It’s been very hot recently. The kind of hot that puts soup on furlough. The kind of hot that makes Nelly ask everybody to put their clothes back on and go somewhere else with better ventilation. The kind of hot that sees you questioning whether £400 is a good investment for a Dyson fan that is at once both shockingly overpriced for something that blows air, but also a terrible fan from the man who brought you other ideas such as ‘why not dry your hands in a valley of everybody else’s questionably washed hand germs’ and ‘let’s remove most of the UK’s science funding’.
Today I aim to overcome the heat with a true legend of ice cream. Agnes Marshall isn’t a household name, but Heston Blumenthal has described her as “one of the greatest culinary pioneers this country has ever seen”. A cookery writer from Victorian times, she was known as ‘the Queen of Ices’ for her work in the field of ice cream and frozen desserts. Credited as the inventor of the edible ice cream cone, she was also the first to suggest using liquid nitrogen for making ice cream, a technique that’s only really taken off in recent times. Having these ideas back in the 19th century, to say she was ahead of her time is an understatement. After all, the liquid nitrogen boom didn’t happen until Terminator 2 was released in 1991, so she missed that by around 100 years.
Today I’ll be taking Agnes on an ice cream tour of London, aiming to show her how far the ice cream has come since her time. As the writer of the book ‘Ices Plain and Fancy’, I’m sure she’s going to be excited to see the innovation that continues to happen within the ice cream industry, across ices both plain and fancy.
I meet Agnes in Shoreditch, the location of the first ice cream shop on our grand tour of London. Arriving on her penny farthing dressed in full Victorian garb, locating her is like trying to find Woof in The Land of Woofs, as she blends in almost perfectly with the rest of the crowd. Finally locating Agnes (though not before first finding a wizard and scroll), we proceed to our first spot.
Dark Sugars on Brick Lane is primarily a chocolate shop, but it also has a separate ice cream parlour on the same street too, that offers an amazing range of delicious flavoured gelatos. I thought this the ideal place to begin our journey, somewhere innovative in flavour but still fairly traditional in style. Here, I opt for two scoops of chocolate ginger and butterscotch whilst Agnes goes for the salted brownie and stracciatella. She smiles excitedly as they hand her ice cream cone to her. Truly, this is a woman who loves ice cream and it shows. We have a taste. You can clearly tell the chocolate ice cream is using super high-quality chocolate. It’s really rich and flavoursome, whilst the ginger studded through is just the right amount, resulting in an ice cream that’s delicious and not too overpoweringly gingery. The butterscotch meanwhile is a delight. Creamy but swirled through with large, thick blobs of caramel, it’s a conical sensation. “It’s good, isn’t it?” I say. Agnes nods.
“I’ve never had such flavours before,” she says. “Wonderful. What a treat.”
“Did you hear that?” I say, turning to the line of people queuing for an ice cream. “This is Agnes Marshall approved!”
The line of people looks at me blankly. “Who?” Says one of them.
“I don’t know who that is.”
“It’s her!” I say, pointing to Agnes. “Ladies and gentlemen, Agnes Marshall!”
Agnes gives a sheepish and slightly embarrassed wave. There is silence. “Come on! She invented the ice cream cone!” Further silence. “I’m sorry, Agnes, I really thought that would go better than it did. Clearly these philistines need to brush up on their ice cream history,” I say, as if I myself didn’t just find out about Agnes Marshall two days ago.
“It’s fine, really,” says Agnes, as she finishes off her ice cream. “This was marvellous. Where are we going next?”
Next on our list as we progress through the evolution of ice cream is Yolkin in Soho. Yolkin have become famous not just for their interesting flavours (flavours such as matcha Oreo, soy sauce caramel and Horlicks), but also for their ice cream sandwiches and ice cream cakes. Here I want to showcase to Agnes how people have started thinking outside of the cone and serving ice cream in non-traditional formats.
