The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream

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.

John Bull and his family at an ice cafe, c1815. Image from Newcastle University

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.

A typical hand-cranked sorbetiere, or ice-cream maker

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.

Vanilla and pistachio ice-cream, shaped like asparagus. Photo from the website

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.

A series of moulds for ice-cream bombes. From the website

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?

Fancy Victorian ices, including a Nesselrode pudding in the centre. From the website

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.

Antoine Careme – the emperor of ice cream!

The next obvious question is – what does the mysterious Nesselrode pudding actually taste like? Only one way to find out!


My mini Nesselrode pudding, with maraschino soaked cherries

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!

Mad Max: Fury Road and two rules for making great drama (plus some other reviews)

Spoilers alert!

I recently saw Mad Max: Fury Road. I must say I wasn’t too excited at first. Another tired old remake/sequel/prequel I thought – why can’t Hollywood come up with something new and original? But in fact this movie is really original! It’s about 2 hours long, and 1 hour 45 of that is one mighty car chase, in which monster trucks race across the desert and they all try to kill each other. The bad guy is accompanied into truck-based battle by a lorry full of drummers and a dude playing a frenzied guitar solo on a guitar that doubles as a flame thrower, swinging around off the top of a truck on a bungee rope. Insane guitar dude was quite possibly the best thing I have ever seen in my life. I mean, what evil apocalyptic warlord wouldn’t want a flame-throwing guitar player to accompany him into battle?

Mad Max’s crazy guitar dude

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Book reviews

I’ve been reviewing all the books I read this year. I was going to save this up until January, but that would make a monstrously long post. So here’s the top 5 books I’ve read in the last 6 months, and all the rest…



1. The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

I’m a fan of Hustvedt’s brand of psychological post-modernism, but I think this is her best book yet. Harriet Burden is a grandmother and widow of a rich, famous art dealer, and also an artist in her own right. She’s long felt that her gender and her husband’s status excluded her from the art-world fame she truly deserved, and now she’s devised an experiment. She will create the art shows, and get three male artists to pretend it’s their creation, see how the critics react, and later expose them for the hypocritical bigots they really are. Of course, things don’t actually work out like that. Although to a certain extent this is a satire on the art world, that aspect is not that important. The novel is presented as an edited collection of Harriet’s own diaries and notebooks, interspersed with reviews from critics and interviews with Harriet’s, friends, lovers, children and collaborators. It’s a regular polyphonic spree that explores gender, identity, the media, robotics, the internet age, neuroscience, memory, philosophy and art. How do we know who we are, and how can we control how others think of us? Are memories to be trusted? Do we become many different people over the course of our lifetimes? Do straight white men really get a free pass in life? Do women sabotage themselves and each other? There are no answers here, but there are jokes about Freud and footnotes on Heidegger. It is all incredibly highbrow and quite a challenging read in some ways. Yet there is also a terrific story, which builds an incredible sense of menace, mystery and tension. There are unexpected moments of pathos, fistfights, and a refusal to shy away from bodily functions. The language, descriptions and constantly shifting characters are so vivid that I found this truly a blazing world. The ending was so totally unexpected and yet so perfect that I actually cried, which drew some funny looks at 8.30am on the district line, I can tell you. I suppose this is not something that will appeal to everyone, but it’s definitely my book of the year so far. I’m looking forward to re-reading this to discover even more that I missed the first time round. Continue reading

Cinematic reasons to avoid Australia…

During the many years I have spent watching films, I have discovered an odd sub-genre that no-one else seems to have noticed: films that make you terrified of visiting Australia. To watch these is to be slowly suffocated by a creeping dread that leaves you in numbed, leaden misery for days afterwards. You may find yourself pulling the duvet over your head and desperately hoping that continental drift won’t bring this dreaded land any closer to us. Back off Australia, you’re close enough!

I have excluded both straightforward horror films and torture porn-type movies. I mean, once you’ve grasped the concept of something like the human centipede, is there really any need to watch it?

