If you enjoy an ice cream cone now and again (and we hope that you do), you might be interested to learn that ice cream was a favored dessert in European circles as early as the 17th century. As part of our exhibition English Taste, Rienzi has on view a series of porcelain objects from 18th-century dessert services, two of which were made specifically for ice cream.
If the thought of 300-year-old ice cream is confounding, you might be further surprised to learn that 18th C ice creams were of a very high quality, and made in a great variety of flavors. As food historian Ivan Day describes, they “could easily compete with an Italian gelateria.” In confectionery shops of 18th C England, much like a modern ice cream parlor, it was possible to sit down and enjoy an ice fresh from the freezing pot, or to order a larger quantity to take away for an important dinner. Flavors that were most fashionable include pistachio and brown bread, both listed in recipes in the 1770s; other popular ice creams were elderflower, jasmine, white coffee, tea, pineapple, barberries and a host of other unusual flavors.
Although ice creams were known in England starting in the 1670s, it was in France and Italy that the dessert was perfected. In the 16th C, Italians used underground snow-pits to store compacted snow and ice throughout the summer for use in icy beverages. Italian recipes for semi-frozen desserts continued to be popular through the 17th C, and from there spread throughout Europe. In France, ices were the piece de resistance of lavish dinners of Louis XIV. In 1664 the first ice house was built at Versailles, and by 1670 the first ice cream shop opened in Paris.
Our first record of ice cream in England is from 1671, on the menu of a feast for the Knights of the Garter held in St. George’s Hall at Windsor Castle. At the time, it was such an exclusive dish that it was only served at the King’s table. The earliest English recipe to appear in print, was from Mrs. Eale’s Receipts, published in London, 1718. Mrs. Eale claimed to be the confectioner (dessert chef) to Queen Anne, during whose reign ice cream was a luxury only enjoyed at court and by the nobility. It was not until the second half of the 18th C that ices become more widely available from confectioner’s shops. Beginning in the 1760s French and Italian confectioners set up shops in London and other cities in England (yet another example of the French setting the standards for dining fashion in Europe).
If you’ve ever made ice cream at home, you might be familiar with the technique used by 18th C cooks. The main materials include a sabotiere (pewter freezing pot) and a houlette (ice spade), both of which were probably invented in 17th C Naples. The pewter pot was submerged into a wooden bucket filled with ice and salt. The mixture (liquid ice cream) was then poured into the pot and gently stirred as the ingredients hardened inside the tub.
The first book to give clear instructions on how to make ice cream was written by the confectioner to the Spanish Ambassador, living in London, a man named Borella. He produced a cookbook in 1770, The Court and Country Confectioner which aimed to instructing English housekeepers in the mysteries of making the sort of high class confectionary that was fashionable in continental circles. He writes that the stirring of the mixture was most important:
Detach with a pewter spoon (houlette) all the flakes which stick to the sides, in order to make it congeal equally all over in the pot. Then you must work them well as much as you are able, for they are so much the more mellow as they are well worked, and their delicacy depends entirely upon that.
Two pints of ice cream could be made in 40 minutes in this traditional way and it wasn’t until the hand-cranking system in the mid-19th C that there was any better method.
If you come to Rienzi, be sure to visit Isla’s Room Gallery where there is displayed an ice pail designed to keep the dessert chilled during service, and a footed ice cream cup, both exquisitely manufactured by the Worcester Porcelain Manufactory, circa 1770. For more on the preparation and service of historic ice creams – and for fascinating a foodie stuff in general – explore the website of Ivan Day, food historian and co-curator of English Taste: Dining in the 18th Century. Much of the information in this article was derived from his site.