Bibi Morelli is the fifth generation of her family to make a living from making ice cream, witnessing the growth of Morelli's from a single shop in England to a global brand that's now a familiar sight in malls across the Middle East. She talks to Lydia Slater about her expansion plans and the secret behind the perfect cone.
It takes a certain kind of dedication to kick off the day with a bowl of Gorgonzola-flavoured ice cream. But though Bibi Morelli may look like the sort of woman that breakfasts exclusively on black coffee, she has pure gelato flowing through her veins. "You see," she says, taking an enthusiastic spoonful, "it's savoury and sweet at the same time. Mmm! This would be wonderful with figs." Nervously, I take a mouthful. It's creamy, sweet, but with unmistakable specks of blue cheese in it. Before I've established exactly whether I love or loathe it, I find I've finished the bowl.
We are sitting at the bar of Bibi's ice-cream parlour in the London store Harrods. It is a greedy child's wonderland. In front of us lies the menu, which she describes, with some justice, as the "bible of ice cream". It displays great cornucopias of freshly made gelato, piled voluptuously into Venetian glassware and draped with wheelbarrow-loads of fruit, clouds of whipped cream, Japanese parasols, oozing chocolate sauces, crisp wafers...
It's just 10am, and already one man, unable to resist, is tucking into an immense cherry-topped knickerbocker glory. When Michael Jackson, that eternal little boy, was in London one time, he came straight here for a hot fudge sundae. The actor Michael Caine prefers the coconut, and the fashion designer Roberto Cavalli is another regular. And what had been a very local enterprise, confined to a small chain of old-fashioned ice-cream parlours on Britain's south coast, has become a global brand, especially popular in the Middle East.
Abu Dhabi now has two Morelli's stores, in Khalidya and Al Wahda malls. Even Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak has been known to visit. There's another in Dubai Mall and a fourth outlet at Avenues Mall in Kuwait. "On the day we opened there, the temperature hit 48°C at 8am," Bibi says, "no wonder so many people came in for sorbet at breakfast time." The UK has three Morellis - the original shop in the seaside town of Broadstairs, Kent, the Harrods outlet and another in the Selfridges store in Birmingham; there's also another in the Café de Paris in Monaco.
Now, Bibi is looking to spread her empire further by franchising the brand. She's careful with her choice of partners, insisting that they use the exact same method and suppliers, and that the outlets have upmarket sites to complement the brand. Her sights are now set on Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, Russia, South Africa and, eventually, the United States. "The world's a big place," she says cheerfully. "In the next three years, I'd like to have another 30 or 40 stores."
The global recession doesn't seem to worry her one iota. "Ice cream is such an affordable treat," she says. "We've seen our sales go up in most of our stores. It's a cheap way of cheering yourself up." Bibi, 35, is the fifth generation of her family to make her living from selling ice cream, and arguably the most dynamic of them all. She lives with her Zimbabwean husband, businessman and tea exporter Kenneth Schofield, in southern Africa, and is constantly jetting around the globe, keeping an eye on her expanding business. Her family originally hails from Monte Cassino, south of Rome. In 1907, her great-great grandfather, Guiseppe Morelli, emigrated to Britain in search of a better life, even though financial constraints meant he had to walk all the way. Initially, the Morellis settled in Northern Ireland, then moved to Scotland.
"All they knew how to do was make ice cream the Italian way," she says, "so that was what they did. They made it by hand, chilled it with ice and salt, and sold it out of wheelbarrows and off the back of Giuseppe's bike - they weren't allowed back home until it was all sold." But flogging large quantities of ice cream, however well made, was never going to be easy in the chilliest parts of the UK. Sensibly, in 1932, Giuseppe's son Mario moved the business down to Broadstairs, a place, says Bibi, of "striped deckchairs, donkey rides and Punch and Judy shows" and began selling his wares to a more receptive market of overheated holidaymakers.
The ice- cream parlour was the first of its kind in the UK, offering an astonishing 20 flavours (this at a time when other purveyors seemed unaware there might be flavours beyond vanilla, chocolate and strawberry). The parlour was brought bang up to date in 1959, and has stayed there ever since - it's still a nostalgic paradise of Lloyd Loom chairs, leatherette banquettes and a soda fountain. Bibi was brought up above the shop, which, by then, was being run by her father, Marino, and mother, Bita, who is Venezuelan.
"The smell of this place and the sight of ice cream being made takes me straight back to my childhood," she says. "I would get up and go straight downstairs to the factory. I must have been pretty tiny, because I remember being at eye-level with the wellington boots they wore." The family's growing fame was, and is, founded on the exceptional quality of the ice cream. It is still made fresh every day from the best natural ingredients (they use a particular kind of hazelnut from Piedmont, for instance, and the pistachios must come from Sicily).
Italian gelato is milk-based rather than cream-based like many commercial ice creams. This gives it a lighter, smoother texture and cleaner taste, allowing a much greater intensity of flavour. It's also lower in calories and sugar. "The only downside is that it means you can eat much more of it without feeling ill," says Bibi ruefully. Although one might imagine that a child with access to limitless ice cream would have been inundated with playmates, her school days seem to have been something of a trial.
