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Ice cream: a delectable history

I scream. You scream. We all scream for ice-cream

By Jeremy Ryland


I have just spent a week judging cheese, butter, milk, yoghurt and ice cream at the Royal Cheese & Dairy Produce Show in Sydney. This year was a big show with over 250 ice creams, gelatos and sorbets submitted.


Ice cream is one of our favourite desserts, beginning around 500 BC in the first Persian Empire when ice was combined with flavours to produce delicate treats.


During the 5th century BC, the Ancient Greeks mixed snow with honey and fruit in the markets of Athens. Indeed, the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, reportedly encouraged his patients to eat ice "as it livens the life-juices and increases the well-being"


The Chinese had a frozen mixture of milk and rice around 200 BC and, of course, the Romans enjoyed ice treats as well. Emperor Nero (37-68AD) had ice brought from the mountains and combined it with fruit toppings to create chilled delicacies. In early modern Europe, flavoured ices or sorbets were popular at extravagant feasts. It is said that Charles 1 of England (1600 – 1649) was so impressed by "frozen snow" that he offered his own ice cream maker a lifetime salary in return for keeping the formula secret, so that iced confection could be exclusive to royal functions.


But it was not until the invention of refrigeration in the 19th century, that ice cream became readily available to everyone and developed into what we know today.

The meaning of "ice cream" varies from one country to another. In Australia, according to Food Standards Australia New Zealand, ice cream is defined as "a sweet frozen food that is made from cream or milk products or both, and other foods, and is generally aerated". The key word is “cream” and by law, ice cream must contain no less than 100 g/kg of milk fat (10%) and 168 g/L of food solids. Ice cream also contains air, called “overrun” which is added by beating the cream. This ensures that it is smooth and still spoonable when frozen.


In its most basic form, ice cream is a mixture of cream and/or milk, sugar and sometimes eggs. If you simply place a container of milk or cream in the freezer, you'll end up with a stiff block of frozen liquid, not the soft, creamy ice cream that we're used to. Churning and beating the base cream creates smaller ice crystals and incorporates air, which produces a soft texture. In commercial ice-cream making, stabilizers such as plant gums are usually added. The mixture usually has flavourings added, the most popular being vanilla followed by chocolate. Today we have a range of flavours including fruits, nuts and vegetables as well as exotic flavours like durian, black garlic and even blue cheese with walnuts!


Gelato translates as “ice cream” in Italian; however, gelato generally contains less fat than ice cream and is made with whole milk rather than cream. It also has less air churned into it during freezing, which makes its texture denser. Sorbet is an ice confection, containing fruit and sugar and does not contain any dairy.


Everyone loves ice cream and its popularity has led to a number of ice cream variations including frozen custard, frozen yoghurt and non-dairy versions made with ingredients like coconut milk.


Liquid nitrogen and dry ice can also be used to make ice cream as they produce a quick freezing action which can be used for culinary theatre and to make novel products like bacon & egg ice cream, ice cream spaghetti and ice cream caviar.

Dessert: the grand finale

The famed gourmand Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826)

Ice cream is a great dessert and a good way to finish a meal, providing a cleansing contrast to the dishes before. Dessert is the sweet finale to any great meal, and is a very important element as it is often the last thing we remember.


The focus today may be on healthy eating with some people determined to stay alive forever saying that pudding is nutritionally incorrect, but sometimes there is nothing better than a decadent, totally indulgent dessert.


Desserts are not about calories and cholesterol – they are about enjoyment and pleasure. And studies have shown that pleasure is an important part of life and eating.


Pleasure is essential to good health as it enhances immunity, and immunity is our main defence against disease. When we feel good about ourselves and are enjoying life we are less likely to get sick.


However when we worry, are stressed and feel constantly tired, our immunity decreases and we tend to catch colds and other infections more easily. Immunity is inhibited by stress and enhanced by pleasure. Good health requires indulgence, not denial.


Dessert is often the most creative aspect of a meal – so enjoy this indulgent artform and stay healthy!


The father of gastronomy, Brillat-Savarin’s last words are said to be …


“Bring on dessert, I think I am about to die”!


Life is short – eat dessert first.