Ernest van der Kwast – The Ice-Cream Makers
HOW MY FATHER LOST HIS HEART TO A HAMMER THROWER WEIGHING 83 KILOS
Shortly before his eightieth birthday, my father fell in love. It was love at first sight; love like a bolt from the blue, lightning striking a tree. My mother phoned me. ‘Beppi has lost his mind,’ she said.
It happened during a live broadcast of the London Olympics. During the women’s hammer throw final, to be precise. Since my father had a satellite dish installed on the roof he has been able to receive more than a thousand channels. He spends whole days in front of the TV – a beautiful flat screen – and presses the button of the remote control in a consistently high tempo. Flashing past are football matches in Japan, Arctic nature documentaries, Spanish arthouse films, reports on disasters in El Salvador, Tajikistan and Fiji. And of course gorgeous and glorious women from around the world. Buxom Brazilian presenters, near-naked Greek showgirls, news broadcasters whose bulletins, quite apart from the language (Macedonian? Slovenian?), are lost on you because of their full, glossy lips.
There are usually some five or six seconds between the channels my father alights on. But sometimes he lingers and spends a whole evening and half a night watching coverage of the Mexican elections or a documentary series about the tropical waters of Polynesia, green like a gem.
It was a Turkish sports channel that my father had stumbled across, having just pressed the button of the remote with his callused thumb. The Egyptian soap which in five seconds had homed in on just as many melodramatic women’s faces had failed to beguile him. So Beppi pressed the button, which had once been black, then grey and now white, practically transparent. And that’s when he was struck by lightning. There on the screen appeared his princess: skin as white as cream, coral-red hair and the biceps of a butcher. She entered the circle in the Olympic Stadium, grabbed the handle at the end of the chain, raised the ball over her left shoulder and turned once, twice, three times, four times, five times before hurling the iron ball with all the strength she could muster. A meteor that has survived entry into the atmosphere, and buzzes and fizzes through the steel-blue skies of London. On impact, a brown hole in a meticulously cut lawn.
My father dropped his remote control. The lid at the back came loose, and one battery rolled across the wooden floor. The Turkish commentator was full of praise about the throw, but the sing-song words were lost on my father. The repeat showed his broad-shouldered ballerina a second time. Her pirouette, as it gathered speed and ended in a brief, but surprisingly elegant curtsey.
It felt as if he had been spinning around as well. Faster and faster. And now he was sitting here on his sofa, shattered and in love, as if he’d been hit on the head by the eight-pound ball.
Her name was Betty Heidler and she was the world record holder, broken by 112 centimetres a year ago at an international competition in Halle, Germany. It had been a warm day in May; hardly any wind, sun glasses, short sleeves. With a spring in her step the athlete made her way to the circle with the green nets, and almost casually threw an astronomical distance. The hammer didn’t leave a crater, but bounced a couple of times, like the pebbles children throw across the water of the nearby Hufeisen Lake. In between the major competitions, she worked for the police force, wearing a dark-blue uniform with four stars on both epaulettes, her red hair in a tight bun. Polizeihauptmeisterin Heidler.
In London Betty Heidler threw a distance that was to earn her a bronze medal, but the measuring system malfunctioned, so it couldn’t be determined right away. It took forty minutes before a decision was reached. These forty minutes were like a romantic film to my father. Swooning, he watched the red-headed hammer thrower, who kept being shown, sometimes close to tears. Her rival, the fleshy Chinese Zhang Wenxiu, had already embarked on a lap of honour, the red flag with the yellow stars wrapped around her broad shoulders.
‘No! Not the ten-ton Chinese!’ my father yelled.
The Turkish commentator was a bit more nuanced about it, but he too was of the opinion that Betty Heidler, not Zhang Wenxiu, deserved the bronze. Incidentally, the Chinese athlete weighed 113 kilos, but that was still a full thirty kilos more than the ginger hammer nymph.
‘Get rid of the flag,’ my father said. ‘You bloated old meatball!’
