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.
These precursors of modern ice cream were only made possible by procuring and preserving snow and ice from cold, mountainous areas or frozen lakes and rivers. After gathering the cold stuff, handlers would pack it with straw and branches to reduce melting and then transport it down the mountain to urban areas.
There, ice and snow would be stored in icehouses. Different civilizations created them with variations on the same theme: chambers free of heat and light. Deep pits were often used, and the ice would be packed in insulation, often straw or sawdust, to keep out the heat.
Procuring ice was labor-intensive and complex, which made it a highly valuable commodity in antiquity. In the Middle Ages snow was still brought from the mountains to icehouses throughout Europe. By the 17th century, many estates had private icehouses, and by the end of the 18th century large icehouses were being built in towns and cities, and traveling salespeople sold large blocks of ice door to door. (Meet the men who provide Mumbai’s largest fish market with ice.)
In some cities the ice trade was regulated by the authorities, who set prices and penalties for illegal sale. In Naples there were 43 “ice sellers” in 1807. Rules obliged sellers to supply ice only during the summer.
The scientific scoop
The exact timing of incorporating dairy products into frozen desserts has been difficult to pin down. Some food historians believe it first evolved in Asia and was introduced to Europe by Marco Polo, while others vigorously call that a myth. To fully incorporate milk and cream into a smooth frozen treat, cooks used an endothermic process. They would place ice-cream ingredients in a metal vessel, which would then be placed inside a bucket filled with ice and salt (saltpeter was also used). Salt lowers the freezing point of ice, which then absorbs energy in order to melt. The ice would “pull” heat from the creamy mixture, which would then solidify.
The first evidence of using this technique in Europe comes from a treatise published in 1550 by Blas de Villafranca, a Spanish doctor residing in Rome. The technique spread throughout Italy, and in 1558 the Neapolitan Giambattista della Porta described it in his work Magia naturalis (Natural Magic): “Since the first thing people want to do at parties is drink wine as cold as ice, especially in the summer, I will teach you how it can not only be cooled but frozen, so it can only be drunk by sipping it. Pour some wine into a jar and add a little water so it freezes more quickly; then add snow in a wooden pot and sprinkle powdered saltpeter over it. Stir the jar in the snow and it will gradually freeze.” With his recipe for frozen wine, the method for making sorbetto was introduced.
From Naples, climate and culture came together to popularize the sorbetto more than anywhere else in Europe. In 1690 the first book on sorbetti came out in Naples—the anonymously published New and Quick Ways to Make All Kinds of Sorbets With Ease. Judging by the ingredients for its recipes, it was likely used in an aristocratic household. Then came The Modern Steward (1692- 94) by Antonio Latini, who worked for the Spanish viceroy in Naples and wrote a guide to cooking and household management that included a section on ices.
The first European ice creams are believed to have originated in Italy around this same time. Recipes spread to France in the 17th century, and then to England where they really caught on. The first appearance of the term “ice cream” in English occurred in the 1670s. One instance detailed it among a number of elaborate dishes served at the Feast of St. George at Windsor in May 1671.
Ice cream crazes
Making ice cream, unlike sorbet, was highly labor-intensive. Ice had to be chipped by hand and packed with rock salt to fill a large tub, into which another pot of cream, milk, sugar and flavoring was placed. The contents were then stirred by hand for several hours until ice cream formed. Often the ice cream was then scooped out and placed into fanciful molds shaped liked fruits and flowers. Because of the expense of making and serving ice cream, the dessert remained unaffordable for most Europeans and was largely enjoyed by royalty. (Discover the history of vanilla.)
Sorbetto grew in popularity in large European cities throughout the 18th century. The growing middle classes were discovering the pleasures of frozen sweets in local shops. Along with sorbetti (ices churned smooth during freezing), there were granitas (granular concoctions of fruit and ice), and sorbetti con crema (ices with milk added—forerunners of gelato and ice cream). Royal porcelain factories such as Sèvres near Paris produced ice-cream cups and saucers for shops and homes as more modest families joined the sorbetto craze.
The earliest recipe book devoted entirely to making ice cream was L’Art de bien faire les glaces d’office, published in France in 1768, whose translated subtitle reads: True principles for freezing refreshments. Although the ice-cream craze soon spread to the North American colonies, it was still an expensive luxury in the 18th century, even after the American Revolution. Records kept by a New York merchant show that President George Washington spent approximately $200 for ice cream during the summer of 1790—thousands of dollars today.
The United States would be the place where ice cream would finally become affordable to the masses. In 1843 New Yorker Nancy M. Johnson invented an ice-cream maker that drastically reduced production time. American firms improved on her design and built new machines that simplified and lowered the costs of ice-cream production. (One ice cream brand has deep roots—and loyalty—in Texas.)
In 1851 a milkman from Baltimore, Maryland, named Jacob Fussell built the first ice-cream factories and expanded the availability of the product. After the Civil War, ice cream’s popularity exploded across the United States. Ice-cream shops and soda fountains arose across the nation as places for people to enjoy this frozen treat that was once reserved for king and queens.