cherries, cobnuts in caramel, and quince. “You need to keep them dark or they lose their colour” she says. “That’s what I do in winter. I make candied fruits and maramalade – stuff I can use on ice creams in the summer. I’m like an old granny.”
Kitty started her food career in Villandry – an exquisite little foodstore on London’s Marylebone High Street. It meant that she smelt of smoked eel fillets, and 80 different types of cheese (including a young pecorino imported from Sardinia), but she was happy. And she was just as happy when she worked at the London branch of the French bakery Poilane. “But I wasn’t cooking” says Kitty. “I wanted something more.”
“All my friends at school were really smart, and had gone off to university” says Kitty. “But I was stuck. I was working in sandwich shops. So when my Gran died, and left me some money, I decided to escape. Gran was a very strange eater – she used to eat cow’s brains because she thought they gave her their spirituality – but she approved of travelling. So that’s how I decided to use the money. I would see the world.”
Kitty had a friend who was on an academic scholarship in New York City. “I thought ‘That’s what I’m going to do with my ten grand’. I was kind of thinking of food. But it was more that my friend was in this really cool place, and I was stuck in London. I thought ‘I’ll do a cookery course because I love cooking’. Ten grand it cost. Crazy. But the course was wonderful and I didn’t regret it for a second. At last I found something I was good at.”
She did the professional chef’s diploma – a six-month training in everything from knife skills to sauce making. And for her three-month placement at the end of the course Kitty went to Otto, the newest restaurant opening from Mario Batali – the man they call the Don of New York. “Everyone was like ‘Why do you want to work in a pizzeria?’ But ice cream was my favourite thing, and Otto had an amazing ice cream menu.”
“The head pastry chef was a scrawny, tough New Yorker – the daughter of Harvey Kurtzman, the founder of Mad magazine. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday she would send me down to Union Square market to pick up the concord grapes and the maple syrup. Then I would come back and make gallons of amazing gelato. It was a fantasy. I had a boyfriend who was making B movies in Philadelphia, and I had never been so happy in all my life.”
After Otto, she started doing shifts in other restaurant kitchens – including Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune. “Gabrielle liked me because I didn’t have air conditioning in my apartment” says Kitty. “She thought that cooking was all about being strong enough to stand the heat. So she put me on fish, and made me to stand really close to the grill. My ears got really hot. I admired her, but after a while she was like ‘Go back to London. London is where you ought to be. Go to St John’.”
St John, that champion of British food with a carnivorous bent, was creating a real stir with its new, no nonsense approach to food. And it had just opened a new branch – St John Bread And Wine. Even though Kitty had no formal restaurant experience, she applied for a job. “They could see I was interested in old fashioned English puds, and after two weeks I was given the job of deciding what went on the dessert menu. I ended up staying at St John for years.”
But she needed to go to Italy – the home of ice cream. The American Academy in Rome was built to encourage the independent study of arts and humanities. But Kitty went there to make ice cream. “I was living on top of a hill. In the afternoons I would cycle down to this little bar which did home-made pots of coffee and lemon granita with whipped cream for one euro. I thought ‘Bloody hell – they’ve got it right’.” Kitty had seen the future. And that summer she bought a truck. La Grotta Ices was born.
It’s based in a rough part of South London, and there are metal bars on the windows. Kitty recently had her little three-wheeled ice cream truck stolen. “My sister went looking for it on her bike, and tracked it down to a housing estate. It was being driven about by these 13-year-old boys, who ran off, but they had caused a lot of damage.” It was nearly enough to make Kitty pull out of the British Street Food Awards – but she made do. And her lemon granita was voted Best In Show.
The 13-year-old boys did, however, do some lasting damage to the logo on the side of the truck. “La Grotta means The Grotto and the blue lips were meant to look like the mouth of a cave” says Kitty. “They were blue because they were cold. But I used to feel a bit embarrassed driving round town in a van with a pair of big blue lips on the side. They are the one thing that I won’t be replacing. Funny really – every cloud has a silver lining.”