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«A royal dinner in seventeenth-century Naples was a dazzling spectacle. The splendor of the décor complemented the magnificence of the foods, to the ...»

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Early Ices and Ice Creams

A royal dinner in seventeenth-century Naples was a dazzling spectacle.

The splendor of the décor complemented the magnificence of the foods, to

the delight of the guests. Confectioners seized the opportunity to demonstrate their considerable talents and turned tabletops into showcases of

their art. They carved hams from ice and displayed them in baskets made

of sugar paste; they shaped lions and bulls from butter and posed them in

battle stance. They created fruit-and-flower-filled ice pyramids that glistened in the candlelight. They molded gods from marzipan to watch over the mortals at the table.

The foods that the diners actually ate were equally splendid. They feasted on a dozen or more courses, possibly spit-roasted pork topped with a crown of lemons, fresh strawberries bathed in wine and served atop a mound of snow, lasagna sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, and dishes of fresh fennel, pears, grapes, and artichokes adorned with snow and flowers. Parmesan cheese was served with sage under it and laurel leaves painted silver and gold over it. There was an abundance of wine. The grand finale was an array of cookies, pastries, and the fashionable new dessert: sorbetti.

At the time, Naples was still part of the Spanish empire, and Charles II was its king. Although Spain’s power and influence were declining, its nobles entertained as sumptuously as they had when Spain was the dominant power in Europe. They were in the vanguard of the dining changes sweeping through the continent. During the seventeenth century, wealthy Europeans were enjoying products from the New World, tasting tomatoes, Copyrighted Material chocolate, peppers, and other new foods. At the same time, changing theories of science were revolutionizing medical and nutritional doctrines, and new techniques and inventions were transforming culinary practices.

Nowhere were the changes more pronounced than in fashionable Naples.

It was the perfect setting for sorbetti to make its debut.

Turning to Ice All the dining changes taking place were important to the development of ice cream, but first and foremost among them was the discovery of freezing techniques. Long before anyone made ices and ice creams, much less served them to kings, ice and snow were highly valued. They were hard to get, difficult to store, and expensive. In other words, they were perfect status symbols. Those who were able to acquire them flaunted them, using them to add elegance to tables, cool the air on hot summer nights, and crown foods. Athenaeus, the second-century Greek philosopher and author of The Deipnosophists, wrote that “in the island of Cimolos underground refrigerators are constructed in summer, where the people store jars full of warm water and draw them out again as cold as snow.” Alexander the Great is said to have had pits constructed in which he stored snow and ice. A fourth-century emperor of Japan, Nintoku, was so pleased by a gift of ice that he designated the first of June as the Day of Ice. On that day each year, he gave chips of ice to palace guests in a ceremony called the Imperial Gift of Ice.1 By the fifteenth century, the elites of Spain and Italy could send their servants or slaves to nearby mountains, where they gathered snow, packed it down, wrapped it in straw, and carried it home, sometimes on mules’ backs, sometimes on their own. They stored the snow in pits dug for the purpose on their masters’ estates. Those who lived in areas where shallow ponds froze in winter harvested the ice and stored it in pits. Initially, the storage pits were simply holes in the ground filled with alternating layers of snow and straw and covered with straw or wooden planks. Over time, Europeans built larger and more elaborate pits and lined them with bricks or wooden 2 / Early Ices and Ice Creams Copyrighted Material slats. The pits were located in dry, cool spots, often on a slope so they would drain well. Later, the well-to-do constructed large, aboveground icehouses, often of brick. Some of the icehouses were so well constructed that water in them could be frozen into ice, cream could be chilled, and meltwater channeled to cool wine in a nearby cellar. In England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, icehouses became architectural whimsies: they masqueraded as Greek temples or Chinese pagodas. 2 But an icehouse allows only storage. The key to making ices was in finding out how to make ice or snow freeze other substances. That happened in the mid-sixteenth century, when Italian scientists learned that immersing a container of water in a bucket of snow that was mixed with potassium nitrate, or saltpeter, would freeze the water. Giambattista della Porta described the theory in his Natural Magick, published in 1558 and soon translated and disseminated throughout Europe.

Wine may freeze in Glasses.

Because of the chief thing desired at feasts, is that Wine cold as ice may be drunk, especially in summer. I will teach you how Wine shall presently, not only grow cold, but freeze, that you cannot drink it but by sucking, and drawing in of your breath. Put Wine into a Vial, and put a little water to it, that it may turn to ice the sooner. Then cast snow into a wooden vessel, and strew into it Saltpeter, powdered, or the cleansing of Saltpeter, called vulgarly Salazzo. Turn the Vial in the snow, and it will congeal by degrees. Some keep snow all the summer. Let water boil in Brass kettles, and pour it into great bowls, and set them in the frosty cold air. It will freeze, and grow harder than snow, and last longer.3 Eventually, scientists and then cooks learned that common salt would work as well as saltpeter. For centuries, the combination of ice and salt was used for freezing. Even today, some home cooks use the method when they’re making ice cream. Mixing salt with ice lowers the ice’s freezing point, causing it to melt. As it does, heat is transferred away from the ice cream mixture and it freezes.

