Hand it over slowly.....that's it.....

Hand it over slowly.....that's it.....

H is feeling rather lonely at the moment; V departed at the weekend to research ice-cream provision on the eastern side of the UK, and although H realises that any organisation must constantly refresh its knowledge base, she’s missing her a lot.  Luckily, H has techniques to call upon, developed and refined through the various ups and downs of her life to date, which are designed to target this sort of malaise.

In the case of many of life’s ills, as is well known, chocolate is the answer: this is one of those clichés that happens to be true.   Insomnia, stress, anxiety, muscle pain, isolation, headache and lovesickness are just some of the conditions for which chocolate is the recommended treatment, although the word “chocolate” is perhaps so generalised in that sentence to be almost meaningless.  The pharmacopeia is extensive, and nuanced; one would not, for example, use chocolate buttons to treat a condition for which the solution was Divine Dark, nor imagine that Terry’s Chocolate Orange would be an adequate substitute for Maltesers.

In the case of missing your ice-cream partner, what’s required is chocolate ice cream, and the prescription here is equally specific.  Chocolate ice cream, in my childhood, was the brown side of a slab of Neapolitan: sweet and brown, yes, but no more chocolatey than another product of that era, chocolate cake covering.  Sadly, many restaurant outlets have evolved very little since then; if you have the choice, you’re often better to go for something like mint choc chip, which will actually taste of something, albeit occasionally toothpaste.  No, what is needed in a situation of extreme bereftness, when one’s ice-cream collaborator has headed off with a large suitcase and the expectation that she will not be back for 8 weeks, is real chocolate ice cream, tasting of real chocolate despite being in ice-cream form.

This is not the first time I have felt the need of chocolate ice cream; my quest began almost a decade ago and (having first had a go with a very simple recipe) saw me turning, as so often, to Robin Weir and Caroline Liddell.  Their book Ices has a reassuringly long chocolate-related list in the index, demonstrating that they do not subscribe to the heresy that “chocolate” is an undifferentiated term.  So they have Everyday Chocolate Ice Cream (I must admit to finding the idea of Everyday equally reassuring), Chocolate and Spice Biscuit, Chocolate Malted, Chocolate Parfait, Mars Bar, Rich Chocolate, Rocky Road: 14 recipes in all, 17 if you count white chocolate, which I don’t (but V would). And finally, The Ultimate Chocolate Ice Cream.  The Ultimate.  As in: no need to try any of the others; this will put all the rest in the shade; you have arrived at your journey’s end.

Except that I hadn’t; quite the opposite, in fact.  The method was too complicated for the novice ice-cream-maker I then was.  The text, though, was interesting, revealing that the recipe was an attempt to replicate the superlative chocolate ice cream produced by superlative Parisian glaciers, Maison Berthillon.  This was very useful information, because H and V were just about to decide on the destination for their annual holiday, and Paris seemed as good a choice as any.

So that summer, as soon as seemed decent after accomplishing things like passport control, we headed for the Ile St-Louis, just along from Notre-Dame which is, itself, apparently seen by some as a necessary stop on the tourist itinerary.  As we walked, we talked about what else we might do, in between daily (or possibly twice-daily) trips to Maison Berthillon; the Arc de Triomphe, perhaps, the Eiffel Tower less likely, given its distance from the Ile St-Louis.  Lesser-known attractions such as the Musée Cluny and the Eglise St-Severin took on a new appeal, given that they are only one stop away on the RER.  Such were our thoughts as we strolled along in the early-August sunshine, past the boulangerie, the delicatessen, the chocolaterie, the cafés, until we reached the doors of Maison Berthillon.

Great doors they were, too; unfortunately, they were closed, with a notice proclaiming the dread words “Fermeture Annuelle”.  Yes, the greatest manufacturer of chocolate ice cream, a delicacy which one might think would be in greatest demand during the warmer months, closes for five or six weeks every summer.  Just to be clear about this:  Every.  Summer.  V and I used to think it was only in August, so the next year we booked our holiday in late July, to no avail.