She hated her name, which marked her out as different from her insular English classmates. "My name is Elba, like the island, which I hated because it sounds like elbow if you say it in English." So she preferred to be called Bibi. As for Morelli, that was still worse. "It rhymed with everything, smelly, belly there was only one day in the year when I was popular at school." That day was the one when her parents would donate ice cream to the school for lunch.
"I always had lots of friends then," she says, rather sadly, "but the next day, I'd go back to being unpopular." Perhaps it's not surprising that, initially, she decided to give the family business a miss, instead heading to London where she got herself a job as a finance lawyer at the high-powered law firm Clifford Chance, a job that took her all over Europe. But the call of the cold stuff was too strong for her. "When I was working in Milan, I noticed how men would come out of a serious meeting in their suits. In Italy, lunch ends with ice cream, so they'd buy a cone and walk along the street looking at it, and suddenly they'd look about 12 years old," she says with a laugh.
"I think that's what's so special about ice cream. More than anything else, except maybe chocolate, it takes people straight back to childhood. That's why everybody loves it." She was 29 when her father announced that he planned to retire. His crowning achievement would be the opening of the outlet at Harrods. After that, the family business would doubtless be taken over by another ice cream maker, since neither Bibi, nor her brother Nito, who worked in construction, were interested.
"I felt a definite pang when I thought about that," says Bibi. So in 2003, she threw up her lucrative legal career and headed down to Broadstairs to take over the scoops. Her father stayed on for a further three years to help her run the business. "We were at each other's throats," she admits. "We're very alike. But he's still a wonderful source of advice." The Harrods store was the inspiration for her expansion around the globe. A representative of every monied consumer group in the world regularly pushes open those plate-glass doors.
"I saw how popular we were with Middle Eastern customers," she says, "and I realised the potential we had to expand. All the other major brands out there are American: Häagen-Dazs, Ben and Jerry's, Baskin-Robbins. I think ours is much better than any of them. "An ice cream that's made possibly six months ago and then deep-frozen can't compare in taste with something that's been freshly made that day. It's like the difference in taste between fresh soup and canned."
Morelli's also offer a bespoke service, where you can order any flavour of ice cream your heart desires (they've had everything from Marmite and meat pie ice cream to the rather nicer-sounding white chocolate and truffle), as long as you give them 48 hours notice. The starting price is the same as buying one of the store's own flavours, though if you're hoping for caviar gelato, expect the cost to rise accordingly. Such a fan is Bibi of this bespoke service (she tells me that she wooed and won her husband by making him a pistachio ice cream studded with chocolate nibs) that she's decided to import a £70,000 (Dh419,000) professional ice-cream machine for her own use in Africa. The rest of us will probably have to make do with a good old-fashioned cone.
These specially adapted recipes of Morelli's ice creams and sorbets can be recreated at home, using a domestic ice-cream maker. Each recipe makes 1 litre of ice cream (approximately 10 scoops).
Ingredients: 200g caster sugar 200ml milk 250ml double cream 50g honey 40g honeycomb - you can use the centre of a Crunchie bar without the chocolate coating 1 egg yolk METHOD: Mix the sugar, milk, egg yolk, cream and honey together. Break the honeycomb into small pieces and add, mixing well again. Place mixture into an ice-cream machine and churn until frozen. Serve alone, or as an accompaniment.
Ingredients 250g caster sugar 450ml water 250ml freshly squeezed pink grapefruit juice 1 egg white METHOD: Mix the sugar, water and the pink grapefruit juice together. Whip the egg white until stiff and carefully fold into the mixture. Place in the ice-cream machine and churn until frozen.
Ingredients: 300g passion fruit purée 150g caster sugar 400ml double cream 100ml full-fat milk 50g white chocolate 1 egg yolk METHOD: To make the passion fruit purée, scrape the pulp from the shells, sieving out the seeds. Add the sugar, milk, egg and cream and mix well. Pour the mixture into an ice-cream machine and churn until frozen (the time varies for each machine). When ready to serve, melt the white chocolate and drizzle on the ice cream.
Ingredients 250g caster sugar 450ml water 150ml freshly squeezed lemon juice 1 egg white METHOD: Mix the sugar, water and lemon juice. Whip the egg white until still and carefully fold into the mixture. Churn in an ice-cream machine until frozen.
Ingredients: 250g caster sugar 400ml water 250g mango purée 1 egg white METHOD: Mix the sugar, water and mango purée. Whip the egg white until stiff and fold into the mixture. Place in the ice-cream machine and churn until frozen.
Ingredients: 1 vanilla pod 120g caster sugar 400ml double cream 100ml full-fat milk 1 egg yolk METHOD: Halve the vanilla pod lengthways and place in a pan with the milk. Bring to the boil then take off the heat. Wait for 5 minutes then gently squeeze each half of the vanilla pod to extract the seeds. Discard the outer shell. Add the sugar, yolk and cream and mix well. Pour into an ice-cream maker and churn until frozen.
Ingredients: 250g caster sugar 450ml water 250g green apple - season, peeled and cored 1 egg white METHOD: Blend the sugar, water and apple. Whip the egg white until stiff then fold into the mixture. Churn in an ice-cream machine until frozen.