Early Ices and Ice Creams / 3 Copyrighted Material When Della Porta filled his vial with wine diluted with water and turned it in the salted snow, the result was a semifrozen, slushy wine that was a hit at banquets. Illustrations of vials or flasks being turned in their tubs look uncannily like later illustrations of ice cream freezers being turned in their ice-filled tubs. A Spanish doctor practicing in Rome at the time, Blas Villafranca, wrote that this was the new way to cool wine and water, and that all the nobility and gentry of Rome used the method.4 In addition to slushy wine coolers, the new technique made possible all sorts of fanciful ice artistry. Cooks dipped fresh fruits in water, froze them until their icy exteriors sparkled, and then displayed them. They set marzipan boats afloat on seas of ice. They created tall pyramids of ice with fruits and flowers frozen within them. For a dinner in Rome celebrating the feast of the Assumption on August 15, 1623, Antonio Frugoli, a steward and author of Practica e scalcaria, made an ice pyramid with a fountain in its center. During dinner, fragrant orange-flower water splashed over the icy fountain for more than half an hour, according to Frugoli’s account.5 The coolness as well as the fragrance and beauty of the centerpiece must have charmed the guests.

Best of all, the new freezing technique made it possible for cooks and confectioners to begin experimenting with making ices and ice creams.

“The Stomach Grows Chilled” Not everyone took to all this iciness immediately. Dietetic beliefs were still governed by the humoral doctrine in the early seventeenth century, and its adherents prized moderation above all. Based on the writings of Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen, the doctrine classified people according to four humors or temperaments: sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, or melancholic. Each had its own characteristics and required particular foods or food preparation methods to achieve the ideal, which was defined as a slightly warm, slightly moist body.

Those whose dominant humor was sanguine were of a hot and moist character, so they required cooling, drying foods. Cholerics were hot and 4 / Early Ices and Ice Creams Copyrighted Material dry and needed cooling, moistening foods. Foods were classified as hot, cold, dry, or moist to varying degrees, a classification that had little to do with their physical properties. For example, strawberries were cold and dry in the first degree, and dates were hot in the second degree and moist in the first degree.6 Temperature was also important, since extremes of any kind were to be avoided. Very cold foods and drinks were considered especially dangerous.

Hippocrates had written, “Cold things, such as snow and ice, are inimical to the chest, being provocative of coughs, of discharges of blood, and of catarrhs.”7 In the fifth century, Anthimus wrote, “The stomach grows chilled and loses its efficacy”8 as a result of consuming cold drinks. Colic, convulsions, paralysis, blindness, madness, and sudden death were some of the problems attributed to putting ice in drinks. According to French food historian Jean-Louis Flandrin, the prejudice against iced drinks was based on the belief that wine turned into blood when drunk. To avoid serious injury it had to be drunk at body temperature.9 In addition, some believed that chilling drinks by immersing a decanter in ice and saltpeter was dangerous because particles of saltpeter could penetrate the decanter, get into the water or wine, and burn up the intestines.10 Small wonder that, despite changing ideas about science and nutrition, many seventeenth-century doctors disapproved of cold drinks, not to mention ices.

Of course, people don’t always follow their doctor’s advice today, and many didn’t then either. Their rationalizations—everyone else does it, I don’t do it often, I don’t use much—are familiar, too. The sixteenth-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne was visiting Florence when he wrote, “It is customary here to put snow into the wine glasses, I put only a little in not being too well in body.”11 The noted seventeenth-century English diarist John Evelyn blamed “an Angina & soare Throat” on drinking wine with “Snow & Ice as the manner here is” when he was staying in Padua.12 Long after humoral theory had been forgotten, some of its tenets remained in popular consciousness. At the turn of the twentieth century, Early Ices and Ice Creams / 5 Copyrighted Material famed cookbook writer and cooking school director Fannie Farmer wrote of ices, “Hygienically speaking, they cannot be recommended for the final course of a dinner, as cold mixtures reduce the temperature of the stomach, thus retarding digestion until the normal temperature is again reached.”13 However, most physicians were leaving the humoral system behind by the latter part of the seventeenth century. Chefs and diners alike were only too happy to follow their lead. European eating habits were changing;

heavily spiced and sweetened foods were off the table, herbs and salads were on. Wines sparkled. Sugar found its home in the dessert course.

A Sip of Sherbet Once scientists had mastered freezing, and medicine had more or less given its approval, creating recipes for ices and ice creams was relatively simple. After all, cooks had for many years been making the drinks and creams that were the precursors of ices and ice creams.

In the Middle East, drinks known as sherbets—sharâb or sharbât (Arabic), sharbate (Persian), serbet (Turkish)—have been ubiquitous since medieval times. European travelers encountering them for the first time often wrote about them with great enthusiasm. Sir Thomas Herbert, who traveled in Persia from 1627 to 1629, wrote, “Their liquor is sometimes fair water, sugar, rose-water, and juice of lemons mixed, and sugar confected with citrons, violets or other sweet flowers; and for the more delicacy, sometimes a mixture of amber; this we call sherbet.” He said sherbet was “a drink that quenches thirst and tastes deliciously.” The Persians served their sherbets over ice or snow in large porcelain or gold bowls and sipped them from long-handled wooden spoons.14 A nineteenth-century English novelist, James Morier, described the flavor of Persian sherbets as “so mixed that the sour and the sweet were as equally balanced as the blessings and miseries of life.” 15 Sour flavors were popular in Middle Eastern sherbets, and in fact, sour Cornelian cherries (Cornus mas) were so commonly used in Turkish sherbets that the cherries were also called, simply, sorbet. Pomegranate, citron, lemon, 6 / Early Ices and Ice Creams Copyrighted Material lime, and quince were also popular drink flavors in the Middle East. European drink flavors included lemon, strawberry, raspberry, cherry, apricot, peach, pistachio, and hazelnut. The drinks were made by blending fruit juices and other flavorings with sugar and water, or a sugar syrup, then chilling them with snow or ice. We make lemonade the same way today, although ice has replaced snow. To freeze the drinks into smooth ices requires added sugar, something cooks figured out after they had made a few very icy ices. Eighteenth-century drink recipes often directed the reader to double the sugar when turning a drink into an ice.

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