And when Betty Heidler appeared on screen: ‘Don’t cry, my little princess. Don’t be sad, dear, fleet-footed lady.’
It was an epitheton ornans, unwittingly dug up from the past, going back thirty-five years, to the time I was in grammar school and to everybody’s shock started expressing myself in the colourful adjectives of the blind poet. According to my father it sowed the seeds for the distance between me and my family. Or as he likes to put it: ‘That’s where it all went wrong.’
My epithets used to drive him mad: the prettily-tressed girls I flirted with, the cloud-wrapped buildings my mother wasn’t fond of, the wine-purple cherry ice-cream he prepared. And now he used one himself for his creamy-armed hammer thrower.
The broadcaster switched to an advert for hairspray. A bride came into view with a hairdo that looked like it would stay in place for at least a week.
‘Betty! Come back!’ my father shouted at the flat screen, on which, in high definition and in slow motion, the spray was misted across the chestnut curls of the smiling bride. His thumb moved of its own accord, the callused old thumb, the thumb which for years had hooked itself around the metal handle of the spatolone, the large ladle with which the ice is scooped out of the cylinders of the Cattabriga.
‘Oh, Betty,’ my father sighed, echoing the many men who’d uttered the same name with yearning. Betty Garrett, Betty Hutton, Betty Grable. Enchanting actresses, nearly forgotten names.
The film starring the hammer thrower resumed. She was sitting on a bench on the orangey-red surface inside the arena and staring into the middle distance, looking disconsolate. Meanwhile the commentator nattered on. Every now and then, my father thought he recognised the names of athletes, but they may well have been Turkish words. He knew the satellite had plenty of other channels that broadcast the competition. In Danish, in German, in Italian, in Dutch. But the remote was on the floor and he didn’t want to start zapping. He didn’t want to miss a second.
Was that a tear? A silver droplet under her left eye? It was a film and he had to say something to her, comfort her. My mother, meanwhile, was standing in the doorway of the small room where the television hung on the wall like a painting. She’d heard her husband talking and had called out from her kitchen: ‘Beppi? What’s wrong?’
My father’s name is Giuseppe Battista Talamini, but my mother’s called him Beppi her whole life.
‘I love you,’ my father said.
It had been twenty, thirty, maybe even forty years since my mother had heard these words from my father’s lips.
‘What was that you said?’
‘I love you,’ my father replied. ‘I think you’re beautiful.’
My mother was silent. Betty Heidler still had tears in her eyes.
‘Your freckles, your powerful arms… I want to kiss your muscles.’
‘What’s wrong? Aren’t you feeling well?’
It slowly dawned on him. The first part of his answer was aimed at the screen, the second at his wife in the doorway: ‘You’re the love of my life. Get lost!’
At long last the chair of the jury, a woman with a wide band around her sleeve, shook Betty Heidler’s hand. Slowly, like ice-cream melting, a smile stole over her face. An embrace followed. But by the time that happened, my mother was already back in the kitchen, where a lone pan of mince was simmering on the stove. Tomorrow was Saturday: pasticcio, glasses filled with light red wine, the afternoon spreading like a stain. It was a secret known to everybody that lasagne, like tiramisu, tastes better when you let it rest overnight.
Shouts of joy could be heard from the television room. ‘Yes! She’s won! Betty’s got bronze!’ my father exclaimed. ‘Yes! Yes!’ When he started jumping up and down, happy as a child, my mother phoned me. In spring and summer she always calls me when something’s up. That’s when my brother Luca is at work. It’s an image my memory automatically conjures up: when I hear my mother’s voice down the line, I picture Luca behind the ice-cream in Rotterdam. I’m at work too, but I’m usually in a position to answer the phone.
‘Where are you?’ my mother asks. It’s invariably the first thing she says.
‘I’m in Fermoy, in Ireland.’
