Ice cream makes me happy. So says a postcard bought for me by a dear friend, who knew this to be as gospel true as the other phrase that frequently escapes my lips: I love nuts. But ice cream holds a special place in my nostalgic heart that nuts, a more recent love affair, don’t. It transports me to a place of childlike joy best represented by a photo of me, aged four, grinning, naked but for a floppy hat, brown as a berry and drenched in Greek sunshine. I have similarly happy memories from my university Erasmus semester abroad in Salerno, southern Italy. Barely darkening the entrance to a campus, my abiding recollections are of sun and food: lazing on sandy beaches, the ritual 4am post-clubbing pitstops at bakeries to gorge on fresh cornetti (or croissants) filled with nutella, and the Saturday afternoon passegiata visit to Bar Nettuno gelateria, on the Lungomare. There, not only were you proferred gelato and sorbetto of all colours and flavours, but to top it all off it was delivered to you in soft, freshly-baked brioche, a southern Italian specialty.
Now, many years since, I dream of opening up a gelateria in these chillier northern European climes. I see gaps in the market everywhere I go. My current fantasies involve starting a pop-up from our flat window, conveniently (luxuriously) situated on the trail towards East London’s Columbia road flower market, well trodden by creatures with hipster legs and palm trees from the waist up. I have yet to work out the ins and outs of such an endeavour, and in the meantime, damp problems in our flat may cause it to cave in around us and our cooking utensils.
My inspiration has also suffered some dampening as I have contemplated how to continue this blog over the last few months, or year, to be more precise. There has been a proliferation of good food writing and food initiatives related to Palestine, and I have also felt a sense of futility at my feeble attempts to intertwine food and political issues in the face of the deterioriating situation there, including continued Israeli state violence against Gazan protestors, the expulsion from Hebron of the international observer mission set up during the Oslo peace process, and the increasing belligerence of the Israeli government. Also futile-seeming was the prospect of intertwining my love of ice cream and something Palestinian.
But a muse of sorts did surely arrive, via a friend who alerted me to a fascinating BBC article on qizha, a black paste of roasted nigella seeds produced in Ramallah. I had never seen or tried such a thing, often apparently assumed to be tahini gone bad, but I sure as hell plan to. Quickly, however, another article caught my eye, entitled ‘Palestine’s secret stretchy ice cream’.
My curiosity piqued, I watched the short documentary promising to reveal the ancient secret to the stretchiness of the ice cream in maybe Ramallah’s oldest ice cream cafe. It was none other than mastic, a gum made from the resin of a tree found only on the Greek island of Chios.
I happened to be on a short break in Athens when I watched this documentary, which consequently led to my re-discovering of Greece’s own mastic ice-cream, Kaimaki, a vintage delicacy dating back, well a long time, and surely to Ottoman rule, given the Turkish origins of the ice cream’s name and the stretchiness of its geography. Some local research – i.e. to the spice shop around the corner from my Mum’s flat – enabled me to lay my hands on the ice cream’s speciality – or in Nigella’s words, recherché – ingredients, which were not just Chios mastic gum but also Salepi (Sahlab in Arabic, Salep in Turkish), otherwise known (or unknown) as ground orchid root powder, the cost of which comes in at an eye-watering 100 euro a kilo. The owner of the local spice shop told me I would next need to source some buffalo milk in order to make the real Kaimaki, but having already exhausted my euro funds and not being convinced I would be allowed back into the UK with Greek buffalo milk, I settled for the more pedestrian British cow’s milk and cream, which most recipes I came across propose. Ultimately Kaimaki ice cream should not only be stretchy but also luxuriously creamy, fit for a Sultan, but in this post-Sultan world, the people must make do.
Aside from the cost and rarity of the ingredients, the rest of the Kaimaki-making process is pretty accessible. The salepi acts as a -rather expensive- thickener, which apparently, somewhat disappointingly, can be substituted with cornflour. Unlike cornflour however, salepi was believed in Ottoman times to increase virility. This fact I learned from one of my UK-based Greek testers, my cousin’s friend, and it immediately gave me a marketing idea for my proposed windowsill pop-up, one which dismayed my cousin. Otherwise, the Kaimaki ice cream got the seal of approval from the ‘Orthodox’. Subsequent British testers have warmed to its unique taste, likening it, unusually, to silver. It is definitely a difficult taste to describe, but other comparisons of its flavour to ‘pine trees’ seem to make some kind of weird sense.
This recipe below infuses the ice cream mixture with orange rind, which adds a lovely flavour.
Kaimaki ice cream
1 tsp salepi (sahlab) or 1tbsp corn starch
2 cups milk
2 cups heavy cream
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/4-1/2 tsp mastic powder
Slice of orange rind
1. Dilute salepi in 1 tbsp cold milk (use a whisk or immersion blender if you want to thoroughly dilute it).
2. Bring the milk, cream and sugar to boil, add the salep . Stir in mastic and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring constantly.
3. Add the slice of orange rind and remove from heat. Let it cool and place in the fridge. Churn in an ice cream machine.
4. Keep in the freezer until needed.
Enjoy with oriental desserts or just a scattering of nuts.