Ice cream

Gellati, galata, glaces, clo clo, cassata, are all names by which ice ceam has toured our streets, cooled our summer promenades, made some specialized parlors famous, and been immortalized in songs from as far back as the forties by Abdul Wahab playing a dentist to the pretty Ra'ya Ibrahim suffering from a toothache, to the more recent film Ice Cream fi Glym. In fairly typical Egyptian manner, the origin of the word seems to have been no cause for much discourse of ethnic nature, and in even more typical Alexandrian fashion, two more words were equally used, their specialty all the more Alexandrian and sought-out in the festival season by visitors from Cairo and elsewhere: namely the Dandorma (of Turkish descent) and the granita, a variation on the sorbet. The word Bouza did not make it across the borders to mean ice cream as in its native Syria, and remained quite distinct from what vocabulary we instinctively and almost inexplicably choose whether or not to embrace and adopt.


En passant, in the mid seventies, after once having successfully launched the clo clo, Fluckiger introduced the frozen Parfait, but what with chocolate mousse and profiteroles already existing desserts, the parfait failed to impress. Perhaps a too perfect, difficult to pronounce Frenchy name may have antagonized the casual customer by then not as francophone as his earlier counterpart. After all, gelati and Turkish dandorma were easier on the tongue, as were many words derived from the Italian. Granita, often pronounced garanita, would jocularly sometimes be used as an answer to the question: “Gara eh?” (what happened?) to which garanita was assumed to mean “nothing (nita) happened (gara)”. However, one fact remains: there is no commonly known word for ice cream, at least in our everyday language of which one is really aware.

In time, when ice cream became an industry, one of the first to package and sell its products, at least in sanitary conditions one could trust, was Groppi. Small-sized containers sold in fridges placed by the entrance of the better known grocers such as Menassa, Eino and Simonds, as well as other patisseries leave a typical olfactory memory of their mango and strawberry flavors in particular. Along the Corniche, Groppi was not an unknown brand to be feared, and carts drawn by street vendors were acknowledged safe and of higher quality than some ice cream sold in parlors. Later still, “soft ice cream” would break new ground around the country, and in Alexandria machines were set up in Montaza and Maamoura. They had their fans, especially of children since the technology of dispensing the ice cream through a machine was considered new and exciting. However, they did not find favor for very long and soon a much improved industry would take over.


During the golden years of Alexandrian gourmet refinement, and elite confisseurs, Maison Baudrot offered a specialty of fruit-shaped ice cream presented in a basket made of croquant, a nut and honey-based sweet that chefs were adept at wielding into different shapes, such as cones that they would fill with chocolate from a piping bag. Pastroudis was famous for its fruit sorbets, inspired perhaps by the necessity for a cooling less creamy glace to scoop and sip through a straw as one sat outdoors rather than in a salon de thé such as were Le Petit Trianon and Baudrot.

Délices too had its own variety of ice cream that came in what was called a Bombe that would be dispatched to complement a typical children's birthday party menu complete with Louis Quatorze and Alexandre le Grand canapés for the more Europeanized Alexandrian already familiar with the specialty from other similar events. The Bombe would typically arrive in a heavy fridge with insular lining looking like some piece of army artillery, and which was sure to cause great glee on arrival at the birthday site. Often, marrons deguises (chocolate coated chestnuts) would be sent as a compliment “on the house”.

Casatta, too was a favorite with many, and because it offered a variety of more than one flavor, and came in a single bar, flat shaped slab, it was easy and less messy to eat. Elite was famous for their Trois Petis Cochons: three scoops of multi flavored “home-made” ice cream presented in a mound. Asteria had its specialty of chocolat mou, topped with fresh cream and probably quite unique to this day. Ice cream soda: scoops of any flavor to taste placed in a tall glass, then flushed with soda water and served with grenadine sherbet, then stirred with an accompanying pair of drinking straws which often a cozy couple in a remote corner of Asteria would share, was also typically served.

Ice cream parlors, such as the earlier Garbis of great Alexandrian renown on La Gaieté Street in Ibrahimieh, followed by Saber in Ibrahimieh, originally on an adjacent street corner from the shop where the owner worked as a little boy and who became a success in Alexandria and with Cairenes in the summer adding his own touch of rice pudding topped with ice cream and nuts were always a treat to finish off a dinner had elsewhere in the city. Prices were affordable, and service pleasant and courteous. One had a choice between ice cream in a glass coupe or a plastic cup easier to drive or walk away with, or better still, scooped into a thin cone shaped crisp wafer. Apparently those were privy only to Alexandria, virtually unknown except to Cairenes who spent their summer in Agami, at least until very recently. Apparently these cornets used to be known as Shebbak el Bascote. Long ago, too, they used to sell them dipped in molasses, and place a coin inside the cone that would stick by virtue of the honey and be almost invisible to the eye. Children would rush to buy them and the lucky one would get the cone with the coin.