A moment’s silence on the other end of the line. My mother, aged seventy-four, is still not used to mobile phones. She has never actually held one herself. In her kitchen in Venas di Cadore, in the mountains, it never ceases to amaze her that we can communicate anywhere, anytime. Sometimes she’ll phone me when I’m at the other end of the world and I’ll answer with a sleepy voice. ‘In Brisbane, in Australia.’ I use the silence to focus on the luminescent hands of my watch on the bedside table. The fact that I’m always somewhere else is something she had to get used to long before the advent of the mobile phone.
I have a house, but it doesn’t feel like a home. There are no plants, there’s no carton of milk in the fridge. No newspaper is delivered in the morning. It has curtains and towels, but no fruit bowl. In her short poem ‘Today’, the Israeli poet Nurit Zarchi writes: ‘Tired, I want to sit on the edge of the world, to go on strike. / But I continue onward so no one will see / the short distance between me and the homeless.’ The distance between me and my family is big because of the other distance. Although short, almost insignificant, there are days when the measuring system malfunctions.
‘What’s the weather like in Ireland?’
My mother is obsessed with the weather. Back in the day, when she was still working at the ice-cream parlour in Rotterdam, she’d open the newspaper to the page with the weather. And she’d eavesdrop on conversations at the supermarket checkout if they were about showers and frost. Now she’s retired and far from the ice-cream parlour, but she can’t help asking everybody about the weather. The weather today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, next week. It doesn’t matter where. It can always make its way to Rotterdam. She reckons the sky above the Netherlands is a vortex where everything gathers, but especially rain, wind and frost. The beat of a butterfly wing in Brazil will cause a hail storm of biblical proportions above the ice-cream parlour.
‘Sunny,’ I reply. ‘Persistently calm and summery weather, with the odd patch of fog in the morning.’ Before adding: ‘No cloud-wrapped buildings.’
She doesn’t say anything, but I know she’s smiling. My mother has less of an issue with my choice for a different life. Just like she wants to know everything about the weather, I love poetry, and my father loves tools. My brother is the only one still making ice-cream.
‘Beppi’s lost his mind,’ she says, and repeats what she heard him say. I laugh at the muscles my father wants to kiss.
‘Maybe it’s Alzheimer’s,’ my mother says. ‘Fausto Olivo pulls his underpants over his head. The doctor says he’s suffering from dementia.’ She’s referring to the old ice-cream maker from La Venezia in Leiden. He retired only a couple of years ago. His eldest son is continuing the tradition.
‘Mrs Olivo told me that Fausto thinks she’s the neighbour and that he keeps pinching her bottom.’
My mother knows more about Alzheimer’s than mobile phones. She’s quiet for a moment. Perhaps she’s looking at the photos on the kitchen cupboards, at the portrait of her grandson, who left for Mexico a week ago.
‘She’s got red hair,’ she resumes. ‘Your father’s new love has got long red hair.’
I think about the women I’ve seen in the street here. There are lots of red-haired women in Ireland. They’re quicker to blush, because their skin is thinner and the blood shines through more easily. But often they’re even quicker to look away. With the exception of the young woman who welcomed the guests at the Fermoy International Poetry Festival. She stood behind a small desk and wore a pink bra underneath her blouse, I noticed, and a milky way of freckles on her skin. When I looked up again, I looked straight into her eyes, but she didn’t bat an eyelid, neither literally nor figuratively. She’d seen what I’d been looking at. Eventually, my eyes conceded defeat and I looked down at the form on the desk.
‘What should I say to him?’ my mother asks. ‘He’s been sombre. I know he’s dreading spring and finds it hard to enjoy life because he thinks it’s over. I need to lay out his clothes for him, or else he’ll wear the same day in day out.’
Some people become more beautiful as life wears on, as the years refine their character, like a fine wine maturing, when everything that’s been ripening – the things you’ve learnt, experiences, major events – turns into an elixir that may not prolong life but does add a sheen to it. It’s not that my father has forgotten anything, except that it’s all ruined his character.
