…Wrote Wallace Stevens, in 1923. It’s one of those notoriously difficult modernist poems, but all it really means is ‘don’t get all metaphysical now. Eat ice cream, because tomorrow you could be dead’. Seems like a good philosophy to me. Ice-cream is a sweet, delicious treat, perfect for cooling off on a hot summer’s day.
But who do we have to thank for first creating this amazing food? And who perfected it? Who made the greatest ever ice-cream in history? Who can we crown as the actual emperor of ice-cream?
It looks like people have been eating frozen sweet stuff in various forms throughout recorded history. The Roman emperor Nero sent servants to collect mountain snow, which was then flavoured with fruits. This rather fits his decadent image. But the Chinese are widely credited with getting there first, with Marco Polo bringing back a recipe from the far east. This evolved into the modern, western-style ice cream all across Europe in the 1600s. I’m not sure how true that is, as stories about Marco Polo tend to be a bit dodgy.
The first proper record of ‘ices’ in England is from a banquet at Windsor in 1671. ‘Ices’ were popularised by French and Italian confectioners who set up shops in London in the 1760’s, which were rather like ice-cream parlours crossed with a bakery. There were recipes for a huge variety of flavours and types, some of which look pretty exotic to modern eyes. Brown bread, pistachio, elderflower and whitecurrant, jasmine, tea, pineapple, bergamot, orange blossom and even parmesan were all made into ices. A Mr Borella, confectioner to the Spanish Ambassador, published The Court and Country Confectioner in 1770, and this really taught the English how to make the classy new confection, but there were plenty of other chefs who sold recipe books for ices.
Making ice-cream without a freezer is actually pretty easy. Chefs had a ‘sorbetiere’, or a large insulated bucket filled with ice and salt. Their ice-cream mixture would be placed in a compartment in the middle, and stirred like crazy, rather like churning milk into butter. This meant it would freeze, but nice and smoothly, without large lumps of ice crystals. Modern ice-cream makers work on the same principle, except they are electric of course. Or for the ultra-modern, there’s always extra-fast freezing with liquid nitrogen.
Georgian ices were often moulded into the forms of fruit or other novelty shapes: pineapples, melons, apricots, spears of asparagus, bunches of grapes, beehives or elaborate abstract shapes. They were often laced with booze, which was pretty tricky to get right, and frozen fruit punches were particularly popular in England. The French preferred creamy ices, which were sometimes moulded to look like cheeses.
GA Jarrin’s book The Italian Confectioner contains the first ever recipe for an ice-cream ‘bombe’. These were initially actually made in the shape of bombs, grenades or artillery shells, sometimes with ‘flames’ on the top. They were made in special moulds and had a hollow centre that could be filled with another kind of ice cream, to spectacular effect when cut into. A mixture of water-based and cream-based ices were particularly popular, for maximum contrast. At a really fancy banquet you might an ice-cream bombe served on an ice sculpture and surrounded by complimentary mini ices.
But it was, of course, the Victorians who took ice-cream to ludicrous heights. In 1814 the famous French chef Antoine Careme created the Nesselrode pudding for the diplomat Count Karl Von Nesselrode. It became the most popular ice pudding of the Victorian era. It was usually made in a dome-shaped mould – an iced version of the Victorian’s beloved boiled puddings. It contained sweet chestnut puree and dried fruit soaked in maraschino cherry liqueur. This stopped the ice cream from setting to hard, and also made it boozy. It sounds incredibly old-fashioned, exotic, and did I mention – boozy?
I think we can safely say Careme is the Emperor of Ice Cream, and the Nesselrode pudding is his crown. Not literally of course. That would be messy and wasteful.
The next obvious question is – what does the mysterious Nesselrode pudding actually taste like? Only one way to find out!
The answer is – it’s delicious! But also very rich and heavy, and not in fact summery at all. It feels typically Victorian and very much like a Christmas pudding. I would be super happy to eat this instead of Christmas pudding, but I think one of those lovely fruit ices would be more suitable for a hot day.
I followed the updated recipe here. I made mini puddings instead of one large one, mainly because they were easier to fit into the freezer. Yes – yes I do have a variety of miniature pudding moulds in my cupboard. Obviously. As you see the puddings set very nicely after about 8 hours in the freezer, though you’d need longer to set a larger one. I served it with extra fresh cherries soaked in maraschino. Maraschino turns out to be somewhat hard to get hold of, but there’s a shop in Soho called ‘Gerry’s’ which promises it has every kind of alcohol in the world, and they had several different kinds. But I think you could easily substitute any kind of sweet liqueur in this – sherry or port would work well, for example. If I were to make this again, I would halve the quantity of fruit, as there was too high a fruit to ice-cream ratio for my liking. Replacing some of the fruit with nuts could be nice as well. If you wanted to make this super-easy, you could use shop-bought custard instead of making your own.
Much as I love the idea, I’m not going to attempt those vanilla and pistachio flavoured ice-creams in asparagus shaped moulds. Some things are best left to the professionals!