We can’t get enough of it, but, once upon a time, ice cream was only for the rich, learned Robert Hume when he looked into the history of the frozen treat
1. The grandaddy of the modern ice cream
The Roman emperor, Nero, sent his servants to fetch snow from mountaintops, wrap it in straw, and bring it back to mix with fruits and honey. Fourth century Japanese emperor, Nintoku, created an annual ‘day of ice’, when he presented ice chips to palace guests.
Monarchs in ancient Turkey, India, and Arabia served sorbets, flavoured with fruit pulp, syrup, and flowers, as the grand finale at feasts.
Only in the mid-16th century did Italian scientists discover a method of freezing, by placing a container of water in a bucket of snow and saltpetre. The innovation spread through European courts, and royal chefs began whipping up red-wine slushes, icy custards and cold, almond creams.
But such treats were reserved for the wealthy. It would be 300 years before ice cream trickled down to the masses.
Ice cream arrived in Ireland in 1926, when brothers James, George and William Hughes, from Hazelbrook farmhouse, Rathfarnham, Dublin, froze their surplus milk and cream — with delicious results.
2. The first ice-cream cone
Paper, glass and metal were once commonly used for holding ice cream. Sellers would scoop the ice cream into a glass and buyers would pay a penny to lick it clean, before giving it back. Sometimes, customers broke glasses, or walked off with them.
At the 1904 World Fair, at St Louis, it was so hot that everyone was buying ice cream — for many still a novelty — and ignoring the hot waffles. When ice-cream seller, Arnold Fornachou, ran out of paper cups, the waffle seller next to him, Ernest Hamwi, helped by rolling up one of his waffles. He put ice cream in it. Thus, the ice-cream cone was born.
3. Into our homes
Ice cream-vendors (or ‘hokey-pokey’ men) hawked their wares through the streets, either on foot, chanting and ringing bells or on horse-drawn ice-cream carts. In the 1930s, ‘icicle tricycles’ arrived, displaying their famous signs: ‘Stop me and Buy One’. Usually, they sold bricks and tubs; occasionally fresh ice cream served from tubs with gleaming silver tops, just like in the ice-cream parlours.
On St Patrick’s Day, 1956, two Irish brothers, William and James Conway, took one of the first motorised ice-cream vans, a Mister Softee, onto the streets of Philadelphia and served free, soft, whipped green ice cream through a sliding window.
4. Van chimes
An endearing feature of ice-cream vans since the 1960s has been their tinny, melodic chimes, as they wait outside school gates or crawl through housing estates, nudging parents to give in to their children’s pleas for ice cream. Their tunes, broadcast through huge loudspeakers, are instantly recognisable: ‘Pop Goes The Weasel’ (USA), ‘Waltzing Matilda’ (Australia), and, in Britain — where bursts of up to 12 seconds are allowed — ‘Greensleeves’, ‘O Sole Mio’, and ‘Whistle While You Work’. It’s said that ‘The Good The Bad and The Ugly’, and even ‘The Stripper’, have been heard.
Knowing that the chimes appeal to young people, Belfast police successfully broke up a riot of youths in 2010, by playing ‘soothing’ ice-cream music. The policeman who had the idea apologised for his “inappropriate” use of humour.
5. Just what’s in today’s ice cream?
Long gone are the days when straw, dog hair and bed bugs found their way into ice cream. Food standards have required that a minimum amount of milk fat and milk protein be present.
But textures vary. A team of research chemists, including a young Margaret Thatcher, in 1950 discovered a method of doubling the amount of air in ice cream, which allowed manufacturers to save on ingredients, thereby reducing costs. This ice cream, with its lighter texture, proved very popular with consumers.
Since the end of a particular EU regulation in December 2014, ice cream can once more contain far more than milk and cream. Companies are now permitted to introduce ‘artificial’ ingredients, including meat fat.
6. Variations on vanilla
An early creation was the ice-cream sundae, in 1890. When traders in Evanston, Illinois, were banned from selling ‘sinfully’ rich ice-cream sodas on Sundays, they switched the soda for syrup, to create an ‘ice cream Sunday’ and soon replaced the ‘y’ with an ‘e’ so as not to upset religious leaders.
Although vanilla remains the world’s favourite flavour, intriguing alternatives include: hot dog (Arizona); cheeseburger (Venezuela); smoked salmon (Max & Mina’s, New York); coronation chicken (Gelupo, London); octopus (Ben & Jerry); bangers and mash (Harrods Morelli’s); crocodile egg (Davo City, Philippines); human breast-milk ice cream, served with a baby’s rusk (Icecreamists, Covent Garden, London); and, not least, at Ice Cream City, Tokyo, wait for it: raw horsemeat ice cream.
Wonder what Emperor Nintoku’s banquet guests would have made of that?
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