Arriving at Yolkin, I want to avoid some of the embarrassment we experienced in Shoreditch and ensure Agnes gets the recognition she deserves, so I hatch a clever plan. “Ok, you’re going to go in first ok and we’re going to pretend we don’t know each other,” I say to Agnes.
“All will become clear.”
I send Agnes in to the queue by herself, whilst I join a few places behind her. As she gets to the front of the queue, I take my opportunity.
“Oh my god, are you who I think you are?” I say, excitedly looking at Agnes. Agnes looks confused. “Can I get a picture with you?” Agnes shrugs, and I wander over to take a picture of us together. “Wow, my friends are not going to believe this! What an exciting day!” I say. I don’t want to say my acting is wooden, but the Trojans have enquired about hiding thirty soldiers in it.
“Excuse me, are you famous?” Says somebody else.
“Don’t you recognise her? Wow, this is embarrassing for you,” I say. “I’ll give you a clue, she invented ice cream cones.”
“Are you… Mr Whippy?”
“No! For goodness sake it’s Agnes Marshall!” I say, annoyed. “How is nobody getting this?”
“It’s fine Andy, honestly.”
“You know this person?”
“Yes, fine! This is all an elaborate ruse and it is I, Andy from Dead Dining!” I say. There are further blank stares. “Ok, I don’t know why I thought that was going to go any better. Let’s just get our ice creams and go.”
We order a couple of macaron ice cream sandwiches. I opt for a Milo flavour, whilst Agnes goes for Red Velvet. They’re both very nice, the fudgy brownie pieces within the Milo ice cream particularly are a highlight, whilst the macarons provide a nice additional sweet crunch. Agnes’s red velvet particularly is fantastic, with pieces of red velvet sponge dotted through the ice cream. It really tastes just like the cake, which is to say it’s delicious. All in all, very impressive.
The next stop on our ice cream tour is Milk Train in Covent Garden. Milk Train describes itself as ‘home to the UK’s first candy floss ice cream cones’. Quite what that is I have no idea, but I’m looking forward to finding out.
Despite my excitement at the prospect of a third ice cream in a day, my excitement is still tempered by the fact that Agnes hasn’t received the recognition that she’s due, despite my best efforts. Externally she’s putting on a very brave face about it, but internally it must be very upsetting. I’m going to need to ramp this up if I want to make this day truly special for her, and for that I’m going to need help. I get out my phone and quickly make a call. “Hi, it’s Andy. Andy. From Dead Dining. I’m calling in that favour. Meet me at Milk Train. No, Milk Train, as in a train of milk. It’s in Covent Garden. Milk Train. M, I, L, K. Milk. T, R, A, I, N, Tra- you know, I really thought this was going to be a shorter phone call, just look it up and meet me there. And bring your invention, you know the one. As many as you can.”
We make the short walk to Milk Train, around ten minutes’ walk from Yolkin. This should give ample time for my assistant to set themselves up. Approaching, we round the corner to see… Bunsen burners?
“Ta da!” Says Michael Faraday, famed scientist, as he sets another Bunsen burner down outside of the shop. “I brought as many as I could carry, as you asked.”
“I meant BALLOONS!” I say, aghast. “Damnit Faraday! What the hell would I want with this many Bunsen burners?”
“In my defence I had a lot of inventions,” says Michael. “And what would you want with this many balloons?”
“I’m trying to create a celebration for Agnes Marshall!”
“Oh, don’t you start.”
“Well look, if we just try this…” says Michael, as he plugs the Bunsen burners into the local gas supply, having done at once a remarkable and somewhat terrifying job of digging up the road in the space of ten minutes. “Then ta da!” He says, igniting the Bunsen burners. It looks exactly as impressive as you’d expect a display of around twelve Bunsen burners to look, which is to say it looks as impressive as a Year 9 chemistry lesson. I turn to Agnes with a sigh.
“Let’s get an ice cream and talk,” she says.
