One of the warmest summers on record is about to get hotter as the Trump cavalcade comes to the UK this week, so let’s chill out as Robin Weir, the definitive expert on frozen desserts, shares some of the hundreds of thousands of things he knows about the history of ice cream.
Great Wall’s of China
The principle behind ice cream was almost certainly invented by the Chinese. If you put salt on ice it will depress the temperature and the freezing point will drop as low as -15C. That was used extensively through China, India and the Middle East for chilling drinks in the heat.
La dolce vita
Ice cream as we know it appeared in the 1650s in cities like Florence and Milan. And only a few people were able to afford it because of the availability of ice. Naples is the city that contributed more to ice cream than anywhere else. it’s interesting that that is where the Grand Tours of the 17th and 18th centuries would finish. The novelty for travellers was spaghetti and ice cream sellers. Naples gave us pizza and ice cream, that’s a hell of a contribution to the world.
Let them eat ice cream
The first ice cream eaten in the UK was by Charles II on May 19 1671. He had a banquet at Windsor Castle and he sat and ate a dish of white strawberries and ice cream, and all the other people at the banquet watched because it was that rare and that special. It was probably just cream-flavoured ice cream. If you knew how to make ice cream in the 17th century you had a meal ticket for life. For monarchs and dukes, it was pretty hot stuff to have a confectioner who knew how to make ice cream.
Ice ice baby
Ice cream became available to the rest of us as ice became more available. A man called Gatti had a licence to dredge ice off the Grand Union Canal, but he then started importing it from Norway and it would be stored in the ice pits under what is now the Canal Museum near King’s Cross. You can still see these great big 60ft deep pits. Back then they used ice for three things: making ice cream, to preserve fish and meat, and for amputations. They would pack you with ice to numb the pain.
What the Romans did for us
The reason there are Italian ice cream makers in every port across the UK is that there was no work in Italy, particularly after its unification. These kids would literally walk all the way from Italy to a port in France, say to the captain of a boat, “How much for you to take me to London?” Then the boat would take them to whatever port they were going to – Swansea or Newcastle or Hull. And they would get off their boat and they wouldn’t know what to do. That’s why in every port in Britain you will find an Italian community.
Game of cones
Before cones, ice cream sellers used to sell it in two ways; wrapped in wax paper if you were taking it home, or in a ‘penny lick’. They were little glass bowls that would belong to the ice cream seller but were finally banned for spreading tuberculosis. They weren’t properly washed – they were lucky if they got wiped – so you can imagine by four in the afternoon there would be a pretty good growth going on. Of all the foods to feed bacteria, ice cream is one of the very best.
Ice cream wars
I was born just before the Second World War, literally days before, and the first time I tasted ice cream was 1949 because it was banned during the war. Lord Woolton got a very rude, shirty letter from Churchill saying he should have checked that with the Cabinet first. I can remember to this day, my mother, I and my sister queued up. She said, “You’ve got to try this, it’s ice cream.” I had never tasted anything like it – it was cold, dissolved in your mouth and on a hot day it was refreshing. Love at first bite.
Decent ice cream is good for you. There is a lot of very poor ice cream being sold but you cannot binge on quality ice cream, it is too satisfying when you eat it. If you’re buying an ice cream, the first thing to do is go to the cabinet and lift the container up. If it isn’t heavy put it back. If it has weight it will have ingredients in it, it will be much more satisfying.
Savoury ice creams are becoming popular. I picked up a book the other day from a well-known three-star Michelin chef who said he invented cheese ice creams. Total rubbish, I have a book in front of me published in 1761 that has got cheese ice cream in it. There’s almost nothing new in the world. I tried squid-flavoured ice cream, didn’t like. In Japan, they were selling raw horse meat sorbet. I draw the line at that. There are people working on new flavours altogether, creating a flavour from scratch, purely chemical. I think that’s an interesting idea. But in every country in the world where reasonable records are kept, vanilla ice cream is the biggest seller, which I think is kind of comforting.
‘SCOOP: A Wonderful Ice Cream World’ is an exhibition celebrating all things icy, where you can try glow-in-the-dark ice cream, taste a vanilla cloud and see the world’s first hundreds and thousands fountain. It runs at the British Museum of Food in London until September 30.