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History & Culture

The History of Ice Cream | From Milk Ice to Magnums

The chime of a trusty local ice cream van brings a smile to the faces of children the world over - but although it's been around for thousands of years, ice cream hasn't long been the affordable treat it is today. This story starts in ancient China.

2000 BCE, China – Milk Ice and Fruit Ices1

Over 4,000 years ago, farmers in China began milking their farm animals. Milk was a rare resource, and quickly became a highly prized commodity among the Chinese nobility. Their favourite method of consumption was a soft paste of overcooked rice, spices and milk – not so far from a modern-day rice pudding.

But while a bowl of hot rice pudding is wonderful on a cold winter’s day, it doesn’t quite hit the spot in the height of summer. So nobles began importing snow from the mountains during the summer and packing this soft rice-milk paste with snow to freeze it. The resulting ‘milk ice’ was a refreshing summer treat, and due to the difficulty of transporting snow across China during the summer, it was also seen as a symbol of great wealth.

As milk ice became more and more popular, the Chinese experimented with adding fruit juice and fruit pulp to snow instead to create ‘fruit ices’ – otherwise known as the world’s first snow cones. As the popularity of these refreshing summer treats grew and methods of preserving and transporting snow improved, they slowly became available to the public. Soon enough, pushcarts selling milk ice and fruit ice were commonplace on the streets of Peking in summer – giving us the world’s first ‘ice cream’ vendors.

1300s, Italy - The first modern ice cream2

The ancient Chinese planted the first seeds of modern-day ice cream, but it was the Italians who nurtured it into what we know today. It took more than 3,000 years for Chinese milk ice to reach Italian shores, and once it did, Italian nobles kept the recipe for milk ice a closely guarded secret. Winter snow was hoarded in vast underground caverns ready for summer – turning ice cream back into a treat reserved for only the wealthiest citizens.  

Ice cream was considered so exclusive during this time that it was used to show off Italian sophistication at the wedding of the Venetian Catherine de’Medici to Henry II, the future king of France. Italian chefs created a different flavour fruit ice for each day of the celebrations, with new and exciting flavours like lemon, lime, orange, cherry and wild strawberry hitting people’s taste buds for the first time. 

In one of these innovative recipes, her chefs replaced milk with sweetened cream, turning traditional Chinese milk ice into a richer, more indulgent dessert – the world’s first true ‘ice cream’.

1500s – First Europe, then the world3

It wasn’t until the 1560s that ice cream’s popularity really started to gather pace, due in part to Blasius Villafranca (a Spanish physician living in Rome). Blasius discovered that if you mixed ice or snow with water and saltpetre, the snow melted faster and froze the ice cream mixture solid. This discovery allowed Florentine confectioners to start making the world’s first solid, properly frozen ice creams. Less than ten years later, the iconic ‘bombe glacee’ was a staple on fancy Italian dining tables. 

Italy couldn’t keep such a delightful dessert to themselves, and by 1870, Italian immigrants had taken the secrets of making ice cream throughout Europe. It captured hearts wherever it went, with push-carts selling ‘penny lick’ ice creams quickly becoming a common sight as far afield as the streets of London. The recipe then crossed the Atlantic to the USA, with Thomas Jefferson apparently bringing it back to Philadelphia – which went on to become the Ice cream capital of America, inventing further delights like the ice cream soda. 

1900s, USA – Cone or cup?4

Almost 4000 years after the invention of ‘milk ice’, we were still eating our frozen cream treats from plates and bowls. It wasn’t until the 1904 St Louis World Fair that the first edible ice cream cone broke onto the scene. The story goes like this: Arnold Fornachou, an American ice cream vendor, ran out of cups to sell his ice cream in. Rather than pack up and go home, he joined forces with Ernest Hamwi, a Syrian baker specialising in making waffles. They rolled up waffles into cones, filled them with ice cream, and these “World’s fair cornucopias” were an immediate hit. 

Hand-rolled cones quickly took off in the USA, but they couldn’t quite take over from cups until 1912, when the first machine for creating ice cream cones was invented. Jump forward 100 years, and the humble ice cream cone is still a firm favourite.  

2000s, Everywhere - What’s next?

Fast forward to today, and ice cream is still the treat of choice for children and adults alike, with tens of billions of litres made and enjoyed across the world every year.5 Especially in Europe, it seems, which eats almost 30% of all the world’s ice cream!6

But even today, ice cream is still evolving. Sure the finest Italian gelato tastes delicious, but new technology and new ideas mean the ice cream of tomorrow could be truly incredible - perhaps even resisting melting in the sun or glowing in the dark! 

Read more about 6 ice cream innovations of the future 

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