The history of ice cream goes back around two a half thousand years! As you might expect, much of the information we have is unproven folklore – but it does make for a great (if long!) story.
For the majority of that history (in fact not until the late 19th Century) there were no powered refrigerators or freezers. So how did they make ice cream?! We invite you to settle down with a nice tub and enjoy the journey of ice cream discovery:
Around 500BC, in the Persian Empire (centred around the current Iran and Afghanistan), snow would be stored from winter in special underground chambers known as "yakhchal", or collected from mountaintops near the summer capital of Ecbatana. Then, as a treat on hot days, concentrated grape juice would be poured over a bowl full of this snow and eaten – like an early form of sorbet. This was likely to be available only for the ruling class.
By 400BC, the Persians had evolved the delicacy for their royal families, making it from iced rose water, mixed with fruits, saffron, and vermicelli.
The first known kind of ice cream involving dairy products was in China, around 200BC. Milk was mixed with rice and packed into snow to make it freeze.
During his reign, 54–68AD, it is said the Roman Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar had slaves bring ice from the mountains for him to enjoy with fruit and honey toppings (though this is considered a myth).
The first evidence of an ice cream-like food being eaten was from China in the Tang Dynasty, 618-907AD, and especially credited to King Tang of Shang himself, 618-97AD, who reportedly had 94 “ice men” specifically employed in the task of making it. Goat, cow or buffalo milk was heated and fermented (aka. koumiss). Flour was used for thickening and camphor added to enhance the flavour. This mixture was place into metal tubes and lowered into a pool of ice to freeze.
It was Arabs that introduced the basic recipe of ice cream that we still use today between 800-900AD, with milk and sugar (rather than fruit juices) added as the sweetener. They flavoured with nuts, dried fruits and rosewater. These Medieval treats were enjoyed widely in Arab lands, particularly in Cairo, Damascas and Baghdad.
There are tales of the merchant traveller Marco Polo, 1254-1324AD, introducing the recipe of ice cream made with milk to Italy after seeing them made in China. (However, some say Marco Polo may never have been to China and this story is a myth introduced by imaginative Victorians). Nevertheless, the Italians did start making ice cream, called Gelato, which had little air in it. The basic recipe remains relatively unchanged to today.
It is said that Italy kept the secret of ice cream until it was unleashed to the rest of Europe when Catherine de' Medici married Duke of Orleans (future King Henry II of France) in 1533AD.
A meal was carefully prepared for Charles I, King of England 1600–1649AD, and guests by his French chef DeMirco. It included a dessert of ‘Cream Ice’. King Charles is reported to have liked it so much that he offered a lifetime pension of £500 a year to the chef to guard the secret recipe. Charles wanted the delicacy to only be consumed at the royal table. Charles later became unpopular with his people and was beheaded in 1649. By that time, the chef had already let the secret out… Again, this story is disputed – but fun!
It was discovered that mixing salt (or saltpetre) with ice reduced the freezing point, making it possible to achieve temperatures lower than -14°C. It’s not clear who invented this technique (likely the Chinese). It is shown in Indian literature in the 4th Century and in Arab medical writings by Ibn Abu Usaybi 1230-1270AD. It appeared in Italy in 1503 where it was considered a party trick, but not used for food until sorbets appeared around 1660AD in Florence, Naples, Paris and Spain.
In Naples, Antonio Latini, 1642–1692AD, is claimed to have written the first recipe for ‘sorbetto’ (sorbet) as well as a milk-based sorbet that historians consider to be the first ‘official’ ice cream in 1664AD.
In England, the monarchy still kept ice cream exclusively for themselves. At the banquet of the Feast of St. George held in Windsor Castle,1671AD, only guests on the table of King Charles II were served with a plate of white strawberries and a plate of iced cream. Other guests were left to gaze in wonder at the exotic dessert.
Wealthy people in the UK started to build “Ice Houses” on their estates around this time. Ice was collected from rivers, lakes and ponds in winter, or imported from Scandinavia, and stored under straw and bark in the underground chamber of the domed brick-lined buildings. The ice was used to chill or freeze food and drinks, and not as an ingredient due to its poor quality.
Sometimes referred to as ‘The Father of Italian Gelato’, a Sicilian chef, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, opened the first café in Paris called Le Procope in 1686AD. From there he was one of the first to serve Gelato to the public, and did so in small egg-cup-like bowls made of porcelain. His café attracted intellectuals from the world of politics, literature and art, such as Napoleon, Benjamin Franklin and Victor Hugo.
In 1692AD, Frenchman Nicolas Audiger published a recipe with frozen cream, sugar and orange flower water, called ‘fromage’ (despite it not being made with cheese) that he said he’d been serving at the Court of St Louis XIV since 1662. He came up with the concept of stirring air into the mixture to create a lighter texture. This recipe became widely popular in France during the 18th Century.
Knowledge of ice cream-making was still kept a valuable, closely-guarded secret. The first recipe written in English did not emerge until 1718AD. In any case, ice cream was very expensive due to the difficulties with maintaining a supply of ice.
Custard-based ice cream using egg yolks began in France in the mid 1700sAD.
America still had not been introduced to ice cream (that we know about) until 1744AD when colonists brought recipes from Europe. On 19th May 1744, a group of Virginia commissioners dined at the home of Thomas Bladen, Governor of Maryland and were served dessert. William Black, a Scottish colonist who was astonished to be served a frozen dessert in the warm month of May, described what he ate in the first written account of ice cream consumption in the new colonies: "... after which came a Dessert no less Curious; Among the Rarities of which it was Compos'd, was some fine Ice Cream which, with the Strawberries and Milk, eat most Deliciously."
The main limiting factor for ice cream manufacture was the availability of ice. In the early 1800sAD, the UK began to import ice from Scandinavia, Canada and America. Ice was shipped into London and other major ports, then transported by barge along canals to ice cream manufacturers. This industry, run predominantly by Italians, allowed ice cream to become more readily available to the UK public.
Around 1836AD, Augustus Jackson from Philadelphia became famous for developing several popular ice cream flavours and pioneering a new and improved ice cream preparation technique. He didn’t apply for a patent. The first US patent for a small-scale hand-cranked ice cream freezing machine went to Nancy Johnson, also of Philadelphia, in 1843AD. The machine was introduced to both England and America and consisted of a wooden bucket with a rotating handle, filled with ice and salt. Ice cream mixture was poured into a central metal container and churned using the handle, producing ice cream with a smoother and more even texture. Previously, ice cream tended to be made in a pewter pot surrounded by ice and salt which was hand-scraped and stirred with a ‘spaddle’ (long-handled miniature spade).
The turning point for the ice cream industry was the invention of artificial refrigeration, powered by electricity and gas. After several earlier prototypes, the first continuous and commercially viable freezer was available from 1913AD. Finally, the need to obtain huge quantities of ice was gone and it was possible to store ice cream for longer periods. Ice cream quickly became a mass-market product, and allowed for large scale commercial production and the possibility of affordable and varied ice cream and sorbets to be available to all.
The global ice cream age had begun!
Oh! We must not forget one more crucial part of ice cream's history: In 1987AD on a farm near Exeter in Devon in the South West of England called Yarde Farm, arguably the tastiest ice cream that ever was was invented. People liked it so very much that in 1997AD they moved from Yarde Farm to Plympton, near Plymouth so that they had space to make more of their lovely creamy products. They were even given prizes for their ice cream including the National Champion of Champions award no less! The excellent thing about all this is that they are still making ice cream TODAY for you to enjoy and have over 60 delicious flavours for you to choose from. Would you like some now?!