Luckily, though, this was Paris, so quality food does not remain tantalisingly out of reach for long.  Walking back along the Ile St-Louis we began to notice the words Maison Berthillon on various cafés and shops we passed, too many for it to be simply the result of wishful hallucination on our part; and discovered that Berthillon, before departing on their annual holiday, supply their wonderful products to many other outlets.  So we were able to sample the Chocolat and, thanks to the franchise which operates as far across Paris as the Champs-Elysées, had opportunity to try the similarly-flavoured cacao extra-amer (extra-dark chocolate) sorbet as well.  (Over the years we’ve tasted lots of other Berthillon offerings, which will be dealt with at salivating length elsewhere.).  It should also be added that the Ile St-Louis has a branch of Cacao et Chocolat, who make their own ice cream as well as their own chocolate, and this would have been a very acceptable alternative (though it turned out, in our case, to be more of an “as well as” than an “instead of”).

So, at last, we ordered our cones, took a taste, had another lick, savoured it, and almost purred with contentment.  “This is very good,” said V, “very very good; but hang on a minute, it reminds me of something I’ve had before.  What is it, do you think?”  (Continued below….).

Which brings me to the dilemma of how to describe Berthillon chocolate ice cream. The excellent blog Syrup and Tang  http://www.syrupandtang.com/200905/spring-harvest-in-paris/ puts it well: like cold liquid chocolate.  Of course, this gets me back into the issue of precision – does it mean cold liquid Galaxy, or cold liquid Divine, or cold liquid Lindor (now there’s a thought).  It has a good balance of sweet and darkly bitter.  The texture is excellent, like that of good chocolate, flooding the palate with beautiful flavour without any hint of greasiness.  But I realise that mere words can not convey taste.  It’s been said that “writing about music” is like “dancing about architecture” – one art cannot adequately communicate another – and writing about ice cream, particularly chocolate ice cream, particularly Berthillon chocolate ice cream, is clearly hopeless.

So the (blindingly obvious) answer is to taste it.  For this you will need to follow one of the following four methods.

1)      Visit the Ile St-Louis out of season, when Maison Berthillon will be open, and order some of their chocolate ice cream and sorbet.

2)      Visit the Ile St-Louis in the summer, when Maison Berthillon will be closed, but where many local establishments are well-supplied with the necessary chocolate ice cream and sorbet.

3)      Buy the wonderful book Ices, and either spend some time developing your ice-cream-making skills, or enrol yourself in some Boost your Self-Esteem classes, until you feel ready to tackle the recipe for The Ultimate Chocolate Ice Cream.

4)      Have a go at making the recipe below, adapted from the book that came free with my ice-cream machine before last, and which is the most simple recipe you will find for chocolate ice cream.  Unbelievably (and most unfairly for those who have followed any of the previous three steps), it also tastes identical to Berthillon’s version; the continuation of H and V’s conversation was like this: H took another taste.  “Well, it is a little bit like – no, now you come to mention it, very like – the version I made from my old book.”  V nodded. “You’re right, it’s exactly like that.  Exactly.”

So here it is, H’s version of the ultimate chocolate ice cream.  The adaptation I made from my old book was to cook the cocoa first; crucial, I think, to eliminate any raw bitterness and to allow the full chocolate aroma to emerge.


½ pint (250ml) cold milk, skimmed or semiskimmed
5 tablespoons cocoa – Fairtrade is always best.
400g tin condensed milk


  • In a saucepan, or a bowl over hot water, mix the cocoa into a smooth paste using some of the milk.
  • Gradually add the rest of the milk, and heat until the mixture just boils.  I use a ceramic saucepan – if you only have metal, you might be better using the bowl-over-saucepan method, so that the cocoa doesn’t catch and acquire a burnt taste.
  • Remove from the heat, and stir in the condensed milk.
  • Chill in the fridge.
  • When really cold, pour into the ice-cream machine (or use the still-freeze method, beating every hour or so).

This one can be served straight from the freezer, which is another good thing about it.  Because when you are in physical, emotional or psychological distress, so that your whole being is crying out for chocolate, a twenty-minute defrosting delay is just not on.   When you need chocolate, including that in ice-cream form, you need it, how can I put this, Now.