The orange wine will want our care soon. But in the meantime, for elegance and ease and luxury, the Hattons and Milles’ dine here to-day, and I shall eat ice and drink French wine, and be above vulgar economy. Luckily the pleasures of friendship, of unreserved conversation, of similarity of taste and opinions, will make good amends for orange wine.- Jane Austen to Cassandra, Godmersham, June 20, 1808
Jane wrote casually of eating ice in a day when the preservation of huge chunks of river and pond ice was no mean feat. Solid blocks of ice were hewn from nearby frozen ponds and rivers in winter, then hauled by teams of horses and men to a suitable storage space. Ships also brought in chunks of ice from glaciers and icebergs.
In early days, deep underground chambers whose doors faced north kept the temperatures freezing inside their heavily insulated structures, preserving the ice for up to two years. By the 17th and 18th centuries, owners of great houses built icehouses adjacent to their dwellings. These storage spaces had double insulated walls and double doors that kept the warm air out. The cold chambers also kept water, milk, butter, and other perishables refrigerated. Iced food remained the province of the rich, who could afford to build an ice house and pay servants who shaved the ice and prepared ices, ice sculptures, bombes, and ice cream. Experiments in flavors and designs abounded:
In the late 17th and early 18th century, long before refrigeration was available, Europeans were making ices and ice creams. Although they were often unsure about freezing techniques, they began experimenting with flavors immediately. Confectioners tried everything from breadcrumbs to grated cheese to candied orange flowers in these new frozen treats. They molded them into fanciful shapes and served them with style and flair. Once in a while, they stumbled – putting foie gras or puréed asparagus in ice cream, for example – but most of their experiments were successful. They led the way to the wonderful range of flavors we enjoy today. (Histories, Legends, and Myths of Ices and Ice Cream)
The great chefs were especially creative in the use of ice for preserving food, and making exotic foods. In a day before electricity, intricately carved ice sculptures of swans and cherubs and the like were all the rage in Europe. The great French chef Antonin Careme used iced water to make his spun sugar sculptures and kept desserts on ice and the pastry room cool to keep the unbaked pastries cool. (Crème du Carême)
Recipes for creating ices and ice cream haven’t changed much, but the methods have. By the mid 19th century small portable iceboxes and an ice cream maker had been invented, replacing laborious hand stirring with a handcrank until the mixture thickened. The following is an 18th-century ice cream recipe that illustrates how labor intensive and time consuming ice cream making had once been:
Pare, stone and scald twelve ripe Apricots, beat them fine in a Marble Mortar, put to them six Ounces of double refined Sugar, a Pint of scalding Cream, work it through a Hair Sieve, put it into a Tin that has a close Cover, set it in a Tub of Ice broken small, and a large Quantity of Salt put amongst it, when you see your Cream grow thick round the Edges of your Tin, stir it and set it in again ’till it all grows quite thick, when your Cream is all Froze up, take it out of your Tin, and put it in the Mould you intend it to be turned out of, then put on the Lid, and have ready another Tub with Ice and Salt in as before, put your Mould in the Middle, and lay your Ice under and over it, let it stand four or five Hours, dip your Tin in warm Water when you turn it out; if it be Summer, you must not turn it out ’till the Moment you want it; you may use any Sort of Fruit if you have not Apricots, only observe to work it fine. – Ice cream recipe from The Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffald, 1769, page 228:
- Georgian Ices and Victorian Bombes is another informative post from Historic Food, one of the most interesting and historical food sites on the web. In it you will find a wealth of illustrations, photos, and information about making ice cream.
- Lemon Ice: The Jane Austen Centre published a recipe for making lemon ice similar to one made in the 18th century. The article adds additional information about the origins of ice cream.
- Ice Cream and Chocolate Parlor since 1700 describes an Italian ice cream parlor that has been in existence for over 300 years. Their specialty is an almond ice cream that is probably as easy to make and flavorful as the one below.
- Histories, Legends, and Myths of Ices and Ice Cream provides a timeline and interesting tidbits of information about ices and ice cream over the ages.