Edible histories: ice cream

Categories: History of food

From 16th century natural magic to 20th century technology via haughty French auteurs and sceptical English street traders, Mark Riddaway tells the story of the ice cream

Not all the tips offered up to wine drinkers by Giambattista della Porta in his 1589 masterpiece of natural philosophy, Magia Naturalis, were particularly effective. The Neapolitan academic’s instruction that alcoholism could be cured by drowning three live eels in a barrel of wine and then drinking the liquor was best ignored, as was his belief that “the filth of a dog’s ear, mingled with wine” offered a shortcut to drunkenness (although that would recreate the flavour profile of some mass-market chardonnay). But his instructions for making wine “not only grow cold, but freeze that you cannot drink it but by sucking, and drawing in of your breath” were built on far sounder foundations: “Put wine into a vial, and put a little water to it, that it may turn to ice the sooner,” he wrote, “then cast snow into a wooden vessel, and strew into it saltpetre, powdered, or the cleansing of saltpetre, called vulgarly ‘salazzo’. Turn the vial in the snow, and ice will congeal by degrees.”

What Della Porta was describing was an obscure but surprisingly simple chemical reaction, the gradual proliferation of which would not only entertain the wine drinkers of Naples but set in motion the birth of the ice cream. For reasons too complex to go into here, when saltpetre (potassium nitrate, a chemical used in the production of gunpowder) is mixed with ice, the freezing point of this icy blend plummets below zero, causing it to both melt and—seemingly perversely—get colder. If a vessel containing another liquid—be that Della Porta’s diluted wine or some sweetened, flavoured cream—comes into contact with this super-cooled water, its contents will begin to freeze.

Knowledge of this process made its way to Europe from the east: the earliest surviving written reference dates from around 1245 in the work of the Syrian Arab physician Ibn Abi Usaibia, and by the late 16th century drinks frozen with saltpetre were a “source of joy for great and small” at the court of Akbar, the Mughal emperor of India. In Italy, many of whose city states had close trade ties with Asia, the method was first alluded to by the philosopher Marcantonio Zimara in 1530, and by 1550 the physician Blas Villafranca was declaring that frozen drinks were all the rage in Roman high society. The process would become even more popular after about 1620, as the realisation dawned that common salt worked just as well as saltpetre, while also being far more likely to be found in a pantry.

Hot weather and stunning citrus
It was in Italy, and particularly in Naples, that the possibilities of ice-making were most thoroughly exploited, with the method soon being applied not just to Della Porta’s wine but to other popular drinks. Foremost among these were sherbets—the complex blends of fruit juices, flower waters and sugar that had been ubiquitous for centuries throughout the Middle East and Turkey and had understandably found favour in Italy, a land of hot weather and stunning citrus. Once it became apparent that sherbets—‘sorbette’ in Italian—would freeze with a pleasing texture as long as sufficient sugar had been added to them, these icy treats became a fixture of Neapolitan cuisine.

In 1692, Antonio Latini, who had moved to Naples to become steward to a senior politician in the Spanish regime that governed the region, made reference to his adopted city’s culinary obsession: “In the city of Naples a great quantity of ‘sorbette’ are consumed, and they are the consistency of sugar and snow, and every Neapolitan, it would seem, is born with the knowledge of how to make them.” Latini may not have been born with the knowledge, but he clearly learned it. In his book, Lo Scalco alla Moderna, he offered several recipes for ices, including one for ‘sorbetta di limone’, two made with chocolate—one frozen solid in bricks, the other a mousse stirred as it froze (notably, his only mention of stirring, a process vital to the creation of a smooth ice)—and others flavoured with cinnamon, strawberry and cherry. He also described a ‘sorbetta di latte’, made from milk, water, sugar and either candied citron or ‘cocuzzata’, a type of squash—not ice cream, by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly a step along that road.

Master confectioners
It was in Italy that one of France’s master confectioners learned the art of the frozen dessert. Nicolas Audiger, who served up many an ice at the lavishly appointed court of Louis XIV, explained how early in his career he had travelled to Italy to perfect his understanding of “all manner of flower and fruit waters, frozen and liquid”. In his book, published the same year as Latini’s, he provided recipes for ‘sorbec de levant’—Levantine sherbet—in an array of flavours and suggested that to freeze any of these, the quantity of sugar should be doubled and the fruits, flowers and seeds increased by half to make the flavours stand up to the cold. He also provided lengthy instructions for freezing, emphasising the importance of stirring to create a texture more like snow than ice and to prevent the sugar from settling. Among his recipes was one for an ice cream—‘crème glacée’, as he called it—a mix of milk, cream and sugar, flavoured with orange flower water.

A contemporary of Audiger’s, Francois Massialot, pioneer of the meringue and one of the most influential of French chefs, called ice creams ‘fromages glacés’—frozen cheeses. One of his recipes was for ‘fromage à l’Anglois’—‘English cheese’—an ice cream containing three egg yolks: the first recorded appearance in an ice cream of an ingredient that would become a near-universal component in both France and Britain. Both countries tapped into their long traditions of making sweet egg custards, in the same way that Italy’s love of fruit sherbets shaped the development of the sorbetto. By contrast, Italian gelato—a word that only took root in the 19th century to differentiate milk ices from water ices—continues to contain little if any egg.

