“I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream,” as the 1927 song goes, and it doesn’t matter whether your favourite flavour is mint choc chip, peanut brittle or plain old vanilla, most of us love this treat on hot summer days. Part of the fun is how ice cream transports us back to childhood memories, when everything, it feels, was bigger and better. I was so envious of the children in The Grey Family by Noel Streatfield, because even though they were forced to go out with Nana on her Saturday walk, it always “finished with Nana buying them an ice cream,” whatever time of year. I’d have been a much more obliging child if that inducement had been on offer.
We’ve been eating ices for centuries. Amazingly, the Persians made their popular rose-scented faloodeh as far back as 550 BC, using ice houses and ice pools. Ottoman Turks had also long served a frozen fruit sherbert drink, forerunner of the modern sorbet. In the mid-1600s, Charles I was reportedly so impressed by eating “frozen snow” that he offered his ice-cream maker a lifetime pension in return for keeping the formula secret, so it could remain a royal prerogative. He must have passed his passion on to his son, since the first recorded mention of ice cream in England was in 1671, when Elias Ashmole described the dishes served at the Feast of St George at Windsor for Charles II. It includes “one plate of ice cream” intended only for the King’s table.
We’ve been eating ices for centuries. The Persians made their rose-scented faloodeh as far back as 550 BC
An Italian from Naples, Antonio Latini, boosted ice cream’s popularity when he set down the first recipe for a milk-based version of sorbet in 1686, but it didn’t really reach the masses in the UK until the second half of the twentieth century, when cheap refrigeration became available. This led to an explosion of ice cream stores, where different flavours and types were introduced – particularly in Scotland, with its growing Italian immigrant communities. Police statistics show that in 1903 there were 89 ice cream shops in Glasgow, and nearer 336 by 1905. A year later, the Parliamentary Committee on Sunday Opening described ice cream businesses as not only staffed and owned by “aliens and Roman Catholics”, but also “epitomising the evil of luxury being smuggled into the souls of Glaswegians.” It turns out their fears were partly justified, since in the 1980s the turf wars in the east end of Glasgow were run by rival criminal organisations that sold drugs and stolen goods from ice cream vans.
Even the ever-popular “99 Flake” – an ice cream cone introduced to Britain by Italian gelati makers between the wars, and an instant hit at British seaside resorts – has become controversial since the chocolate flake was outsourced to Egypt this year. Vendors complain it’s now “too crumbly” to stick into the ball of ice cream. The “99” was introduced to market a softer ice cream, aerated to minimise manufacturing costs (and maximise profits), and a two-flake cone is still known as “bunny’s ears”.
My own children have only ever known good quality ice cream, but I feel sad for them because they’ve missed out on a half-century of radical reinventions. When I was at school in the ’70s, for example, ice cream was meant to be a treat but was always violent pink and left a nasty taste in your mouth. I loathed it because I’d had the luxury of my mother’s home-made version, which was the palest of pinks, tasted of strawberry jam and cream, and was out of this world.
Occasionally, one of my friend’s birthday party outings would end with the thrill of a visit to Baskin Robbins’ American ice cream store, which was a bit like stepping into a live version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there were so many flavours and toppings to choose from – though alas not “Mr Fickelgruber’s ice cream that would never melt, even in the hottest sun,” nor Mr Wonka’s “HOT ICE CREAMS FOR COLD DAYS”.
Then, in the 1980s, a “good night in” meant takeaway pizza and a video, polished off with a tub of Ben & Jerry’s or Häagan-Dazs. Our freezer compartments always had iced Bounty or Mars bars that could be polished off in seconds (a good thing as it meant there was no time to worry about the calorie count). But we became ice cream purists in the 1990s, when dinner parties involved ices made only from eggs, sugar, cream and vanilla pods (though I was once convinced my Bridget Jones-alike hostess had dropped cigarette ash into her culinary delight.)
In the 2020s you can find anything from frozen yoghurt to vegan ices, as well as novelties like Little Moon mochi ice creams, which my friends rave about. Home ice-cream makers also feature in many kitchen cupboards, but all you need is a freezer-proof container to make the following dessert.
Chocolate Ice Cream
Prep time 10 mins | Cook time 10 mins
100g plain chocolate
200g sweetened condensed milk
300ml double cream
Break the chocolate into pieces, place in a small bowl with the condensed milk and melt over a pan of simmering water. Remove from the heat, stir in the water and leave to cool. Then lightly whip the cream until it just holds its shape. Fold into the cooled chocolate mixture. Pour or spoon into a container and freeze for several hours until firm.
Lydia Brownlow is a former cookery editor at Good Housekeeping magazine and contributor to The Daily Beast. She currently inspires children to cook. More info at lydiabrownlow.com