We’ll never stop screaming for ice cream

From frozen flowers to breast milk, ice cream has a rich and surprising history

I is for Ice Cream. Hippocrates recommended it for ‘enlivening the juices.’ Charles I loved it so much he wanted the recipe to remain a closely-guarded secret, so that its consumption could be a Royal Prerogative. The first stall to specialise in it in London popped up outside Charing Cross station in 1851. Vanilla Ice, Tom Waits and Blur all wrote songs about its various glories. And last year, America alone produced 900 million gallons of the stuff.

Ice cream has a Proust’s madeleine effect on almost everyone. The tinkling of the ice cream van never fails to inspire a wave of nostalgia; we all remember sun-drenched summers of chasing them, our Start Rite shoes clapping against hot tarmac. A trip to the seaside wouldn’t be complete without a foamy ’99 with a flake. The anxiety of the fast-melting ice cream dripping onto soon-to-be sticky fingers being half the fun.

Cones are a recent addition to the history of ice cream, however, which starts in Persia in 400BC. Ice was mixed with rose water and strands of rich, fragrant saffron to create a refreshing mid-course palette cleanser. The Athenians likewise mixed snow and honey – and in ancient Rome, Nero ordered ice to be brought down from the mountains and topped with chopped fruits.

Always ahead of the game, the Chinese were eating what more closely resembles our ice cream by 200BC: a gloopy mixture of milk and rice, flavoured with syrups. In contrast, anything more sophisticated than sugared snow didn’t reach northern Europe until the marriage of Catherine de’ Medici to Henry II of France in 1533. Part of her dowry retinue was made up of chefs, skilled at creating the delicious, smooth sorbets of her native Italy.

Actress Belinda Lee serving ice cream from a van in London's East End  in 1953 (Folb/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Actress Belinda Lee serving ice cream from a van in London’s East End in 1953 (Folb/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Throughout most modern history, ice cream was still considered a luxury and impossible to create in most houses. In ITV’s Victoria we recently saw Mr Francatelli (the real-life head chef in the Queen’s household in the early 1840s) create the ‘bombe’. History relates that he also fashioned ices in the shape of dolphins, and invented the perpetually pretty staple of edible flowers frozen into ice.

With the wider availability of sugar, however, and the increasing lack of necessity for ice houses, ice cream came to be increasingly popular with all classes. At the 1904 World Fair in St Louis (the setting for the Judy Garland film) there came the introduction of the cone. Ice cream had hitherto been served in bowls, or on hollow shells. The cone made it portable. You could eat it any time.

And these days, we pretty much do. Our freezers are stuffed full of it. For a brief moment in the early 2000s you could even buy breast milk ice cream in Soho (where else?). Ben and Jerry’s is a worldwide phenomenon. We have gelato tourists and dedicated ice cream recipe books and Kate Spade has made an ice cream van-shaped clutch bag. It’s not even seasonally limited anymore: while Calippos and Twisters may remain the preserve of sunny days, you’re just as likely to find sloe-favoured ice cream slathered on your December apple crumble.

Ice cream seems (thank goodness) to have largely escaped the modern healthification of most delicious foods. You simply can’t make it with psyllium husks and avocado. Frozen yoghurt is widely acknowledged to be a pale imitation, with nothing like the velvety texture and depth of the real thing. And that is why I scream, you scream, we all scream, for ice cream.


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