‘He’s still talking to the television,’ my mother says. ‘Would you like to hear it? Shall I walk over to him with the phone?’
‘That’s okay,’ I reply, but I can hear her walking out of the kitchen.
‘I’m calling the doctor tomorrow morning,’ she says, having made up her mind. ‘He’ll have to come over on a Saturday. It’s an emergency.’
‘It is nonsense says reason,’ I cite the famous poem by German poet Erich Fried. ‘It is what it is says love.’
‘What’s that you’re saying?’
My gaze lingers briefly on the art in my hotel room, a watercolour of a grassy plain. In the distance a boy, walking away.
‘It’s a poem,’ I say. ‘About love, what it is.’
‘It’s insanity, that’s what it is,’ my mother says. ‘He’s hugging the television!’
In my hotel rooms I sometimes try to establish contact with the flat screens that greet me. ‘Dear Mr Giovanni Talamini, it’s a pleasure to welcome you to the Ascot Hotel.’ ‘Welcome! G. Talamini, enjoy your stay in Radisson Blu.’ ‘Welcome to the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Dear Talamini, it’s a privilege to have you staying at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. To continue, please press ok.’
‘Can you believe it?’ I hear my mother’s voice in my ear. There’s a brief glitch, perhaps for a split second the radio waves containing her words cross Betty Heidler’s path from space into the television room in Venas di Cadore. ‘I prefer to hear his usual complaints about his life and about yours.’
At long last, memory kicks in: I see my brother in the ice-cream parlour, on his head a white cap, in his right hand the spatola, the small flat spoon he uses to scoop ice-cream for the customers. It’s late in the evening, but still mild outside. Black birds whizz through the air, and even higher up an Airbus is on its way to America, the lights in the cabin dimmed, although you can’t see that from the ground. Young women are out in the street, some in skirts or denim shorts with the pockets hanging out. Luca’s eyes linger on their bums. His wife is sleeping, like a swimmer with one arm stretched above her head, the other beside her body. The last few customers are sitting out on the terrace: boys and girls who’ve been to the cinema and now fancy a strawberry and mango cone, an old man who finds solace in a milkshake just before midnight.
THE DISCOVERY OF ICE-CREAM BY MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER IN 1881
My father’s father’s father was also called Giuseppe Talamini. He had wavy hair, a big nose and a twinkle in his dark-blue eyes. The story goes that he lost his life in an accident involving a runaway cow. The cow, a nine-hundred kilo Tyrolean Grauvieh, had broken through the pasture fence. After pattering down the steep slope towards the farmhouse she somehow managed to clamber onto the roof of the small hayshed in which my grandfather took his daily nap in total seclusion and silence.
The silvery grey cow fell through the timber roof and crushed my seventy-six-year-old great-grandfather. He probably didn’t die instantly, but succumbed to his injuries later. When my great-grandfather didn’t turn up for dinner, a search got underway, but he wasn’t found until the sun had sunk behind the mountains. The cow was still lying on top of him, licking his clothes. My great-grandfather had a remarkably serene expression on his face. In fact, he seemed to be smiling.
The cow was put down that same evening; both her forelegs were broken. Then, gradually, night fell and the foxes came out of the forest and the dogs started barking in the cold mountain air. The following morning, the people talked about the sudden death of Giuseppe Talamini and soon concluded that this, however strange it may have been, was the death that befitted my great-grandfather’s life. A life full of unexpected twists and eccentric turns, a life from which he’d always demanded the most, right up to his death. Perhaps that was the reason for the smile on his face.
What was my great-grandfather thinking of as he lay lying under the cow and nobody came to his rescue, as he felt his life ebbing away? What do you think of when you know you’re dying? As he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. A similar image came to Giuseppe Talamini.
It was the summer when the little ripples underneath the dress of his neighbour, Maria Grazia, became voluptuous curves. An indecent miracle.
