Who knows how relieved Hannibal’s elephants would have been if only they had carried a cylinder of liquid nitrogen in their packs: a nice sorbet to cool down the troops could have been prepared in a flash, and the poor animals would not have had to carry those huge blocks of snow as they followed their leader’s route.
Ice cream has been with us for centuries, and its production can be thought of as an art form, passed down through the experimentations of cultures far removed from one another, until arriving at today’s molecular gastronomy techniques, which can create frozen desserts featuring effects worthy of the magician Merlin in record time.
The first recorded sorbets are Chinese, and were made using snow, honey, fruit, milk and rice. In addition to using a storage system featuring snow kept in underground caves, the Chinese also created ice artificially by bringing steaming buckets of boiling water down into frozen grottoes, and then collecting the crystals of ice that the vapor formed on the rocks. The Egyptians were somewhat less creative: hieroglyphs show slaves cooling fruit juices with fans, while the Pharaohs dipped their spoons into cups filled with snow.
In Roman times, commerce in ‘white gold’ was an important industry: reserves of snow could be found at mountain Terminillo, Etna and Vesuvius volcans (respectively next to Rome, Catania and Naples). Honey sorbet was a luxury that the kings often enjoyed, and which featured heavily in Nero’s vast banquets. In Medieval times, however, ice cream was often associated with sin, if not downright witchcraft.
At around the same time, however, our neighbors in the Middle East had perfected the art: an ancient Islamic recipe book, the Kitab al-Tabikh, features specific references to ‘Sherbeth’. And it was in fact the marriage of Arab techniques, the snow of Mount Etna, and succulent Sicilian citrus fruit that gave birth to the island’s long tradition of ice cream making.
We have to wait until the 14th century for the first European successes in ice cream making, however. It was then that Ruggeri, a poultry merchant and part-time chef, won a culinary competition with a cold dessert: Caterina De Medici even wanted to take him to France with her. His secret recipe was so sought-after that he ended up being attacked and threatened for it – so much so that he was forced to go back to his old job.
In the same period, Bernardo Buontalenti, an architect, miniaturist and engineer, and also a highly refined chef at the service of Cosimo I, built at Palazzo Pitti in Florence enormous containers for storing snow, which were insulated using cork. He also invented a machine for making frozen desserts which are still famous today, such as Crema Florentina and Gelato Buontalenti. When news of his success spread, Caterina De Medici had him kidnapped so that he could serve her.
Another Italian ice cream maker, the Sicilian Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, made his fortune in France. In the mid-1600s he left for Paris, taking his grandfather’s sorbet-making machine with him, and opened the Café Procope, which became the most fashionable meeting-place in the whole city, and which was frequented by intellectuals, philosophers, literary figures and politicians.
The commercial ice cream industry, however, was born in the USA. In 1846 Nancy Johnson invented the first hand-cranked sorbet making machine, thereby preparing the ground for the boom in street sorbet vendors.
The invention of the cone also came about in these years. At the time, sorbets were served in glasses. Legend has it that, during the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, an ice cream maker ran out of glasses, and turned to the owner of the stand next to his, a wafer producer, to lend him some wafers, thereby inventing the wafer cone. According to other sources, however, the wafer cone was patented by an Italian-American immigrant - a certain Marchiony.
But the real revolution is, it is said, the molecular gastronomy revolution. Amongst its principal experimenters are the physicist Davide Cassi and the chef Ettore Bocchia, the authors of the book Il gelato estemporaneo e altre invenzioni gastronomiche and ‘superchefs’ like Ferran Adrià and Massimo Bottura: all you need is a little liquid nitrogen (at -196°) to instantly freeze some classic flavor combinations.
However, you don’t need to turn to a laboratory or a Michelin-starred chef to enjoy for yourself ice cream that promises to involve all of the senses. Order a deconstructed tarte tatin in a good restaurant and you’ll be able to enjoy a caramelized apple stuffed with sweet-pastry flavor ice cream and drizzled with cinnamon sorbet. The senses of sight, smell and taste all marvel at the creation, and even our sense of hearing could be involved in the culinary game, if the spoon cracks the caramelized shell of the apple.