We order our ice creams from Milk Train. Here we both opt for the Rocky Train Track, a combination of chocolate soft-serve ice cream, served with marshmallows, pretzels, Oreos, caramel sauce and a wafer, all in a cone topped with a candy floss cloud. It’s quite something to behold, but thankfully for something clearly designed with Instagram in mind it’s also still very tasty, especially the addition of salty pretzels, which are a really nice pairing with the chocolate ice cream. Unless you really like candy floss that doesn’t add too much beyond the visual, but overall it’s a treat that really embraces the fun spirit of ice cream and makes the world a slightly brighter place. Even so I still feel the day could have gone better for Agnes.
“I’m so sorry, Agnes, this really hasn’t worked out how I imagined at all.”
“I already told you, Andy. I really don’t care.”
“But doesn’t this make you sad?”
“Why would it?”
“Because you changed the world and still nobody remembers you!”
“Just because not everybody knows who you are, it doesn’t mean you didn’t have an impact. You don’t think I know that if Joe Swash walked in here now he wouldn’t be mobbed by hundreds of adoring fans?”
“I don’t even know where to begin with that question.”
“But fame isn’t everything. So long as you’ve had a positive impact on those around you, and the important ones remember you then that’s more important than any widespread fame.”
“So what you’re saying is… even if a blog only gets ten views a month, it can still be incredibly important?”
“No, that’s a real problem. In that instance you have neither fame nor recognition. I don’t understand why anybody would plough on in that scenario.”
“Ok, that’s fine, I mean… I was just asking for a friend anyway…” I say. “Come on, let’s go to the last place. I think you’re really going to like this one.”
Our final stop is Chin Chin Labs in Camden. Chin Chin Labs specialises in liquid nitrogen ice cream, one of the first ice cream parlours in the UK to do so. It’s the perfect place to end our trip, showing Agnes how the innovative idea she first posited over 100 years ago has come to fruition in spectacular style now.
“Oh my god, is this…?” She says, noticing the various tanks, beakers and scientific assemblage that makes up Chin Chin.
“It is!” I say. We stand and excitedly watch them adding the liquid nitrogen to the mixing bowl, sending clouds of steam pouring out of the sides. It’s an emotional moment, seeing your lifelong dream achieved. Or at least, I imagine it is. I don’t really have a lifelong dream. If you’d asked me when I was 10 years old what my lifetime dream was it would probably have been something childish and naive, like scoring a hat-trick in the FA Cup Final. But I’m an adult now, I need to be more realistic. FA Cup Finals are rarely high-scoring affairs. Scoring one goal will be enough.
The quality you can achieve with liquid nitrogen is something else. Because it freezes so quickly you avoid creating ice crystals within the mixture, resulting in a much smoother ice cream. Here I opt for a toasted marshmallow-topped cone, with chocolate ice cream, honeycomb and chocolate fudge sauce, whilst Agnes opts for burnt butter caramel topped with grilled white chocolate. The ice cream is delicious, smoother than freshly ironed silk pyjamas that have been washed in butter, and the honeycomb particularly is exceptionally good, probably the best honeycomb I’ve had in my life. “What do you think?” I ask.
“It’s everything I ever dreamed of,” says Agnes.
“Hear that? It’s Agnes Marshall approved!” I say. Applause breaks out throughout the market. “Oh my god, finally!” I say. It’s then I turn to see they’re not applauding Agnes at all. “Joe Swash?!” I say, as he strolls in to a rapturous reception.
“You know what, that actually hurts more than I thought it would,” says Agnes. Overall…
Dark Sugars – 9/10 – Simple but excellent. The tastiest butterscotch ice cream I have had.
Yolkin – 9/10 – Really tasty, fudgy ice cream. The red velvet is particularly great.
Milk Train – 9/10 – Really nice, and a fun ice cream that can’t help but make you smile.
Chin Chin – 9/10 – Delicious, innovative, and with honeycomb worth making a day trip for.