The Sweet Things in Life

Oh, ice cream . . . one of the sweetest things in life. Now that the summer weather approaches, I thought it might be time for a blog on the history of the icy treat.

The first recorded serving of ice cream in England was in 1672,  when King Charles II’s table at a banquet was served ‘one plate of white strawberries and one plate of iced cream.’ The first English cookery book to give a recipe for ice cream was Mrs. Mary Eales’ Receipts of 1718. Ice being rare, ice cream was a luxury reserved for the wealthy and had to be made and served immediately, there being no way to store it for any length of time.

The production of ice cream depended upon ice, which could be gathered from ponds and lakes in winter, while the use of ice houses goes back several centuries. By packing ice into an insulated underground chamber ice could be stored for months, sometimes years.  In the early 19th century importation of ice started from Norway, Canada and America, this made ice cream readily available to the general public in the UK. Ice was shipped into London and other major ports and taken in canal barges down the canals, to be stored in ice houses, from where it was sold to ice cream makers. This burgeoning ice cream industry, run mainly by Italians, started the influx of workers from southern Italy and the Ticino area of Switzerland to England. In London, the huge ice house pits built near Kings Cross by Carlo Gatti in the 1850s, where he stored the ice he shipped to England from Norway, are still there and have recently been opened to the public at The London Canal Museum.

Although they had been available in England since the 1670’s, ices were popularised by French and Italian confectioners who set up shops in London and elsewhere in the 1760’s, when horticultural and pastural themes became popular as decoration for entertainments.  Tables were laid in imitation of formal gardens or parks, complete with flower-beds of coloured sugar, gravel walks made from aniseeds, trees of candy and sugar paste figures. In 1765, the Duke of Gordon purchased a complete garden dessert from the Berkeley Square confectioner Domenico Negri for £25-7s-9d and served his guests at a table decorated with a brass-framed plateau adorned with Bow figures, china swans, glass fountains, parterres, a china umbrella and a kaleidoscopic display of sugar plums and bonbons. A surviving trade card advertising Negri’s shop is illustrated with fantasy temples, pagodas and fountains. Many decades later, these nature themes remained popular, with Lady Blessington having a live song bird presented at table in a spun sugar cage.

Domenico Negri had a shop at the The Pot and Pineapple at Nos. 7-8 Berkeley Square from about 1765. Two of his apprentices published recipe books later in the century, which both have large sections on ice creams. One of these, Frederick Nutt, whose The Complete Confectioner first appeared in 1789, gives thirty two recipes for ice cream and twenty four for water ices.

Twenty years later, Negri took Gunter on as a partner and by 1798 Gunter alone was running the shop, which stood on the east side of the Square. By that time, it had become a fashionable Mayfair rendezvous, with all the ton stopping to eat ices and sorbets. Ladies remained in their carriages, whilst their gentlemen leaned against the nearby railings, the shop’s waiters running back and forth across the street taking and delivering orders. Though it was not proper for a lady to be seen alone at many establishments, it was perfectly acceptable for her to be seen at Gunter’s. In addition to the ices, Gunter’s was known for their heavily decorated, multi-tiered wedding cakes.

In Grantley Fitzhardinghe Berkeley’s memoirs, titled My Life and Recollections (1865), Berkeley offers the following anecdote:

On these hunting days some very amusing things happened with my hunt which I have since seen attributed to various other persons. The Gunters, the renowned pastrycooks of Berkeley Square, were all fond of hunting, were frequently out with my hounds, and subscribed to the hunt.

” Mr. Gunter,” remarked Alvanley, ” that’s a fine horse you are on.”

” Yes, he is, my lord,” replied Gunter, ” but he is so hot I can’t hold him.”

” Why the devil don’t you ice him, then?” rejoined his lordship.

Gunter looked as if he did not like the suggestion.

Originally, ice cream was sold on the street in glasses that were wiped clean and re-used. These glass “licks” remained in use in London until they were made illegal in 1926 for health reasons. However, the forerunners of the ice cream cone as we know it also existed. G. A. Jarrin, an Italian confectioner working in London in the nineteenth century, wrote about almond wafers that should be rolled “on pieces of wood like hollow pillars, or give them any other form you may prefer. These wafers may be made of pistachios, covered with currants and powdered with coarse sifted sugar; they are used to garnish creams; when in season, a strawberry may be put into each end, but it must be a fine” . . . He suggested turning another of his wafers into “little horns; they are excellent to ornament a cream.” Ice cream cones were also mentioned by Mrs Agnes Marshall in her book Fancy Ices of 1894.

The first ice cream bicycles in London were used by Walls in London in about 1923. Cecil Rodd of Walls came up with the slogan “Stop Me and Buy One” after his experiments with doorstep selling in London. In 1924 they expanded the business, setting up new manufacturing facilities and ordering 50 new tricycles. Sales in 1924 were £13,719, in 1927 £444,000. During the war years (1939-45) manufacture of ice cream was severely curtailed, and the tricycles requisitioned for use at military installations but in October 1947 Walls sold 3,300 tricycles and invested in freezers for it’s shops. Walls remains the market leader in the UK for individual hand-held products such as Cornetto and Magnum.

Needless to say, the craze for ice cream continues today and I’m sure that Regency folk would be amazed to find that ice cream is nowadays affordable, can be kept at home and is offered in flavors with names such as Chunky Monkey and Rum Raisin – the sweet things in life, indeed.

2 thoughts on “The Sweet Things in Life”

  1. Fascinating stuff, as usual! Now I have to go and find these recipe books and memoirs! Oh my aching budget!

    And that last photo of the Cornetto is just torture! I probably ate my weight in Cornettos as a child during the three years we lived in England. I would give anything to be walking to the Norman church on the hill and stroll through the churchyard with my pals telling ghost stories on a summer's evening with a Cornetto dripping over my hand. Sigh!

  2. Louisa – Click on the red links in the article and it will take you to the books online. At least two of them, which should help your budget somewhat. Don't even want to think what my budget will look like after our day in the bookshops. Sigh.

Leave a Reply