The ice is right: Ice cream's profile has been raised by designer brands, but as Siobhan Dolan discovered, it's always had a special place in our imagination

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The Independent Culture
I can think of no other food that has such an effect on people, the first time they taste it. It's extraordinary,' Robin Weir exclaims. An ice-cream fanatic, he is co-author of Ices: The Definitive Story, published last year.

Alan Robinson of the North West Tourism Service was searching for an innovative exhibition to tour around the region for six months. 'The Great Ice- cream Show' seemed a possibility. He tapped into Weir's vast knowledge and together they mounted a display featuring 12 6ft ice-creams in cones, on glitter bases. Each carries a graphic panel and there is a life-size cardboard cow with old and new recipes on its back.

Ice-cream is part of the history of the North West, particularly in areas where Italians have settled. 'We spent an afternoon talking to third-generation Italian ice-cream makers,' Robinson explains. 'It was like a Marx Brothers film - they were dashing around with blocks of ice-cream.'

Robin Weir hopes that the displays reflect the true story of ices. 'Almost all the history that is trotted out is totally incorrect,' he says.

According to Weir, the origins lie in China where it was discovered that fruit juice could be frozen using ice and salt. The fundamental process, despite the addition of cream and eggs, has never changed. The first instance of ice-cream being consumed in Britain is believed to have been in 1654 during a banquet at Windsor Castle. 'Only the king's table had this very exotic looking white dessert,' Weir explains. 'Everyone else had to sit and watch.'

Such was the revolutionary nature of the food, that Weir found mentions of it in many diaries. 'The first time they served ice-cream at the White House in 1809,' Weir says, 'women screamed and fainted because they were so shocked.'

During the Second World War, aircraft crews were thought to make ice-cream in the nose cones of bombers. It was perfect: cold enough and vibrating.

Not surprising then, in view of the lengths to which people went to make ice-cream, that it can become addictive. When Weir was researching in America he found Hershey's working around the clock to keep up with demand for its pint-size tubs. 'I was astonished and asked them who on earth was eating it. They told me people were taking it to bed with them and eating the lot. The very thought.'

Alan Robinson has been delighted at the response to the exhibition which included the mayor persistently climbing on to the 'Stop me and buy one' tricycle. 'To my astonishment, visitors read all 20 panels and it brought out great waves of nostalgia. One woman remembered a salesman during the war who made his ice-cream out of powdered milk and mashed potato.'

Weir's unrivalled collection of licking dishes, from which people would slurp ice-cream at the turn of the century, has proved a highlight of the exhibition. 'You licked the ice out,' Weir explains, 'returned it to the vendor who gave it to the next person in the queue. They were eventually banned because they were spreading TB.'

Robinson is clearly not as immersed in ice-cream as Weir, who regards the spread of savoury ices, such as Stilton and chilli, as inevitable. Robinson is not so sure: 'These days, ice- cream is perceived as either something yellow and nasty that you buy for the kids, or else it's something you smear over each other's back and lick off. Mind you at pounds 6 a litre you wouldn't catch me doing it.'

'The Great Ice-cream Show' is at Bradford Industrial Museum to 5 Jun. 'Ices: The Definitive Guide' by Robin Weir and Caroline Liddell is published by Hodder & Stoughton

(Photograph omitted)