They had grown up together, had searched for pine cones in the forest and had lain hand in hand under the clear sky of their youth. Maria Grazia loved the sun and the sun loved her honey-toned skin. Privately, Giuseppe called her girasole, sunflower. While the sun, slow as a billion-year-old, crossed the sky to the West, Maria Grazia moved her body with it, inch by inch, wanting to catch as many rays as possible and not give shadows the time of day. Giuseppe never moved, so they ended up lying in the grass like a life-sized clock.
Then came the last summer they were children. Giuseppe was now afraid to look at his neighbour. It was as if her breasts were growing in the sun. They became rounder and fuller by the day, like loaves rising in an oven. He fantasized about the colour of her nipples. One day they were pink, like her lips, the next pale and transparent like the palms of her hands, or dark like hazelnuts. When, in the afternoon, a gentle breeze drifted over from the mountains, he saw two tips poking through her blouse. While the cicadas were singing and the maybeetles buzzing, Maria Grazia and Giuseppe were quiet in the tall grass. They held hands and looked at the clear sky. Everything was the same, yet everything had changed.
And so it happened that by the end of the summer Giuseppe walked past the door he’d knocked on every single morning. He was joining his father, a lumberjack with a penchant for whistling. Sometimes Giuseppe would recognize a melody and he’d whistle along with his father. At the end of September the trees on the mountain were cut down, twenty-metre larches with dead-straight trunks. It was hard work, and not without danger. You never knew exactly how a tree would come down. Cutting, cleaving, felling. The stark sound that ricocheted off the other trees. Then the dull thud and the earth shaking like a passing locomotive. On another slope, in another year, a tree had landed on a lumberjack. He was killed instantly.
Giuseppe helped strip the trees, removing all the branches with an axe. Next, he and his father cut the trunks into five-metre logs. The sweat that mingled with the sawdust, the resin that stuck to their bodies – the smell was sharp and stung his eyes. Never before had Giuseppe been as tired as after those long days in the forest.
Around Christmas, when the entire region was covered in a sheet of immaculate snow, the logs were taken down on a sledge, to the river, the Piave, which ran all the way to Venice, nearly two-hundred kilometres further south. The logs were tied into large rafts which were then pushed into the water. Hundreds of them floated down-stream. Days later they arrived in Venice, where they were driven deep into the muddy, sandy soil, eight piles per square metre. Giuseppe couldn’t imagine it, the fairy-tale city built on the water, with its countless bridges, churches and high-ceilinged palaces. On special evenings dripping candles in silver chandeliers illuminated frescos of timeless tales.
But winter was still a long way off, with snow gracing only the highest peaks. One morning his father woke him earlier than usual. It was dark outside, and the stars were shining in the clear night sky. Giuseppe heard the voices of other men from the village. He recognized the sonorous bass of the metalsmith Antonio Zardus. The men were talking softly, tall shapes leaning in towards each other. He felt like a witness to a conspiracy. They set off in the stage-coach. Of the seven men, Giuseppe was the youngest. As they drove out of the village, they all smiled at him. He could see the moon-white teeth of his father’s friends.
Everybody was silent and listened to the rattle of the hooves until the sun rose above the mountains. Golden and rosy-fingered, a Homeric dawn. Giuseppe now recognised other faces too. Sitting beside him was the tinker, opposite him the locksmith. Strong men, each one of them.
‘Look,’ his father said, pointing to the slope where two roe deer stood between the pines, immobile like statues, alarmed by the sound of the coach. For a split second, then they darted off into the forest.
Antonio Zardus broke a bread, the locksmith cut slices off a chunk of dried meat. They ate open-mouthed, with great relish. The wooden floorboards of the stage-coach were covered with pickaxes and shovels. They shook and shifted to the rhythm of the horses’ tread. Giuseppe had no idea what they were about to do. His father had woken him, telling him only to come along. He had got out of bed and got dressed really fast.
