According to Tasha Marks, the food historian, It was Voltaire,(1694-1778 ), the French philosopher of the Enlightenment, who said that “Ice cream is exquisite, what a pity that it is not illegal!”.
Did Voltaire mean that it should be a forbidden treat, just for the few and did he say it when he was exiled in London for a couple of years, where he met Alexander Pope, John Gay, Jonathan Swift, and many members of the elite?
It is true that this frozen delight was for a long time reserved for the few. However, it has remained perfectly legal and has been a pleasure for all for quite a while now. It seems that, in England, the democratization of this delicacy happened in Camden!
The history of ice cream goes back a long way. As Elisabeth Davies, the renowned food writer says, in her book Harvest of the Cold Months , we have to separate ice from the cream. Even my spelling check tells me that they are separate. Back to the Ice Age? No, just a few millennia.
2000 B.C. The technology to keep ice first originated in Mesopotamia. There is an image of an ancient Iranian ice house in the British Museum Collection. A funnel shaped room, beyond the thick walls, kept the temperature down (Photo by Sir Molesworth, around 1900, British Museum)
1100 B.C The Chinese also knew how to conserve naturally formed winter ice for Summer use by building ice houses. The harvesting and storage of ice are recorded in a poem In the famous collection of Food Canons.
356-323 B.C. Records show that Alexander the Great , the great military general, during the siege of Petra, had his slaves bring ice down from the mountains and dug into 30 trenches so that he and his soldiers would have cool refreshments .
The earliest evidence of anything approaching ice cream being made appears in the Tang period (618 to 907 AD). Buffalos’, cows’ and goats’ milk was allowed to ferment. This yogurt was then mixed with flour for thickening, camphor! for flavour and cooled before being served.
In Roman times, we have some records from Pliny the Elder (AD 24 – 79), and his nephew, Pliny the Younger,(A.D. 61 –113) describing drinks mixed with ice, honey and fruit juices. They were so popular that they were sold in the streets from Thermopolia, the ancestor of fast food? However, they were fruit drinks with crushed ice. Not quite there yet!
A.D.1230, 1270.Ibn Abu Usaybi. The Arab Medical Historian gives us the first technical description of artificial ice making using various salts.
Legend has it that it was Marco Polo, the Middle Ages’ Venetian merchant, who brought back the ice making technique to Italy. However, this knowledge was probably already in Sicily which was under Muslim conquest from 827 A.D. until conquered in turn by the Normans in the 11th century. The process was considered a chemical trick, using various acids, water and salts.
Imagination and creativity are very much needed in the kitchen, too.. Bernardo Buontalenti, (c. 1531 – 1608) was a true Renaissance man; multi-talented, as his nickname says, architect, stage designer, engineer at the Court of the Medici, he is said to have created a “frozen dessert” made with zabaglione and fruits for one of the sumptuous banquets he was in charge of. (Around 1565).
Elisabeth David in her book ``Harvest of the Cold Months, The Social History of Ice and Ices” argues that Buontalenti was associated with the first ice creams only because he had built numerous ice houses in the Boboli gardens and around the walls of Florence.
Or was it alchemist Cosimo Ruggieri (d. 1615), also credited for having created the first-ever gelato (fior di latte)? He worked at the court of Catherine de’ Medici, the young Florentine who left Florence to marry the future Henry II of France at the age of 14. Again Elisabeth Davies argues that it must have been just sherbert = sweet snow in Arab. So, syrups, lemonades and other fruit juices, diluted with ice in the Turkish fashion.
However, the beloved dessert became an international sensation when Sicilian Francesco Procopio Cutò (1651-1727) made his way to Paris with a gelato-making machine in 1686. Regardless of its official birthdate, the modern version of the frozen treat has Italy to thank for its launch.
The first recorded serving of ice cream in England was in 1671, at the Feast of St. George, at King Charles II’s table, when “one plate of white strawberries and one plate of ice cream” were served. It was a momentous event, watched by the court with wonder. It had to be eaten immediately.
Ice cream making remained a closely guarded secret and the knowledge of how to make it would have been a road to success. This is perhaps why the first recipe in English did not appear until 1718. This was “Mrs. Mary Eales’ Recipes”. She was a cook at Queen Anne’s Court
On July 1, 1808, Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra that she “would eat ice and drink French wine” at her rich brother Edward’s mansion. He must have had an ice house in his estate, as had many other landowners.
Although they had been available in England since the 1670’s, ices were popularized by French and Italian confectioners who set up shops in London and elsewhere in the Kingdom in the 1760’s.
Domenico Negri had a shop at The Pot and Pineapple at Nos. 7-8 Berkeley Square from about 1765. Two of his apprentices published recipe books later in the century, which both have large sections on ice creams.
One of these, Frederick Nutt, “The Complete Confectioner”, first appeared in 1789, gives 32 recipes for ice creams. (Still available online!)
This icy treat had become more and more common at the turn of the 19th century when the method of transporting and storing great big blocks of ice over long distances became economically feasible.
