Legend has all sorts of fanciful stories about Marco Polo bringing ice cream from China and Catherine de’ Medici introducing it to France and King Charles I having his own personal ice cream maker; all wonderful stories, but sadly there is not a scrap of historic evidence to back up any of these legends. Marco Polo didn’t introduce either ice cream or pasta to Europe and worse still, he probably never even went to China. Most of these myths seem to have been introduced by the Victorians.
The earliest evidence of anything approaching ice cream being made was in China in the Tang period (A.D. 618-907). Buffalo, cows’ and goats’ milk was heated and allowed to ferment. This ‘yoghurt’ was then mixed with flour for thickening, camphor (yes camphor!) for flavour and ‘refrigerated’ before being served. King Tang of Shang had a staff of 2,271 people which included 94 ice-men.
The early methods of freezing food need some explanation. Freezing of foods was achieved by mixing salt with ice. Mixing salt with ice reduces the freezing point and it is quite easy to achieve temperatures lower than -14C. Just who discovered the process is unknown, but it was probably invented by the Chinese. It was written about in India in the 4th century, and the first technical description of ice making using various salts was by an Arab medical historian Ibn Abu Usaybi (A.D. 1230-1270).
But the process did not arrive in Europe until 1503, in Italy where it was considered a chemists party trick, using various acids, water and salts. However, it was not used for food until water ices (sorbets) appeared in the 1660s in Naples, Florence, Paris and Spain. Later in 1664 ices made with sweetened milk first appeared in Naples.
In this country Ice Cream was served at a banquet for the Feast of St. George at Windsor Castle in 1671. It was such a rare and exotic dish that only the guests on King Charles II’s table had ‘one plate of white strawberries and one plate of iced cream.’ All the other guests had to watch and marvel at what the Royal table were eating.
Such was the interest and demand for ice cream that wealthy people built ice houses on their estates. Ice, ‘farmed’ in winter from lakes, ponds and rivers was stored under straw and bark, until the summer when it was used for cooling drinks, making water ices and ‘iced creams’. The ice was of such a poor quality that it was never actually put in food, it was only ever used to chill and freeze food and drinks.
Ice cream making was a closely guarded secret and the knowledge of how to make it would have been a meal ticket for life, which is why the first recipe in English did not appear until 1718.
The technique of making a custard based ice cream using egg yolks started in France around the middle of the 18th century and this is the origin of custard based ice cream. The Americans had to wait until 1800 to get their first taste of ice cream.
In the 19th century, ice cream manufacture was simplified with the introduction of the ice cream machine in 1843 in both England and America. This consisted of a wooden bucket that was filled with ice and salt and had a handle which rotated. The central metal container, containing the ice cream was surrounded the salt and ice mixture. This churning produced ice cream with an even, smooth texture. Previously it was made in a pewter pot kept in a bucket of ice and salt and had to be regularly hand stirred and scraped from the side of the pewter pots with a ‘spaddle’ which is a sort of miniature spade on a long handle.
The key factor in the manufacture of ice cream was ice. Where was it to come from? In the early 19th century importation of ice started from Norway, Canada and America, this made ice cream readily available to the general public in the UK. Ice was shipped into London and other major ports and taken in canal barges down the canals, to be stored in ice houses, from where it was sold to ice cream makers. This burgeoning ice cream industry, run mainly by Italians, started the influx of workers from southern Italy and the Ticino area of Switzerland to England.
In London they lived in the most appalling conditions in and around the Holborn area. The huge ice house pits built near Kings Cross by Carlo Gatti in the 1850s, where he stored the ice he shipped to England from Norway, are still there and have recently been opened to the public at The London Canal Museum.
The advent of mechanical refrigeration using electricity and gas, at the end of the last century, is what made the ice cream industry what it is today. No longer were huge quantities of ice necessary and it was now possible to transport and store ice cream. Previously ice cream had to be eaten within a few hours of it being made as it required too much ice to keep it frozen. Ice cream quickly became a mass market product and many of the old flavours became best sellers. It is an interesting point that most of the flavours heralded as ‘new inventions’ by the go-go chefs, can all be found in the history of ice cream.
What about the cone?
Most people think of the cone or cornet as the traditional way of eating ice cream and until recently it was claimed in the United States to be an American invention dating from the 1904 St Louis World Fair.
Our recent research has shown that the ice cream cone was an English invention. Although the cone itself can be traced back hundreds of years, the first recording of cones being used for serving ice cream was in 1888 in Mrs Marshall’s Cookery Book. Prior to that ice cream was either licked out of a small glass known as a penny lick or taken away wrapped in waxed paper referred to as a hokey pokey (hokey pokey is supposed to have come from the Italian ‘ecco un poco’ ‘here is a little’). An American government official said in 1969 that “The ice cream cone is the only ecologically sound package known. It is the perfect package.”
Co-author of Ices – The Definitive Guide
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