‘They spent nearly ten years building it,’ he heard someone say. ‘The teams worked towards one another; more than a thousand people on either side.’ It was Enrico Zangrando, who possessed more cattle than hair on his head. The other men sometimes slapped him on his bald pate for the beautiful sound it produced. He owned quite a bit of land by birth, but didn’t want to put himself above the others.
‘It’s the longest railway tunnel in the world,’ Enrico told them. ‘Fifteen kilometres long, straight through the Saint-Gotthard Massif. They started with tunnel-boring machines driven by compressed air, but couldn’t get through the hard stone. So they switched to dynamite.’
The explosions had been terrible, loud and clear, like the violence of war. Demand was such that an explosives factory was built on the northern side, not far from the Urner Lake. Holes a metre deep were drilled and the dynamite detonated inside. Poisonous gases filled the tunnel, causing inflammation of the workers’ eyes and lungs. Forty-six men lost their lives to the explosions, until, on 28 February 1880, a breach was achieved. Hands gripped one another, hammers and pickaxes enlarged the hole and then, finally, the first man stepped through. Almost unreal, as if he stepped into another world.
‘We can travel through the mountains,’ Enrico said. A hundred years ago men had managed to traverse the clouds in a hot-air balloon. This was just as magnificent. Not across, but straight through the mountain, through the impenetrable base, the widest and densest part.
Giuseppe had to swallow his questions. Had Enrico been on that train? How long did the journey through the tunnel take? What about the light at the other end? The others remained straight-faced, only his father winked at him. Giuseppe yielded to the cadence of the coach for a brief moment, dreaming open-eyed of the Gotthard Tunnel, whizzing through it like a comet through the dark, infinite universe.
In Venas di Cadore meanwhile, Maria Grazia stood in front of the window, looking out. She wanted to flee the house and lie in the grass, but the farmers had mowed their land. Her breasts hurt. She’d seen men looking in the street, their gaze attaching itself to her body. At home, in her room, she sometimes held her breasts for hours. Her hips, too, had grown and hurt almost as much. She was becoming a woman and needed a man, a man to hold her.
The stage-coach with the two jet-black horses ascended the mountain. It was a long, winding road. Giuseppe had no idea where they were, but judging by the mood they must be approaching their destination. Enrico Zangrando rolled up his white sleeves. The others followed suit. They picked up the tools, the pickaxes and the shovels. All sat up straight.
They came to a halt by a railway track. On it a train with eight carriages, their large sliding doors open. Giuseppe jumped out of the coach. He looked around. They were in between two mountain ridges. The sun was nowhere to be seen, and wouldn’t rise above the slope until late in the afternoon. But there was snow as far as the eye could see, at least half a metre high. Underneath it, water trickled and flowed down to the valley. Ice-cold water. Men would step into it up to their knees, staying in until their bones hurt, because it was said to be good for circulation.
It was frozen snow and they were supposed to fill the carriages with it. Giuseppe couldn’t believe his eyes. They raked down the snow with their pickaxes, down to the track, the way farmers gather together grass. The sizable chunks collected grit and mud, but that didn’t matter.
Every now and then, Giuseppe leaned briefly on the handle of his pickaxe to look at the other men. The metalsmith was sweating and steaming. He could see the vapour coming off his bare arms, arms that were gleaming and incredibly muscly. The other men too were shrouded in vapour. He was afraid to move, wary of disturbing the scene: the workers with their black hands in the blinding snow, the carriages filling up. He was scared it would all disappear the moment he stirred. Like a dream upon waking.
Enrico called out his name and asked if he was fantasising about girls. The other men laughed heartily, his father included.
After two hours, they took a break. Three carriages were full, their sliding doors shut. They rested on the trunk of a felled larch. A stone bottle was passed around, but Giuseppe wasn’t thirsty. More than once he’d dug a hole in the snow and had lifted a handful up to his mouth. Every time, his fingers had tingled with cold for minutes.