CAMDEN (then St.Pancras )
This growing ice cream industry, run mainly by Italians, started the influx of workers from southern Italy and the Ticino area of Switzerland. In London they lived in the most appalling conditions in and around the Holborn area. The huge ice house pits built near Kings Cross by Carlo Gatti in the 1850s, where he stored the ice he shipped to England from Norway, are still there and are open to the public at The London Canal Museum.
Carlo Gatti came to London from the Italian speaking part of Switzerland. He may well have been the first person to sell ice cream to the wider public. He came to London in 1847 and sold pastries and chestnuts from a stall. He then started selling ice creams in little shells. The Penny Ice caught on rapidly and Gatti was at the forefront of selling ice cream to the ordinary man or woman, who had previously been unable to afford a taste of such luxury.
We know that Gatti cut ice from the Regent’s Canal under a contract with the Regent’s Canal Company. For his growing ice cream business he then had to import ice in huge quantities from Norway. The ice blocks were kept in two underground ice wells. Each well was a huge cylinder about 10 meters in diameter and 13 meters deep and could hold up to 750 tons of ice. Ice was also useful for keeping meat and other food fresh and in hospitals for treating inflammations and fevers. Gatti, together with Bolla, another Italian immigrant, was one the main ice suppliers in London.
There’s a description of the lives of London’s ice cream sellers by J Thomson and Adolphe Smith, 1877, called “Halfpenny Ices”.
“This trade commences at about four in the morning. The men in varied and extraordinary déshabille pour into the streets, throng the milk-shops, drag their barrows out, and begin to mix and freeze the ices”.They were called Hokey Pokey after the “Ecco un poco = here is a little”.
Penny licks proved popular, but very unhygienic! The glasses often got washed in dirty water before the next customer used it or wiped with a dirty cloth. As a result, customers often found themselves falling ill after indulging in this frozen treat. Indeed, an interesting article on The Victorian Web, describes just how bad ice cream could be for you.
A London council medical officer discovered ‘cocci, bacilli, torulae, cotton fibers, lice, bed bugs, bug’s legs, fleas, straw, human hair and cat and dog hair’ in samples taken! Consequently, in 1898, a law, banning the use of ‘penny licks’ passed in parliament.
Fortunately, a wonderful culinary entrepreneur, Mrs. Agnes Marshall, included a recipe for edible cones in her book, “Fancy Ices” of 1894. She was called “The Queen of Ices”.
There was no stopping the ice cream craze advancing to the 20th century!
In 1923 Wall’s ice cream introduced the first mobile ice cream sellers on tricycles and with the slogan “Stop me and buy one”.These bikes were requisitioned by the army for military use during WWII.
Later on in the 1980’s, Wall would produce the Cornetto, with the catchiest advert ever, where a gondolier sang “Just one cornetto….” to the tune of “Oh Sole Mio”, a famous Neapolitan song. (see it in Utube).
Between the two World Wars another Italian immigrant brought ice cream to Chalk Farm with Marine Ice Creams, founded in 1931 by gelato pioneer, Gaetano Mansi, “with a desire to bring the indulgent taste of real Italian Gelato to discerning Londoners”.
In 1947, the shop was rebuilt to resemble a ship built by Aldo Mansi, Gaetano’s son? (Camden Journal has it as his father…). He was a cabinet maker and originally didn’t want to join the family firm – but after the war used his skills to refit the café. Using black and orange paint, he styled it into a ship’s bridge – and built in the porthole that gave the place its name. Marine Ices’ iconic parlour in Camden became something of a landmark with queues of gelato devotees travelling across London and beyond, lining up on hot summer days to savour Gaetano’s inimitable ice creams and sorbets
(No Longer there and sold to the Ponti Chain. See “Ice while it lasted”… The Italian dynasty behind the iconic Chalk Farm restaurant calls it a day in the Camden Journal, 28th February 2013).
Websites say they moved to No.61 Chalk Farm, but that shop is now closed, although the Marine Ices sign is still there. It seems that they still make ice cream for the trade from their Suffolk headquarters.
Had you gone to Camden Market last scorching Summer, the choice of ice cream treats would have been vast. Chin Chin labs had ice cream frozen with liquid nitrogen with flavours ranging from strawberry with hay or peach with blue cheese and nuts. Snobby Whale served a flashy rolled ice cream whilst Mill and Hector produced an ice cream sarnie, topped with peanut butter from their three -wheeled truck.
Nowadays Ice cream is available all year around and for every taste. What would C. Dickens say ( I had to mention him…).
It is unclear whether Charles Dickens liked ice cream. He was not impressed with the way Italians ate ice cream. In 1841, he said Italians licking ice cream looked like babies suckling on a breast and criticized them for consuming it throughout the year/
So, the stories and the passion for ice cream continue today, keeping its magic attraction and forever re-inventing it with new exotic names and flavours.
I talk about the Ice Cream Trade in my walk around Little Italy:“ Immigration, education and Occupations around “The Hill”
Harvest of the Cold Months: The Social History of Ice and Ices (Faber Finds) Paperback – 5 May 2011
British Museum, Ice Cream: the inside Scoop, by Tasha Marks,
Endangered Liives,“Public Health in Victorian Britain, Cambridge, Harvard University Press 1983
Mrs. Hudson’s Kitchen, May 11, 2021