Ice cream unites us, no matter how we call it!

Ice cream, pagoto, granita, sorbet, gelato, parfait, paletas, dondurma, kulfi… love for ice cream is universal! What is for sure is that, as Don Kardong once said, “without ice cream there would be darkness and chaos”.

Photo by Greg Cohen depicting people from all over the world eating ice cream
Photo by Greg Cohen

While devouring a load of delicious, authentic ice creams this summer and driven -as usually- by our need to learn everything, we got into some thinking… Since when have humans been eating ice cream? Do people living in warm climates prefer them, or is love for ice cream a global thing? Which was the first greek commercial ice cream? Has anyone finally anywhere on earth discovered the ice cream that doesn’t melt? (If there is one, we absolutely have to find it!)

Bearing those in mind we embarked on a short trip into the past… And discovered a lot of interesting stuff about yesterday’s habits and their echoes in today’s world.

They had granitas in ancient times

We learned that ice cream exists since Antiquity! The History Today magazine mentions that ancient Greeks in the 5th century indulged in a dessert made of snow and honey or fruit. At the same time, the Persians were discovering a similar goody, prepared with snow and rosewater, called faloodeh. In Rome too, Nero used to enjoy a refreshing snow sweetened with honey. Alexander the Great is also said to have been fond of a such frozen confection.

Shave ice in the classic rainbow combination flavor in a glass
Shave ice in the classic rainbow combination flavor

Of course, these ancient delicacies remind us of contemporary granitas! In the USA, a beloved summer treat, snowy cones, made their first appearance at the beginning of the 20th century. In a History Channel’s article, they are described as crushed ice flavored with syrup, served in a cone. A likewise dessert comes from Havaii, where they call it shave ice. Its signature flavor is the rainbow one.

The Asians where the first to make ice cream with milk

In an article written by Tori Avey, we read that the emperors of the Tang Dynasty where the first to have tasted a frozen dessert made with milk and flour, flavored with camphor. Its preparation procedure ressembles the traditional way to make the Indian kulfi: the mixture is poured into metal tubes and then they are inserted into containers filled with ice.

Pistachio kulfi, in its original cylindrical shape on a stick on a white plate
Pistachio kulfi, in its original cylindrical shape on a stick

Kulfi is a frozen dessert similar to ice cream -even though more dense and creamy- that one will stumble upon in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other asian countries. It is believed to have been born in the 16th century in India, in the Himalayan region. Today, kulfi contains milk that caramelises by boiling for hours, a procedure that distinguishes it from ice cream. The mixture is poured into cylindrical metal tubes to freeze, thus gaining its characteristic shape. And guess what! Thanks to its density, kulfi doesn’t melt as quick as ice cream.

Two slices of Mango kulfi by Peter Joseph on a white plate
Mango kulfi by Peter Joseph

In the Middle Ages tha Arabs drunk sherbet

Contemporary sherbet, or sorbet in french, owes its name to the arabic sharab, a frozen drink made with fruit or flower petals. Gradually, the word sharab came to mean a particularly boozy drink. Thus occured the need for the term sharbat, to describe a sweet, fruity drink with no alcohol.

 A glass of sherbet with basil and lemon on a plate with rose petals
Sherbet with basil and lemon © Bois de Jasmin

In another article, we read that sharbat is mentioned in a 12th century Persian book. What is more, the writer claims that this drink may be related to the ancient greek idromelo (a kind of mead), a drink with alcohol that the Greeks of Asia Minor used to love.

A bottle of contemporary mead by Sotirale Family
Contemporary mead by Sotirale Family

A Guardian article states that the Moors brought the drink to Europe, a thousand years ago. It took its contemporary form (as an edible confection) in the 19th century. In English, they kept the term sherbet for the drink and sorbet for the dessert. The Americans used both terms to describe the dessert. As a result, the drink got lost in time.

At the end of the 19th century, the British and the Germans created at the same time a powder (sodium bicarbonate, tartaric acid and lots of sugar) that added to water produces a pleasantly bubbling drink. The powder got named sherbet to be reminiscent of its exotic roots. The powder dominated in 20th century confections, especially in the UK and the USA, thanks to its low price, industrial production and memorable taste.

Old German poster for sherbet powder (brausepulver) depicting a couple drinking Frigeo drink in nature
Old German poster for sherbet powder (brausepulver)

Today in Greece, the world serbeti, except for the sweet drink, means metaphorically something too sweet, as well as sweet talk. Also, a great historic patisserie in Athens, in the downtown Psirri district, is called “Serbetia in Psirri“.

