Ice-Cream - a Medieval Aristocratic Dessert for the Contemporary Masses

By: Nadia Ashila

The origins of the popular dessert item remains unknown however historical references and artifacts assists in providing general clues.
The discovery of an ancient ice-cream cup contraption archaeologists found inside of a tomb in Egypt which dated back to the Second Dynasty (2700 BC) is an indication that the concept of sweetened frozen desserts is indeed extremely ancient. The artifact was a kind of mould which was made up of two silver cups, one of which contained either snow or crushed ice and the other cooked fruit.

In 500 BC, during the ancient Persian Achaemenid Empire, the Persians would combine grape juice concentrate and snow to enjoy as a dessert.
In 400 BC, the Persians evolved their grape juice concentrate and snow dessert into a more elaborate version for royal families to enjoy which was made up of frozen fruit juices, rose water, vermicelli, saffron and fruits. This medieval Persian version of a sorbet is called Faloodeh and remains to be a popular and commonly consumed dessert today.

Faloodeh: Persian Rosewater and Lemon Sorbet. Photo: Maryam Sinaiee

The ancient Greeks enjoyed their version of a sweetened ice dessert during the 5th century (time period from 500 BC to 401 BC) made up of snow, fruits and honey in Athens. The Greek physician Hippocrates (460 BC - 370 BC) who can be considered one of the most significant figures in the history of medicine, allegedly encouraged his patients to consume ice because according to him "it livens the life-juices and increases the well-being".

While the examples of frozen desserts mentioned is made up of sweetened ice, the earliest documented versions of a frozen dessert consisting of dairy was from China when the ancient Chinese concocted their own frozen dairy based dessert around 200 BC when a milk and rice mixture was frozen by packing the mixture into snow. 
A documented version of the dessert was enjoyed by the King Tang of Shang around 618-97 AD. The king allegedly had 94 staff members to prepare a dessert which consisted of buffalo milk, flour and camphor.

During the reign of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century, Kulfi is a popular frozen evaporated milk based dessert often flavoured with pistachios and saffron. Mughal emperors often sent their relay of horsemen to fetch snow and ice from the Himalayan mountain region of the Indian Subcontinent to create this popular dessert.

The Hindustani word kulfi stems from the Persian word qulfi, which is of Arabic origin, which means "covered cup".

Pistachio and Saffron Kulfi with Cashews and Almonds. Photo: Asha’s Contemporary Indian Cuisine

Southern Italy is well documented to be the first country in Europe to consume an early version of ice-cream as there is a medieval recipe for a frozen dessert containing dairy which was featured in an 18th century cookbook from Naples.

It is highly likely that the concept of ice-cream was introduced to Southern Italy by the Arabs who brought sugarcane to be grown in Southern Europe during the Arab rule in Sicily around the 9th century.

The Arabs used snow from the mountains and fruit juices to make Sharbat, which is thought to be the origin of Italy’s Sorbetto also known as sorbet and similar to the American sherbet which contains dairy.


Raspberry Sorbet on Chocolate Ganache. Photo: Muhammad Sufri

The last Roman emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Nero (37- 68 AD) also had runners to fetch him ice and snow from the mountains and likewise, combined the snow with fruit toppings to create sweet chilled delicacies.

During the late 1500s, Florentine designer and architect Bernado Buontalenti, who is known for his designs for the palace of Bianca Cappello in Via Maggio in Florence, was requested by the Medici family to prepare an astonishing feast for the King of Spain who was about to visit the palace. Buontalenti made the use of salt to lower the melting point of an icy concoction made up of cream, sugar, egg and honey. This cold cream recipe, which he flavoured with bergamot and orange became known as gelato.

Gelatto Ice Cream Display in Shop. Photo: Jacek Malipan 

In 1686, Sicilian Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli opened the first café in Paris’ named Il Procope. The establishment eventually became a regular meeting place for many notable intellectuals such as Benjamin Franklin, Victor Hugo and Napoleon. The café introduced gelato to the Parisian public and served the dessert in small porcelain bowls resembling egg cups. 


Interior of the Café Procope. Photo: Sicilian Post.

As the ingredients required to make frozen desserts was arduous to source and that frozen desserts were laborious to produce, ice-cream remained an exotic and rare dessert item enjoyed mostly by the elite until around the 1800s when insulated ice houses emerged.

Italian immigrants are seemingly the pioneers of selling the dessert to the masses as they were associated with the production and selling of ice-cream in both Europe and America in the 1800s. Gelato is believed to have first made its way to the US in 1770, brought over by the Italian immigrants.

In England, where Italians emigrated to in large numbers after 1860, the selling of ice-cream was seen as a predominantly Italian occupation, with immigrants from Rome and Naples owning and operating most of the ice-cream carts.


Italian Ice Cream Vendor in Wales. Photo:

The advent of technological innovations such as steam power and mechanical refrigeration spearheaded the mass production of ice cream and the dessert item soon became industrialised in America, pioneered by a milk dealer from Baltimore named Jacob Fussell in 1851.

The concept of a cold dessert consisting of a combination of ice and dairy traveled to Southeast Asia and Southeast Asians concocted their own versions based on native ingredients. 

Halo-Halo is a unique version of a Southeast Asian dessert originating from The Philippines. The dessert is made from crushed ice mixed with evaporated milk and various other local ingredients such as sweetened beans, sago, fruit slices and flan. Halo-Halo is commonly topped with a scoop of purple yam ice-cream.


Halo-Halo (Filipino Shaved Iced Sundae). Photo: The Little Epicurean

Chendol is a popular dessert which originated from and consumed widely in the Nusantara region. The dessert is made up of shaved ice sweetened with palm sugar and is often accompanied with jellies made from rice flour and coloured green with the juice of pandan (screwpine) leaves. The cream component used in the dessert is of non animal origin as coconut milk and/or coconut cream is used instead.

The Ondeh-Ondeh Ice-Cream featured on the menu of Kava is the establishment's interpretation of a popular dessert item originating from the Nusantara region.
Ondeh-Ondeh is made up of the same native ingredients used in Chendol as rice flour, the juice of pandan leaves, coconut and palm sugar is also required to make both the traditional and ethnic dessert items.


Kava's Ondeh-Ondeh Ice-Cream, SGD$6. Instagram Photo: @kavacoffees

Another popular and iconic Southeast Asian flavour featured on Kava's signature Ice-Cream range originates from Thailand: Thai Milk Tea.
Thai tea is distinguished by its distinctive orange, amber or pale red colour when brewed. As Thai tea leaves are black tea leaves of the Ceylon variety, what might give the tea its colour may come from the inclusion of blended spices and tamarind seeds which gives the tea its unique colour, flavour and aroma. Thai tea is commonly prepared with milk and can either be consumed hot or iced.

Kava's Thai Milk Tea Ice-Cream, SGD$6. Instagram Photo: @kavacoffees

Kava has successfully integrated contemporary ice-cream making techniques with traditional Southeast Asian dessert recipes and ingredients without compromising the authenticity of the flavours and characteristics! 

As ice-cream is now made readily available to the masses as a result of present-day technology, treat yourself like an aristocrat today while you indulge in this decadent dessert item which was once considered rare, exotic and meant for the elites of society. 












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