Anne here, blogging on the eve of an excursion — in Australia!– with Mary Jo, to be followed by REWAustralia's annual conference, but more of that next time. In the meantime, I'm thinking of ice-cream.
There's a new ice-cream parlor opened up near me and despite the cold winter weather (in Melbourne, Australia) there are lines of people waiting to buy. I can't imagine what it's going to be like in summer.
It seems to me that since domestic ice-cream-making machines have become easily available, people have been experimenting more and more with flavors and ingredients, and that has certainly spilled over into the commercial field.
Yes, the big established ice-cream chains have their devotees, and always will, but people like to have choices and to taste things that are a little bit different.
I remember when domestic ice-cream-making machines became affordable and easy-to-use, people started experimenting at home. I remember delighting in a cantaloupe ice-cream that was delicious when freshly churned but a bit icy when stored for more than a day, but it was so fresh and tasty and made with pure ingredients and very little sugar, so it was irresistible. (On the left is a very old-fashioned hand-crank machine.)
In this latest explosion of specialist ice-cream parlors, as well as the usual flavors, there are dairy-free and tofu ice-creams, fresh fruit ice-creams and gelati, savory ice-creams, and all sorts of odd and interesting flavor combinations. It's almost Regency-era in its offerings.
When I was first researching Regency-era ice-creams for a book I was writing (The Perfect Waltz) I discovered all kinds of flavors that surprised me — parmesan for instance, which we associate more with Italian savory dishes.
I wanted a scene where Sebastian, the hero, and his best friend Giles (who has the secondary romance in the story) take the young ladies to Gunters for their first ever ice-cream.
"It's just there, near the corner of the square." Giles pointed. "The place with the sign of the pineapple. You find a nice shady spot for the ladies, 'Bastian, and I'll send a waiter over to you."
"What? Don't we go into the shop?"
Giles shook his head. "You can, of course, but on a glorious day such as this, everyone eats their ices out of doors, in the shade. Don't worry, the waiters will bring everything you need out to you." He trotted off.
They found a place to park the barouche under some cool, wide maple trees and soon saw that, as Giles said, many people were eating their ices and cakes out of doors. Ladies sat in their carriages, spooning up creamy concoctions with long-handled Italianate spoons. Elegant gentlemen idled by the park railings, chatting to the ladies as they ate their ices.
"Excellent spot," Giles declared as he strode up. His horse was hitched to a post a dozen yards away. A waiter hurried up behind him. "Now, what does everyone want? What flavor ice?"
Sebastian looked blank. So did the girls. Lady Elinore said nothing. Finally Cassie said, "I've never had an ice, so I don't know what flavor they are."
"Never had an ice?" Giles exclaimed in mock horror. "'Bastian, they've been in London for –how many days?–and they still haven't eaten an ice!"
"I've never had one either," Sebastian admitted.
Giles turned to Lady Elinore, "Lady Elinore, come, it is our duty as Londoners to rectify this shocking situation. What flavors do you think the young ladies would like?"
Lady Elinore said coldly, "I have no idea, Mr. Bemerton. I have never eaten an ice either. Nor do I intend to. My mother did not approve of food which comes in the extremes of hot or cold. An ice is not Rational food."
"It certainly isn't," Giles agreed fervently. "It's food for the gods! So it's the first time for everyone, then–excellent! Waiter, what flavors do you have?"
The waiter rattled off a list. Sebastian didn't catch them all: there were water ices or cream ices in flavors which included strawberry, barberry, pistachio nut, bergamot, royal cream, chocolate cream, burnt filbert cream, parmesan cream, jasmine, white coffee, tea, pineapple, elder-flavored muscadine and lemon water as well as some in French that he couldn't catch.
Anne again: "Burnt" icecream, which was a popular flavor, was actually what we'd call toffee ice-cream today — the "burnt" bits were sugar cooked until brown, which is toffee. Filberts are hazelnuts, so possibly they were toasted, or maybe mixed with toffee particles. Bergamot is a herb, and would be familiar to some of the tea drinkers among us as the distinctive flavor in Earl Grey tea. Jasmine is more often used in tea as well. Muscadines are grapes, but there is some question as to whether the ice-cream thus named was more elder flower flavored or grape flavored.
