What do Shakira, Salma Hayek, Amal Alamuddin (alias Mrs Clooney), Elie Saab (couturier to Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts and Kate Middleton) all have in common? They’re all Lebanese, as have been former presidents of Jamaica, Colombia, Ecuador (3!) and Brazil.
The Lebanese are an entrepreneurial nation and many Beirutis I have met are proud of the commercial spirit that comes from their innovative and enterprising Phoenician merchant heritage; those ancient founders of coastal colonies all over the Mediterranean, not least in Cádiz.
In 2019 we decided to see Beirut for ourselves. After a fascinating peak at the local cathedral, mosque and recently-excavated Roman ruins my ice cream fetish started to override any more thoughts of culture and our 11 and 6 year olds’ eyes flickered with increasing interest. Having seen a particular ice cream parlour on one of Rick Stein and Nigel Slater’s UK BBC cookery programmes it had long been my ambition to try the Hanni Mitri ice cream for myself. So armed with former INC member Linda Talluto’s picture of the place we embarked on a monumental five-hour treasure hunt …on foot. There’s nothing like roaming through the streets of a city on a mission to savour superlative ice cream to really get to know it. If only our map had also marked the contours of all those steep hills that abound in Beirut.
After 5 hours I got very excited as we turned a corner and spied a very unassuming bullet-ridden corner shop at the end of a narrow road that I recognised from Linda’s photo. The children had virtually melted en route but were immediately revived and miraculously ordered strawberry and lemon flavour in fluent school French.
The family-owned business has been going since 1949 and has seen a few bombs in its time. There are no seats and no frills. The shop has since moved temporarily followed the Beirut blast in 2020 and the all the ice cream continues to be made on site daily.
Mr Mitri and his diminutive mother were both expecting us to order and leave their minuscule premises but there was no getting rid of us. Buoyed up by fragrant iced perfumes and the cooling freezers we weren’t going anywhere. Copious ice creams and Mr Mitri’s family history later (he ditched banking to take on his father’s ice cream business) we finally re-emerged into the burning sun. As Mr Mitri isn’t coming here anytime soon I urge you all to book a flight just to try his ices.
Mother Mitri uses plastic gloves to literally thumb the different flavours into narrow biscuit cones or down into a plastic cup that literally defies any normal physics of mass and volume. So you end up with rainbow ribbons of zingy oranges and lemons nudged into a corner by the heady aromas of rosewater sorbet and all tempered by a snow-white coating of clotted cream or “ashta”. In addition to the more traditional flavours, you can find mulberry, watermelon, mango and amareddine which is an apricot paste sorbet filled with crunchy toasted pine nuts.
There is clearly no need to fix up the bullet holes (one of them is actually embedded inside his ice cream machinery) as people are more interested in what’s in their hand than on the wall.
Now, you might think that 3,500 km is a long way to fly, albeit on a direct flight, for an ice cream but actually when you factor in all the ancient culture and the boundless hospitality on tap in Beirut it´s definitely worth it.
However, if you do find yourself on an authentic ice cream mission in Madrid here are a few of my favourites closer to home:
Heladeria Gioelia is a favourite amongst our treasurer, Shalini. Particularly the Cremino flavour of white chocolate with hazelnuts and chocolate praline cream. Most importantly, they also deliver!
Heladeria Los Alpes is one of Madrid´s oldest ice cream parlours, since the Tuscan founders arrived here in 1933 and has a few branches across the city and suburbs including Las Rozas and Pozuelo de Alarcón.
Meanwhile if alchemy is more your style, head to N2LAB where liquid nitrogen is the star ingredient and the resultant creamiest of creams are served up by staff in scientific overalls and protective glasses in Calle Gravina, 5 (Chueca).
After a gander round the Retiro I usually make a beeline for Maison Glacée which also doubles up as an innovative pastry shop. Ecological milk from the Comunidad de Madrid is used to ease out what for me is the most authentic Italian style ice cream in the capital in Calle Alcalá 77 and Calle Ibiza, 42
Italian INC member, Tiziana is rather partial to Gelateria Sienna on Calle Narváez and I´m inclined to believe her so I shall be heading there on my next trip into the city.
Finally, there is ubiquitous global brand, Amorino whereby exotic ices are fashioned with a spatula into the shape of a rose. Each flavour forming a different petal. My favourite branch is in El Corte Inglés Gourmet section in Callao from which you can admire spectacular views over Madrid´s rooftops.