Before we get started, I just want to note that the real Australia seems like a lovely place and if I spend enough time watching Crocodile Dundee and Strictly Ballroom, I may find the courage to visit one day. Also, I know many lovely people who live in Australia, and as far as I know none of them are serial killers…

NB probably loads of spoilers…

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Archives and History News: from Ireland to Nepal, Ukraine to Australia, and a debate about the European Union…

Good news for anyone doing genealogy research in Ireland – 40,000 records are going to be made available via a new website. The National Gallery of Ireland has digitised the catholic parish records dating from 1740s to the 1880s and the free website is going live in July.

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How to be a Victorian gentleman

According to this article, men are having a crisis. They no longer know how to be a man. Should they be metrosexuals, lumbersexuals or – *shudder* – spornosexuals?  There is a great deal of nostalgia for an earlier age, when being a man was a simple matter of having a job and keeping a stiff upper lip, preferably with a moustache on it. But was it really any easier for Victorian gentlemen? Trick question! Of course it wasn’t!

Robert Downey Jnr, masquerading as the finest of all Victorian gentlemen – Sherlock Holmes!

So what did it take to be a ‘gentleman’ in the nineteenth century?

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It’s the end of the world as we know it … and I feel fine! Nine apocalyptic novels

I love a good apocalypse, don’t you? But because they can sometimes be a bit harrowing I’ve rated them with some 50-shades style safe words:

Green: painful – but with a happy ending!

Yellow: approaching my pain threshold….

Red: make it stop!!!! Don’t read these if you’re feeling a bit fragile.

1 The Stand by Stephen King

‘Epic’ is a word that gets bandied about a lot, but at a whopping 823 pages, this really is a massive book. To get some perspective on that, The Goldfinch is only 784 pages. In this novel, a weaponized flu virus  – nicknamed ‘Captain Trips’ – is accidentally released from a military research facility. It kills 99.4% of the world’s population in a fortnight. Then the Satanic Randall Flagg appears, walking down a dusty road in his cowboy boots, calling all the evil people to join him in – where else? – Las Vegas. Meanwhile, the holy mother Abigail brings all the good people together in Colorado, and the stage is set for humanity’s last stand. What I love about this book is the huge variety of characters from all walks of life, and how convincing they are as people. A pregnant teenager, a one-hit wonder rockstar on the run from an angry drug dealer, a deaf man beaten up and anxiously waiting to face his tormenters, unemployed loafers hanging out at the petrol station in small-town Texas, two criminals on a mad killing spree… All their problems look a bit silly after Captain Trips. What I didn’t like was the silly ending and that Mother Abigail is another of King’s awful ‘magic Negro’ figures. Oh Stephen!! Apparently there’s going to be a film version starring Matthew McConaughey as a heroic Texan. This is a travesty: I imaged the character much older and more normal-looking. I’ll still watch it though.

Rated: green

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Archives and History News: archives lost through fire, looting and obsolescence…

So far, 2015 has not been a happy year for archives and cultural heritage.

There was a huge fire at the Academic Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences in Moscow. It’s one of Russia’s largest libraries, and it’s pretty much devastated, with an estimated 1 million manuscripts burnt to a crisp.

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A Very Victorian Valentine’s Day

Love it or hate it, Valentine’s Day is inescapable.  For some, its the ultimate chance to treat your loved one, to kindle or re-kindle romance. For others, it’s a tacky, over-commercialised, over-priced, inauthentic display, making a mockery of true love.  For some its even worse – a painful reminder of their single status.

Where did this festival of romance originate? Valentines day’s roots are obscure, and stretch back into the mythic past. There are several Saint Valentines, but none of them has an obvious connection with romantic love.  Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem ‘The Parliament of Fowls’ notes that birds choose their mate on Saint Valentines day.  As birds do not mate until the spring, some have suggested that the romantic St Valentine’s day might have been celebrated in March or April in the medieval period. Continue reading

Book reviews: 2014

I know its a bit late to be reviewing 2014, but I’ve only just got round to it… Here are some interesting books I read last year.


Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Relates the history of North Korea, especially the famine of the 1990s, as told to the journalist by defectors who managed to flee to the west. The book carefully avoids descending into a kind of pornography of horror, and dwells instead on the subtler, psychological side of surviving traumatic times. I was sort of pleased to learn that as a not very tall woman aged between 30 and 50, I would probably be amongst the last survivors of a famine. But only sort of. Continue reading