You know that ice cream is sweet, cold and delicious, but do you know how it's made and what goes into it? Jana gets to the heart of it and has a delightful chitchat with Lewis Alfonso, an Italian gelato maker, and discovers fascinating facts about ice cream. While she is about it, she has a taste of Italian language & learns how to order a pistachio gelato.
This episode is dedicated to Lydia Geneva, who we will be hearing from later.
Do you hear that sound?
Hello, and welcome to Jana's Studio, where I talk to fascinating people about fascinating things.
Is there anyone out there who doesn't just love ice cream?
Well, there must be someone somewhere, but I am yet to meet them.
Who could resist the sweet chimes of the ice cream van, without the urge to rush out to buy their favourite flavour?
Here in the UK, the sound of the British summer arrives with the good old ice cream van, accompanied by its jangly chimes.
And in India, the ice cream seller, sometimes sings a song to advertise his ice cream, called Kulfi, which has flavours like cardamon, mango and pistachio.
There are variations on ice cream the world over, but in my view, the most scrumptious is Gelato, from Italy.
Whilst out in an upmarket shopping area in Oxford, my curiosity led me to the cutest little ice cream van, though it doesn't have any chimes. I got chatting to the owner, 24 year old, Lewis Alfonso, who grew up in Rome, and I discovered that his ice cream is authentically Italian.
After much indecision, I finally settled for the dark chocolate flavour to try. It did not disappoint. It was delicious and creamy without being too sweet.
Every morning Lewis makes his own ice cream and sells it from his van which he had built to order in Italy. It's actually based on an Indian tuk tuk. Lewis loves ice cream and knows all sorts of interesting facts about it. And is now living his ice cream dream.
So here joining me today, is Lewis Alfonso.
Jana - Bonjourno Lewis. How important was ice cream for you when you were a child?
Lewis - Growing up in Italy, ice cream was such an important part of everyone's life, including mine. I remember we used to have this local ice cream place called a 'qui quo qua'. We used to go there everyday.
Jana - What does 'qui quo qua' stand for?
Lewis - Qui quo qua is the name of the three ducks from Mickey Mouse.
Jana - Donald Duck? Huey, Louis & Duey? Oh my Gosh! That's so funny because we were watching that last night!
Lewis - Yeah, so qui quo qua is Huey, Louis & Duey. So that's what the name means. That was an ice cream place that I think had more kids around basically. It was more targeted for that. But that was our local one. And this was in Austia, which is just on the coast. Afterwards as you got older and older, especially more towards I started becoming 16 or 17, a lot of really really high quality ice cream places started to open up. And they were fantastic because you could see all the laboratories. So where they were making it. You could see from the back, you could see all the fresh ingredients arrive. Some of them were famous because they had a really wide range of flavours and some of them were really indulgent, some of them had not that many flavours, but the places that had 8 flavours, they were so good that people would still go there.
Jana - What was your favourite flavour as a child?
Lewis - I always liked the chocolatey flavours, the more creamy ones. And now that I've started making it, I think I have more of an appreciation for all the flavours. So, appreciate the fruit ones a lot more and also ones that are just interesting flavour combinations, and things that are just abit unusual.
Jana - I wanted to ask you, what's the most whackiest or unusual flavour that you've ever made?
Lewis - We made one that was a beer ice cream with a peanut praline on top. We also did some other really whacky ones.
Jana- Goodness, I wouldn't mind trying that one.
Lewis - It was actually really nice. I think it was a honey ice cream with balsamic vinegar reduction on it. Yeah.
Jana - That does not sound good to me. Savoury and ?
Lewis - Balsamic vinegar. So you've got a tang to that, but then you've got the sweetness. So it's like sweet and sour. This was in a course I did in Italy. That's where I learnt to make it. And actually there is one that is worse than that. Pecorino, which is a type of sheep cheese. It's like parmasan.
Jana - Oh yes, pecorino.
Lewis - Yeah, and that with black pepper. So that is what's called a gastronomic ice cream. So it's basically savoury ice cream.
Jana - Lewis, you like coffee.
Lewis - I do. I do really like coffee.
Jana - I would have thought that coffee would have been your favourite?
Lewis - The coffee I do is actually a really really strong coffee. I call it Italian espresso. 50% of the ice cream is actually espresso. It gives a real kick. You end up with about two shots of coffee per scoop.
Jana - My daughter loves mocha. Do you make mocha ice cream?
Lewis - Not yet, but if they want, they can always have chocolate and coffee. The other really interesting thing that I found about while I learnt and started making ice cream, you're used to tasting things at room temperature, which is not something you think about. You just take for granted that you taste something at room temperature. What happens is, when you serve something that's very cold, you actually find that, that flavours actually decrease. Something that tastes really strong warm, when you chill it making it suddenly very cold, most of the flavour goes.
Jana - Ah yeah.
Lewis - The mint stracciatella that we do, so it's vanilla infused with fresh mint. And then bits of dark chocolate in, and sometimes I put orange peel in the dark chocolate. So when you're eating it, you get the sweetness first, and then the mint. And then, so that the ice cream melts first in your mouth. And then you're left with a black chocolate, dark chocolate that melts in your mouth. You kind of get flavours coming one after the other.
