From King Charles II To Ben & Jerry: What Feeds Our Ice Cream Obsession?
If you stop to think about ice cream for just one second - what comes to mind?
Out of absolutely everything we eat, there is probably nothing else which conjures up such an eclectic mix of vivid images and associations as ice cream. It can be both a cheap seaside treat, and the ultimate indulgent luxury. It is the go-to food for happy over-excited children, and sad heartbroken adults. It is sold in its various forms everywhere from the supermarket, to the cinema, to restaurants, and even from the sliding glass window of a purpose built van.
It is probably because of its absolute ubiquitousness, that I had never really given ice cream much thought. In fact, I had rather dismissed it as a credible food stuff. It was a nothing-food. A fatty indulgence. A sugary filler.
However a recent visit to Scoop - The Ice Cream Experience at the British Food Museum - has given me cause to reassess my relationship with ice cream.
In the interconnecting corridors of the exhibition I discovered a rich story wound tightly around the changing social fabric of 300 years.
Take away modern refrigeration and clever chemistry, and its easy to understand why ice cream started as the ultimate luxury good. In 1671 King Charles II had a single bowl of iced cream served at the Feast of St. George at Windsor castle. It was a rare and exotic dish.
In the following years, the upper classes were so motivated to have regular access to the sweet treat, that they built ice-houses on their estates largely for the purpose. During winter, ice was farmed from lakes and rivers and stored in sunken barns to be available for cold treats during summer. Before the advent of electricity, what could be a more elaborate sign of your societal wealth and sophistication than presenting your guests with frozen food on a hot July day.
Slowly, over time, ice cream became more and more accessible. Ice blocks were imported into the UK from Norway and sold to ice cream makers. An ice cream machine was invented in 1843 to simplify the manufacturing process. Yet even then, just a litre of ice cream would cost over £50 in modern money so most could only afford it in tiny quantities; a fact which gave rise to the penny lick. The penny lick was a heavy glass with a modest indentation on top.
For a single penny, a small quantity of ice cream would be placed on top to be licked clean. It was a moment of cold, sweet pleasure for those who had never experienced anything else like it.
It was also a dangerous spreader of cholera and tuberculosis so was banned in 1898.
The ice cream cone is first mentioned in Mrs. A.B. Marshall's Book of Cookery of 1888 and it’s popularisation following the World Fair in 1902 kick started the modern ice cream age.
From as early as 1925, motorised ice cream vans were vending ice cream in crowded locations and bringing frozen treats around the streets. Reliable constant refrigeration didn’t come to commercial shops until the 1950s and 1960s in the UK, but with it came an explosion in flavours, brands and ice cream varieties.
And this is what has now come to fascinate me most about ice cream. Despite the same very basic ingredients at its heart (cream, sugar, eggs) our enthusiasm for the cold creamy stuff has not wavered for a second for over a hundred years. Go to any big event this summer, and children and adults alike will be queuing around an ice cream van just as they were in the 1920s and 1930s. If Mrs. A.B. Marshall herself jumped through time with her 1894 book on Fancy Ices and started serving her most popular Victorian connections, I have no doubt that modern punters would be just as eager to buy a bowl.
Perhaps its magic lies in the distinctive sense-tingling chill we experience with every lick, or even its unique melt-in-the-mouth texture that also gives chocolate its addictive qualities. The Paradise Now interactive exhibit (arguably one of the highlights of the Scoop exhibition) sought to scientifically demonstrate our internal response to eating ice cream. What better way to find out than by donning a light responsive EEG helmet and experiencing first hand how our brains react?
With our brain waves projected vividly onto the wall behind us, it was difficult to deny that we are all in some way chemically and sensorially entralled by ice cream.
The coloured lines (indicative of our sensory experience) are flat before eating ice cream. They become wildly animated with the first mouthful.
Whatever the reasons, we incontravertably continue to be besotted and endlessly enthusiastic by the promise of this sweet cold treat.
As Benjamin Franklin should have once said - “in this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death, taxes, and ice cream.”