Ice cream was enjoyed in Italy by rich and poor alike long before freezing technology brought iced products to the masses, says new research.
Long portrayed as a luxury product that in its early days would have been enjoyed primarily by an elite set of society, ice cream was sold on the streets in Naples as long as 300 years ago.
At that time, making ice cream was a laborious task which relied on large amounts of ice. Until the late 19th century, when industrial refrigeration eliminated the need for ice houses, ice was harvested 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, where it was kept cold for months.
In fact, the early history of ice cream-making suggests that snow often inspired frozen treats.
Popular lore has attributed the creation of iced desserts to the Roman Emperor Nero, who had slaves bring buckets of snow from the mountains to mix with fruit and honey. There was also Marco Polo, who brought from China a recipe closely resembling the sherbet. The royal chef of England's King Charles I apparently made frozen treats and Catherine de' Medici supposedly brought Italian chefs able to make "flavored ice" to France when she became the wife of Henry II.
Others credit Bernardo Buontalenti, an architect and engineer at the Medici court in Florence, with making the first gelato. At the 1600 wedding of Maria de' Medici and Henry IV of France, he conceived "marvels of gelati" made of snow, salt, lemons, sugar, egg whites and milk.
Ice cream, whoever invented it, was long associated to wealthy tables, as surviving royal porcelain artifact relating to the consumption of iced desserts testify.
But according to Melissa Calaresu, an historian at Cambridge University, U.K., ice cream was not reserved for the elite –- at least not in southern Italy.
"Contemporary sources suggest that there was much greater intermingling and overlapping of social milieus in cities such as Naples than historians have thought," Calaresu said.
The stifling heat of Neapolitan summer represented a lucrative market for cool refreshments that would have included both rich and poor, said Calaresu.
The consumption of ice in Naples was so large that it was soon considered an important commodity. Official records show that as well as other staples such as grain and oil, ice was taxed and prices for it were recorded and regulated.
"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," the English travel writer Henry Swinburne, who traveled to Naples in the 1780s, wrote.
According to Calaresu, in 18th century Naples iced treats were enjoyed by the lazzaroni, the Neapolitan lower classes, as well as by the aristocrats. At that time, the city was the third largest in Europe and a stopping point on the Grand Tour, a rite of passage undertaken by middle and upper class young men from Northern Europe.
Evidence for the social power of ice creams came from a number of prints sold as souvenirs to the Grand Tour travelers.
For example, an engraving by Achille Vianelli, shows a sorbet vendor with a long apron selling his wares from a table set near the 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," Calaresu wrote.
An engraving of a similar scene by Pietro Fabris 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' Angevin Castle.
Calaresu also found that many travelers noted the dependence of the poor as well as rich on iced products. John Moore, an English doctor living in Naples in the 1780s, even described cold drinks as a threat to social order.
"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," he wrote.
While examples of ice cream containers made in silver and porcelain can be found in several museums and collection, little is known about containers used on the street.
According to Calaresu, 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.
Customers would lick the glass clean and return it to the vendor, who would reuse the container.
Concerns about hygiene led Italian entrepreneur Italo Marchioni, who lived in News York City, to invent a pastry cup in 1896. And the concept of the cone was born.
Photo: A Sorbet Seller in Naples by Pinelli, about 1819. Credit: Melissa Calaresu;
19th century penny lick glasses for ice cream. Credit: Linda Spashett/Wikimedia Commons