The sun is shining. The air is warm. It seems that summer is upon us in spring. It’s ice cream time.
An ice cream is, or should be, a source of joy in a tricky world. Cool, downy, soothing, a billowing cloud of creamy delight, carrying a bold blast of strawberry, chocolate, vanilla, coffee, salted caramel, lemon or whatever – the ice cream of dreams, but rarely of reality these days.
Let’s face it, most ice creams are dire. OK, we all have a soft spot for a 99, but that’s a testament to the coarser side of public taste, little to do with a dairy product, more air and artifice, the lingering after effects of which suggest that your mouth has just been used for a rather unpleasant chemical experiment, Even those parlours declaring themselves to producing ‘home-made’ or, even more suspect, ‘artisanal’ ices too often betray our expectations.
Sadly, these days this is as true of Italy, the country that gave us ice cream, as it is of the UK. The quality of ice cream in Italy has been in decline for decades. Using industrial mixes, less cream and fewer, if any, eggs, indifferent flavourings, Italian ice creams trade on a glorious past. There are very few outposts that maintain the high ideals of old. I can only think of Pica in Rome, Lapillo on Stomboli and Caffe` Sicilia in Noto.
To which role call of honour I’m tempted to add the many GROM gelaterias.
Tommaso Grom and Guido Martinetti, grew up together, through school, university and military service. Tommaso Grom became a banker or a venture capitalist, I forget which, and Guido Martinetti became a wine maker. But they had always promised to go into business together, and in 2003 they abandoned their respective careers and set up GROM, making ice creams by hand in a domestic kitchen and selling them in their first gelateria in Turin.
Well, roll on several years and they crack both the technical problems of making high quality,’artisanal’ ices on an industrial scale, and come up with a financial model to support expansion. In 2005 they built a factory outside Turin where they made (and make) the bases for the ice creams and the flavourings. They were very smart in their branding. The GROM gelati celebrated traditional values, but the gelaterias were anything but. They were the epitome of metropolitan chic and staffed by smart, chic youngsters. The ice creams and sorbets were (and are) churned in each gelateria and then stored in old fashioned cylinders, rather than the garish displays in plastic tubs of the kind more usually seen in Italian gelaterias. This meant that each ice or sorbet kept its freshness and texture. They made a point of celebrating, too, the provenance of the flavourings – vanilla from Madagascar, ‘Tonda Gentila’ hazelnuts, Sicilian lemons, Peruvian Apurimac chocolate, pizzuta almonds from Sicily – and of making heroes of producers. They even set up their own organic farm and development centre, Mura Mura, also outside Turin.
Since then, GROM outposts sprung up all over Italy and then the world – Dubai, Hong Kong, Jakarta, LA, New York, Malibu and so on and so on. In 2015, Unilever bought GROM, and have put their financial muscle into expanding the number of outposts still further.
For years various retailers, including that shrewd observer of the food scene, Ewan Venters, when he was directing food traffic there, and before he became CEO of Fortnum & Mason, attempted to lure them to London without success. Now GROM have opened in Piccadilly.
To be truthful, my Italian nephews are a bit snooty about GROM, although they’re quite happy to lap away at a cone when there’s no other preferred place of gelato pilgrimage at hand. A test tub or strawberry, GROM cream and expresso coffee (£7.90) suggested that the GROM lads – the founders still run the company – have not lost their touch. The quality is remarkable, not great maybe, but very good. The strawberry was clean, gentle but persistent; the GROM crema was agreeably rich and subtle; and the expresso coffee managed to be both powerful and creamy.
And as the sun is shining again today, and the air is warm, and summer is still here in spring, I just might go back to carry in my researches. A fine ice cream is not to be sneezed at.
GROM Gelato, 18 Piccadilly, W1J 0DF