Today, ice cream leaves behind all sorts of sticky evidence for future archaeologists to find: wrappers, tubs, ice cream vans, industrial freezers and of course those little wooden sticks you get in Magnums which, if you’re an archaeologist you’ll know are just great for excavating skeletons (at least, that’s my excuse when I get caught with one on site!)
But if you think ice cream is a recent invention, you’re very much mistaken; the world’s first ice cream far predates freezers and archaeologists and historians have plenty of evidence to prove it.
The origins of ice cream can in fact be traced back over 4,000 years to the first recorded appearance of an ice house for storing mountain snow. According to a cuneiform tablet from around 1780 BC, the King of Mari built one, which ‘never before had any king built’.
Either way, from at least 500 BC, the Persians were storing winter snow in their own ice houses called Yakhchal, where it could keep for many months, or even all year round, and serving it up on hot days with grape juice. Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) is later said to have enjoyed his flavoured with honey and nectar, while in Rome Nero Claudius Caesar (A.D. 54-86) liked his flavoured with fruits.
But we’re talking about making ice cream here, not just the equivalent of an ancient slushy, and it’s in China that the first evidence of frozen dairy products is widely reported.
King Tang of Shang (A.D. 618-97) supposedly enjoyed frozen buffalo milk thickened with flour and flavoured with camphor so much that he employed over 90 ice men just to make it, while a mural in the tomb of crown prince Zhanghuai (A.D. 653-684) shows noble ladies holding ‘Su Shan’ – a desert made by melting Su (a creamy butter introduced to central China by nomadic people from the north), trickling it onto a plate in the shape of a mountain, decorating it with flowers and, finally, freezing it.
One thing is clear: for a long time, ice cream was a rare and exotic desert enjoyed by the rich. But assuming you had access to ice and somewhere to store it, the secret to making ice cream without a freezer turns out to be incredibly simple. If you lower a container of liquid into a mass of ice mixed with salt, the ice and salt react, drawing heat away from the liquid freezing it relatively quickly. In Europe, reports of ice cream don’t reliably appear until the mid 1500s, but by 1660, Café Procope in Paris had introduced a recipe blending milk, cream, butter and eggs before freezing, and in 1671, it appears for the first time in the UK as a dessert on Charles II’s table at a feast for the Knights of the Garter at Windsor Castle.
Although Charles II famously tried to keep the recipe a closely guarded secret, it wasn’t long before ice cream crossed the pond, arriving in the New World by 1744. Records from a street vendor show that George Washington himself spent over $200 (about $3,000 today) on ice cream in the summer of 1790. Thomas Jefferson went one further, creating his very own 18-step ice cream recipe.
By 1851, the invention of insulated ice houses, freezing machinery and of course motorised delivery vehicles meant that ice cream was finally being mass produced. Finally, Carl von Linde invented industrial refrigeration which meant that ice cream’s popularity exploded.
To finish the story, rumour has it that during the 1904 World Trade Fair an ice cream vendor ran out of cardboard cups, and the waffle vendor next door wasn’t selling many waffles so they decided to combine forces, creating the ice cream cone as we know it today.
Phew, now I could do with an ice cream myself, and that means it’s time for this week’s recipe: a very special vanilla ice cream brought back from France by Thomas Jefferson before he became President in 1801. It’s quite complex, but it uses the original ice-salt method and I played around with a modernised version from Marie Kimball’s book Thomas Jefferson’s Cook Book. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can find the original here.
6 egg yolks, 2 pints of good cream (I used low fat and it turned out to be a creamy delight), 250g sugar, salt, 2 teaspoons of vanilla (or a vanilla pod if you can find one, but the extract works fine too!)
First, beat the egg yolks until they are thick and a lovely lemon colour. Add the sugar and a pinch of salt and keep stirring until mixed. (You don’t have to throw the egg whites away – I made mine into a meringue which goes very well with the ice cream). Now pour the cream into a pan and bring it to the boil – it will make big, gloopy bubbles! Take it off the heat immediately and slowly pour it into the egg mixture. Now put this combined mixture over a pan of simmering water (i.e. a bain-marie) and let it thicken gently. Once thickened (it should only run slowly off a spoon, like custard), strain it through a fine sieve into a bowl. Add the vanilla and let the mixture cool. Give it a good mix and get ready to freeze!
Now, I don’t have a proper sorbetiere like Thomas, so I improvised. It’s quite easy, all you need are some roughly crushed ice cubes, some salt, a big container (like a bucket) and a smaller container (like an old ice cream tub) that fits inside the big container with plenty of room for the ice. Then all you need to do is fill the big container with 3 parts ice to one part salt, pour the ice cream mixture into the smaller container and tightly seal the lid and push the small container into the ice. You’ll need to turn or shake the smaller container every hour or so to stop big crystals forming. Or, if you just can’t wait that long, you can do small amounts by placing a plastic foodbag of ice cream mixture inside another foodbag filled with ice and salt and just giving it a good shake for five to ten minutes. And voila! A real historical ice cream made without a freezer!
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