The day I go to meet Kitty Travers, founder of La Grotta Ices, a summer storm is predicted. London has been plagued by a suffocating heat wave and on almost the hottest day on record for 15 years, I head to South East London to, appropriately, eat ice cream.
I am told that I can find Travers in a small “shed,” (actually a converted Victorian greengrocers) in Walcot Square, a small part of London left to the Walcot Foundation in the 1600s, originally intended to serve as housing for the “Lambeth poor.” As time went on, properties in the area had to be sold off to keep the charity afloat, which is how Travers came across this rustic, beautiful, and entirely ill-suited space. The shed has no loo, nor gas supply, and the white crochet fabric draped over the windows does nothing to keep out the hot glare of the sun.
It is here that Travers creates her ice creams, mostly fruit-flavoured sorbets and gelatos, to sell to select London restaurants and two artisan grocers. Each one is unique, and proof of a creator with a deep infatuation for the dessert and chef’s knowledge of flavour.
Travers’ first cookbook, La Grotta Ices, came out last month and contains over 75 ice cream, granita, and sorbet recipes that further prove this point—from yellow peach and basil to cucumber and sour cream. Today, she is making me her raspberry and fig leaf sorbet.
But before we get to that, there’s something you need to know. I entered Travers’ dessert cabin, if you will, with a certain level of skepticism. How wealthy and responsibility-free do you have to be to spend hours making ice cream? What’s wrong with a 99 Flake? How exciting can sorbet be, really?
I left an utter ice cream convert, newly indoctrinated into the Church of Gelato.
Travers is magnetic. Anyone responsible for handing me fruity, homemade ice cream on a July day would have my adoration, but she is filled with quirks and stories that make it impossible not to be spellbound. When I arrive, she shows me, with a knowing sigh, her collection of vintage fridges with hot, archaic motors. The fig leaves used in today’s recipe are from a community garden around the corner. We walk into the kitchen, and she jokes about the time she almost set her assistant on fire after using propane canisters indoors (illegal) to supply gas to the shed’s vintage oven.
“That's when I thought I should probably stop using the oven,” she explains, pointing to the offending appliance. It is now a makeshift shelf for two Pacojet ice cream makers.
Travers’ story of how she came to make homemade ice cream for a living is no less lively. Every part is illuminated by colourful, almost unbelievable anecdotes that make my 25 years of existence seem as interesting as an advert on reclaiming PPI.
Where to begin? Travers left school with an underwhelming academic record, but found refuge in food, working at a greengrocer and as a waitress, then selling bread in a French bakery. She wasn’t satisfied, however, and ended up buying a one-way ticket to Nice after watching Billie Piper perform at the Cannes film festival on GMTV. There, she secured a job at the Hilton Hotel, and had her first taste of truly exceptional ice cream.
“I had this really amazing time,” she says, then clarifies: “Working in the hotel was awful, and I hated it, and I was a really terrible waitress, but I used to go to this ice cream shop for breakfast every day.”
As Travers tells me about this pivotal moment in her ice cream history, it’s like she’s describing the moment she met the love of her life.
“It was this lovely shop with smoked glass windows, green leather banquets—really retro—and they took all such care,” she explains. “They'd make these beautiful, composed desserts but you'd have them for breakfast with sliced fruits on the side. Whipped cream and a little espresso with a little biscuit on your saucer.”
This ice cream, which would change flavour daily according to seasonal produce, was a far cry from the foamy “vanilla” ice cream or sticky ice lollies she was used to in the UK.
“I had grown up with the really basic vanilla bricks,” says Travers. “I wasn't interested in ice cream, because I’d never had anything interesting before.”
Set on discovering everything she could about this new, delicious ice cream, she turned to The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten, and decided to send letters to all of the world's best ice cream parlours listed in the book, asking for work. No one replied.
Luckily, Travers was then left “a proper chunk of money” by her grandmother, allowing her to enroll at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. “I did really well at it,” she says, beaming, “and hadn't done well at anything before that.”
She pauses. “That's important,” she adds, on the subject of the inheritance, “because I don't know how I would have done it otherwise.”
Travers’ career as a chef had begun. After graduating, she went on to work at Mario Batali's New York restaurant Otto, and then St. John in London, all the while going back to Italy in her holidays to learn more about ice cream. In 2008, after a good few years in the kitchen; catering; and a stint in Naples, Travers finally decided to start her own ice cream company. La Grotta Ices was born.
