It is complicated to trace back the origins of ice cream in ancient times. Reference to refrigeration of fruits, milk and honey can be found in both ancient texts and in the detailed descriptions of the best-known archaeological discoveries.
In the Bible, Isaac offers Abram some goat’s milk mixed with snow: one of the first “mangia e bevi” of our history.
The archaeological excavations in the region of ancient Troy have brought to light some pits used for storing ice and snow – stocked in layers and covered with leaves and straw.
Historical tradition has it that King Salomon was very keen on having ice-cold drinks and that Alexander the Great, during his campaigns in India, demanded to have at his disposal a continual stock of snow which he ate mixed with honey and fruit during his marches and battles. Some scholars date the origins of ice cream back to approximately 3.000 years before Christ in the Far East, especially the Chinese peoples. Apparently, it was only later on, with the Mongolian invasions, that ice cream made its way in Greece and Turkey and in all other countries of the Mediterranean basin.
Among the most popular courses found on the grand banquets of the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs, there were some primitive forms of water-ice. Cleopatra made Caesar and Marcus Antonius taste some fruit mixed with ice; the mixture was of their liking.
The Romans produced the so-called nivatae potiones..
The General Quinto Fabio Massimo invented a recipe which gave a product similar to sorbet. Quinto Massimo Gorgo claims that the very first person who officially introduced ice cream in his banquets was Emperor Nerone. In year 62 after Christ, he offered his guests a drink which was made up of chopped fruit, honey and snow.
The method for freezing fruit juices by putting them in containers all around which crushed ice was spread was discovered during the Middle Ages in Eastern countries.
The Crusaders, when they left the Holly Land to return to their own homelands, took back to Europe some exquisite recipes of sorbets prepared with citrus fruits, mulberry and jasmine.
Marco Polo, towards the end of the 13th century, upon his return from his very famous trip to Asia, came back from China with some new ideas for artificial freezing via a mixture of water and saltpetre.
During the Middle Ages, sorbets along with some other exquisite courses disappeared from the banquets in that they were deemed to symbolize sin.
At the end of the 14th century, the fine art of enjoying life and good food was no longer seen as a sin and sorbets started reappearing at banquets.
It is only during the 16th century, a time when new fruits, trees, flavours and spices, tee, coffee and cocoa from the newly discovered continents are introduced in Europe, that cold desserts become the real stars on the tables of the rich and powerful.
At the Court of the Medici in Florence, sorbets became an important part of the banquets and of the parties. To begin with, the sorbets were very much similar to water-ice, while later on they were replaced by real whipped ice cream produced by rotating the fluid to be frozen in some primitive sorbet-vessels plunged in wooden vats filled with crushed ice and salt.
The product resulting from the above-described process was then transferred in metal pyramid-shaped, fruit-shaped, lamb-shaped and dove-shaped moulds, kept for a very long time under layers of ice, which, turned out of its moulds on big trays at lunchtime, was served as a conclusion to the sumptuous feasts of the time.
The first person to bring to court this new product was some Mr. Ruggeri – a man from Florence who sold poultry. This man took part in a competition that was organised by the Medici family of Florence; with his sorbet he won the competition and became famous in the entire region.
Caterina de' Medici, when she was fourteen and married Henry of Orleans, wanted Ruggeri to go with her to Paris. This is how the cultural impulse of the Italian Renaissance reached France.
In the meanwhile, Bernardo Buontalenti, an excellent artist, a man with a multi-faceted wit and peerless ability in entertaining people at parties given by the grand duke Cosimo I, settled down in Florence.
Buontalenti was asked to organise the celebrations for the welcome-party for the Spanish delegation. He organised performances of plays in the gardens and along the Arno, a wonderful show in the da Basso fortress and fireworks – he owes his nickname Bernardo delle Girandole (Bernardo of the Catherine wheels) to his fireworks – and he prepared a cream flavoured with bergamot, lemons and oranges which was frozen with a special mixture he invented.
According to the testimony of the historians of the time, it was this man of genius who came up with a major innovation in the art of conservation of snow. The snow was collected during winter snowstorms and pressed in cellars lined with straw in order to make it last longer.
Buontalenti created some special containers in basements, featuring a hollow space, filled with cork and lined with wood and canes in order to let water out as the ice melted, located outside the city walls, in Via delle Ghiacciaie – a road which still exists.
One century later, the Sicilian Francesco Procopio de' Coltelli, with a makeshift sorbet-machine put together by his grandfather and which he inherited form the grandfather himself, decided to go for the adventure of a long journey on the roads – infested with bandits - of our peninsula with the ambition of conquering Paris.
In 1660, he started his first coffee-ice cream shop in the transalpine capital.
Luis XIV, the Sun-King, praised his products in public thus contributing to making his success even bigger. Following this, Francesco Procopio de' Coltelli enlarged his shop and moved to rue de l'Ancienne Comédie Française, where he started another shop which he named after himself – i.e. Café Procope. This café became one of the most renowned literary coffee shops in Europe.
His name was Gallicized into François Procope de Couteaux after which the illustrious Italian was invited to Versailles in order to collect directly from the hands of the king one of the most longed-for acknowledgements of the time: the patent letters – which almost stood for granting the exclusive right for the production of specialties such as “frozen waters” (what we know today as water-ice), “fruit ice creams”, “flowers of anise and cinnamon”, “lemon juice ice cream”, “orange juice ice cream”, “cream of ice”, “strawberry sorbet”.
Another Italian ice cream producer who became famous in Paris was Tortoni, the man who founded the renowned Café Napolitainse; a massively famous café where Gioacchino Rossini stopped to have a meal.
At the beginning of the 18th century, the cold dessert was a must in all the courts and the capitals of Europe and at the same time, in the most prestigious coffee shops in Venice, Naples and Palermo, special ice cream-based menus became extremely popular.
In the United States, ice cream was hugely successful thanks to Giovanni Bosio, from Genoa, who, in 1770, started in New York the first ice cream shop.
In 1906, the “parigine” or “nuvole” made their appearance in the coffee shops in Milan. The ice cream was served between two round-shaped, square or rectangular wafers which were created by Giovanni Torre di Bussana, who, when he came back from Paris, started selling ice creams in the roads.
At the beginning of the century our ice cream producers, especially the Venetians, literally invaded the capitals of the Centre of Europe – hence consolidating the sale of ice cream in the roads especially in Austria and in Germany.
Today more than 5.000 modern ice cream shops, especially in German-speaking countries, in the Netherlands and in other countries in the North of Europe, are a source of employment to more than 15.000 people, most of them Italians.
Otello Cattabriga – from Bologna – in 1927, created the first automatic ice cream machine. This made producing ice cream less tiring thus making it possible for women to work in production laboratories.
Between the 50s and 60s the real production of homemade ice cream ran the risk of disappearing because of the astonishing success of the industrial type of ice cream widely distributed and supported by massive marketing initiatives.
Luckily enough though, the work of a Committee of Ice Cream Producers has brought about a real revival of homemade production so that from the few thousands homemade ice cream shops there were back then, today in Italy, there are approximately 25.000 of them. Our supremacy is acknowledged all over the world.