I quite like ice cream. That is not a sentence you see very often. Ice cream usually inspires an adoration that begins in childhood and survives uncorrupted as we grow up. The mature pleasure may be more intense, involving both the immediate experience and the memory of childhood treats. A food luxurious and uncomplicated, comforting and cool, rich and refreshing, is surely irresistible.
An odd facet of taste is that it can more easily evolve into delight from loathing than from indifference. I once found Islay malt whisky, with its tang of iodine, repulsive; I adore it now. I adored ice cream once. Then I went to school, where we would be served with small vanilla bricks on beds of tinned pineapple. I did not dislike the vanilla bricks, but I did not like them much either. Concoctions of feeble flavourings, emulsifiers and vegetable oil were what you got when you ate mass-produced ice creams in Britain in the 1970s.
I could not bear to let the school custard, lukewarm and thin and lumpy, pass my lips. I later realised that I liked Bird's Custard, and liked the real stuff even more. I also discovered that vanilla was a seductive flavouring rather than a definition of non-flavouring. But I never recovered my earliest feelings about ice cream. Clearly Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's, arriving in the UK in 1987 and 1994 respectively, offered an authentic and superior product, far removed from what I ate in my childhood. But the experience of eating these was not, for me, very different.
So I read Anne Fadiman's essay on ice cream in her beguiling new collection of pieces At Large and at Small (Allen Lane, the Penguin Press) with some envy. I do not particularly covet a craving that might tempt me to raid the freezer in the middle of the night; but I have just enough memory of the enthusiasm I once enjoyed to regret its loss.
When, in the 1970s, Fadiman and her brother travelled from the west coast of America to the east to attend college, they charted a zigzag route to take in recommended ice cream parlours on the way, sometimes making detours of several hundred miles. Her brother now makes his own ice cream, using liquid nitrogen that he acquires from a local sperm bank. (The first time he turned up at the bank with his Thermos, the director said: "Young man, that's quite a contribution.")
I met Fadiman at Fortnum & Mason. The Parlour Restaurant had the ambience of an airport cafe, and did not inspire confidence that it would show a fine example of British dessert-making to a discerning American visitor. The ice cream turned out to be good, however. It was not as rich in buttermilk as were American varieties, Fadiman thought, resembling rather an Italian gelato; but the flavours were pure. I agreed. It was quite nice.
Nicholas Clee's food blog is at http://nicholasclee.blogspot.com