How long has everyone screamed for ice cream?

Whether called sorbet, sherbet, gelato, or just plain ice cream, these cold, sweet treats have been cooling people off for centuries.

A waiter (in the brown coat) bears a tray of espumas heladas, a Spanish frozen mousse, in this 18th-century Valencian tilework. Museum of Decorative Arts, Madrid
ORONOZ/ALBUM

Modern refrigeration might seem absolutely required for creating and enjoying frozen desserts, but indulging in cold treats goes back thousands of years. These prized indulgences were enjoyed by people living all over the ancient world—from China to Mesopotamia.

As early as 4,000 years ago, Chinese people enjoyed a kind of frozen syrup. Centuries later around 400 B.C., sharbat was a popular treat in the Persian Empire. This cold drink featured syrups made from cherries, quinces, and pomegranates that were then cooled with snow. The modern words “sherbet,” “sorbet,” and “syrup” can trace their linguistic recipe origins back to sharbat.

Historic accounts tell of Alexander the Great, who conquered the Persian Empire in 330 B.C., enjoying flavored ices sweetened with honey. The Greeks, and later the Romans, adopted the custom of cooling their drinks. In the early years of the Roman Empire, Emperor Nero was known to indulge in fruit juices mixed with honey and snow at his banquets. Centuries later in the 1290s, Marco Polo returned from China with recipes for flavored ices, some of which included milk.

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