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‘Stop Me and Buy One’

By Jayne Shrimpton

The first chilled delicacies date back millennia, to when the ancient Chinese, Romans and other early civilisations combined snow or ice with fruit juice or dairy products for the enjoyment of the social elite. In the Levant sharbat/sherbet became renowned as a summer refreshment, but this concoction, created by whisking ice shavings or snow into sugar syrup flavoured with fruit juices and floral essences, and Middle Eastern-style sherbets replicated in fashionable 17th-century London coffee houses weren’t genuine ices, but scented water-based drinks - sometimes cooled with ice or snow, never frozen.

Authentic frozen ices developed following discovery of techniques for artificial freezing, using the powerful refrigerant properties of crushed ice mixed with various chemical salts. Adding common salt or saltpetre to ice lowers its freezing point to far below zero, enabling liquids placed within to become frozen solid, not simply chilled. This method was first recorded in Europe in 1530 by Italian scholar Marco Zimara and finally in the 1600s began to be systematically used for freezing foodstuffs.

Genuine ice cream appeared in Britain surprisingly early, but was initially a luxury reserved for royalty and the nobility. Reputedly a French cook, Gérard Tissain, introduced ice cream to Charles I, but no evidence survives. Ice cream first appeared on an English menu at the 1671 Garter feast, but was served only to the King! In the 1690s Grace, Countess Glanville published a recipe for ‘ice creame’ similar to an earlier work by Lady Fanshawe, but now with critical directions for freezing it with ice, alum, salt and saltpetre. However, one other important process, regular stirring of the freezing mixture to prevent formation of large ice crystals, was only understood in Britain once clear English instructions were published in the mid-1700s.

During the 18th century French confectioners developed ice-cream manufacture in innovative ways. Several important publications appeared, notably the first book devoted to the subject: L’Art de Bien Faire les Glaces d’Office (1768) by Emy of Paris, whose recipes included ices flavoured with truffles, rice, rye bread and dark rum liqueur. Novelty-shaped moulds were growing more inventive and ices began to be served in special vessels called ice pails, to prevent ices from melting when brought to table. Fine porcelain ice pails or ‘glaciers’ made in France at Sèvres were matched in English porcelain factories like Spode and Wedgwood.

By the late-1700s commercial confectioners in cities and major towns throughout Britain were marketing high quality ice creams and water ices expertly moulded into ornamental shapes like oranges, lemons, melons, and other fruit. Producers included French, Italian and Spanish emigrés, also English and Scottish artisans who had learned the craft. The most prestigious establishment in Georgian London was the ‘Pot and Pineapple’ run by Domenico Negri from Turin and English confectioner James Gunter, their Mayfair business patronised by the royal family, including the Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent). Ice-cream making also extended to the great country estates that were now being equipped with icehouses in their grounds. In 1770 a Mr Borella published a small guide, The Court and Country Confectioner, aimed not at professionals, but at the many housekeepers and female cooks now keen to learn ice-cream making skills. More influential was The Complete Confectioner (1789) by Negri’s former apprentice, Frederick Nutt. The first work to provide both clear instructions and precise quantities, Nutt often used egg yolks and advocated syrup instead of sugar. His varied recipes emulated many from Italy at that time, the more unusual flavours including ginger, bergamot and parmesan cheese.

Although expert confectioners dominated professional ice-cream manufacture, the craft increasingly developed at a domestic level, initially in the kitchens of affluent homes. By the early-1800s some large houses had cool rooms furnished with ice storage chests, various freezing pots, spaddles (stirring implements) and elaborate ice cream moulds and with advancing mass-production of consumer goods, ever more specialised equipment became available. In the mid-1800s several hand-cranked ice-cream freezers were manufactured with simple mechanised features, still combining ice and salt as a refrigerant. One was Thomas Masters’ machine, patented in 1843, which allegedly made ice cream and produced clean ice.

Over time ice-cream, once prohibitively expensive, extended further down the social scale. Increasingly, domestic servants created ices in their employers’ kitchens, some being sent to privately-run ice-cream making courses. By the later 1800s serving iced delicacies to dinner guests as entremets or dessert was fashionable with the rising middle classes - diverse ice creams, water ices, sorbets, bombes and iced puddings with novel French names.

In mid-19th century London cheap ices were also being sold on the streets by pedlars using Masters’ patent freezers, the trade escalating following an influx of Italian immigrants fleeing political strife and economic stagnation at home. Many hailed from Lazio and the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino and by the 1860s Italian ice-cream vendors were a familiar sight in London, Manchester and other industrial cities. As the railway network expanded, Swiss/Italian ice-cream confectioners also ventured to the south coast, like the Bolla, Biucchi and Pagani families who operated here in Brighton between the 1870s and c.1910. Such businesses came to characterise busy seaside resorts and encouraged a taste for continental confectionary, pastries and ice-cream among ordinary British people.

Street vendors selling cheap ice-cream to the working classes initially met with resistance, especially from established confectioners. Ice cream bought and consumed on the street was popularly called ‘hokey-pokey’, both a generic term and the name of popular half-penny and penny paper-covered slices of multi-coloured ice cream resembling luxury Neapolitan ices, but of inferior quality. Other favourites were ‘penny licks’, a few mouthfuls of ice cream slurped from thick glasses that were then rinsed in filthy water and re-used. Health issues came to a head in 1901 and legislation grew stricter, also prompting the use of more hygienic edible wafers for ice-cream.

Ice cream sellers pushed refrigerated handcarts through the streets, or used horse-drawn carts, often gaily painted like fairground stalls. Some family businesses operated for generations, upgrading in the 1920s and 1930s to motorised vehicles: tricycles, motorcycle combinations and vans. During both world wars due to milk and sugar shortages ice cream manufacture was banned or heavily restricted, and sadly during WW2 many Italian ice cream producers were interned. Some re-established their businesses, but the industry was already changing with large-scale English manufacturers adopting modern American marketing techniques. T. Walls & Sons, a London sausage-maker, opened an ice cream factory in Acton, West London, becoming the first British ice cream wholesaler with nationwide sales. Beginning in 1922 with 10 ice-cream tricycles on the streets bearing the well-known slogan ‘Stop me and buy one’, by the outbreak of war in 1939 Walls operated 8,500 tricycles and 160 depots throughout Britain. Lyons, beginning by selling ices from its well-known tea shops and corner houses, expanded under the name Lyons Maid from 1925. These big brand names increasingly dominated ice cream retailing, spearheading the introduction of new products like iced lollies on sticks and ‘soft-serve’ ice creams Mr Whippy and Mr Softy. Some childhood favourites like the ‘Mivvi’ launched by Lyons Maid in 1967, with its colourful fruit-flavoured coating hiding an ice-cream centre, seemed fun and modern at the time: few knew it was essentially a Victorian bombe surprise on a stick!

Posted in History on Aug 01, 2019