Marco Polo offered the Europeans sherbet, while Catherine de’ Medici ice cream.

The IDFA (International Dairy Food Association) -and many more- when telling the story of ice cream, states that Marco Polo brought back from his Far East travels a recipe for sherbet that evolved into the 16th century’s ice cream.

In the middle of the 16th century, the architect Bernardo Buontalenti came up with a freezing technique that earned him a place in history as the inventor of italian gelato. When the Grand Duke Cosimo I de’Medici asked for a special dessert to impress the Spanish king, Buontalenti created a sherbet with ice, salt, sugar, eggs, lemon, honey, milk and a drop of wine. He flavored the cream with bergamot and orange. Today we can taste in the “crema Fiorentina” ice cream flavor.

But in order to taste the authentic recipe we may have to make a short trip to Firenze. There, at the end of the 60s, Gelateria Badiani created the Buontalenti gelato for a contest dedicated to his memory and earned a prize for this unique flavor.

A box of gelato prepared with the original Buontalenti recipe, from the Gelateria Badiani in Firenze
Gelato prepared with the original Buontalenti recipe, from the Gelateria Badiani in Firenze

Catherine de’ Medici is believed to have brought to France the habit of adding milk to frozen confections, when she married the king of France, Henry II. In her article, Tori Avey narrates that at the same time the French used to make fromage (meaning cheese in french), a frozen dessert prepared with cream, sugar and orange flower water, that didn’t of course contain any cheese. The name triggered our curiosity, so we searched and found out that -even though it is said that the term comes from the containers in which they used to chill the mixture- fromage meant at the time any preparation containing milk, cream and sugar as long as they are mixed. For example, in the 19th century Bavarian cream was called fromage bavarois.

Further east they want their ice cream elastic

Around the same time, in Turkey, in the Maras region, they were discovering the nowadays characteristic elastic ice cream dondurma. We read in an AzuraNews article that in that part of Turkey, while the climate is warm, there is a mountain with snow all year round. The climate is also ideal for raising goats. Finally, at the region grows a type of orchid named salep (used to make the salep drink). As a result, the locals created a frozen dessert with snow, goat milk and salep, the signature Turkish elastic ice cream, that doesn’t melt.

A slice of traditional dondurma sprinkled with pistachio on a white plate
A slice of traditional dondurma sprinkled with pistachio

The legend has it that they even used the dondurma as a jumping rope! Today in Turkey, ice cream sellers put up a show to impress tourists with its elasticity. However, elastic ice cream can also be found in New York’s Brooklyn! There, we found the Republic of Booza, a modern shop that claims to be home to “the first frozen dairy-based dessert from which the ice creams we know today evolved”. Booza is an ice cream coming ftom Syria, similar to dondurma. And of course we craved for it!

A young man and woman holding two cups of elastic ice cream from the Republic of Booza
Elastic ice cream from the Republic of Booza

Napoleon used to eat gelato and the Αmeticans ice cream.

Coming back to Europe, Tori Avey describes how the Italian gelato became famous outside its motherland: in the middle of the 27th century Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli opened in Paris the famous Café Le Procope, where Victor Hugo, Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon used to hang out and probably enjoy the Italian frozen dessert. Today, the oldest coffee shop in Paris serves, among many superbe sweets and ice creams, a lemon tart by Christelle Brua, best pastry chef in the world for 2018.

Lemon tart with meringue on a white plate by Christelle Brua from the Café Le Procope
Lemon tart by Christelle Brua from the Café Le Procope

According to the Michelin Guide, on the other side of the ocean, American ice cream was being created. It is said that it origins from gelato that Italian immigrants brought together at the time. The IDFA states that Georgea Washington and Thomas Jefferson used to adore ice cream. In fact, Washington is believed to have spent $200 for the frozen delicacy in the summer of 1790.

The first ice cream ad in the New York Gazette 1774
The first ice cream ad in the New York Gazette 1774

On the IDFA website we read that the first mention of ice cream in the United States was found in a letter of a guest of the governor of Maryland, in the mid 18th century. Also, elsewhere we found that the first ice cream advertisement was published in the New York Gazette in 1774. There, the confectioner Philippo Lenzi informs the american audience that he has just arrived from London and that he will be producing a variety of desserts, among which ice cream. At a consequent ad, three years later, he was happy to announce that ice cream will be available almost every day.