As we talk, Travers begins on the raspberry and fig leaf ice cream, which features in the new book. She chops the fig leaves and heats the fruit on a portable hob until they begin to soften. Out of these leaves, she makes a syrup, which is then cooled and blitzed with the raspberries and some lemon juice. The mixture is strained to remove any pips, and poured into the ice cream maker, ready to be chilled and churned. It’s simpler than I thought, and I start to wonder whether I could do it myself at home.
"It's quite a magical food, ice cream,” says Travers, as we sit down to try some of her creations. “There are chemical reasons why human love ice cream, right? It’s a whipped, frozen emulsion … so it’s got what's called a ‘low seity,’ meaning it feels like you can eat loads of it. And because it's frozen, it changes texture as you eat it from frozen to melted, which keeps your brain engaged, and makes you want to eat more.”
I gesture to the table, where the three portions of ice cream—melon and jasmine; peach and basil; and a premade raspberry and fig leaf, all freshly churned—lie empty. Science is clearly to blame here.
“What I really want to do is make an ice cream that has all the elements of the perfect fruit,” explains Travers. “The smell of it, the aroma, the memories of it.”
“Very often, [ice cream] is the first choice you're given,” she continues. “Everybody's got some memory, because it's associated with holidays. It has these happy associations.”
Which is true, but most people’s memories are not of a blood orange and bergamot sherbet sorbet or a lemon verbena ice cream made from hand-picked verbena leaves. Most people do not make their own ice cream. It requires a very specific appliance, it takes ages, and if you don’t nail it, there’s not much you can do to fix it. It would be wrong to ignore the fact that Travers’ cookbook is probably more aspirational than functional.
I wonder what she thinks will make people want to try the ice cream recipes at home?
“Because once you start, there's nothing so great as eating freshly churned ice cream out of an ice cream machine. It's such a fun thing, you just never get tired of it. That difference of you pouring the liquid in, it freezing, and having this fluffy, whipped, delicious cream.”
Plus, La Grotta Ices is more than just a book of sorbet recipes. Travers also includes anecdotes about travelling to Italy to bulk-by old ice cream appliances, tips on where to find said verbena plant (behind a concession stand in Elephant and Castle), and some of the most incredible cookbook photography I’ve ever seen.
Cute pastels and twee sprinkle-covered cones are nowhere to be found in La Grotta Ices. The photos are kitsch and almost ugly in their retroness—they remind me of 1950s recipe filled with bizarre chocolate gateaux served in antique glass bowls. I ask Travers about how the photos came about.
It all began with a meatloaf. “It was January in 2015, and I was sitting on my sofa in the freezing winter and saw an article in the New York Times about meatloaf,” she tells me. “It was illustrated by this beautiful photograph and it was surreal, quite retro.”
The photo was by American photographer Grant Cornett, who Travers decided to contact.
“My sister told me to email him, and I thought, ‘That's insane, I am a person sitting on my sofa with no book and no publishing deal, and he's a photographer for the New York Times,” she says. “That's just embarrassing.”
But Cornett agreed to come to London to take photos for a potential La Grotta Ices cookbook. At this point, Travers didn’t have a publishing deal.
“It was really fun, it was really wild,” she says. “We didn’t know what we were doing at all.”
Travers sent off cookbook proposals—including Cornett’s accompanying photos—to various publishers. Sadly, the publishing industry wasn’t as enthusiastic about the stylistic, offbeat images that had captivated Travers.
“A lot of them didn't like the photographs,” she says guiltily.
Eventually, she managed to strike a deal with Penguin, and the book came to life, photos and all.
It’s stories like this that make you want to be more like Travers. To take risks, to move country, to start your own ice cream business. I, too, want to collect fig leaves from the community garden for my homemade gelato. I, too, wish I hoarded an antique collection of appliances in my perfectly-messy-yet-organised workspace. I, too, should have packed up and moved to New York/Cannes/Sicily to pursue an ambition that only brought joy, and no loneliness nor regret. My life seems greyscale in comparison.
The weekend after I meet Travers, I obsessively read aloud from La Grotta Ices to my younger sister, who I’m on holiday with in Devon. I can’t help but parrot back the stories of New York and fig leaf ice cream to them like an overexcited child. The following Wednesday, I travel an hour from work to pick up a second-hand ice cream maker from a man named Jon I found on Gumtree. “You’re obsessed,” my sister tells me.
I’d have to agree.