In the lick of it: How ice cream became the dish we know and love

From its beginnings thousands of years ago to today's mass-produced flavours

The simple summer pleasure of licking a 99, or of enjoying a bowl of mint choc chip, can obscure the fact that the origins of ice cream are fraught with contradiction and confusion. What is certain is that the first recorded mention of ice cream anywhere in the world was in England, on the menu of a lavish ceremonial feast given by King Charles II in 1671.

While merchants and explorers scoured the world on perilous voyages for the latest new-world wonder to ferry home to their rulers in Europe, Charles II was enjoying the privileges brought by the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 at full throttle. He delighted in all things French, favouring the fashions of the country which had sheltered him throughout his exile and whose king, Louis XIV, provided him with a handsome pension.

The centrepiece of this banquet, held to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Charles's return to the throne, was served to the king's table alone. The delicacy was "one plate of white strawberries and one plate of ice cream".

This is the backdrop to Anthony Capella's The Empress of Ice Cream, a historical novel published this week that investigates the evolution of ice cream as the 17th century drew to a close.

The discovery of ice cream was less a eureka moment than the culmination of thousands of years of trial, error, innovation and evolution. Wealthy citizens of Florence were enjoying Persian sherbets or sorbetti by the 1660s – iced and flavoured waters – and by 1665, one Lucian Audiger had taken the idea to Paris and become Louis XIV's official limonadier. Somewhere between here and Charles II's 1671 feast, the sherbets developed into ice cream.

The name of Charles's ice cream maker is not known, but he did have a confectioner who is credited with revealing the secrets of ice cream – instead of preserving its mystery for royalty alone – who is anecdotally called Demirco, the name Capella gives his own hero.

The Empress of Ice Cream elevates Demirco's status to that of the only man in the world who knew how to make the dish, which almost certainly wasn't the case. Yet Demirco's fictional Persian master, who first introduces him to the ancient sherbet recipes, does get the status of the iced delicacies right. "It is not a dish for children. Or for the general populace, there being no nourishment in it. We are here to entertain, not to feed. We are like singers, or actors, or painters, makers of fine, meaningless baubles for the wealthy and the great: that is to say, kings, courtiers, cardinals and their courtesans."

Ice cream's journey from a prized rarity to the penny licks and hokey-pokey (from the Italian "ecco un poco", "here's a little piece") street vendors of the mid-1800s, through to its ubiquity today as a cheap dessert, was a long and confused one. The story goes that Marco Polo must have transported ice cream back to Europe from China. Either that or it was the Persians, known for their treasured sherbets, which they popularised in Sicily after conquering the island. Once these "sorbets" had spread through Italy, it was believed that Catherine de' Medici brought the dessert to Versailles from Florence on her marriage to King Henry II of France in 1533, and cast the French court under its spell.

It is known that the Chinese had stored ice for 2,500 years before Marco Polo's arrival in the mid-13th century, but nowhere does he mention ice in his account of China, so the likelihood he tasted frozen milk in Peking and brought the recipe home to Italy is slim to non-existent.

The Persians had enjoyed their sherbets for thousands of years before anyone in Paris or London had a sip. But these were cooled waters and cordials in the style of a modern Italian granita and were never frozen like today's sorbets. And as for the idea that Catherine de' Medici had a hand in the matter, Mrs Beeton can be blamed for spreading this rumour to the readers of her 1861 Household Management.

These ice cream myths are debunked by Elizabeth David in her rigorous social history of ice and ices, Harvest of the Cold Months, published posthumously in 1994 and now sadly out of print. As David points out, the very first account of how to freeze water artificially (rather than use stored ice to cool drinks) came in 1589, the year of Catherine's death, so she must have been enjoying nothing more than a sherbet at Versailles, no doubt exquisitely flavoured with lemon, orange blossom, sour cherries or any blend of spices and nut or fruit oils, but a crunchy icy drink rather than a sorbet or ice cream nonetheless.

It was Giambattista Della Porta, a Neapolitan chemist and philosopher, who first wrote of the breakthrough in freezing technology in his book Magia Naturalis. At the time, it must have seemed nothing less than alchemic. The discovery was that a liquid could be frozen by immersing it in a mixture of snow and saltpetre, the explosive ingredient in gunpowder and fireworks (though regular salt was later found to work just as well).

