Ice-cream: the ultimate status symbol

                                                                 – Palace of Venaria –

This summer has definitely been the hottest I’ve experienced since moving to Turin in late 2007. Too hot to cook at a stovetop. Too hot to turn on an oven. Too hot to go out of the house after mid-morning. Too hot to eat hot food. Too hot, dare I admit it, to wear clothes, even summer ones! The wonderful team of child-carers at my daughter’s asilo nido have had little choice but to strip the kids to their nappies and organise water activities.

Given the stifling heat, I really don’t know what possessed my mum and I to go to the Palace of Venaria in the middle of the day recently. I guess I wanted to treat her to an outing after all the help she has given with babysitting since resuming my studies and the day job a few months ago. I also had this month’s #BlogPiemonte topic in mind, Royalty in Piedmont. We therefore went in hope of finding some food-related inspiration (not an easy task when you’re a convinced republican!) for this post.

So there we were, in the oppressive late July heat, sitting on an unconditioned bus. No one had thought to open a window either. Mum and I, well aware of many an Italian’s aversion to getting ‘hit by air’ (that’s the literal translation of colpo d’aria), just didn’t really feel up to incurring the disapproval of our fellow passengers and refrained from letting some semblance of a draught in.

The bus reached the terminus, finally. We sighed in relief as we got off. That was until I realised that I didn’t know where we were. We had taken a normal suburban bus from my place west of the Turin city centre, not one of the more tourist-oriented routes that take passengers directly to Piedmont’s answer to Versailles.

We took note of our unassuming suburban surroundings. There was a playground, a cemetery and a shop that sold Sicilian food products and specialties. No sign of an opulent royal residence. Then, I noticed the distinct clay coloured brick walls of the palace about a kilometre down the street. We proceeded to walk down that street and sure enough, we came across a sign confirming that we were headed in the right direction.

We turned a corner and found ourselves on a dusty and narrow street lined with low-rise residential blocks. Those blocks soon turned into those familiar brick walls and several partially demolished buildings, evidence of the palace’s decline, subsequent abandonment, and conversion into an army barracks and training ground during the Napoleonic Wars at end of the 18th century.[i]

Then something caught my eye. It was the word ghiacciaia (‘ice room’) painted in capital letters above the wooden door of an abandoned block. Immediately, I wanted to know more. Was this the ice room used by the kitchen staff that served the Savoy court or the French occupational force later on? What exactly did they preserve in there? I was intrigued because, in the past, the food that has become my obsession this summer, ice-cream, would have been very difficult to make without access to one of these. These days, ice cream is enjoyed by people from all levels of society. It’s hard for us to believe but this wasn’t the case before mechanised refrigeration and ice-cream makers. In its early days, ice-cream was a dessert that only the elite would have been able to savour.

- an old ice room at Venaria -
                                                       – An old ice room at Venaria –

The history of ice cream begins with ice harvesting and storage in the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, China, Greece and Rome. Servants and slaves were often sent to collect snow and ice from nearby peaks so they could be stored in ice pits and houses. It was, in short, a costly and back-breaking business. For this reason, possession of this precious commodity was flaunted as a status symbol by those in power. The Roman Emperor Nero, for instance, is said to have served his dinner guests honey and fruit flavoured snow. Another example comes from 4th century Japan, when Emperor Nintoku bestowed chips of ice on palace guests as part of National Ice Day celebrations.

After the introduction of sweetened chilled drinks called sharbats by the Arabs in Sicily, the popularity of these ice-cool concoctions spread among aristocrats across the Italian peninsula in the Middle Ages.  This was despite the warnings of many physicians about the dangers of drinking cold beverages. At the time, medical thought was heavily influenced by the ancient Greek physicians Hippocrates’ and Galen’s prescriptions against consuming cold foods and drinks.

