Cold Comfort – a Story of Ice Cream

Ice cream was probably invented in China in the first millennium. The first British recipe for ice cream was published in “Mrs. Mary Eales’s Receipts” in 1718. The recipe did not include a process for making the ice smooth so it must have had the texture of a granita (frozen flavoured syrup which is then whisked to give a granular frozen slush).

A Swiss-Italian businessman, Carlo Gatti, opened the first ice cream stall outside Charing Cross station in London in 1851. Gatti sold pastries, and ices in sweet edible shells. We know that he cut ice from the Regent’s Canal under a contract with the Regent’s Canal Company (I don’t even want to think about it. I have visions of dead rats frozen into blocks! ) and later invested some insurance money in his growing business as an ice import merchant. By 1860 he was buying 400-ton consignments of ice from Norway.

In 1877, Thomson and Smith, writing about Street Life in London, told of the “… little villainous-looking and dirty shops in which an enormous business is transacted in the sale of milk for the manufacture of halfpenny ices. This trade commences at about four in the morning. The men in varied and extraordinary déshabille pour into the streets, throng the milk-shops, drag their barrows out, and begin to mix and freeze the ices.”

ice cream CartBy the 1880’s they were everywhere. The Ice-Cream or Hokey-Pokey man, would probably be Italian and from Saffron Hill in the London Borough of Camden. In the middle of the century Saffron Hill was a nasty, overcrowded slum populated by the destitute and desperate. It was an area made famous by Charles Dickens in “Oliver Twist”. The Artful Dodger took Oliver there, for it was at Saffron Hill that Fagin had his rooms.

The problems were threefold. Firstly that the “milk” used was not always 100% genuine, being adulterated with other substances that had never seen the inside of a cow. Secondly if the milk came from a real cow then it was often unclean, having come from farmers in London or nearby where conditions were squalid. Thirdly the manner of serving was basically unhygienic and probably led to the death or unpleasant illness of a large proportion of customers. The original Ice-Cream was presented in small glass receptacles a bit like thick glass eggcups. These were described as penny licks due to the fact that one licked the contents directly from the glass and returned it to the cart owner, to be refilled for the next client. Nice, huh? The penny lick remained on sale until banned in 1926!

It was the advent of the edible cone that helped the industry to shed its unhealthy reputation. It’s suggested that they were around in the 19th century but became much more popular during the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. According to legend an ice cream seller had run out of the cardboard dishes used to serve ice cream, so they could not sell any more. Next door to the ice cream stand was a Syrian waffle maker, unsuccessful due to the heat of the exhibition hall; the waffle maker offered to make cones by rolling up his waffles and the new product sold well.

ice cream tricycleThe first ice cream bicycles in London were used by Walls 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, opening new factories and ordering 50 new tricycles. Sales in 1924 were £13,719, in 1927 £444,000. During the Second World War (1939-45) manufacture of ice cream was severely limited, and the tricycles requisitioned for use by the military – other countries had tanks… In 1947 Walls sold 3,300 tricycles and invested in new freezers for shops.

My earliest memories of ice-cream are of little cardboard boxes of fairly solid, very yellow bricks of ice-cream. We didn’t very often have these as we didn’t have a freezer or even a fridge. This meant that an ice-cream treat required a lot of foreplanning to enable the diner to enjoy a frozen dessert that was……well, still frozen or at least a bit stiff around the edges and a lower temperature than custard!

For me the purest is always the best. Perhaps a vanilla with a chocolate sauce or a shot of hot espresso poured over the top. I wouldn’t say no to most home-made ice-cream, made with good  quality ingredients but, to be honest, I am not keen on the trend for commercial ice-cream in logs with over-sweet whipped cream, chocolate chips (of inferior quality) or coloured “fruit” sauces that are so bright you could read a book by them.

Either make your own ice cream or seek out the best small producers who use quality ingredients. You’ll taste the difference. Ice cream can be a smart dinner party dessert and miles away from a kid’s seaside cone. The hot weather is with us (oh, really?) so enjoy some frozen luxury.


Article by Chrissie Walker © 2018