Jana - Sounds wonderful!
So I understand you did a degree in chemistry. How does that help you in your job?
Lewis - Having a degree in chemistry actually really helped in ways that I didn't expect. When I first got the degree, I never thought when I was doing chemistry that I would eventually be making ice cream.
Jana - How much sugar is there in ice cream?
Lewis - Probably it's about 20% sugar.
Jana - Actually that's not as much as I would have thought. I'm actually allergic to sugar, so. I do like ice cream of course, like everybody else does, but I would want one that's tasty, as well as something that's not going to give me that allergic reaction.
Lewis - Problem is, if you didn't have any sugar in the ice cream, and you took it as a temperature that we serve it at, so it's about minus 13, it would just be a solid block. So it would be too hard. You put sugar in basically, partly to give it sweetness, but partly to give it a softer texture.
Jana - Mmm.
Lewis - If I was to put loads and loads and loads of sugar in, and they gave it to you, it would basically be, even if was really cold, it would still be pretty much liquid.
Jana - Ok. So the more sugar, the creamier or liquidy..
Lewis - Yeah, the softer it is. You have to have the right level of sugar in the ice cream, you have to have the right amount of fat. There's no such thing as the perfectly healthy ice cream. You have to put something in there to give it the right texture.
Jana - Ok. That leads me onto the question, what do you think of Mr Whippy, the, you know where they pour it from the machine?
Lewis - Soft serve ice cream can actually be pretty good quality. But it can also really not be very good quality. So you can have loads of preservatives, loads of other chemicals that give it a structure and texture, you know, artificial flavourings. So the way I see it, there's very little naturalness to it.
Jana - What makes Italian ice cream taste so wonderful?
Lewis - What makes Italian ice cream taste so wonderful is just the texture. That's the first thing that people sort of notice. The texture's incredibly creamy and melts in your mouth very quickly. Yeah, so you're serving it at about minus 13 degrees, versus normal ice cream, which might be minus 20. Actually it's quite a big difference. And because you're serving it at a warmer temperature, it means that you put less fat in it and less sugar because if you had the amount of sugar that you had in normal ice cream, and served it at that temperature, it would just be liquid. In Italy, traditionally you have kind of plainer flavours in terms of the nut flavours of example are really popular, like pistachio and hazelnut. You don't need a lot to really make it taste very good. You use just the actual nuts itself. There's no artificial flavouring, no artificial colouring, or anything like that. It's just a kind of very authentic, natural taste and experience.
Jana - I think pistacho is actually one of my favourites, if I should be honest, yeah, or hazelnut.
Lewis - It's the one that probably gets the most compliments.
Jana - Ok. What flavours would you absolutely never get rid of?
Lewis - Salted caramel just because it's my most popular and people really love that. Mango, people love mango. So propbably salted caramel, mango and pistachio, just because people can't seem to find good pistachio around, so.
Jana - Is your pistacho imported from Italy, or?
Lewis - I think the main places that make pistachio are Iran and America, actually. And there's some places in Italy that make it. It depends on where it grows, so I actually get it from the states mostly.
Jana - Ok, so what would you say children then, go for most?
Lewis - Children in general, they don't like something that's too sharp or too bitter.
Jana - Right.
Lewis - But then again, I've had very small children try a dark chocolate that's very very dark and a milk chocolate. And then actually prefer the dark chocolate, whereas most adults find the dark chocolate too bitter. I feel like a lot of it is just exposure. It's important to try lots of different things. You know really what you like, rather than just you're told what you like. I like to think of my ice cream sort of as a Disney film. It's aimed at children, but adults can enjoy it too.
Jana - Of course. Yeah, they do.
Lewis - Adults, they generally try the ice cream as well, and they're really often surprised by how much they like it. So, I think that's one of the cultural differences. In the UK people consider ice cream very much something for kids, whereas in Italy, it's not considered something for kids. It's considered something for everyone. You're more likely to see old couples and old people sat outside having ice cream, rather than children.
Jana - Yeah. Lewis, how did you learn to make ice cream?
Lewis - I initially started making ice cream at home. I probably was making it for a good couple of years because I just love cooking in general. And then once I decided I actually wanted to go further and actually try to set up an ice cream business, I then looked and decided to do training in Italy, just because that's where I'm from, and that's where they make the best ice cream in the world. So, i figured it was a good place to go. I went to Rome, and did some courses there. And actually the person who taught me was a chemist as well. So it was very interesting to sort of talk about things that way. So it was really really useful. We spoke a lot different aspects of things and yeah, it was really eye opening. And during the course I realised that it's definitely the right thing for me. And it was something that I really wanted to continue.
Jana - What was your worst moment during this period, I mean did you have any disasters?
Lewis - Not too many during the course because it's very sort of supervised and there's more sort of learning. I've had a lot of disasters making it while actually running the business. I think the worst one, or the one that sticks out in my head the most. Basically, I poured 8 kilo's of salted caramel mix, and as I poured it into the machine, I realised that I didn't actually have the beater inside. So there's a beater inside the machine that actually mixes it that wasn't in there. All 8 litres of it went and started pouring inside of the machine.
