Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Keeping it cool

The Ice Cutters by Natalia Goutchanov 

The painting above is the illustration on the cover of my copy of Elizabeth David's Harvest of the Cold Months. The social history of ice and ices (1994), her last work, published after her death. With not a recipe in sight this book is more a series of thoroughly researched essays rather than a comprehensive history of ice and refrigeration but it is wonderful to dip into. She covers an amazing range of sources and there's something fascinating in every chapter (and not always concerned solely with ice).
My purpose for returning to Harvest of the Cold Months was to read up about Italian ice cream but in truth I learnt most of what I wanted to know from Mary Taylor Simeti's Sicilian Food.

The Sicilians and and the Neapolitans were mad for ice using it to cool wine, chill fruit or to make sorbetto  or granita. Taylor Simeti quotes from A Tour through Sicily and Malta written by Patrick Brydone in 1773
The bishop's revenues [the Bishop of Catania] are considerable, and arise principally from the sale of snow and ice not only to the whole island of Sicily, but likewise to Malta, and a great part of Italy, and make a very considerable branch of commerce; for even the peasants in these hot countries regale themselves with ices during the summer heats, and there is no entertainment given by the nobility of which these do not always make a principal part: a famine of snow, they themselves say, would be more grievous than a famine of corn or wine.
Visitors to Sicily in the eighteenth century were very taken by the amount of sugar consumed both in confectionery and ices and as Brydone says ices and ice cream were popular across all levels of society. Apparently most of the ice was collected in March on the slopes of Mount Etna. The snow on the mountain sides was beaten into hard ice with sticks and then rolled down to be stored in caves. The peasantry were the traditional suppliers of ice, the blocks being brought down each day by donkey, wrapped in straw and salt to minimise wastage.
The snow from Mount Etna was plentiful and low in price so that ices could be consumed even by the peasantry and trade in ice was lucrative. According to Elizabeth David  'in the eighteenth century the Bishop of Catania's income had been largely dependent on the £1,000 a year derived from the small patch of mountain reserved for snow for the Knights of Malta'. There was sufficient snow available for four or five hundred tons to be shipped to Malta each fortnight on board the ship maintained by the Knights for just that purpose. I also read somewhere that in 1717 the export of snow provided a twentieth of the municipal income of Palermo. Trade in and enthusiasm for ice was encouraged in the eighteenth century by physicians recommending ice and ice-water for the treatment of fevers.
Palermo's supply of ice usually came from mountains close to home and when the snows failed the matter was taken most seriously. In 1774 a government official was sent off to Mount Etna with an armed guard to bring back snow to relieve the 'universal suffering'.

Sicily of course wasn't the only place which traded in ice and snow, indeed anywhere where ice could be harvested it was made use of in one way or another, and, because of the demand, a considerable amount of time and energy was expended not just on harvesting but on ways of transporting and storing ice and snow. If you ever wondered exactly how ice was harvested Nicola at Edible Geography recently posted a terrific piece about just that. The subsequent story of the commercialisation of ice production and the globalisation of the trade in ice makes for interesting reading. Wikipedia has a good article on the frozen water trade and how it developed in the nineteenth century.

 Before ice was produced commercially in Sydney  it was imported  from Boston which you can read about in the Dictionary of Sydney. [nla.news-article12944577] (Sydney Morning Herald 22 March 1853, p.3)

It isn't hard to imagine how popular ice must have been in the days before home refrigeration and there are certainly many who can still remember the ice man and the domestic  ice chest which preceded the electric refrigerator. There is a photograph of ice being delivered, from the collection at the State Library of New South Wales here [a422009 / ON 225, 22] (Mitchell Library)

The ice chest in the holiday cottage we stayed in when I was a child looked almost exactly like this one which dates from the 1940s here.

The making of sophisticated ices for consumption involved both experimentation with the right balance of solids, sugar and fat, in the mixture to be frozen and with methods for stirring the mixture as it froze to break up the ice crystals and ensure a smooth texture. David mentions milk based sorbetti recipes from the late seventeenth century and milk and custard based sorbetti, involving cream, butter and/or eggs,were certainly  being made in the eighteenth century. Despite all my reading I'm still a bit confused about the difference between sorbetto  and gelato or rather confused about whether there was any historical difference. According to the Oxford Companion to Italian Food
The terminology of the past can be confusing; gelare can mean to set rather than to freeze, and a sorbetto could be a cool drink that was sipped rather than the almost solid mush we know today.
So a sorbetto  might also have meant something which was more like what we would call a granita, courser in texture and slushy, which evolved into today's sorbet, a water ice with a smooth texture while gelato  is a milk or custard base ice. In the end I suppose it doesn't really matter whether all gelati are sorbetti but not all sorbetti are gelati or vice versa. 
Given my previous defense of blancmange I was very chuffed to find this - of Sicilian gelato Taylor Simeti says
Sicilian gelato is not made with cream at all, but with crema rinforzata, which is nothing other than the omnipresent biancomangiare  in a particularly liquid form.
Hurray for biancomangiare.

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