At first nobody had heard him, because he’d only whispered his question. But when he finally plucked up the courage to repeat his question out loud – why were they shovelling snow into carriages? – everybody looked at him. Giuseppe was young and he was curious, not just about the usual things. Behind some things he suspected an entire world of which he knew nothing, brilliant light at the end of the tunnel.
‘We’re harvesting,’ his father said. ‘We’re bringing in the snow.’
The word ‘harvest’ made him think of potatoes, beets and apples. Not of snow in the mountains. Giuseppe looked at the carriages with the closed doors. He was none the wiser.
Enrico took over. ‘It’s turned into ice,’ he said.
‘Not the ice you’re familiar with, the kind you can walk and skate across.’
‘There’s a different ice?’
‘Different flavours. Strawberry, vanilla, mocha.’
He resumed: ‘It’s sold in the cities and tastes even better than a woman.’
It felt as if a light was poured into his head, straight into his brain.
‘I’ve eaten ice-cream in Vienna made of oranges from Spain.’
‘Impossible,’ Antonio Zardus said resolutely, his voice dark and deep.
Enrico ignored it. ‘They were selling it in the street, out of a cart with copper vats.’
The way other people fall in love, in an unforgettable fever, so Giuseppe longed for the ice described by Enrico Zangrando. Years later he could still recall the exchange word for word.
‘You eat it with a small spoon and it melts in your mouth.’
He tried to imagine it, a spoonful of strawberries melting on his tongue, but it was beyond his imagination. It was too big a step, from the frozen, dirty snow to the enchanting, glorious ice. As a child he’d tasted the snow that had fallen overnight, the way all children do, full of anticipation. It was like water, but impure and metallic – the universal disappointment of the taste of snow. He had been misled by the still splendour on the roads and fields. And he also remembered how his younger brother, when he was two and had forgotten the previous year’s snow, had looked outside and said: ‘I want to stroke it.’ As though it were a coat of fur protecting the world from the cold. Enrico told them about the process, the various operations. It was like alchemy. Snow was broken up with a small hammer and put into a wooden barrel, salt was added to lower the melting point. The cylinder of the mechanical ice-cream machine was placed inside the barrel with the ice and salt, and then the ice-cream maker operated the handwheel and scraped the substance around the cold wall of the cylinder. Churn, churn, churn. The first ice that formed along the surface was brittle. Air came into it, the volume increased. Churn. Churn. The colour turned gradually lighter. Pink strawberry ice-cream, greyish-green pistachio ice-cream, cinnamon-coloured chocolate ice-cream. Churn. ‘Until it’s firm and thick and delicious.’ It was like the story you’re told about love, about the act of love. It can be described in minute detail, but it’s never as good as it is in real life.
‘Come on,’ the metalsmith said. ‘We ought to carry on.’
One by one, they got up again, only Giuseppe remained seated. He felt as though he’d been churned too, the way more than a hundred years later his descendant and namesake would swing along with Betty Heidler’s iron hammer. He sat on the tree-trunk, as if he too had been overcome by desire.
His father pulled him to his feet. ‘Back to work, my boy,’ he said encouragingly. ‘I’ll help you.’ A moment later he could hear him whistle a folk song.
Giuseppe wasn’t tired, he was young and strong, if maybe not as strong as Antonio Zardus, who could bend coins, it was said. He felt stunned, intoxicated by the stories and sweet flavours in the copper vats of the ice-cream cart in Vienna. His imagination flapped its wings, trying to get clear of the snow, go beyond the mountains. Perhaps he’d have managed had he known what a woman tasted like. In that case he might have imagined something even better. Now he saw what he already knew: that beyond the mountains lay yet more mountains.
What he didn’t know, and nor did the other men, not even Enrico Zangrando, was that they were part of a greater whole. In numerous places around the world, the harvest of the cold months was being brought in. In Boston Frederic Tudor, the son of a well-known judge and a great daredevil, had built up an ice-cream empire. At the tender age of twenty-three, he had bought his first ship to transport ice to the Caribbean island of Martinique. The blocks of ice came from the pond on his father’s estate. Everybody told him he was insane. The newspapers mocked his venture. Although a substantial amount had melted during the three-week journey, Frederic Tudor managed to sell the ice from Massachusetts to the islanders. Imagine their faces, the look in their eyes. Disbelief, enchantment. The transparent blocks that are unloaded from the hold of a ship which has sailed 2,400 kilometres. The year is 1806.
