Just over the road from the Habana Libre hotel is a square of parkland with something mysterious at its heart.
Painted bright blue, it’s concrete form is shrouded in lush greenery so that you rarely catch sight of more than a hint at its shape. It has mysterious presence akin to the crash site of a spacecraft in some alien jungle, or the themed swimming pools of a 1970’s leisure centre.
The structure, built in the mid 60’s, is the main branch of Cuba’s national ice cream manufacturer Coppelia, a hugely popular institution whose customers queue for up to an hour to make their purchases and where security guards patrol the perimeter to prevent breaches. Apparently there is an entrance specifically for tourists, though my personal sense of justice wouldn’t allow me to take this iniquitous option so I left Havana without a taste.
Perhaps I might have been more determined if the menu board displayed at the head of the queue had displayed more than just a single word. Vanilla.
Until the end of the 19th Century, it was common for street ice-cream vendors to see their wares in a small glass which became known in both the UK and the US as a “penny lick”, so called because of the price paid for such a serving and the manner in which it was consumed. The glass was thick and so it magnified the contents of the small space which was filled with ice-cream.
That much is not in doubt, but after that point the history of ice-cream eating is open to a lot more dispute. Whether due to the cost of replacing lost or broken glassware, or in response to concerns about hygiene (the glasses weren’t washed before re-use) at some point they were replaced by paper, pastry or waffle cones as a result of an invention in France, Manchester or New Jersey, depending who you believe.
Whatever the truth, the cone is part of the experience of take-away ice-cream, though in the UK these have traditionally been wafer cones rather than the altogether more satisfying waffle, though thankfully that is changing.
Now what shall we fill these with…?
Probably the best gelato in the world… wasn’t to be found in Venice. (Sergio Dondoli’s creations in San Gimignano are the pinnacle of gelateria artistry; his passion for his product is there for all to taste.) There is plenty of gelato about in the City of Canals; every bar and café has a display in their window it seems, but when you don’t specialise in that product you buy it in, and that extra step in the process which separates producer and consumer leads to less care and devotion to quality.
And now there is a new alternative; just around the corner from Rialto’s Campo San Giacomo is a self-service, build-your-own, operation with a minimalist name. Choose your tub or cone, pipe your chosen flavours, smother in toppings, drown in sauces and pay for your selection by weight. It looked like a goldmine.
In the value equation, sometimes we’ll sacrifice quality for novelty; and the results were delicious. I’d rather have a dolceamaro though.
It even sounds nicer than ice-cream doesn’t it. Draw out that second syllable like a long adoring lick of this delectable diet-buster.
Wikipedia proclaims that gelato is the Italian word for ice-cream. NO!!!!! It’s not the same at all. Gelato is churned more slowly, introducing less air into the product and therefore producing a more dense (and therefore flavoursome) result. There’s less fat in gelato too (there’s a bonus).
But don’t worry too much about the process, just enjoy the output.
With just half an hour to spare between appointments today I wasn’t sure what I might inspire me to write.
Arriving at Roker’s Cat & Dog Steps my eye was caught by some pooling water, gathered in depressions sculpted by movements of the passing tides. The sand around them, swept into ripples by the same motion, resembled fingerprints, left to identify the pool’s creator.Nearby are cannonball rocks; the concretionary limestone formations unique to this stretch of coast. Found nowhere else in the world, they were enough to attract the interest of Adam Sedgwick in the 19th Century, one of the founders of modern geological science.Around the base of the rocks are the fine strata, left in the sand by evaporating rock pools that have been activated by the wind into sculpting these lines. Elsewhere the same wind is powerful enough to guarantee the return of kite surfers to the shore, pulling their lines horizontally to dip their canopies into the salt water.
I decide to head in their direction to find a portrait, but the conditions are proving so popular that the roadside parking is already taken by seal-skinned surfers readying their gear.
I press on north to Whitburn where I find myself beset by rats attracted by Minchella’s ice cream kiosk.
I should clarify; this is not a rodent attack. The RATS are a group of lady walkers; the Rambling and Tea-shop Society, a group of friends who meet on a regular basis to walk anywhere in the region. I’m in the process of photographing one of them (Joan) when the others arrive to ask me which publication I’m working for! Two of their number have an interest in photography I discover, one of them being my subject! I hope I’ve done her justice.And then, just as quickly as they appeared, the RATS move on.
Too late in the day to find many people to photograph on the beach, although there seems to be a busload of overweight female joggers strung out along the cliff tops. Post Great North Run stretching? Doesn’t feel likely, and no sign of Kiprotich!
I head further south to the road above the Marina, where I’m fortunate enough to meet Ben and Ali, two Nigerian students at the University. (I did well to avoid an ice cream pun there).
Having a dislike of gaps between heads when shooting duos I try to solve this by having the guys stand back to back and look towards me. As a strategy this fails, for two reasons:
- I hadn’t counted on the height difference, which still left me with a gap to fill, and
- Ali’s English seemed less fluent (I must learn some Yoruba), or he was reluctant to look my way.
I’ve been teaching a group of employees of a Japanese manufacturer about looking for positive outcomes from what might otherwise be failure today. Here was a case in point.
I abandoned my original thoughts about a pair, and cropped into two separate portraits. A perfectly acceptable one of Ben, and a very enigmatic one of Ali.
Definitely a case of “Buy One, Get One Free!”
Summer is over, at least in astrological terms, and from the perspective of those who have returned to school, so seaside resorts take on a different character. There’s an air of sadness and resignation about the place as people come to terms with the heatwave that didn’t happen again this year, and the days that grow ever shorter until the winter solstice.
The park bandstand lies silent and empty, the boating lake is unperturbed by boat or bird,
and the bowling greens live up to only half their name.
The sand pit craves attentionthe civic beach cleaners have no deadline for completion,and there’s more than enough ice cream to go around.With no one to disturb them the scavengers arrive to clean up.
The place feels as discarded as these sandals, waiting in vain to be loved once again.
And then, like an Indian summer, there is a fresh spark as Ruth stops me to admit to camera envy. A student from Nigeria, she is touring the country having completed her studies in Wales, and with that smile she will bring brightness wherever she goes.