The Delicious Legacy


A Short History of Ice Cream

Season 1, Ep. 20

Hello! Welcome to another episode of our podcast!

The structure you see on the image, is a "yakhchal" an ingenious Ancient Persian structure that creates really cold storage larders, in the middle of the baking hot desert! 

What could call itself the first ice cream cup was found in Egypt in a tomb from the Second Dynasty (2700 BC). This was a kind of mould, consisting of two silver cups, one of which contained snow (or crushed ice) and the other cooked fruit. “Icehouses”, where snow was stored and ice deliberately formed, were undoubtedly an extremely ancient invention. Around AD300 in India they found a way to manufacture cheap ice: Porous clay pots containing boiled, cooled water were laid out on top of straw in shallow trenches; under favourable circumstances, thin ice would form on the surface during winter nights which could be harvested and combined for sale.

Of course ancient Persians by 400BC have mastered the art and technique of creating ice in the deserts of Iran for their needs ie storing food and for pleasure in form of iced drinks! This practice requires an ingenious structure called a yakhchāl

The emperor Nero had snow and ice transported from mountains or volcanoes such as Mount Etna, these natural ice being stored in ice-boxes and buried in wells to be preserved. Nero also feasted his guests with crushed fruit with honey and snow, practices that Seneca found very expensive.

How long have these sorbets and frozen fruits been eaten ? Historians remain silent on the subject. It seems that these icy preparations lasted in the Middle East but not in the West.

In China in the 16th century B.C.E under the Shang Dynasty we are told that the emperor revelled in granites made of snow, milk and spices. Chinese had developed a process where they managed to freeze ice cream by using salt and salpeter (nitre) to lower the freezing point of ice. King Tang (c. 1675 – 1646 BC), had 94 ice men who helped to make a dish of buffalo milk, flour and camphor. During the Tang Dynasty an elegant drink was recorded which consisted of goat, cow of buffalo milk cooked with flour and camphor and then placed in iron containers and buried in snow or ice.

The legend said that Kublai Khan founder of the Yuan dynasty, loved to drink milk, and would add ice to the milk to make it last longer during the summer. He also added preserves and jam to his favourite icy drink, creating the first "prototype of ice cream let's say. Kublai Khan issues a decree that anybody except the royal family can make ice cream in order to keep production process private.

the famous Italian traveller of the middle ages, Marco Polo met Kublai Khan and had the honour of enjoying the royal treat. After leaving China, Marco Polo brought the technique of making ice cream back to Italia. Marco Polo is often recognized for bringing knowledge of Chinese ice cream techniques to Italy where it was perfected, but it seems clear that news about ice cream has travelled to Europe from the Arab world, also via a number other sources.

The Arabs called it "Chinese snow". It was called "Chinese salt" by the Iranians/Persians. Ancient Greeks and the ancient Romans, of the upper classes, used this white powder, dissolved in water, to cool their wines. It was an expensive commodity, fairly rare and difficult to find, and its use appears to have been limited only to the cooling of bottles of wine at important dinners. Yes we are talking about saltpetre or potassium nitrate!

Saltpetre cools water by producing an endothermic reaction. This is a chemical reaction whereby, as it dissolves, the saltpetre literally pulls the heat out of the water as part of that process, thus lowering the temperature of the water. For this reason, there is a limit to how cool the water can become.

From the Greeks and the Romans this method was passed on, or perhaps rediscovered and improved by Persians and Arab physicians. Visitors from Europe to the East were struck by the wonderful sherbets and chilled syrups. Pierre Belon was a Frenchman ,traveller, naturalist and writer who visited the Middle East in the 16th century, at the height of the Ottoman Empire (and their emperors or sultans that had a very sweet tooth!) He marvelled at the sweet cold drinks: 'Some are made of figs, others of plums, and of pears and peaches, others again of apricots and grapes, yet others of honey, and the sherbert-maker mixes snow or ice with them to cool them;

In Persia, sherbets were made from lemon, orange or pomegranate juice. First the fruit is squeezed through a silver strainer; then sugar was added, and water to dilute; finally, ice was piled in.

This technique was later captured in the Persian text Ain I Akbari (“Institutes of Akbar”, c. 1600) by Abul Fazl 'Allami. Reading from its translation: Saltpetre, which in gunpowder produces the explosive heat, is used by his Majesty[Akbar] as a means for cooling water, and is thus a source of joy for great and small. Saltpetre is a saline earth. They fill with it a perforated vessel, and pour some water over it, and collecting what drops through, they boil it, clean it, and let it crystallize. One sér of water is then put into a goglet of pewter, or silver, or any other such metal, and th emouth closed. Then two and a half sérs of saltpetre are thrown into a vessel, together with five sérs of water, and in this mixture the goglet is stirred about for a quarter of an hour, when the water in the goglet will become cold. The price of saltpetre varies from ¾ to 4 mans per rupee.

The first “ice cream” on the American continent was the Paila, a tradition in Pre-Columbian Ecuador. The Caranquis (or Caras), before being conquered by the Incas, sent expeditions to bring blocks of ice and snow down from the top of the volcano Imbabura, wrapped in thick layers of straw and frailejòn leaves, for thermal insulation. The ice cream was then made by filling a large cauldron (called a “paila”) with ice, snow and fruit juice (and sometimes milk), and mixing vigorously until the juices and ice froze together. Using this ancestral technique, gradually perfected over centuries, helados de paila are still prepared traditionally today in some places in Ecuador, especially in the modern town of Imbabura.

In 1689, the Sicilian Francesco Procopio del Coltelli opened the first café in Paris, Le Procope. He not only served coffee there, but also over a hundred different sorbets and ice creams. All the good Parisian society is rushing into it, including the “quality ladies”, which was not done until then. And if they dare not leave their carriage, a valet brings them. In 1720, he invented frozen mousses by adding whipped cream to his ice creams: these “Chantilly ice creams” immediately became fashionable. In the 18th century, glaciers multiplied in Paris and consumption now spreads throughout the year. Ice creams are served in cups or in bricks, molded in fruit, egg cups, glasses.

The French Revolution will not kill the ice cream. On the contrary, it democratizes them. Glacier then became a profession in its own right and ice cream makers invaded French homes.

By the mid-1700’s, sweet ices were a common food. Sorbetto sellers walked through Naples, selling ice cream in all sorts of flavours, including sweet orange, bitter cherry, muscat pear and jasmine. It was made & carried in a sorbettiera – a tall container with a metal lid, inside a bucket of ice & salt. The salesman would spin the sorbettiera around inside the bucket every few minutes, to keep it creamy as it froze. Every so often, they’d stir the ice with a wooden spatula. Sorbetto was the catch-all Italian word for ice cream back then, rather than gelato.

All this and much more on the episode today!

Resources and further reading:

"Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat" by Bee Wilson

ISBN: 9780141049083

How Ice Cream Got Its Cone 

The Delicious History of Ice Cream: 

Martini Fisher Ancient History of Ice Cream: 

Saltpetre: Regency Refrigeration:

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