Jana - Oh goodness.
Lewis - All over th cogs and then out of the sides and then onto the floor. Trying to clean up 8 litres of something sweet and gloopy was just.. It took me about an hour just to sort of get most of it off.
Jana - What does an ice cream seller do in winter?
Lewis - They spend 3 months on holiday in the Bahamas.
Jana - Oh, like a bear who's having hibernation?
Lewis - Yeah, they're getting ready for the next season and relax.
Jana - Ok. That sounds like a wonderful job. I might come and work for you.
What can you see happening in the future for you?
Lewis - I think I'd really like to open a second place as well, in Oxford. I'd also like to supply more restaurants and do more events. I did a few weddings and corporate events this summer and I really enjoyed those. I think it'd be nice to do more of that next year.
Jana - So how did you get started up in Oxford?
Lewis - I initially approached the council. You had to suggest a new spot, do all the leg work yourself to actually get approved. Find a spot, suggest it, see how it impacts the local area, traffic. So that was the first step and that took about 3 months to get the spot and get the authorisations from all the relevant people and the ok from all the local,businesses.
Jana - Oh, so there was a lot of hard work in the first place.
Lewis - Yeah, it took me about a year of getting everything ready before I could actually even open up. Once I got the authorisation or the consent form, the rest of it, sort of getting the actual van ready, which was built in Naples, because I couldn't find anyone in the UK that would make it how I wanted it. So I had to go back to Italy again.
Jana - Actually, I've seen you're van and it's a very cute van. It's very appealing actually. Can you tell me a little bit about your van?
Lewis - Yeah, so it's a converted tuk tuk. Yeah, it's really beautiful, it's exactly what I had in mind. And it's pink and beige. The colours, branding, everything is just perfect. It's exactly how I wanted it.
Jana - Slight Indian touch would you say?
Lewis - Slightly. Well, actually it was built originally in India. So it went from India, to Naples, to Oxford.
Jana - That's amazing, I love that. Brilliant. have you ever made a hot and spicy ice cream? Just because I'm Indian, I have to ask.
Lewis - Er no, I never have. I think some people have asked me for chilli and chocolate. So maybe in the future.
Jana - If I was a tourist in Italy, how would I ask for a pistachio ice cream?
Lewis - Posso avere un Gelato al pistacchio per favore.
Jana - Can you say that slightly slower?
Lewis - Posso avere un Gelato al pistacchio per favore.
Jana - Posso avere un Gelato al pistacchio per favore. Yay. I love Italian language. I love it. And Italian ice cream, of course, of course. Although I'm allergic to sugar. I'm sorry, I just am.
Lewis, Gracias, Arrivederci.
Lewis - Thank you very much, I'll see you very soon, too.
A huge thank you to Lewis for coming to talk to me today, about the wonders of ice cream. Yum yum. We all wish him good luck and blessings in expanding his business!
And I am delighted to dedicate this episode to Lydia, who is 4 years old and lives in Washington State. Lydia sent us this little message via twitter.
Lydia - I love you Storynory.
Jana - Aw that's so sweet, Lydia. Thank you! I do hope you love ice cream as much as you love Storynory. And a big thank you to your mother, Elizabeth Geneva-Wood for supporting us on Patreon.
I'd be delighted to hear from any of you who have found this interview interesting. My question to you - Which combinations of ice cream ingredients tickle your fancy? If you can dream up any unique, strange and wonderful ice cream suggestions, that I can put forward to Lewis, do drop me a comment and let me know what they might be? Our comment box is on our website.
And, as ever, we value every bit of support we can get to help us provide the world with free stories. So a huge thank you to all of our Patreon supporters. It means so much to us. If any of you are interested to learn more about Alfonso ice cream, please do check out Lewis's website. www.alfonsogelateria.com
The link is on our website. Or, if you happen to be visiting Oxford, you can find Lewis and his amazing tuk tuk van in Summertown, North Oxford, where he'll be happy to serve you with a big smile.
From me Jana at Storynory.com Caio.
Lewis Alfonso Ratto lived in Italy for 17 years until he moved to the UK in 2010, where he completed his A-levels. It was then that he discovered a passion for science and decided to study chemistry at the university of York. During his degree he realised that he didn’t want to be stuck in a lab and after finishing, he did a few odd jobs before deciding to set up his own Italian gelato van. The idea for the van came from seeing these fantastic gelato places in Italy that were hugely popular selling only 8-10 flavours at any one time. He made his mind up to start out his dream in a mobile setting in Oxford, since he realises people in the UK were already culturally used to the idea of an ice cream van.
He set out to get the required licensing and training up to scratch, burnt through all his savings and multiple loans to buy all of the top end equipment and the lovely van and set out with the idea of making the best possible ice cream he could make using the best ingredients, putting the taste and quality first. The name ‘Alfonso’ was chosen after Lewis's Italian grandfather who emigrated to the Uk in the 50’s. He would always talk about how he would have loved to open up an Italian ice cream parlour if he could have started again.
This is Lewis's first year and it has been incredibly successful so far and is looking forward to growing the business in the next year.