Ice cream was a rich person's dish, expensive and not easy to make. For a start, you needed good quantities of ice, not easily available in the kind of warm weather people usually associate with ice-cream eating. The manufacture of ice by mechanical means had not yet been discovered, so ice had to be harvested in winter, and stored through the warmer months in ice-houses — well insulated stone and earth buildings — or imported from ice-bound lands.If you want to know more about the business of selling snow and ice, here's a post I wrote some years ago.)
Icecream was popularized in London by an Italian. Domenico Negri, whose shop, The Pot and Pineapple was based in Berkley Square from about 1765. It became Gunters — and still operated under the sign of the pineapple — as Giles pointed out in the story.
So, back to our story:
There were so many to choose from, nobody could decide, so Giles took the initiative. "Very well, for the ladies, I recommend a strawberry ice–"
"I'd prefer a pistachio nut ice, please," Cassie said, ever contrary.
"Excellent! So, waiter, two strawberry ices, one pistachio nut ice and how about frozen orange punch, for us, Bastian–it's laced with rum."
Sebastian nodded. "Sounds good to me."
"If you are ordering that extra strawberry ice for me, I won't eat it," Lady Elinore declared. "As I said, an ice is not Rational food."
Giles looked at her thoughtfully. Under his scrutiny, Lady Elinore's nose raised another inch in the air.
"I'm sorry, do you eat brown bread, Lady Elinore?" he said in a humble voice. "I can have the waiter bring you brown bread."
"I do," she admitted, reluctantly mollified.
Giles said something to the waiter who nodded and ran off, dodging the traffic as he crossed the busy street to Gunter's.
"That's all sorted then," said Giles and climbed into the open-topped carriage. He squeezed between Dorie and Cassie, opposite Lady Elinore, who fastidiously tucked her knees as far away as possible to prevent them touching.
. . . . snip . . . . .
The waiter arrived, his tray laden with glass dishes brimming with colorful creamy confections. Giles distributed napkins then handed the ices out; a creamy pink one for Dorie, a pale green one with flecks for Cassie, two pale orange mounds of shaved ice crystals for himself and Sebastian. And one creamy confection the color of toasted biscuits.
Lady Elinore looked down her nose at it. "For whom is that?"
Giles grinned. "You said you'd eat brown bread. This is brown bread ice cream." He dug the long handled spoon into the confection, lifting a mouthful temptingly. "Doesn't it look delicious?"
Lady Elinore primmed up her small plain face. "No! I agreed to eat bread, not–mmmphh!"
Sebastian should have been cross with his friend, but the expression on Lady Elinore's face surprised a chuckle out of him. The girls, too, giggled.
With dignity, Lady Elinore swallowed the spoonful of brown bread ice-cream which Giles had so rudely popped into her mouth while she was talking. As she swallowed an extraordinary expression passed over her face.
"Told you you'd like it," said Giles, smugly.
"It is not Rational food," Lady Elinore said feebly, eyeing the bowl in Giles's hand. She licked her lips.
"Might as well eat it now," Giles said, reasonably. "Only go to waste. A terrible sin, to waste good food." He leaned forward and placed the bowl in Lady Elinore's hands.
Anne again: And of course she ate it down to the last drop. (I hope you'll forgive this detour into an old book of mine, but it was so relevant to the topic, I couldn't resist.)
For further information about regency-era ice-cream, Joanna Bourne's post of a few years ago is very comprehensive. And one of the best sites on Regency ice-creams around is Ivan Day's "Historic Food" site, which contains come of the photographs I've used here (with Mr Day's permission.) And if the idea of brown bread ice-cream takes your fancy, there's a delicious-sounding recipe here.
There's another recipe here (scroll down for the full recipe) in which you will see that the brown bread is toasted and dealt with thus: "Pull the bread into small pieces, put them on a baking sheet in a low oven. Let them toast until crisp, then crush them into coarse crumbs. This should be done by hand. A food grinder or chopper tends to make the crumbs too uniform and too fine, the crunchy and uneven texture of hand-pounded breadcrumbs being important to the success of the ice . . . snip . . . The crunchy crumbs contrasting with the soft smooth cream are the attributes which constitute the appeal of this very simple mixture." Sounds yummy to me.
So what about you — do you have a local ice-cream parlor, or are you a devotee of the bigger brands? Have you ever made your own ice-cream? Does brown bread icecream appeal to you or not? What's the most unusual flavored ice-cream you've eaten? What's your favorite?