Ice cream is exquisite.
What a pity it isn't illegal.
Joanna here, ruminating on Regency ice cream.
There's a certain perversity to Mother Nature.
Take strawberry ice cream.
Here we have an obvious Good Thing. Combine fresh strawberries, something sweet, and milk. Cradle the mixture in ice and harden it.
Voilà — you're going to end up with something tasty.
But it's not so straightforward.
When you've got the ice handy – when the wind is howling through the shutters and there's icicles on the eaves, you are shivering in your fur-lined mukluks, without strawberries, and without milk because the cow is dry, it being — well — the dead of winter, and she's huddled in the hut with you trying to eat the mattresses. Nobody's in the mood for a frozen desert.
On the other hand, when strawberries are springing up red and juicy about the lilting fields, just begging for poets to compare them to some young girl's lips, the nearest actual ice is at a five-thousand-foot elevation.
In the ancient world, if you happened to have teams of runners fetching snow from distant mountain peaks — who doesn't? — you could bring together the disparate elements of summer and winter. The Chinese, millennia ago, made a dish of sweetened, flavored milk and rice hardened by packing it in snow.
Nero, who is famous for a number of indulgences, indulged in ice cream.
The Persians enjoyed their complicated fruit drinks cooled with snow from Mount Damavand. Sort of a Twelfth Century smoothie.
I'll just interject an author personal note here.
I lived for a while at the foot of picturesque, snow-capped Mount Damavand and used to come out my front door in the morning and watch the goat boys driving their particolored herds down the dusty trails of the mountain side.
The Persian word for snow is 'barf'.
The story of Regency ice cream is not so much 'when ice cream came to Europe' or 'who invented it up' — I'd argue the Cro-Magnons had the concept — it's about how ice cream stopped being the Neiman Marcus conspicuous consumption of the fabulously powerful and slid down the social scale till ordinary folk could have a bite.
It's all about the ice.
The technology that brought ice cream to the Georgian and Regency table was the ice house.
The bottom curved to hold ice melt. The roof was domed. The door typically faced north. Strategically planted trees provided shade.
In the dead of winter, men cut blocks of ice from nearby lakes and ponds, brought it back in horse-drawn carts and stacked the great blocks inside. Ice stayed snug, frozen through the height of the summer.
These ice houses could be huge. The interior of one Georgian ice house, Parlington Hall in Yorkshire, measured sixteen feet in diameter by twenty feet deep. And they could be efficient. In the warm climate of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson noted that his ice supply at Monticello could last till October.
It was a miracle of rare device,
a sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice !
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The idea of the ice house probably piggybacked home with English travelers to Italy. It went viral in England in the mid Seventeenth Century. In 1682, Charles II had his own ice house built in St. James park. Owners of the great estates all climbed onto the ice house bandwagon. Ice cream became almost democratic.
Well . . . maybe not quite for the masses just yet. In the early 19th Century ice cream was still a rich man's treat. In 1808, when Jane Austen went to stay with her rich brother Edward, who had an ice house at his home Godmersham in Kent, she could write her sister Cassandra;
"In the meantime, for elegance and ease and luxury, the Hattons and Milles’ dine here to-day, and I shall eat ices and drink French wine, and be above vulgar economy."
In town, shops like Negri’s, (which became Gunter's in 1799,) at the Sign of the Pineapple in Berkeley Square and dozens of confectioners along Bond Street served ice creams and water ices. In Paris, fashionable Parisians ate ices in cafés at the Rodeo Drive of the day, the Palais Royale.
When it didn't snow, or just to keep up with demand, London imported ice.
Two or three mild winters, of late, in succession, have brought a new article of foreign trade into England. Ice, for the use of the confectioners, comes now to us all the way from Norway . . .
This imported ice, (jealous of sunshine) is foremost in our streets now of mornings, moving along, in huge cart-loads, from the below-bridge wharfs ; and looking, as it lies in bulk, like so much conglutinated Epsom salts.
Blackwood's Magazine in 1823
I now want to call someone a conglutinated Epsom salt, but I doubt I will have the opportunity.
