Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal.
– quote sometimes attributed to Voltaire.
It’s sweet, creamy, cold, it’s full of sugar and fat, but oh so delicious. Today, we are all about ice cream – but before we jump in, let’s first look at some cold hard terminology:
Ice cream: sweet and soft frozen food, consisting of a dairy and sugar mixture which is churned so that air is folded into it. The US Food and Drug Administration defines ice cream as a product containing at least 10% milk fat, but exact definitions vary between countries.
Gelato: Italian for ‘ice cream’. Although both ice cream and gelato share the same main ingredients (dairy, sugar, air), gelato contains 70% less air than ice cream, as it is churned more slowly. It also generally contains less milk fat.
Sorbet: a frozen mixture of fruit and sugar which is churned like ice cream but contains no dairy.
Sherbet: similar to sorbet, but generally with added dairy to give it a creamier texture.
The history of ice cream
The history of ice cream is one large web of culinary cross-cultural borrowing, the untangling of which is not helped by the fact that popular myths and legends have been surrounding its origins for centuries.
In 7th century China, King Tang reportedly ate a cold dish made of buffalo milk, flour, and camphor, but as early as 200 BC, people in China were already mixing rice and milk and burying it in the snow to freeze it. There is a pervasive myth that the explorer Marco Polo brought the recipe for ice cream from China to Italy in the 13th century. However, this theory lacks actual historical evidence.
How did Europeans get ice cream then? Well, first, there were sorbets!
The origins of sorbet are likely in Sicily. The Arab word ‘sharbat’ is recorded in the Italian language from the 16th century onwards, where it described a chilled sweet Turkish beverage. Eventually, the beverage entered Sicilian cuisine, where it became ‘sorbetto’. This rechristening was likely influenced by the Italian word sorbire, ‘to sip’. In 1692, Italian cook Antonio Latini released sorbet recipes which explained how to mix sugar, snow, salt, and fruit to make a cold dessert. He also provided a recipe for a ‘milk sorbet’: the Larousse Gastronomique pins Antonio’s sorbetti as the first frozen desserts that closely resemble what we now today as ice cream.
Another popular myth is that Catherine de’ Medici introduced sorbet ice creams to France from Italy in the 16th century. The story goes that when she married the Duke of Orléans, she brought an Italian chef with her who introduced the French to the delicacy. However, food historians point out that this story is undocumented.
What is documented, however, is that in the late 17th century, a Sicilian chef named Francesco Procopio Cutò, opened a café in Paris where he served a refined version of the Sicilian sorbetti to an esteemed clientele, which included Voltaire and Rousseau. From France, these ‘sorbets’ eventually spread throughout Europe.
The first ‘iced creams’
The first milk-based ice creams were – very literally – pots of cream set amongst ice to cool down. Cream had been used in European cuisine for a long time, and was often sweetened and flavoured with fruit and spices. The first written appearance of the English word ‘ice cream’ or ‘iced cream’ can be traced to the year 1672, in a description of a feast held in Windsor in 1671.
By the end of the 17th century, people had figured out that salt lowers the freezing point of water, which allowed to further refine the consistency of sorbets, and that stirring cream while it chilled would stop it from freezing into a hard, unappetising lump. A collection of recipes entitled L’art de faire des glaces from 1700 provides instructions on how to make sophisticated cold desserts, both of the ‘water ices’ (sorbets) and ‘iced cream’ varieties, with flavours we still love today such as chocolate and caramel.
From the 18th century onwards, more and more recipes for ice creams appeared, with increasingly ingenious methods and ingredients. Its popularity knew no bounds and thus, ice cream conquered the world. Today, endless flavours exist, from classics such as vanilla to more adventurous flavours such as wasabi. Ice cream is also often incorporated into other desserts and thanks to modern refrigeration and mass production, ice cream has a firm place in our household freezers.
Quinzio, Geraldine M. “Early Ices and Ice Creams” (PDF). Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making. University of California Press.
Food Timeline. Ice cream. [Online]. Available at: http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodicecream.html [Last accessed: 23/07/2020].
The Kitchn. 2014. What’s the Difference Between Sherbet and Sorbet? [Online]. Available at: https://www.thekitchn.com/whats-the-difference-between-sorbet-and-sherbet-word-of-mouth-206263 [Last accessed: 23/07/2020].
Healthline. 2019. Gelato vs. Ice Cream: What’s the Difference? [Online]. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/gelato-vs-ice-cream#similarities [Last accessed: 23/07/2020].
Sicilian Post. 2018. Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli: the man who invented gelato. [Online]. Available at: https://www.sicilianpost.it/en/francesco-procopio-dei-coltelli-the-man-who-invented-gelato/
Written by Janna Mack. From Luxembourg, she has degrees in Linguistics, Education, and Translation from Glasgow University.