‘I scream, you scream, we all scream for ICE CREAM’ was a little ditty I learned as a child, and it is true that most people of every age and nationality love ice-cream.
This wonderful iced confection we all enjoy has been around for several thousand of years and where it originated is lost in the mists of time. There are many stories and myths about where and when it was invented and by whom. What IS sure is that the Chinese were eating something very similar about 3000 years ago They poured a mixture of snow and saltpetre over the exteriors of containers filled with syrup,milk and rice, for, in the same way that salt raises the boiling point of water, it lowers the freezing point to below zero.
The first written mention of iced cream comes from China back in the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) when the milk of mares, buffaloes, cows or goats would be mixed with rice flour and camphor (?!), and chilled down to make it. (To be honest that does not appeal to me – camphor, as a flavour???).
King Tang of Shang who founded the Tang dynasty had a large household and employed no less than 2271 staff to produce all the food and wines for the Palace – and of that number no less than 94 servants were there just to manage the ice and make iced dishes.
The celebrated Song dynasty poet Yang Wanli (1127-1206 AD) wrote a very evocative and poetic description of this early type of ice-cream:
It looks so greasy but still has a crisp texture,
It appears congealed and yet it seems to float,
Like jade, it breaks at the bottom of the dish;
As with snow, it melts in the light of the sun.
As well as the different types, – cream free, water based, custard based, containing eggs, not-containing eggs, parfaits, sorbets, etc. – there must also be thousands of flavours of ice cream available these days, so it can be very confusing to enter an ice-cream shop and try to decide what to choose!
My son says that plain Vanilla ice-cream is the default position, and that after surveying the different flavours on display 80% of people opt for that. Now, there is nothing wrong with a high quality vanilla ice, but these days I often go for something more adventurous.When we are in Beijing I do buy ice cream, but often find it lacking – the Chinese are not great on milk/cream and so it often seems rather watery, and some taste rather weird as I am a laowai (foreigner) and don’t really enjoy black sesame, red bean paste, durian or green tea as ice-cream flavours. But, as the saying goes – chacun à son goût.
Credits: Much of the information about ices in Ancient China can be found in histories of food, and on-line; and I found the excellent book ICES by Caroline Liddell & Robin Weir, ISBN 978189897268 particularly helpful; The photo of Janetta’s Gelateria is from ‘The Saint’ (St Andrew’s University Student Magazine).