While Italy remained the spiritual home of flavoured ices, it was in France that the laborious process of stirring and freezing ice cream was refined—or at least it was in France that this refinement was first recorded. According to Monsieur Emy, an otherwise unknown obsessive whose book about ice cream was published in Paris in 1768, the ices that had hitherto graced the tables of the rich were actually pretty terrible: light on flavour and as hard as concrete. To counter these flaws, he offered some incredibly detailed technical advice—his master recipe ran to three and half pages—and followed this with dozens of flavour variations, including vanilla (which had only arrived from the New World in the 16th century and was far from ubiquitous), strawberry, chocolate, coffee, cinnamon, cloves, Maltese oranges, pineapple (which he called “the king of fruits”), a spice mix called ‘houacaca’ and, perhaps most strikingly, truffle—a quarter of a pound of Perigord’s finest.

The mechanics of freezing
Such attention to detail had sadly been lacking from Britain’s oldest recipe for ice cream. Dated 1651-78, a manuscript of the jottings of Lady Ann Fanshawe, wife of Sir Richard, the English ambassador to Spain, contained a recipe that, while historically notable, was entirely hopeless—it started well, with “three pints of the best cream” boiled with mace, orange flower water or ambergris, then sweetened with sugar, but things went awry when Lady Ann’s method for freezing the cream completely failed to mention salt. Follow her recipe to the letter, and you’ll end up with a nice cold milkshake.

Presumably, whoever was responsible for the catering at a spectacular banquet in honour of the Order of the Garter, hosted at Windsor Castle in May 1671, understood a little better the mechanics of freezing. On the evening before the main feast and at the feast itself, the King’s table was supplied with “one plate of ice cream”. Nobody but Charles II himself was served with this delicacy—its first recorded appearance on an English menu.

This exclusivity was telling: throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, ice cream remained a luxury. Ice—which had to be either harvested in the winter or shipped from colder climes, then carefully stored in ice pits or ice houses—was cripplingly expensive, while salt and clarified sugar were still far from cheap. All around Europe (apart from parts of Italy) water ices and ice creams became culinary status symbols at the tables of the mighty, presented in elaborate displays, using moulds that made them appear as fruits or flowers or—one popular Heston-like trick—cuts of meat. As one Victorian food writer put it: “Not so many years ago an ice pudding was looked upon as a triumph of culinary art, that even the average good professed cook would as soon have thought of trying to make, as of trying to fly.”

Grand cafes, wealthy men
In big cities like Paris, Vienna and London, ices could be bought only in the grand cafes frequented by the wealthy. In 1759, an Italian confectioner, Domenico Negri, opened a shop in Mayfair where members of the royal family consumed “all sorts of ice, fruits and creams in the best Italian manner”. Several of Negri’s colleagues and apprentices would go on to be important figures in the development of English ice cream and, thanks to the high-end nature of the trade, very wealthy men.

The development of machinery for churning ice cream, combined with a fall in the cost of its basic raw ingredients, would eventually make plausible a more affordable form of this posh pudding. However, according to Henry Mayhew, who surveyed the lives of the London poor in 1851, initial attempts at introducing ice cream as a street food met with limited success. One street dealer scoffed at the very notion that such a luxurious treat could find a place in the repertoire of his peers: “Ices in the streets! Aye, and there’ll be jellies next, and then mock turtle… penny glasses of champagne, I shouldn’t wonder.” Another dealer, who had attempted to sell ices, was fairly negative about the whole experience. “I don’t think they’ll ever take greatly in the streets,” he predicted. “They get among the teeth and make you feel as if you tooth-ached all over.”

It didn’t take long for him to be proved wrong. The second half of the 19th century saw a significant increase in migration from Italy to the cities of the United Kingdom. Poor, unskilled migrants arriving from southern Italy, a region steeped in ice cream lore, were far more convinced than Mayhew’s cynical cockneys of the possibility of hawking frozen desserts, and the country’s streets soon echoed with the cries of hawkers selling ‘hokey pokey’—the name given, for reasons that have never been entirely convincingly explained, to the cheap, dense ice cream sold by Italian vendors. Hokey pokey was, wrote Andrew Tuer in 1885, “dreadfully sweet, dreadfully cold, and hard as a brick”. It was rumoured, he continued, that one of its base ingredients might be creamed swede. Softer ice cream was sold on the streets as ‘penny licks’—a small glass from which the customer licked their purchase before returning it to the seller to be rinsed in the most cursory of manners. The rise in the early 20th century of the edible wafer cone saved many an ice cream lover from this epidemiological menace.

A London sausage-maker
Italy gave birth to the ice cream, France refined it and Britain turned it into street food, but it was the USA that wrote its most recent chapter. As with so many foodstuffs, the American drive to embrace new technologies, create systems of mass production and then exploit the magic of marketing to shape consumer tastes transformed our perceptions of ice cream. In 1922, Wall’s, a London sausage-maker, used imported American machinery to create Britain’s first industrial-scale ice cream business. Other ideas that crossed the Atlantic included the lolly on a stick, first patented in America in 1924, and the ‘soft-serve’ ice cream, invented in the 1930s and popularised here in the 1960s.

Not everyone chose to dance to that American tune. Italian ice cream culture remains as deep-seated and distinctive now as it ever was. Much has changed since Della Porta first recommended mixing saltpetre with ice, but Italy’s great gift for freezing things has flourished regardless.