It was a mistake to tell us about the gelati-to-sightseeing ratio. This was the formula my father, his younger sister and brother came up with when being dragged round Italian churches as children. The ideal was 3:1, that is: three ice creams for each dreary chiesa. My grandparents thought it should be the other way around: three improving historic sights for every one ice cream.
Of course, once my brother and I knew about the gelati ratio — and what an astonishing thought it was that our father had once been young and had sat mutinous on the steps of the Parthenon — we knew not to be fobbed off with one lousy scoop of choc chip. We wanted a 1:1 ratio or bust. In England, slopping around the Lost Gardens of Heligan in wellies and waterproofs, we settled for hot chocolates. But on rare spring and summer days and on holiday, it was Twisters, Viennettas and three scoops of Neapolitan in glass bowls.
Outside our primary school in the summer term, an ice-cream van used to park on the hill, bonnet towards the Finchley Road. The jingle started at three minutes to four, wildly distracting to seven-year-olds doing times tables. Now when I hear an ice cream van playing ‘The Entertainer’ rag it gives me a craving — more slaveringly Pavlovian than Proustian — for a mint Cornetto, the paper peeled off in a neat helix. In the holidays we were allowed to buy Mini Milks from the corner shop, a trip that could be taken On Our Own, crossing two roads, with 20ps folded in our palms. Mini Milks taste of first London freedoms and pocket money to burn.
Ice creams do taste of freedom: long summer evenings and layers shed and sunburnt holidays and sod-the-calories. On my graduation day, broiling in black dress, black tights, black gown and fur hood in a June heatwave, my university boyfriend and I had Calippos by the river. The orange syrup promised a sunny future, the world at our feet, never an exam again. The relationship melted, as ice lollies and university boyfriends do, but a Calippo remains a sticky symbol of great happiness.
My tastes are more acid now: bitter blood-orange sorbets rather than sickly Twisters. Earlier this year at Le Querce, an Italian restaurant in south London recommended by fellow I-scream-you-scream-we-all-scream-for-ice-cream friends, I was ready to order the rapa rossa (beetroot) sorbet when the patron came to the table wearing an expression of deep grief, as if the family’s beloved nonna, who had first taught them to beat cream with vanilla, had just died.
There had been a terrible accident, he said, a fault with the freezer overnight: the kitchen’s stock of gelati — myrtle berry and pear, pumpkin and amaretto — had turned to slush. But all was not lost. He had had time to whip up just one batch of banana, cardamom and ginger. And so we had that, with long silver spoons, on the first April evening mild enough to be out without a coat, and a heady sense of summer just beyond the next bus stop.