May be had almost every day, ice cream.

Philippo Lenzi , New York Gazette, May 12, 1777

Both ice cream and gelato are prepared with milk, cream and incorporated air. What differentiates them is that gelato (meaning chilled in italian) contains less air, which results in a denser texture. Ice cream is made with incorporating 100% air into the mixture, while gelato with just 30%, as is defined by the Michelin Guide.

In Greece we don’t have to travel far in order to taste a mouthwatering, creamy gelato! All we have to do is take a short trip to Lavrio for fresh, traditional “Italian’s ice cream” from Arte Italiana.

Hand holding a cone with a scoop of the tiramisu flavor from Arte Italiana, in front of the store
A scoop of the tiramisu flavor from Arte Italiana

The Mexicans prefer paletas

The beginning of the 19th century is probably the origin of mexican paletas, as we read in an article by Michele Sponagle. It is believed that they were created at the time when Mexico gained its independence, thus resulting in the end of the Spanish monopoly and the enormous taxes on ice. Paletas (meaning small sticks) are chilled desserts made with fresh ingredients, juice and pieces of fruit such as mangos, bananas and pineapples. They may contain tequila or spices, such as cinnamon and chilli.

Popsicle: The frozen drink on a stick

Old advertisement by Popsicle

Paletas ressemble a lot American popsicles· their difference used to be that the latter had characteristic neon colours and contained water, sugar and artificial flavourings and colours. The Popsicle company claims that the popsicle was invented by accident, by an eleven-years-old boy in the beginning of the 20th century. Today, popsicles have -thankfully- taken the healthy road, filled with natural ingredients and fresh fruit.

Advertisements for popsicles of the 1930s depicting two kids smiling. On both is written "Everybody loves popsicles", on the first "Refreshing - easy to eat" and on the second "The frozen drink on a stick".
Advertisements for popsicles of the 1930s

If you ever visit Miami, don’t miss trying those Mexican confections at the Morelia Gourmet Paletas! It is a project started by three friends with a great love for ice cream, who travelled to many places looking for the perfect paleta, until they finally decided to make it on their own.

Display of paletas made with 100% natural ingredients at MoreliaGourmet Paletas
Paletas made with 100% natural ingredients at MoreliaGourmet Paletas

Eskimo ice cream isn’t exactly what we expected

Trying to find out whether in the cold climates people also prefer ice cream, we read about a bizarre kind of dessert, the akutaq -meaning to mix- one can find in Alaska and North Canada. Traditionally it was prepared with animal far (from seals, polar bears, reindeer and other polar animals) and berries, because that is what the Inuit (the inhabitants if those cold places) had ag their hands. It could also contain fish flakes -not a very appealing idea- and contained no sugar, as it wasn’t available.

Mixing by hand in a bowl traditional akutaq by an indigenous cook of Alaska
Mixing traditional akutaq by an indigenous cook of Alaska

In What’s cooking America we read that akutaq has existed for thousands of years. The natives used to take it with them on hunting expeditions for survival purposes. The women used to make it to celebrate the catching of the first polar bear. Today, the animal fat can be substituted by vegetable alternatives. That’s great for those who haven’t fallen in love with the idea of eating reindeer ice cream!

Serving traditional akutaq by an indigenous cook of Alaska, who presses the mixture into a bowl
Serving traditional akutaq by an indigenous cook of Alaska

Myth or truth?

Having read lots of valid article sources that describe a consistent timeline for the history of ice cream, we stumbled upon a very interesting one that kind of surprised us. Mary Miley Theobald claims that even though there may be some truth in those stories, the myths are many more.

She poses as an example that the Romans did indeed mix snow with honey, but she thinks that that doesn’t count as ice cream. Also, while it is a fact that Marco Polo had visited China in the 13th century and the Chinese had indeed invented a frozen dessert with milk, there is no mention that he had ever tasted it. Catherine de’ Medici did marry the future king of France, but that happened a long time before the Italians learned how to freeze liquids artificially and a century and a half before the first known recipe for ice cream in France.

These stories were created during the nineteenth century by ice cream sellers who were looking for a marketing angle.

