Gemma Fraser: Portobello’s claim to 99 fame takes some licking

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A place in ice-cream folklore isn’t as flakey as you’d think, writes Gemma Fraser

The legendary 99 ice-cream cone is a staple of any visit to the seaside along with a poke of chips, a stick of rock and a tentative toe-dip in the sea.

There is nothing quite like it – even if, more often than not, the wind and rain batters down as you tuck in.

But while most people will have sampled the treat at some point in their lives, few will have stopped to think about its origins ... and they may well be firmly rooted right here on our doorstep in Portobello.

Residents in the Capital’s seaside have mounted a campaign to have the ice-cream cone’s origins officially recognised by Cadbury – manufacturer of the chocolate Flake that gives it its unique identity.

The Free The Porty 99 campaign has even gone so far as to investigate the possibility of Cadbury funding a giant ice-cream cone statue on the promenade and a plaque mounted at the shop where it is believed to have been created.

It is not the first time attempts have been made to give Portobello the recognition many locals feel it deserves for its part in the ice-cream phenomenon.

In 2006, the Arcari family fought, unsuccessfully, for recognition, arguing they sold 99s more than 20 years before the first recorded usage by Cadbury. They insist the ice-cream was named after the address of the family’s shop at number 99 Portobello High Street.

The story goes that Stephen Arcari invented the world’s first 99 cone in the shop in the 1920s.

Apparently, he broke a large Flake in half and stuck it into an ice-cream – to the delight of a visiting rep from Cadbury, who took the idea to his boss.

Mr Arcari saw no harm in this and gave his permission, but his involvement in the famous cone was never acknowledged.

Resident Paul Lambie has set up a Facebook page encouraging people to send a letter to Cadbury asking if Portobello can “have its 99 back” and if Mr Arcari can finally have the recognition he deserves.

“This is the sort of thing that a town builds its reputation on, so it seems outrageous that Portobello is not commemorated for this,” said Mr Lambie.

“I would like to see a 10ft tall – or maybe a 9ft 9in tall – ice-cream created on the prom and I have a friend costing one of these for me.

“People don’t realise Portobello’s connection with the 99 and there have been quite a lot of shocked faces when I have been telling them about it.

“The 99 has changed the face of the British seaside and Portobello should be part of that.”

“It would be lovely if Cadbury would pay for the big ice-cream statue and say thanks to Stephen Arcari for his involvement in creating the 99.”

According to Cadbury, the origins of the 99 ice-cream cone are lost to history. “The real reason for ‘99’ Flake being so-called has been lost in the mists of time,” it states on its website.

However, the chocolate giant suggests the name may have came from a former king of Italy who surrounded himself with an elite cadre of 99 bodyguards.

“In the days of the monarchy in Italy, the king has a specially chosen guard consisting of 99 men, and subsequently anything really special or first class was known as ‘99’ – and that his how ‘99’ Flake came by its name,” according to Cadbury.

There are also suggestions the phenomenon may have begun in the 1920s in County Durham when Italian ice-cream makers were trying to introduce other lines into their shops in a bid to increase sales.

But the Free The Porty 99 campaigners believe Mr Arcari’s connection is much more plausible.

“We know there is no concrete proof,” said Mandy Arcari, the grand daughter of Stephen Arcari. “It’s just been the story we have always been told growing up.”

The family still make and sell homemade ice-cream from a factory unit at 12 The Wisp. Ms Arcari added: “My grandfather was selling 99s for 20 years before Cadbury patented it as its own. I remember speaking to an old woman who remembers coming into the shop in the 1930s and she said he sold them then.

“It’s not about money, it’s just a nice story and it would be good to have something to recognise it.”

Sheila Gilmore, MP for Edinburgh East, is one of many people to have backed the campaign and hopes the fascinating story will help Portobello attract more visitors.

“We are trying to get local credit for something that originated in Portobello,” she said. “We are asking for recognition from the industry that this is the home and origin of something that is well known all over the country.

“Portobello’s heyday was years ago but it’s still a fabulous place with fabulous facilities, and I don’t think that Edinburgh people use it as much as they could so we are always trying to get extra people to come here.”

It is a case of watch this space to see how Cadbury responds – and whether it will fund a giant cone on the Promenade.

ARCARI LEGACY

STEPHEN Arcari moved to Leith shortly after the end of the First World War from a small town north of Rome.

Selling home-made ice-cream, he toured the port with a refrigerated cart, quickly building up a reputation as a talented confectioner. In the early 1920s, he set up a shop in Leith, before moving to bigger premises in Portobello.

Arcaris – at 99 Portobello High Street – became a landmark in the town, known for its welcoming atmosphere, and was passed on through the family for generations before it closed its doors a few years ago. It is there, the family says, the 99 ice-cream cone was invented.