BOOK REVIEW / Cool customers enjoy frozen assets: Harvest of the cold months: The Social History of Ice and Ices - Elizabeth David, ed Jill Norman: Michael Joseph, pounds 20

THERE was a touch of the ascetic in Elizabeth David. She taught the postwar British middle classes to care about food - after her death in 1992 disciples flocked to an auction of her kitchen effects, eager to own a fragment of the shroud - but she deplored excess. Giving a flawlessly simple recipe for English summer pudding (raspberries, redcurrants, bread, sugar), she implied that she would think less of you if you gilded it with cream.

Her Italian Food, first published in 1954, includes a section about dolci and gelato, but you suspect she would herself have taken only the tiniest portion of strawberry ice, and actually have preferred a ripe fig or the merest sliver of cheese. So there is an engaging irony in the fact that her posthumously published, formidably learned final book should centre on that most frivolous section of the menu, ice-creams and sorbets.

Harvest of the Cold Months is not a cookery book but an awe-inspiring feat of detective scholarship, the literally marvellous story of how human beings came to ingest lumps of flavoured frozen matter for pleasure. It bulges with recipes variously crude, exquisite and fantastical, but most are for wonderment rather than use. You sense the writer's quiet triumph as she turns the musty, fragile pages of yet another ancient memoir or book of receipts and sees one more piece of the fascinating global jigsaw slip satisfyingly into place. You remember that before she was a cook she was a history student.

The long European infatuation with iced food and drink began hundreds of years before the invention of artificial refrigeration. In the 14th century the Florentines liked to add handfuls of snow to their wine. A century later ice had become an indispensable component of aristocratic gastronomy.

Getting hold of this commodity at the height of a blazing Italian summer required forethought. Carts were dispatched up mountains in winter to bring back compacted snow - they had to brave bandits intent on stealing the precious load - for storage in underground pits. Gradually ice houses (anything from a hole in the ground lined with straw to elaborate domes) became de rigueur for the civilised rich everywhere, and by the late 1700s merchants in Italy were paying staggering prices for snow monopolies.

Acquiring snow or ice in regions not blessed with high peaks or harsh winters meant importing it - the Portuguese had it shipped 300 miles from the Sierra Nevada - or going to extraordinary, labour-intensive lengths to take advantage of limited cold weather. In Isfahan ice was collected on frosty nights in shallow trenches cut in the shade of gigantic, purpose-built walls. No one thought to seek advice from the Chinese who, it transpired, had been making ice successfully for 3,000 years.

In the 19th century, the ice trade became a source of fantastic fortunes. In Britain ice came from Scottish lochs, from Norway, from the Baltic and from the spooky Greenland seas, where brave men in whaling ships hacked massive lumps off passing icebergs and on their return faced arguments with the port authorities over the import duty payable even as their cargo visibly diminished. Then the Americans, in the shape of the Wenham Lake Ice Company of Boston, made a spectacularly successful assault on the British market, their product so pure and transparent that it won Queen Victoria's endorsement, and a large block displayed daily in the window of the firm's Strand office caused passers-by to stand and gawp. Another Bostonian, Frederick Tudor, was meanwhile becoming the multi-millionaire ice king of Calcutta.

Ice was plainly a hygienic necessity to the wilting memsahibs of British India, but in Europe, until quite late in this serpentine story, the utility of ice as a food preserver seems to have been curiously undervalued; the point of ice was to refresh body and spirit, tickle the palate, ravish the eye. The culinary breakthrough was the discovery that saltpetre or common salt added to crushed ice made it possible not merely to chill but to freeze liquid immersed in it. Voila - give or take a lot of trial and error, exhausted servants and frayed nerves in the kitchen - ice-cream.

Elizabeth David's descriptions of the dizzying uses to which cooks through the centuries have put this discovery are one of the glories of the book.

The Medicis and Louis XIV must have crunched their way through a great deal of insipid frozen water before their confectioners got the hang of the sorbet, but they can have had no quarrel with the presentation. From the 16th century, formal feasts included ever more elaborate table jewellery: glistening ice platters, bowls and goblets, spectacular ice pyramids containing luscious fruit or swimming fishes, innumerable arctic confections flavoured with every kind of fruit, scented with cinnamon, bergamot, ambergris, jasmine. Ice-cream proper came later, rich with cream, eggs and sugar. An English recipe book by Frederic Nutt, published in 1789, recommended 31 luxurious varieties, including one made with Parmesan cheese.

And even the Medicis, spoiled creatures, would have been impressed by the sensational chilly domes and minarets offered at banquets in Victorian England, 'the heyday of the decorative mould', when, too, giant ice obelisks (same-day delivery guaranteed) stood sentinel in ballrooms to cool the perspiring dancers. Happily, ice-cream had quickly become a democratic treat. In Naples, a traveller in 1820 reported seeing 'half- naked beggars' stopping to eat ices with silver spoons lent to them by the trusting vendors.

There is much, much more - about the making and breaking of reputations, the founding of Parisian cafe culture, the great and rivalrous confectioners of 18th and 19th century London, about Russian ice-cream (surprisingly superior) and Persian sherbets, about the curious but vital link between China and the Scottish fishing industry and - the point where the book ends, around the beginning of this century - the first industrial ice factories.

Sometimes the recondite detail threatens to overwhelm the narrative, but Elizabeth David has a decorously vivid style and a sardonic turn of phrase.

We learn, in passing, that 'jellymania was rife in 17th-century Italy' and her curt put-downs - of the commercially made ice-cream of our own day, of Mrs Beeton (over a little matter involving Marie Antoinette) - are witheringly funny.

More than anything, it is the inherent gaiety of the subject that keeps this sumptuous and stately book afloat. So many centuries of human endeavour, passion and ingenuity expended to produce something so insubstantial that it can melt to sticky nothingness before your eyes. The blend of exquisite refinement and innocent, inessential pleasure is half the charm. Consider the King and Queen of Naples, dutifully visiting a convent one afternoon in the 1780s. Religious houses of the time are renowned for their cuisine, but the royal guests have already dined and are dismayed to be led to a table spread with a grand cold collation. Pressed to eat, the Queen consents to take a slice of turkey - and is astonished to find that it consists of lemon ice, to realise that all the splendid joints, hams and fish are in fact glacial fripperies in cunning and painstaking disguise. The King and Queen are vastly amused. The attendant nuns are wreathed in smiles. The abbess nearly bursts with pride.

(Photograph omitted)

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