Robert Brantley, researcher and journeyman
Drawing picturing a woman selling ice cream to kids, dressed in the style of the Victorian Era in Britain
Ice cream seller of the Victorian Era in Britain

Theobald comes to the conclusion that what is more believable is the spread from China to Europe of the knowhow that makes ice cream making possible. It is the endothermic effect, the use of ice and salt to draw temperature from the container of the liquid we want to chill (in our case the ice cream mixture). This phenomenon is mentioned in an Arabic medical book of the 13th century, as well as in the writings of an Italian and a Spanish doctor in the middle of the 16th century.

Ice cream is not just for kings anymore

In the majority of articles we read, the general idea is that ice cream used to be the dessert of the elites. But Melissa Calaresu doubts that claim, describing that (especially in the 18th century in Naples) people of lower social origin used to produce, consume and sell ice cream in coffee shops and stores, even in the street. It is also possible that housewives made ice cream at home.

Since the 18th century, ice cream manufacturing techniques evolved, resulting in the invention of the first handheld ice cream machine by Nancy Johnson, in mid 19th century in the USA. The ice cream freezer chills the ice cream mixtures while mixing it at the same time, resulting in a soft, creamy texture with no ice crystals.

Wooden container and metal parts of an cream freezer in the style of Nancy Johnson's machine
Ice cream freezer in the style of Nancy Johnson’s machine

The French, on the other side, at the end of the 19th century are making parfait, an ice cream that needs no machine and thus is easily prepared at home. Parfait is made with egg yolks and whipped cream or meringue. Its texture is ensured by yhe high content of fat, sugar and by the incorporated air. The Italians, on their side, transform the French parfait into semifreddo, a dessert that we have analyzed in another article (to be translated).

Nowadays, the French aren’t only experts in parfait, but in any kind of ice cream. In 2018, the French team won the Gelato World Cup, a global contest of ice cream making, pastry and sculpture on ice. To be fair though, Italy wasn’t competing, as the new regulations define that the last winner can’t take part in the next contest.

France's entry in the Gelato World Cup 2018 in the gelato cake category: a cake with the Eiffel Tower appearing once cut
France’s entry in the Gelato World Cup 2018 in the gelato cake category

Probably the most important prize for a French pastry chef is to become a MOF “Meilleur Ouvrier de France”. And there is also a MOF Glacier title, for those dedicated to ice cream. A holder of the title, Emmanuel Ryon, has opened Une Glace à Paris in the high-end Marais district in Paris. There he serves ice cream, parfait, sorber and intricate frozen desserts. We maybe can’t taste them so easily, but why not just take a look at those artpieces, even from far away?

A millefeuille with ice cream scoops in different colours, between two caramel sheets, with fruit and meringue decorations from Une Glace à Paris
Ice cream millefeuille from Glace à Paris

Don’t forget to put the ice cream in the freezer!

A milestone in the evolution of ice cream was of course the invention of the industrial freezer in the end of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th century. Technological breakthroughs led to the culmination of industrial production, thanks to which ice cream became our everyday summer treat. Ice cream history goes hand in hand with technological evolution and that is the way it should be studied, as is mentioned by the University of Guelph.

The famous scene of ice cream (over) consumption in "Home Alone": the leading actor eating a giant bowl of ice cream in front of the TV
The famous scene of ice cream (over) consumption in “Home Alone”

We would like to add that it will be very interesting to study ice cream history in to relation to pop culture.

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream

American comic song of 1927

During the 20th century, ice cream became a summer trademark, especially in warm countries, such as Greece. In the 30s opened the first Greek dairy industry and the first Greek mass-produced ice cream was born. Since then, came the ice cream cup, ice cream cone, ice cream stick, ice cream sandwich … leading to the strange delicacies of the 90s we used to devour, such as the glowing granita spheres by Algida that just popped into my mind! Pop culture embraced ice cream and advertising rooted it in our everyday habits.

A package of green, sour spheres by Algida's Solero shots
The sour granita spheres that we miss so much!

The 20th century excites us, has a lot of material to give, and in a part we remember it too. Also, ice cream is part of our summer culture -which kid hasn’t counted the ice creams eaten during summer vacation? We sadly didn’t find much written for their recent history. So, there is nothing we can do but research, remember and come back!

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Shivali says:

    Loved & literally drooled while reading the post🤣🤣 while in India, we do love our kulfi & roof-afaza but the new generation enjoys Gelato & Haagen Daaz of the world too..keep writing, always in need of the sugar rush!!!


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