As the snow or ice melted, the saltpetre caused it to suck all the warmth from any adjacent liquid. Thus a flask of water dangled in a basin of snow and saltpetre will turn to ice. The freezing process is quicker if that flask is rotated, and the result smoother if it is whisked or churned up when not quite fully set. Add to this any flavouring and sugar, eggs and cream, and the result will be similar to today's ice cream, give or take a few eggs and dependent on the quantity of sugar used.

Whether custard, a popular British dessert by the 1600s, first became part of the ice cream recipe in England is unclear. There are plenty of claimants for the title of the inventor of ice cream. These include Lucian Audiger, who struggled unsuccessfully to gain a monopoly on cordials blended for freezing in Paris. Audiger's La Maison Réglée, published in 1692, includes many recipes and freezing instructions. Another is the chef François Massialot, whose Nouvelle Instruction pour les Confitures, les Liqueurs et les Fruits also appeared in 1692. Then there is the Italian Antonio Latini and his Modern Steward (1692), Lady Anne Fanshawe's 1665/66 recipe for "icy cream" following her travels in Spain, and Mrs Mary Eales's Receipts (1718), a set of recipes from Queen Anne's confectioner.

By the time Hannah Glasse wrote her Compleat Confectioner around 1760, she described ice cream as "a thing us'd in all deserts [sic] as it is always to be had at the confectioners". This may be so, but until the advent of modern refrigeration methods, the ice or snow needed for the freezing itself was not always in ready supply.

Harvesting ice from mountains and lakes and transporting it around the world to be stored in insulated ice houses was a backbreaking and dangerous business. Throughout the 1800s, ice ships traversed the globe – Boston to Calcutta was an unexpectedly successful route – hurrying to keep their cargo in one piece.

Inventors rushed to find a way to make ice artificially and keep it cold. This was achieved on a small scale in the first half of the 19th century, but to keep up with the popularity of ice cream, commercial-scale production was needed.

In 1850, a patent was granted to the American Alexander Catlin Twining for just this, though as Twining then built his ice-making plant in Ohio, where natural ice is abundant, his business failed. But elsewhere, ice factories prospered.

In 1851, the year of London's Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace, Household Words, a popular weekly journal edited by Charles Dickens, ran an article entitled "Ice", which encouraged readers rich and poor to indulge in the domestic use of the product, and the piece must claim some of the credit for further popularising ice cream.

Yet after a long struggle to greatness and accessibility, ice cream was due a sudden and striking fall from grace. The wartime rations of the 20th century prohibited the blending of a rich chocolate or lively coffee ice cream, or popping out for a block of pink, white and green Neapolitan from Lyons Corner House (both Wall's and Lyons began commercial ice cream production in the early 1920s). There were simply too few eggs and so little cream and sugar to be had, not to mention no luxuries such as fruit, coffee and chocolate for flavouring.

By the late 20th century, ice cream was no longer much of a dairy treat. In 1982, the BBC's Food Programme asked a Wall's representative to reveal the ingredients of its ice cream. The admission was a sorry tale: fats, sugars, milk solids, locust bean gums, emulsifier and flavouring. Some 50 per cent of it was air. By law, much of Wall's' output couldn't even be termed "dairy ice cream", which requires a minimum of 5 per cent milk fat or cream. The Russians, at the time deprived of virtually every other consumer product, were enjoying top-quality 16 per cent-fat ice cream.

There are now plenty of decent ice cream brands to choose from, since Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's began reinvigorating ice cream as a luxury item in the 1960s and the 1970s respectively, and it is simple enough to make at home with or without an ice cream maker.

For much of this we have Demirco and the strawberry ice cream Charles II ate to thank, so it would be respectful to accord ice cream the reverence which Capella imagines Demirco would have: "These are no mere confections or desserts which I impart the art of; rather, they are the barren berries, the frozen fruits, of love itself; a love that will now be remembered for as long as ices are made, and lips sucked, and mouths that are cold and creamy, kissed."

'The Empress of Ice Cream' by Anthony Capella, Sphere, £7.99

'Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making' by Jeri Quinzio, University of California Press, £11.95

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