His loss amounted to thousands of dollars. And even the following year, when Frederic Tudor sailed to Havana with a frozen lake in the hull of his ship, he racked up huge debts – as you’d expect from a daredevil. Upon his return he was thrown into prison and the next time he set sail the sheriffs escorted him to the dockyard. There in the water was his ship, which bore the bold name of Trident.
Tudor experimented with different insulation materials for his ships: hay, wood chips, sawdust and the chaff of rice. But the breakthrough for his Ice Company came with the invention of the ice plough. Until then, the blocks had been cut from the frozen New England waters by hand. Now, with the help of horses, they moved on to mass production. The dark, graceful animals were harnessed to a plough with a metal saw. One man led the horse, another steered the plough. This created a grid of perfect cubes, which were then lifted out of the water. Special tools were invented and ice houses sprang up alongside river banks, as well as in the ports of far-flung countries. Thousands of men found employment in the winter months, wielding saws and hatchets on lakes that had turned into immense chessboards.
In 1833 the Tuscany sailed from Boston to Calcutta with one hundred and eighty tons of ice in its belly. It travelled for four months until, in September, the three-master reached the Bay of Bengal and went up the holy Ganges River. News of the approaching ice ship spread among the local population, with many thinking it was a hoax. It had been over thirty degrees Celsius in the shade for months. But upon arrival in the port of Calcutta it turned out that a hundred tons were still intact: crystal-clear ice with a bluish tinge.
It marked the beginning of a titanic transport of New England water to India. An ice house of white stone and double walls was erected in Calcutta, which was to become the most lucrative destination of the Tudor Ice Company. The daredevil who’d been laughed at and who’d spent two years of his life in detention became fabulously rich and earned himself the nickname The Ice King of the World. He sailed to Brazil, Australia and China.
Other companies also entered the market, including The Knickerbocker Ice Company of New York and The Philadelphia Ice Company. Railways were built to speed up transport, with steam trains criss-crossing the country. The locomotive was fed with fiery coal, the cargo in the carriages was transparent and cold.
A flourishing trade in ice developed between Norway and England. Men in black caps and hats used tongs to fish enormous blocks of ice out of the vast lakes. These then slid down long wooden tracks and into the holds of ships putting in at London and other British ports. It enabled Carlo Gatti, an Italian Swiss national, to open up a number of stalls in the capital. He had tried his luck with the sale of chestnuts and waffles before deciding to make ice-creams. He started on the street with a few carts, but soon relocated to the busy Hungerford Market. Here he sold ice-cream in shells for a penny apiece. Later the shells were replaced by small glasses, which became known popularly as ‘penny licks’. Until then, ice-cream had been a treat reserved for the rich. Carlo Gatti was the man who brought the frozen delicacy within reach of the masses. It was as if he’d opened the door to a dream.
Closer to home, behind the mountains that bounded Giuseppe Talamini’s world, in Saalfelden, Austria, men were also wielding pickaxes. They too raked large chunks of snow into a waiting train. Those taking off in a hot-air balloon and floating through the vast, cloudless sky might be able to see them – the men in various locations who, without knowing of each other’s existence, were slaving away in the snow and longing for a hot meal.
Giuseppe’s group laboured for another four hours until the carriages were full and the sun was high in the sky, in between the mountain ridges. The horses were given a bite of snow, and the men got back into the coach. They were silent, tired. They slept, leaning on each other’s shoulders. Only Giuseppe kept his eyes wide open. The door of the dream had been opened a crack and he wanted nothing better than to walk through.
Translated by Laure Vroomen