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I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream: a short history of our favourite summer food

Ice cream, one of the most spectacularly successful of all the foods based on dairy products, has a comparatively short history. The first ice creams, in the sense of an iced and flavoured confection made from full milk or cream, are thought to have been made in Italy and then in France in the 17th century, and to have been diffused from the French court to other European countries. However, although the French did make some ice creams from an early date, they were more interested in water ices.

The first recorded English use of the term ice cream (also given as iced cream) was by Ashmole (1672), recording among dishes served at the Feast of St George at Windsor in May 167I ‘One Plate of Ice Cream’. The first published English recipe was by Mrs Mary Eales (1718).

The English, although they were consistently influenced by the French in adopting iced desserts and the techniques for making them, stubbornly kept to their preference for ice cream over the water ices which were more in vogue on the Continent. While they preferred ice creams, the English had remarkably few recipes for them. Mrs Eales was a pioneer with few followers; ice cream recipes remained something of a rarity in English-language cookery books (except for two which were translations from the French) until the end of the 18th century. Some authors gave no recipe; while others gave but one. The one notable departure from this pattern was by the little-known Mary Smith (1772), who gave ten recipes for ices, including Brown Bread Ice (which was in fact an ice cream) and Peach Ice Cream (which was really a water ice), thus illustrating the imprecision with which these terms were then used.

As for America, ice cream is recorded to have been served as early as 1744, but it does not appear to have been generally adopted until much later in the century. Although its adoption then owed much to French contacts in the period following the American Revolution, Americans shared 18th century England’s tastes and the English preference for ice creams over water ices, and proceeded enthusiastically to make ice cream a national dish. In 1900, an Englishman, Charles Senn, would write: ‘Ices derive their present great popularity from America, where they are consumed during the summer months as well as the winter months in enormous quantities.’ The enormous quantities of which he wrote were of ice cream.

This phenomenon has had a curious side effect in Britain and on the Continent. In our own century the term ice cream came to mean, for many people on both sides of the Atlantic, a dish of American origin; to such a point as to reinforce the failure of antique dealers, and even of some museums, to identify their ice cream moulds for what they are.

This ‘phenomenon’ constitutes perhaps the greatest paradox of all in the history of ice cream in the English-speaking world. However, ice cream has acquired its own histories in many other regions, quite enough to fill a book but here exemplified by just a few paragraphs.

In the Indian subcontinent, where the art of milk reduction has been highly developed, ice cream is called kulfi and is made with khoya, i.e. greatly reduced milk. It is traditionally made in cone-shaped receptacles, to which Achaya (1994) refers in citing a 16th-century document about the preparation of ice cream in Emperor Akbar’s royal kitchens (with pistachio nuts and saffron). The same author suggests that the Moghuls had been responsible for introducing this frozen dessert to India, possibly bringing it from Kabul in Afghanistan, a country famous for being a crossroads between East and West. This is perhaps the place to mention the theory that early iced dairy products developed in China before AD 1000 could have travelled westwards, although not by the hand of Marco Polo, who is associated with so much culinary mythology.

In SE Asia, the prize for interesting ice creams must be awarded to the Philippines. Ice cream must have arrived there from Spain, because the old-fashioned ice cream (helado) was made in a grinder called garapinera, with rock salt and ice packed round a central container of milk etc. In modern times American-style ice creams have been dominant, but often with ‘native’ flavours such as ube (purple yam) and macapuno (a variety of coconut), but also corn (maize) and cheese — all these being sold by vendors from exceptionally colourful carts.

In the Near and Middle East there are a number of outstanding ice creams. In Iran an ice cream flavoured with salep, sprinkled with pistachios, and laced with rosewater is particularly popular although commercial production does not date back further than the 1950s. This may well have come from Turkey, where salepli dondurma (salep ice cream sometimes with mastic added) is a traditional delicacy. Salep and mastic turn up again in booza ala haleeb, the ‘milk ice cream’ of Lebanon, where another remarkable ice cream is made with apricot ‘leather’.

A world tour of ice creams could be continued indefinitely, but would probably lead always to the same conclusion, that Italy is the top country for this product. Certainly, the prevalence of ice cream parlours and vendors with Italian names, worldwide, is remarkable. However, a distinction must be drawn between the excellence of ice cream at good establishments in Italy and the quality of products sold with the benefit of Italian names outside Italy. The latter may be good, but has often been greatly inferior. The ‘hokey pokey’ which Italians sold to children in Glasgow, for example, at the turn of the century sounds fun and poses interesting etymological questions but, to judge by some contemporary descriptions, was of lamentable quality.


The Oxford Companion to Food was first published in 1999 and was followed by a second edition in 2006. Alan Davidson famously wrote 80 per cent of the Companion, which was acclaimed for its wit as well as its contents; the second edition retains almost every word Davidson wrote, and takes care that new contributions continue in the same style. It is edited by Tom Jaine, Jane Davidson, and Helen Saberi.

This article originally appeared on the OUPBlog.