The early beginnings of ice cream

A cold taste from the East

Ice cream already had a long history. It is widely believed, although it cannot be proved, that the recipe for the concoction was brought to Italy from China by the great traveller Marco Polo in the 13th century.

The Chinese had discovered how to conserve ice for summer use as early as the 8th century BC. Their earliest ices were made with naturally occuring snow and ice, which was kept in special storehouses - often pits dug well below ground level - and mixed with fruit juices. Ice houses, packed with ice harvested in winter, were also built in Europe until a way to manufacture ice was discovered.

The technique for making artificial snow and ice from cold water was brought to Europe from the East by Arab scholars. Their breakthrough was the discovery that the addition of salt to ice could produce temperatures lower than freezing. Frozen salt water packed around a container of ice cream mix helped to freeze the mixture, whereas ice made from unsalted water would often melt before the ice cream could freeze properly.

A cold treat delights Europe

The first European ices appeared in the 1600s. Water-based ices could be bought in Paris and in the Italian cities of Florence and Naples. By the 1690s milk-based ice creams cast in elegant moulds were being made in southern Italy.

The earliest recipe for ice cream was published in 1718 in Mrs. Mary Eales' Receipts, written by the late Queen Anne's official confectioner. This instructed the cook to fill a tin pot with cream and place it in a pail that had been packed with saltwater ice. The pail was covered with straw and placed in a dark place. The cream, mixed with flavorsome summer fruits such as cherries, apricots or raspberries, usually froze within 4 hours. Later chefs advised brisk stirring while the cream was freezing to reduce the tendency to form large ice crystals. and introduced eggs which gave the mixture a smoother, richer texture. 

People fleeing from political turmoil in Italy in the 1860s also brought with them their expertise in making ice creams and sorbets to different parts of Europe.

Ice etiquette

Ice cream parlors were the exclusive domain of the wealthy until the mid 19th century.The icy treat was served in small portions in cone-shaped glass goblet. They were the precursor of the "penny lick" - a small scoop of ice cream in a thick-bottomed glass cup, sold at seaside and summer fairs.