Sunday, 13 January 2013

What is Ice Cream - The History of Gelato

What is Ice Cream?

One of my earliest memories is waiting to hear the chimes of the ice cream van on a hot summer afternoon and impatiently watching it trundle around the corner and pull to a stop near our house.  Clutching my money in my little sweaty paw, I would run over to the brightly painted van and weigh up my choices.  Would it be a cone filled with soft, whippy ice cream with a chocolate flake stuck in it to make it a ‘99’? Or maybe an ice lolly or a biscuit oyster shell filled with ice cream and topped with clotted cream?  This has always been my favourite treat and it makes the perfect dessert for any occasion.  So what is ice cream?  It is a frozen dessert that is usually made from milk or cream, with fruit, flavourings, colourings and sugar being added to give it taste.  Nowadays, for those who are intolerant of dairy products, it can also be made from soy milk or rice milk. It comes in many different flavours, with the most popular probably being vanilla, chocolate and strawberry.

Strawberry Ice Cream
Strawberry Ice Cream

The History of Ice Cream

Humans have enjoyed eating frozen desserts for thousands of years.  The Chinese were eating a dish made of frozen milk and rice as long ago as 200BC, and it is said that Marco Polo brought the secret of making ice cream to Europe in the 13th century from his travels in China. The Ancient Persians were fond of syrups and sherbets cooled with mountain snow and around 400BC created a frozen treat made from rose water and vermicelli. The Ancient Persians used structures called yakchals for refrigeration that stored the ice and snow that they needed for their frozen desserts and kept the storage rooms at freezing point by using tall windcatchers. The Roman emperor Nero had snow transported down from the Appenine Mountains, and used to eat it smothered in fruit. The Arabs were the first to use milk and sugar in order to make ice cream, and they flavoured their frozen desserts with rosewater, nuts and dried fruits.

During the 16th century Moghul Emperors in India used to employ relays of fast horseman to bring ice back from the Hindu Kush, and Catherine de Medici’s Italian chefs introduced ices and sorbets into France. The first French recipe for flavoured ice cream dates to 1674 and then English and American recipes started appearing from the 18th century. In Georgian England, high society ate their ices in the famous Gunter’s Tea Shop in Berkeley Square while they traded gossip and eyed up eligible bachelors.  From the late 19th century onwards, the uses of ice cream became more innovative, and treats like ice cream sundaes and ice cream sodas were introduced.  In the US, soda fountains and ice cream parlours became widespread, especially with the introduction of Prohibition.  It started to be sold from stalls and from the mobile vans, with their distinctive chimes that alerted people to their arrival. The first ice cream bicycles were seen on the streets of London in the early 1920s, with Walls Ice Cream using the slogan ‘Stop Me and Buy One’.

How Ice Cream Was Made Before Refrigeration

These days we tend to take it for granted that we have a fridge and freezer in our home and that making our own ice cream or storing shop-bought frozen desserts will not be a problem.  But before the days of refrigeration, it was a luxury reserved only for the wealthy.  Those who could afford it built ice houses in their grounds, which consisted of either a pit dug into the ground and lined with straw and covered or a brick or wooden structure also insulated with straw and covered.  During the winter months, ice would be chopped from frozen ponds and lakes and carefully stored in the ice houses to be used in the hot summer months to make ice cream and cool drinks. A man from Boston called Frederic Tudor turned this process into a business, by collecting ice in New England and exporting it all around the world.

How they made ice cream before the days of refrigeration and electrically powered ice cream makers was by placing a large bowl in a tub that was filled with ice and salt, which was known as the pot-freezer method.  All the different ingredients were placed in the bowl, where the combination of the ice and salt brought the temperature of the mixed ingredients to below freezing, thus creating the ice cream. A variation of this method was practised by the French who used a covered bucket with a handle attached to the lid that was called a sorbetiere.  The pot-freezer method was replaced by a hand-cranked churn in around 1843, which also employed salt and ice to lower the temperature of the ingredients enough to freeze them. This method produced the ice cream a lot faster and the resulting frozen dessert was also a lot smoother and creamier.

During the 19th century it was mainly produced and sold by confectioners, caterers and cafes.   The first ice cream factory wasn’t built until 1851 in Pennsylvania, when Jacob Fussell frequently had a surplus of cream and needed to do something with it. Fussell went on to open several factories and taught his ice cream making methods to others, who also opened factories.  With ice cream becoming produced in larger quantities, it brought the price down and for the first time you did not need to be rich to enjoy this frozen treat.  The invention of industrial refrigeration in the 1870s, made the cutting of ice and the old ice houses obsolete, and modern ice cream production was born in 1926 with the invention of the continuous-process freezer. Soft ice cream was invented later in the 20th century, where the amount of air in the product was doubled which reduced the costs of production for manufacturers as less ingredients needed to be used.  This soft ice cream is usually served in a cone that is filled from a spigot in an ice cream parlour or from a van on the street.

Making Ice Cream Today

Making ice cream is actually a fairly simple process.  Once all the ingredients have been mixed together, they are then stirred slowly while being cooled.  This stirring stops large ice crystals from forming, and ensures that the ensuing dessert is smooth and creamy. The easiest way to make your own today is to use an ice cream maker that is powered by electricity and churns the ingredients until they are smooth and then either cools them inside a freezer, uses a solution of pre-frozen salt and water which melts to freeze it or the more expensive ice cream makers have a freezing element incorporated into them. One of the latest methods for making your own at home is to stir liquid nitrogen into your ingredients in order to freeze them.

Where Does The Best Ice Cream Come From?

Where the best ice cream in the world is made is a hotly contested issue.  Many believe that the gelato made in Italy is the very best that you will ever taste. Italian gelato typically contains less fat than ice cream and much of it is still made in individual shops called gelaterias.  The US has a huge market and is the home of companies such as Baskin Robbins that have a huge range flavours for sale, where you can choose different flavours for double and triple scoops.. Australians and New Zealanders are also very large consumers of ice cream, and the distinctive hokey pokey flavour, which is vanilla containing lumps of honeycomb toffee, was created in New Zealand.

So whether you like making your own ice cream at home or buy it at the store or from a van, you can now enjoy ice cream or gelato as an everyday treat.  If you want to try your hand at making your own, you can now buy an amazing range of recipe books, ice cream makers, scoops, glasses and spoons online.  So whether your favourite flavour is vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, pistachio, tutti frutti or toffee, enjoy your favourite treat and appreciate the fact that all you have to do these days is get the tub out of the freezer!

Strawberry Ice Cream Image Lotus Head Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 Unported

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