Food historians have long portrayed ice cream as a luxury product confined to the elite until freezing technology brought it to the masses.
Indeed, surviving artefacts relating to the consumption of iced desserts tend to be those made by manufacturers such as Sèvres and Capodimonte, both royal porcelain factories, which produced fashionable items commanding high prices.
But new research suggests that in Italy iced products were enjoyed by rich and poor alike as long as 300 years ago.
“Contemporary sources suggest that there was much greater intermingling and over-lapping of social milieus in cities such as Naples than historians have thought,” Melissa Calaresu, a historian of 18th century Italy at Cambridge University, UK, said.
Calaresu focused her research on Naples in southern Italy: not surprisingly, much of the earliest evidence of ice-cream making dates back to places where the weather is reliably hot. We know that the Romans loved the cool taste of ice mixed with fruit and the Emperor Nero reputedly ordered snow to be brought down from the mountains to make into refreshing desserts.
Until the late 19th century, ice-cream making relied on large amounts of ice to freeze the mix as it was churned to keep it smooth. Throughout much of southern Europe, ice was harvested, often from glaciers in the mountains, and transported to towns and cities where it was used to cool buckets of mixes. Snow too was gathered and made into ice by being compressed in pits – in southern Italy known asneviere – where it was kept cold for months. Ice harvesting, and probably ice making too, was a mini-industry with teams of people busy both winter and summer.
By the 16th century, Naples was one of the many cities linked into that network of suppliers transporting a cargo of coolness by land and sea to a populace keen to sample the new tastes hitherto associated with the tables of the rich and powerful.
Calaresu studied the gathering places of Naples, which at the end of the 18th century was the third largest city in Europe.
“Coffee houses were places where people met and socialised, read the newspapers and exchanged titbits of gossip. But they also met in ice-cream houses – called sorbetterie in Italy,” she said. All these places played an important role in the spread of the Enlightenment, a movement that ushered in a belief in human progress.
Calaresu’s research into historical sources now suggests that ice cream and other frozen desserts were sold on the street and were enjoyed by a wider range of people than has been thought. The stifling heat of Neapolitan summer represented a lucrative market for cool refreshments that would have encompassed both rich and poor, both those living in the city and tourists.
The English travel writer Henry Swinburne, who travelled to Naples in the 1780s, wrote: “The passion for iced water is so great and so general in Naples, that none but mere beggars would drink it in its natural state; and, I believe, a scarcity of bread would not be more severely felt than a failure of snow.”
Official records held in Naples show that the demand for ice was so great that it was considered an important commodity; along with other staples such as grain and oil, it was taxed and prices for it were recorded and regulated. The status of ice and snow as a source of revenue is also illustrated by the presence of chapels named after Santa Maria delle Neve (Virgin of the Snow) which were visited by sailors to say a quick prayer before they crossed the bay of Naples with boats laden with ice.
Naples was a stopping point on the Grand Tour of the 18th century – a rite of passage undertaken by middle and upper class young men from Northern Europe who soaked up not just the splendours of the classical world but also remarkable natural sights such as Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
These well-heeled visitors purchased souvenirs (such as prints) of their cultural pilgrimages as proof of their status as educated and well-travelled young gentlemen prepared to take their place in polite society. Accounts written at the time reveal that travellers were as interested in the customs of local people as they were in sites of historical and geographical interest.
Prints sold as souvenirs suggest that iced treats were enjoyed by the lazzaroni (Neopolitan lower classes) as well as by the aristocracy.
An engraving by Pietro Fabris, owned by the British Library, shows a couple of barefoot boys reaching out to lick the spoon of an ice-cream seller who has stationed himself and his wooden pails in a square beside Naples’s Angevin castle.
An engraving of a similar scene, by Achille Vianelli, shows a sorbet vendor with a long apron selling his wares from a table set near the in Castel Nuovo. Two gentlemen in top hats and fitted jackets scoop their sorbets from small pots while a rascally-looking fellow with bare feet and a missing trouser leg tips his sorbet straight into his open mouth.
The dependence of the poor as well as rich on iced products was remarked on by many travellers. It even caused John Moore, an English doctor living in Naples in the 1780s, to see cold drinks as a serious threat to social order. He remarked disparagingly that: “The half naked lazzarone is often tempted to spend the small pittance destined for the maintenance of his family, on this bewitching beverage, as the most dissolute of the low people in London spend their wages on gin and brandy.”
Museums and private collectors have examples of ice cream containers made in silver and porcelain; the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has a fine example of a porcelain stand designed to hold ice cream cup. Made by Sèvres, it was originally part of a service given by Louis XV to Maria Theresa of Austria.
Little is known about containers used on the street. Calaresu suggests that vendors might have sold their wares in re-usable pewter bowls.
From the mid-19th century, ice cream bought on the street was served in thick glass bowls known as penny licks. Concerns about hygiene led an American entrepreneur to invent an edible container and the concept of the cone was born.