Snow and ice alone, however, are not sufficient to freeze other substances. Contrary to popular opinion, however, this scientific process essential to making ice-cream had not been discovered by the time the Florentine Catherine de Medici was betrothed to the Duke of Orléans (the future Henri II of France) in 1533. This myth, along with the one about Marco Polo learning the trade of ice-cream making in the Far East court of Kublai Khan, persist in Italy and elsewhere to this day. Just in case you’re not familiar with this legend, it goes something like this:

Fourteen year old Catherine de Medici goes to France to marry fourteen year old Henri. She brings highly-skilled Florentine chefs with her so she has never-ending supply of frozen creams and ices. Florentine chefs serve frozen creams and ices at court banquet.  French court, which disapproves of union between Henri and member of upstart nouveau riche Medici family , is dazzled by creations.  Dessert becomes toast of Paris. Modern ice-cream is born.

The truth is, Catherine, Henri and other royals would have had to wait until at least 1589 (and more than likely, a long time after that) to enjoy a real ice-cream when Giambattista Della Porta discovered an artificial freezing technique. In his book, Natural magick, he described how water in a bucket froze after being immersed  in a container filled with snow and potassium nitrate (saltpetre). Eventually, other scientists and cooks found that common salt mixed with ice or snow had the same effect. Italian cooks, many who were already familiar with techniques for serving their masters sharbats, creams and custards chilled, then began obtaining icier consistencies thanks to this freezing method.

Antonio Latini, steward to the prime minister of the Spanish viceroy in Naples, provides us with the first written record of these frozen desserts in his 1692 publication Lo scalco alla moderna (‘The Modern Steward’). As steward to Don Stefano Carrillo Salcedo’s household, one of his many tasks was to organise sumptuous banquets. His book included many innovative recipes. Several of these were for what he called sorbette[ii], both fruit and milk-based. Judging by the quantities of sugar he specifies, it’s doubtful that his sorbette had the consistency and sweetness we’re now accustomed to. Not wanting to reveal the secrets of his trade, he was also deliberately vague in his instructions. Nevertheless, historians generally agree that these Neapolitan sorbette were the first real prototype for the sorbets and ice-cream we know today.

- Portrait of Antonio Latini - photo compliments of Wellcome Library -
                                                          – Portrait of Antonio Latini –                                                                                                            Image from: Wellcome Library 
- Neapolitan ice-cream maker and street vendor - Image from: Wikimedia Commons
                     – Neapolitan ice-cream maker and street vendor –
                                      Image from: Wikimedia Commons

In summer, I’m quite fond of replacing my afternoon coffee with an affogato, frappè or gelato al caffè.  Here is a recipe for caffè-latte gelato I’ve adapted from Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the kitchen and the art of cooking well. The relative lack of fat content renders it rather sorbet- or caffè freddo-like. By the time Artusi’s book was published in the late 19th century, the sorbettiera americana  (literally, American sorbet maker) had been invented and he recommended its use in his sorbet and ice cream recipes. At the time, most Italian gelatai couldn’t afford to invest in the new technology and continued to make their gelati in a cylinder inside a tub filled with ice and salt. Many would do so for years to come. However, it’s fair to say this invention (along with mechanical refrigeration) heralded the beginning of the end for time-consuming and labour-intensive ice (not to mention salt!) harvesting, storage and freezing. Ice cream was finally on its way to being enjoyed by all people.

- Advertisement for 'new American sorbet maker' - image from: A. Capatti & M. Montanari Italian cuisine: a cultural history -
                                 – Advertisement for ‘new American sorbet maker’ –                                                  (Image from: A. Capatti & M. Montanari, Italian cuisine: a cultural history)

Pellegrino Artusi’s caffe-latte gelato


  • 500 g full cream milk
  • 250 g espresso or percolated coffee, room temperature
  • 150 g sugar


  • Place ice cream maker bowl in freezer for twelve hours.
  • Combine milk and sugar in saucepan. Simmer until sugar has dissolved. Leave to cool until room temperature.
  • Add  coffee to milk and sugar mixture.
  • Pour mixture into container and refrigerate until chilled.
  • Remove bowl from freezer and assemble ice-cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Pour mixture slowly into ice-cream maker. Churn for 30 minutes.
- a pre-freeze ice cream maker -
                                                     – a pre-freeze ice-cream maker –