We dare not trust our wit for making our house pleasant to our friend, so we buy ice cream. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Here's a 1769 recipe for making ice cream. Apricot ice cream:
Pare, stone and scald twelve ripe Apricots,
beat them fine in a Marble Mortar,
put to them six Ounces of double refined Sugar, a Pint of scalding Cream, work it through a Hair Sieve, put it into a Tin that has a close Cover, set it in a Tub of Ice broken small, and a large Quantity of Salt put amongst it,
when you see your Cream grow thick round the Edges of your Tin, stir it and set it in again ’till it all grows quite thick,
when your Cream is all Froze up, take it out of your Tin, and put it in the Mould you intend it to be turned out of.
The Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffald
The freezing apparatus looked something like this. The ice that chilled the ice cream was mixed with salt to make it colder and put in an outer tub. The salt was used because a brine of salt water can reach a colder temperature than plain water. An inner container, called a sabotiere, held the ice cream mixture. That sabotiere might be made of pewter or — oh dear — lead. A sort of scraper moved the newly formed ice crystals from the inner wall of the sabotiere.
Ice cream was originally called 'iced cream'. After the 1770s, the words, 'ice cream', began to appear. That's the term that gradually took over. A 'water ice' was what we'd now call a sherbet or Italian ice.
Just to be confusing, 'sherbet', in this period, meant a sweetened, dilute fruit drink.
How was ice cream served?
Soft ice cream might be placed in a mold, as the recipe above suggests, hardened, and turned out onto a plate. Or the ice cream at a formal dinner might be put into a special ice cream server, a seau à glace.
This was a three-piece rig, some of them just beautifully decorated. The outer bowl held the ice, probably salted. An inner bowl containing the actual ice cream sits within that. Then the lid comes down over the ice cream. You then pile a tasteful collection of ice cubes on the lid to chill the last side of the ice cream.
At Gunter's Tea Shop or in a Paris Café, our Georgian or Regency heroine licked her ice cream mounded up in a cone-shaped glass, or ate it more delicately with a little spoon, from glass or from a tasse à glace — an ice cream cup — like those Sèvres cups pictured above.
Sometimes, one over-indulges. For instance, from Adelaide and Theodore, a novel by Genlis, in 1796:
Adelaide was silent and melancholy; I asked her the reason of it; she told me she had a pain in her head. It is, says I, because you have surfeited yourself.
—Me, mamma ?
—Yes; you have eat ten tartlets, six biscuits, and taken two glasses of ice cream, therefore it is not at all surprising that you should be sick.
The temperature of ice cream would have been a novelty and a shock in an era without refrigerators and freezers. Here's a caricature of a vulgar cockney's first encounter with ice cream. It's an exaggeration, of course . . .
"Lauk ! its all in a freezed lump, I declare,'' cried she, directing a most immoderate spoonful into her gaping mouth, with the intention of setting both jaws to work, when giving a violent shriek, she dropped the glass, which broke in a thousand shivers; and, with a sudden effort, spit out the offending mouthful plump on the counter.
. . .
"'Drot all ice-creams, say I. How could you be such an ignorant creature to persuade me to eat such stuff . . . I'll tell ye what, my girl, (turning to the shop-woman) that there sort of stuff ought to be cried down. It may be a fashionable way of freezing your quality folks to death, but I'd sooner be burnt up alive in a brandy cag."
That great idea, the ice cream cone, is probably a late Victorian invention. There's no written reference to waffle cookies being used to serve ice cream before the 1880s. The ice cream fork, not such a great idea, is a strange spork-like thingum that marches in the array of Victorian silverware. It also seems Victorian. At least, I can't find a Regency reference.
Here's the first American recipe for ice cream, in Thomas Jefferson's handwriting. He brought it back from France. It calls for vanilla bean, not available in America at that time. He used to cajole them from friends traveling to Europe.
2. bottles of good cream.
6. yolks of eggs.
1/2 lb. sugar
Just a lovely start to a recipe, IMHO.
Photocredits: The icehouse at Tapeley Gardens is cc attrib Rog Frost. The top left and top right seaux à glace and the six ice cream cups are copyright Ivan Day, historic foods. com . Sorbetiere from Joseph Giller.
For me, the ultimate ice cream is pistachio. From a sugar cone. Outside under a blue sky full of sun. I feel quite certain Jane Austen would agree with me.
What's your significant ice cream, and what literary character do you share it with?
One person in the comment trail will win a copy of Forbidden Rose or the trade edition of Spymaster's Lady, your choice.