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Credit: Matt Russell/Kitchn

Kitty Travers & La Grotta Ices Will Ruin You for All Other Ice Cream

updated Aug 22, 2019
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When I arranged to meet Kitty Travers to talk about her London ice cream business, La Grotta Ices, I imagined that we might start our day in a dairy, with huge urns of still-warm milk and thick cream. In my fantasy, her workshop would be full of slabs of dark chocolate, silky caramel, plump golden egg yolks, and wafer cones. What I didn’t expect was for a journey into the art of ice cream to start at a fruit and vegetable stall.

Kitty flits around Puntarelle & Co produce market in a hum of impatient, hungry excitement. She picks up mandarin oranges, tenderly cradling the dimpled fruits. She spots a box of Alphonso mangoes half-hidden in a corner and rushes to them to feel the weight of the ripe fruit in her palm. “They’re warm!” she exclaims, and tells me to breathe deep to take in the scent. Perhaps I should have seen this coming — every ice cream that La Grotta Ices sells starts this way: with fresh fruit, in season. The recipe titles in the gorgeous La Grotta cookbook, which was released in the U.S. in March, read like pages from a botany textbook: wild fig and watermelon, yellow peach and basil, apricot noyau, leafy blackcurrant custard.

Credit: Matt Russell/Kitchn

As a baker, I feel most comfortable with the reassuringly uniform building blocks of any baker’s pantry: flour, sugar, and fat in familiar shades of cream and beige. I start with the known — with baker’s percentages, careful measurements, and tried-and-tested formulas — and see where that might lead. But Kitty doesn’t work that way.  “I would be bored by now if I was just making chocolate- and cream-based ice creams, or using nuts and pastes,” she explains. Putting fruit, herbs, and botanicals at the core of her craft means that no two cartons are ever the same.

Raised on the fringes of west London, Kitty grew up with tubs of cheap vanilla ice cream and ice cream truck Popsicles. But in a story now so familiar as to be cliché, a stint waitressing in France as a teenager opened her eyes to the greater heights to which ice cream could soar. She went to culinary school and spent time traveling, lingering in Italy where the intense gelato laid a clear blueprint for the dense, smooth ice creams she creates today. 

And the ice creams she makes — ice creams in which nearly two decades of travel and training are condensed — really are good. Katie Parla and Alice Waters are among those to have offered their praise. If you taste a La Grotta ice cream even once, you’ll find it sets the standard for ice cream eaten many months or even years later, and many miles away.

Credit: Matt Russell/Kitchn

When Kitty drives me back to what she calls her “ice cream shed,” I get an insight into how the fruits — in so many colors, shapes, and sizes, some with leaves, others bursting with juice, some tender, others crisp — are translated into the medium of cool, fresh ice cream. Kitty’s assistant, Fern, sits at a bench zesting dozens of mandarins. With a cloth covering her hair and the pile of fruit teetering in the sunlight, the scene feels more like a Dutch genre painting than a modern city kitchen. Ice cream making is often framed as a science — the pursuit of the perfect texture and flavor measured in ice crystal size and milk protein ratios — but for Kitty, it is most definitely an art.

If you taste a La Grotta ice cream even once, you’ll find it sets the standard for ice cream eaten many months or even years later, and many miles away.

As we meditatively scrape mango flesh from skins, slice loquats, and juice plump citrus fruit, Kitty explains how the juice from Fern’s mandarins will be magicked into a smooth sorbet. “We’re going to reduce the mandarin juice by half,” she explains. “Then we make the juice into a jelly using carrageen seaweed. Next, we make a zesty custard, strain the zest out, and mix it with the jelly the next day.” At each step, she sniffs, stirs, and smells, adjusting the sugar or acidity however seems right.

Credit: Matt Russell/Kitchn

If this all seems like a lot of work for a simple carton of ice cream, it’s because Kitty isn’t keen to take shortcuts. The key to making ice cream, as Charlotte Druckman recently pointed out in an Eater essay about the rise of artisanal ice cream, hinges on the paradox of freezing a liquid into a form that is, magically, not icy. This isn’t easy, and so the kind of ice cream that delights and excites so many of us — lurid ice pops, huge ice cream sundaes, McFlurries — often use culinary trickery to help achieve that holy grail of ice cream-making: a perfectly rich, dense ice cream that begins to melt teasingly as soon as it is served.

For Kitty, these additions run counter to everything that she believes ice cream should be. She doesn’t like milk powder, which she believes has a “cooked” taste antithetical to the dairy freshness she looks for in good ice cream. Glucose syrup, dextrose, and frozen fruit purées are also off-limits, all at odds with the “naturalness” that Kitty champions. “What I would like to nail is a soft-serve recipe — something natural as I understand it, to have the ingenuity to make something irresistible and fun and great that isn’t total shit,” she shares.

Credit: Matt Russell/Kitchn

If this all seems like a lot of work for a simple carton of ice cream, it’s because Kitty isn’t keen to take shortcuts.

Standing in Kitty’s ice cream shed and while eating a scoop of Gariguette strawberry and vanilla ice cream, I begin to feel uneasy. As much as I am enjoying this perfect, cotton candy pink ice cream — the essence of strawberry – I can’t put aside my other ice cream fantasies. I can’t forget Twisters, a British ice pop of swirls of pineapple and lime ice around a strawberry core, as perfectly artificial as they come. I refuse to virtuously leave behind the tubs of bright green mint chocolate chip, or ditch my favorite cookie dough confections. I worry that all the absurd, fake, unnatural joy of ice cream is about to be taken away. 

Credit: Matt Russell/Kitchn

I ask Kitty whether, in spite of everything she knows now about all-natural ice cream, she can still enjoy all the technicolor, over-the-top ice creams that she used to love as a child. I want to know that no matter how serious ice cream gets, there can still be room for fun in it: the kind of fun that creeps into the retro decor and gaudy signs of the Italian gelaterias that Kitty loves so much; the fun that pops off the page in her cookbook, with its bright photos and unashamedly kitsch revelry. “No,” she shakes her head. “It’s really sad. Because I’ve ruined that pleasure. And it was a pleasure!”

The bus ride back to my flat is too long to risk taking a carton of mango and loquat sorbet back with me, so as I step squinting into the sun, Kitty hands me two huge, Puglian lemons — a fitting memento of a visit that, in the end, was as much about the ingredients as it was about the ice cream itself. I promise myself that I will make sorbet with them, but also that I will buy a cheap, childish ice lolly on my way home, planting my feet happily in both ice cream camps.

Later in the afternoon, as I nap off the sugar high, my phone buzzes with a text. It’s Kitty. “I just wanted to add an exception to what I said about not liking cheap ice cream any more, and that is Twisters!,” she writes. “Saying I didn’t like Twisters would be a lie.”

Ruby Tandoh is a food writer living in London. She’s the author of Eat Up: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want.