“Your ice, Mr Osborne?” Ice-creams c.1816
One extremely grey and humid summer evening my sister asked if I wanted an ice cream and a walk in the park. It wasn’t ice cream weather and we were both adults, but the purpose of the ice cream was to counteract this: my sister was determined to make summer happen. We bought our cones (to get an ice lolly we thought was a cop-out) and crossed the road into Kennington Park, which was occupied by joggers, dog-walkers, and drizzle. My sister ate her 99 Flake with great delight. I only ate the flake off mine. I was disconcerted by the ice cream’s greasiness and reluctance to melt. I assume I can blame the weather for this non-Newtonian behaviour but even so — ice cream should not be like that.
What should it be like? It should taste fresh, it should melt into a liquid (not a foam), and it should taste clearly and positively of the things it is made of. You can achieve this best at home. An ice lolly on the beach or from the corner shop is fine, but home-made ice creams and sorbets are, generally, denser, less sweet and more intensely flavoured. The two cheapest ingredients for a commercial producer are air and sugar — the “overrun”, the extra volume whipped into an ice, is about 20 per cent for home-made, but as much as 50 per cent for bought ice cream, and more than that for the very cheapest kinds.
Marcella Hazan’s gelato di fragola from The Second Italian Cookbook is a good, simple illustration of this: liquidise 225g hulled strawberries with 130g sugar, a tablespoon or two of lemon juice, and 200ml cold water. Softly whip 4tbsp of double cream and stir it in. Chill the mixture until quite cold, then churn in an ice cream maker. You get an extremely fresh, clean-tasting strawberry ice that is a world away from the creamy, sweet, jammy shop-bought ones. The River Café’s chocolate sorbet, from River Café Two Easy (Ebury Press, £20), is another very simple, very good one: make a sugar syrup (250g sugar, 750ml water), add cocoa powder (150g), and simmer for 15-20 minutes until the powderiness of the cocoa is cooked out, then chill and churn. (If you are using the kind of machine with a separate bowl which you pre-freeze, it’s particularly important to chill your mixture thoroughly before you try to churn it.)
You can also make ices to your own tastes. There isn’t infinite wiggle room but there is more than in, say, baking. The only chemical necessities are water and sugar (the sugar interrupts the freezing of the ice crystals, making a smooth texture). You don’t even really need an ice cream machine: the ice cream family is large, and semifreddos, granitas and parfaits are not churned. There is no better guide, either for recipes or for general interest, than Caroline and Robin Weir’s Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati: The Definitive Guide (Grub Street, £25). This is really the ice cream maker’s bible. They include everything from standard vanilla to novelties like “iced froth”, “fromage aux epingles, ou à l’Anglois” (“Pin or English Ice Cream”), and “sorbetto di candito d’uova” — an astonishingly-rich 18th-century sorbet made of nothing but egg yolks and sugar syrup. The book has 65 pages of ice cream background and history before you even get to a recipe, and a Blumenthalian appendix on “The Science of Ices”.
Originally ices were only for the absolute wealthiest. Frozen, slushy drinks came first, descending from the sherbets of the Middle East. Montaigne, dining in Florence in June, 1581, during a heat wave, wrote: “It is customary here to put snow into the wine glasses. I put only a little in, not being too well in body.” (Excessively cold foods were thought to make you ill.)
Charles II gave a dinner for the Knights of the Garter in 1671 at which ice cream was served, but even at that exalted event the ices and the “plate of white strawberries” served with them were only for the king’s table. Recipes of that period are thin on the ground: knowing how to make them was a trade secret as it could set a confectioner up for life. (A 1651 recipe from Lady Ann Fanshawe — a Royalist who had travelled extensively in Europe — survives, but doesn’t mention the original secret of ice-cream-making: salt. Adding salt to ice causes an endothermic reaction — the temperature drops.)
George Washington, as President, bought two “iceries compleat” (ice cream makers), as well as sets of “ice plates” and “ice pots” and a special spoon for serving it at Mount Vernon. The American love affair with ice cream escalated during Prohibition. In 1942, Churchill disapproved of stopping ice cream manufacture, on the grounds of American morale: “The large numbers of American troops in this country . . . are great addicts of ice cream.” And recently Vice President Joe Biden declared: “I eat more ice cream than three other people all at once.”
By the 1800s ices were served at balls and parties. In Vanity Fair, set in the 1810s, the character George Osborne (yes, really) is particularly keen on them. At one point he goes off “to transact his business. In a word, he went out and ate ices at a pastry-cook’s shop in Charing Cross.” Asking someone to “take an ice” is like buying them a drink. Becky Sharp exclaims at a party: “Why have we not had any ices?” Flavours of this period were actually very sophisticated, for example whitecurrant, elderflower, jasmine, white coffee (made by infusing whole beans to produce a totally white ice) and brown bread — a much earlier invention than you might assume.
In the 20th century, Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume have fond memories of “the delicious and utterly forbidden confection known as hokey-pokey”, which was “nothing in the world but a sweetened custard containing gelatine, frozen, and packed in little boxes or handed out wrapped in wax paper”. Their view of ice cream is refreshing, and a world away from modern concerns over fat and sugar: “Ice-cream cornets, stop-me-and-buy-ones, ice-cream bricks brought in from shops and packed for safe transport . . . All of these are practical, sensible, and wholesome, and clearly much appreciated by millions of people.” This is really a defence of small pleasures. To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, ice cream is delicious, but you can’t get up in court and say that.
But making your own ices will sharpen your faculties. Spry and Hume compare it to making your own bread: “Once you have eaten home-made bread you will become critical of the general run of bought loaves.”
My sister and I left the park when the weather and the joggers got too much for us. I carefully carried my non-melting cone home, propped it up in a glass, and watched it. There was not so much as a drip.