Snow, Ice — and magic

Anne here, just back from a writers’ retreat, nursing a cold picked up on the plane, and thinking about my fellow wenches and friends who are battling with snow and ice and bitter cold. It made me reflect on some of my own few experiences of snow, and how they opened up another world for me.

Coming from a mediterranean type of climate, I don’t have a lot of experience with serious cold — it almost never snows in my part of the world —  but when I was a little girl we lived inland, and on some winter nights the temperature dropped right down below freezing point. Killer frosts.  Eisblumen_4

I grew up knowing Jack Frost was real, because after those bitter nights I’d see the magical ice paintings he’d leave etched on the windows. I’d stare into the swirls and ripples of ice and “see” all kinds of strange and wondrous images. To me, they were a little like Arthur Rackham paintings —the more you looked, the more you’d see.

I’d also play with the frost. On chilly nights, I made little “frozen gardens” by putting a saucer of water on the back step, filling it with flowers and little snippets of greenery and leave it to freeze overnight. Then in the morning, I’d bring it inside and put the saucer with its little frozen arrangement on the breakfast table. 

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Snow for Sale!

BridebyMistakesmsllBring out your snow, bring out your snow!

Do you have snow where you are?
Anne here, wondering if anyone has snow for sale. Not just because it's particularly hot downunder where I am (it's summer here, remember) but because in the past people really did sell snow.

Snow for sale? 
That's right, in the past it was a business. Back in the 16th century, the snow trade in Europe was a very lucrative enterprise, so lucrative, in fact that people fought over snow rights. There were even bandits who tried to steal snow — and often succeeded. Sound crazy?

It's been going on for centuries
Before the advent of mechanical refrigeration, naturally forming ice and snow was the only source of cooling material. We tend to think iced drinks is a modern invention, but snow and ice has been gathered, transported and sold for the cooling of drinks and desserts for centuries. Snow

The Chinese were harvesting and storing winter ice for the hot summer months more than a thousand years before Christ. The Ancient Greeks and Romance picked up the habit of using ice to cool their drinks from the Middle East and learned from them too the methods of  harvesting and storing ice and snow for long periods. According to Pericles, snow was routinely sold in the markets of Athens from the 5th century BC, and not only to the rich. (pic right:

Alexander the Great used to store great quantities of snow in pits. The kings of Egypt had snow shipped from the mountains of Lebanon to Cairo. That's a long way! Across Russia, throughout Europe and all around the Mediterranean people collected snow and ice from the mountains in winter and stored it underground, in caves, pits and specially constructed ice houses.
At first it took place on a small scale — people would collect ice from a frozen pond and store it in their ice cellar or ice pit, packed in straw and buried under the earth to maintain the cool temperature. In places like Rome, where ice rarely occurred, any brief snowfall was quickly gathered up and the snow carried to the ice houses.

Some of these ice houses were just large, deep pits, lined at the base with branches and twigs for drainage, then straw, and then the ice or snow. If snow was all that was available, they beat it down with paddles, making it as dense and hard as possible. That was then covered with more twigs and branches and straw, and finally earth. 
Snow compressed in this manner was colder and lasted longer than ice taken from ponds, but it wasn't as clean. This led to various inventions — the wine decanter with a separate compartment for snow or ice, a system where a slender container of clean water was immersed in snow or ice until the water froze and of course, the simplest of all, the ice bucket that is still in use today. Or if you were a Regency gentleman intending on a large quantity of iced wine, perhaps this large wooden zinc-lined wine cooler would be more your style. BigRegencycooler
As the use of snow grew and spread beyond the needs of just the wealthy, the collection and storage of snow became not just a winter harvest, but the basis for a substantial year round business. Businessmen in 16th century Italy jockeyed for the right to control the snow trade. Exclusive rights (the snow concession) to provide snow from certain areas and for certain cities were given (no doubt as a result of a handsome bribe) to particular men. 

Stealing Snow!
And so we have the rise not only of snow collectors but snow bandits!
Complaints flew, accusations and counter accusations of people illegally collecting snow, illegally selling snow, and even bandits who held up mule trains carrying loads of snow and made off with the snow (and the mules.)

The more snow and ice was used, the more profitable a business it was, and the more uses were found for it — the creation of ice cream and sorbets (from the Turkish sherbets) iced soups, iced desserts of all kinds, not to mention the increased preservation of perishable foodstuffs and the use of ice as an aid to health. TurkishIcecream

Ice houses became more sophisticated constructions made of brick and stone and scientific experiments were made into the most efficient method of storing snow and ice, and of making ice. The pic here is of the 18th century ice house at Norton Priory, near Runcorn, Cheshire, England.
I won't go into the making of ice creams — Wench Joanna did a wonderful post on that last year — but in the mid 1800s on they started using ice and even created ice pillars as an early form of air conditioning for hot summer ballrooms. This, of course, was pioneered in the USA, where they had ample supply of ice, and hot, hot summers but there are also reports of British ballrooms cooling hot guests with ice pillars. 

It's a fascinating subject and I've barely touched on it. For further information about the history of the use of snow and ice, I recommend Elizabeth David's wonderful book Harvest of the Cold Month. If you want a North American slant, here's this site which shows the ice harvest of historic Howell's farm.

So do you have snow? Masses of snow? Are you fed up with it? Wish you could gather it up and sell it?  (Some hot people on this side of the globe might even buy some.)  Or do you use it in some way already? I'd love to hear about your experience with snow.

And if you don't get snow, tell me what kind of weather you've been experiencing in recent weeks — there's been a lot of weird weather around, plus I just enjoy hearing about the world-wide-wenchly-web— and I'll send a copy of my new book to someone who leaves a comment.

Anne here again, adding a postscript: on the news last night I heard of an amazing modern-day parallel —police arrested thieves who had stolen 5 tonnes of ice that they hacked from a fast disappearing glacier. Apparently glacier ice is popular in Chile served in drinks on fancy bars and restaurants. Amazing, eh? It still goes on.