Further reading about the history of ice-harvesting and ice-cream:

If you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating subject, I found the following sources very useful:

  • P. Artusi Science in the kitchen and the art of cooking well (WARNING: Artusi, often dubbed the ‘grandfather of Italian cuisine’ does repeat the myth of Catherine de Medici in the introduction of his chapter on gelati but it’s still a fascinating primary source for late 19th century recipes)
  • A. Capatti & M. Montanari – Italian cuisine: a cultural history
  • E. David – Harvest of the Cold Months: the social history of ice and ices
  • E. David – Italian Food (In later editions of this seminal publication on Italian cuisine, David admits to mistakenely depicting the Medici ice cream legend as fact when the book was first published in 1954. Later on, her research led her to realise that there was no historical basis for this myth. For a more detailed account, Harvest of the Cold Months is highly recommended!)
  • A. Davidson – The Oxford Companion to Food
  • J. & G. Quinzio – Of Sugar and Snow: a history of ice-cream making
  • L. Reiss – Ice cream: a global history
  • G. Riley – The Oxford Companion to Italian Food

And finally, stay tuned this August to see how my fellow Piedmont-based bloggers interpret this month’s topic, ‘Royalty in Piedmont’:

Once Upon a Time in Italy – Turin Legends: Royal Alchemy

Texas Mom in Torino – Feel Like a Royal in Torino

The Entire Pizza –The Royal Enologist of Barolo 

Tidbits on Tap – Palazzo Chiablese: A Tour of Turin’s Royal Residence with Italian Touring Club Torino

Uncorkventional –  50 Shades of Royalty

Use the hashtag #BlogPiemonte and follow the conversation on Twitter and other social media!

[i] The palace would go on to be used by the Italian army until 1978 when the Italian Ministry of Culture bought the site in 1978. Restoration of the palace began in the late 1990s and it was finally opened to the public in 2007. For more information about the Palace of Venaria, here is an article by my fellow blogger Lara:

[ii] In modern Italian, the word for sorbet is masculine: sorbetto (singular), sorbetti (plural). Latini used feminine forms (sorbetta, sorbette) in his recipes. Interestingly enough, he didn’t use the word gelato either to describe his sorbette di latte (milk-based sorbets). The use of term gelato only dates back to the 19th century.

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    Such an interesting read, and so well researched! Do you think Italians will eventually realize that a colpa d’aria is no more harmful than a fresh, cold drink?

    I’m all about the affogato, too.

    Thanks Diana. With Google at our fingertips it’s so easy these days to inadvertently perpetuate myths as facts so I made a point of checking what the historians had to say, not just foodies and tourism brochures (of course, they do have a job to do!). Yep, coffee in any chilled form is a winner, especially in summer. With regards to the colpa d’aria thing, I’m trying to educate my little one in the benefits of a draught but TP doesn’t always agree… 🙂

    I love how much I learn when I read your posts! Well done!!

    ps.. I think together, you and I can raise the next generation of Italians who won’t fear the colpa d’aria… if I can keep from turning into an over protective (Italian) mom!!

    I agree completely Sonia. It’s definitely normal to be overprotective of your cubs and after staying here long-term it’s hard not to be affected by what locals have to say about certain natural phenomena (even if the science doesn’t back it up!). Together, somehow, we’ll remind our girls not to worry (too much) about draughts and not wearing long-sleeved clothing at the end of May!

    Rosemarie, I’ll never look at ice cream, gelato, or sorbet in the same way after reading your well-researched piece. Since we do not have an ice cream maker, I can’t try your tempting recipe, but you’ve inspired me to hunt down a recipe or two that doesn’t require one!

    Thanks Tricia. I wasn’t expecting to find out all the info I did to be perfectly honest. There are many ice cream recipes that don’t require an ice cream maker. I’ve actually posted about how can make ice cream without one too. Here’s the link:/2015/07/15/three-different-ways-to-make-ice-cream-at-home/ Happy ice cream making (and eating)!

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