In Agami Bless, a small little shop by the name of Bisso was almost all there was by way of non packaged ice cream, that kept up the competition with other growing brands in fancy plastic containers such as Nestlé, Dolce, Hawaii, and more recently Mövenpick and Sultana. Sultana first set up shop in Kafr Abdou, before acquiring more widespread outlets in Cairo, Marina and Carrefour where they have a stand dedicated to chocolate ice cream. Apart from ice cream cakes, decorated with dried apricots and prunes in Ramadan, a month when Ice cream as dessert will only be favored when the holy month occurs during the summer, Sultana also has a low sugar diabetic /diet variety, and a seyami line for the periods of Coptic fasting.

The word “mixte” once upon a time finally uttered after some hesitation between what an ice cream parlor had to offer, and often associated with the favorite combination of chocolate and milk, or lemon granita and strawberry sorbet, is now nostalgically a thing of the past. What with many flavors on the market such as guava, hibiscus (at Saber's), blackberry (if in season), apricot and melon, not to mention the introduction of Baskin Robbins' 33 FLAVORS in the 1990s which was an instant success. Given its prices, however, the success was not too long-lived. Gone too, are the biscuits cuillere, flanking ice cream scoops at Délices to which true to style Alexandrians preferred the equally French if more quaint and languorously evocative name of langue de chat.

Of all the fancy French ice creams, and the newer multi-national ones, the most popular today are the simple vanilla with mastic ice cream, sold in the small white biscuit, the large brown biscuit cone, or the small plastic cups. They are sold in modest parlors with white plastic chairs and tables placed on the kerb. Most commonly, however, cars will drive up to the tiny shop, and the waiter will deliver the ice cream right up to the car. That is part of the leisure of being Alexandrian.

Granita El Mahdy: The grandfather arrived from Upper Egypt on foot, a thirteen-year-old orphan in search of a means of livelihood to support the family that his father had left behind. El Mahdy needed to find work, as he couldn’t very well go back empty handed. He started working with a Greek man who sold ice cream in Bahari but, being an ambitious boy who already knew he wanted to start his own business, he walked along the Corniche in search of the perfect spot to set up his ice-cream kiosk. Glym was the place he finally chose, and he built a wooden kiosk and acquired a fridge in 1926. At first he would buy the ice cream from his Greek ex-employer and sell it, then his ambitious streak got the better of him and he began to think of making his own ice cream. He bought two barrels, one wooden and the other copper, and put the copper barrel inside the wooden one, filling the space in between with layers of salt and ice, just like they used to in the old days.

Soon it was time for experimentation with new flavors. El Mahdy used lemon juice, sugar and gelatin, but not milk, thinking that lemon and milk would not go well together. The result was not ice cream, but people loved it! He worked on this recipe, sold it in ice cream cones, and called it Dandorma. Then Mr. Glymonopoulos, a Greek whose mother was Italian, told him that in Italy they called it Granita. (Glymonopoulos owned a supermarket, and his villa was opposite to Shehab the Butcher’s now).

One day King Farouk looked out from the hotel opposite the kiosk, and saw a crowd around the kiosk. So he strolled down and bought himself a granita, and paid five pounds (which is still with the family). It was only when the people applauded that El Mahdy realized it was the king. From that time on, he was patronized by pashas and beys, while commoners didn’t frequent the area much, anyway.

The wife of Mustafa Fahmy Pasha asked El Mahdy why he didn’t have a shop, and he said that he could not get a license to open a shop on Mustafa Fahmy Street. She managed to get him the license, and permission to open a shop in the garage of Mustafa Fahmy Pasha. Eventually, he moved closer to the Corniche, and bought the shop they currently own in 1948. In addition to ice cream and granita, El Mahdy was the second place in Alexandria to make sugar cane juice, which was at first pressed manually. It was the first shop to switch to machine pressed juice. Now they also make mango and tangerine flavor granita, in addition to the original lemon flavor.

El Mahdy made granita for Sporting Club, and that is why many people will find that both granitas taste the same. In the 1960s a famous ful and falafel shop, Scheherazade, was next to El Mahdy, and it was an Alexandrian tradition to eat ful and falafel sandwiches then have the granita for dessert.

Mahmoud Ali Mahdy, the current owner, who is the grandson, has seen President Anwar el Sadat, and Gihan el Sadat, buy granita at El Mahdy (Sadat arrived in a sky blue Volks Wagon). He heard that President Gamal Abdel Nasser also came buy one day, but he didn’t see the late president himself. Amr Diab, the famous singer of the nineties, immortalized El Mahdy in the film Ice Cream fi Glym.

At the other end of town, in Bahari, Azza started with a Syrian but when he left Tarek Gamal’s grandfather took over the business, and now it has been expanding, with shops all over the city. Though not the first to open in Bahari (it opened in the 1960s, while Nezami and Makram have been there since the 1940s), Azza started as a cart. Only the best material is used: mastic from Greece, sahlab from Syria, and natural material rather than artificial colors. They have also added a date flavor imported from Iraq. Abla Kamel’s new movie, Bolteyya El ‘Ayma, was filmed at their branch next to the Yacht Club, and Nelly Karim in Akher el Donia was shown eating ice cream there.

Psychology and national character do come into play as regards success in the food and eating department, and Alexandrians seem to have a natural hunch for it, but it is not just that. A deep understanding that goes a long way back into a way of life rooted in the city's persona and its social heritage also contribute to the holistic ensemble of enabling factors for the common experience of the shared time and place.