Weir and wonderful
Gelato aficionados – Caroline and Robin Weir – talk about their life, work, and the search for the ultimate vanilla ice-cream
Words: Kassia St Clair
Photography: Vitsœ, @BompasandParr
To some, the word ‘impossible’ brooks no opposition; to others, it is a challenge. Caroline and Robin Weir are in the latter category, a fact revealed when discussing some of the trickiest gelato recipes they have ever worked on. “Anything to do with…” Caroline begins, “…Coca Cola” continues Robin, “and chocolate, where you want depth without darkness or flouriness.” Back to Caroline: “Pineapple too – it has a certain acidity which does not marry well with anything that has a dairy base. And it’s not too good in sorbets or granitas because it’s so fibrous.“ All of which is to say there are seven pineapple recipes in the pair’s bestselling book, Ice Creams, Sorbets & Gelati, and no fewer than 38 for chocolate, from classic ‘stracciatella’ and ‘chocolate and hazelnut’ through to the downright intriguing ‘gelato with tobacco’. Perhaps the only thing to have ever truly stumped them is Irn-Bru “Our best attempt looked like it was radioactive,” Robin sighs. “And it just tasted horrible.”
The award-winning authors are synonymous with ice cream. They own a museum-grade collection of memorabilia, their comprehensive book is still the definitive guide, 30 years after it was first published, and activities such as their collaboration with the foodie creative studio Bompas & Parr to stage ‘Scoop’, an exhibition by The British Museum of Food in London, has endorsed their status as authentic gelato connoisseurs.
The route to their love affair was a winding one, Robin began his career in retail, he trained at Harrods department store in London, then worked at Rackham’s, another famous department store in Birmingham, UK, before moving on to the luxury brand Alfred Dunhill as design development director. By his late 20s, he was in charge of Dunhill’s American subsidiary, a job he held for seven years before returning to England and, shortly thereafter, struck out on his own. Caroline, meanwhile, was developing and testing recipes for British celebrity-cook Delia Smith, while writing books of her own and working at ‘Books for Cooks’, in Notting Hill, London.
By the 1980s, Robin was running a product-development company and nursing an enthusiasm for a little-known Italian foodstuff ‘mostarda di Venezia’, a quince preserve flavoured with mustard. “Unfortunately, as Caroline will tell you, I’m obsessive by nature,” Robin explains. Having begun thinking about mustard he found he could not stop. He threw himself into researching the topic, trying everything from a self-administered mustard bath (“the stupidest thing I’ve ever done: I came out of it like a lobster.”) to more sedate investigation, such as background reading in the aforementioned Notting Hill bookshop. It was here that he first met Caroline, but the two really bonded a few years later when he returned with a new passion: homemade ice-cream.
This had started, prosaically enough, with a supermarket contretemps. One Saturday morning, Robin’s three children snuck a large tub of ice cream into the shopping trolley. Rather than making them take it back to the freezer aisle there and then, he decided to use it to teach them the value of quality over quantity. “I brought the tub home, sat them down, read them the long list of all the weird ingredients so they could see it was absolute rubbish and then poured it down the sink.” This, predictably, provoked floods of tears, but the lesson was far from over. “I told them to grab their things, because we were going to go and buy our very own ice-cream machine”. The rest of the weekend was spent making batches of every flavour they could think of. Robin has never looked back.
A visit to Caroline and Robin’s West London home reveals how they have completely surrendered to their passion for ice cream. Their industrial-style apartment is small but functional, the kitchen is crammed with tools, moulds, bombe pans and a well-stocked larder. On a double-height wall are displayed a gigantic egg-poacher and an intricate tapestry of a fried egg by a Scandinavian artist. Another wall – entirely covered by their shelving system – is given over to cookbooks, memorabilia, objets d’art and cubby-hole desks. All this represents just a fraction of their ice-cream archive, which includes pictures, prints, churns, moulds, penny licks (small glasses used to serve ice-cream before the invention of edible cones) 600 books on Ices alone, as well as many hundreds of cookery books, with the earliest dating back to the 1700s. All this has, however, provided ample grist for their own books – Ice Creams, Sorbets & Gelati and the earlier Ices – that expound on the history and science of ice cream, and contain recipes for everything from ‘allspice biscuits’ to ‘zabaglione gelato’.
What is it about ice cream that has managed to hold their attention over the past three decades? Part of it has to do with their mutual outrage of how bad so much of the commercial offering are. “Ice cream is sold by volume and not by weight” Caroline explains, “so manufacturers try and beat as much air into the product as possible.” By contrast, they enthuse about the simplicity of the basic recipe for homemade equivalents. “There aren’t many other branches of cuisine that rely on so few ingredients: milk, cream, sugar and, sometimes, egg. That’s it.” And while they aren’t afraid of sampling unusual flavours – they mention octopus, cheese, burnt sugar, garlic and, of course, Irn-Bru – it is the quest for the perfect vanilla that really animates them. “If you can’t make a really decent vanilla” Robin declares, “you can’t make anything.” A challenge, if ever there was one.
Recipe: Easy No-Cook Philadelphia Vanilla Ice Cream
Taken from: Ice creams, Sorbets and Gelati – The Definitive Guide by Caroline and Robin Weir
This is the easiest type of Philadelphia (or egg-less) ice cream and is particularly suitable for children to make. As the name suggests this recipe is reputed to have originated in Philadelphia. Because it contains no egg, it melts faster and has the characteristic iciness of old-fashioned ice cream. The clearly visible vanilla seeds are also typical of this type of ice.
Makes about 750ml, 3 US cups, 24 fl oz
Vanilla bean: 1
Whole milk: 375ml, 1 ½ cups, 12 fl oz
Unrefined granulated sugar: 50g, ¼ cup, 1 ¾ fl oz
Sweetened condensed milk, chilled: 125ml, ½ cup, 4 fl oz
Whipping/heavy cream (36% fat), chilled: 250ml, 1cup, 8 fl oz
Salt: ¼ tsp
Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and heat with the milk and sugar, stirring occasionally, to just below boiling point, allow to cool and chill. Remove the bean and scrape out the seeds, adding them to the chilled milk.
When ready add the chilled condensed milk and cream then ‘still freeze’ and store in a sealed container.
Serve within 1 hour or, if frozen solid, allow 20 minutes in the fridge to soften sufficiently for serving.