Alexander the Great was an ice cream addict
The “it” this song refers to ice cream. This calorie-dense, refreshing treat – with its enticing flavours – has a rich back-story. And it is a treat that appealed to some of the most important figures throughout history.
Alexander the Great is one of the most notable leaders who loved ice cream. According to rumours, he often enjoyed eating frozen milk with honey accompanied by various fruits and wine.
If we go back further in history, Abraham in the Old Testament ate frozen goat's milk, and King Solomon consumed fruit puree.
However, ice cream's 3,000-4,000-year-old history stems back to China, and it is said the first "primitive" ice cream was made from honey, milk (or fruit juice). Ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Iran also have a history of ice cream.
Reliefs found in excavations in Assyria and Egypt are thought to depict ice cream. Milk collected from Iran's mountainsides was combined with sweeteners such as milk and syrup from fruit and moved to ice houses in the cities. In Mesopotamia, snow with milk and fruit for the kings was stored in depots that were dug underwater on the banks of the Euphrates River.
The Egyptians served their guests fruit mixed with snow from the mountains of Lebanon (what we know as sorbet or granita today). The Romans stored snow in mountain caves. When the weather got warmer, they made cold deserts from snow called "nivatea potiones".
Cold drinks became more refined in the East. Between 900 AD-1000 AD, Arabs brought sorbet to Sicily. In fact, the Italians took the word "sorbet" from "sharbet" in Arabic. “Sharbet” comes from "sharab" (fruit juice, drink) or "shurub" (syrup). Ice cream makers in Sicily added new flavours such as citrus, mulberry, jasmine, cinnamon, and ginger, which is how Sicily became known for its ice cream.
Ice cream was forgotten about during the Middle Ages. It was reintroduced in Italy by Marco Polo who returned from a trip to China in 1292. In his “Book of the Marvels of the World” (Il Milione in Italian), Polo provided recipes for the ice cream that he tasted in China, made of frozen milk, cream, and honey.
Ice cream in its present form was first made in Italy. Bernardo Buontalenti (1536-1608) – one of the most colourful figures of the Renaissance – invented it. During an event in 1595, he served ice cream that was widely popular among the attendees, and it was described as a frozen masterpiece made with fruit juice, fruit, Marsala wine, cream, and sugar with beautiful natural colours.
Buontalenti’s ice cream reached France and beyond when a member of the Medici Dynasty moved to a French palace and brought along ice cream makers. Sicilian chef Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli opened Café Procope in Paris in 1686, which was frequented by giants of the Enlightenment, including Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, and Voltaire.
Ice cream was also popular among royalty in Europe. The famous mistresses of the French kings offered different types of sorbets to their lovers to cool down. King Charles I of England (1600-1649) was also an ice cream addict. It is rumoured that he paid his cook a large sum of money to keep the recipe secret.
Even Otto von Bismark (1815-1898), the first chancellor of the German Empire, had a soft spot for ice cream. One time, he had so many raspberry ice creams that he wrote he would die from stomachache.
It is unclear whether Charles Dickens liked ice cream. He was not impressed with the way Italians ate ice cream. In 1841, he said Italians licking ice cream looked like babies suckling on a breast and criticised them for consuming it throughout the year.
Ice cream came to the United States later. A Brit named Philippe Lenzi came to New York in 1774 and opened the first ice cream shop, and the first ice cream factory was established in 1851.
In 1904, Charles E. Miche invented the ice cream cone, which meant that ice cream did not have to be served on plates and in bowls. The stall next to Miche’s was run by Ernest Hamwi who sold a type of waffle called a Zalabia, which was a Syrian specialty. After a couple of attempts, they made the waffle cone, which was a big hit.
The Seljuk Turks (1037-1194) made cold or frozen sherbets from clean snow or crushed ice mixed with molasses, and orange, lemon, apricot syrups. Even today, shaved ice is widespread in Anatolia.
Similar to Europe, ice cream became widespread in Ottoman society in the 1600s. The Karhane-i Amire met the needs for ice and snow for the palace kitchen, the sultan's summer home and mansions, ice cream shopkeepers, sherbet and custard makers, and hospitals. At the end of the Ottoman Empire, ice cream was the most common offering to foreign dignitaries and guests. The most popular flavour was pistachio.
It is said that Ottoman military officer Enver Pasha gave various kinds of ice cream to top officials of foreign governments right before World War One.
Contemporary Turkey has its own ice cream culture. Istanbul's ice cream vendors promote their stretchy mastic ice cream by going to touristic areas, ringing bells, and playing games with customers. Mastic is a plant resin that gives the ice cream a unique flavour and makes it chewy and stretchy, allowing vendors to play tricks with customers like pretending to give the ice cream to a customer on a stick before pulling it away at the last moment.
Mastic ice cream is exotic to Westerners - as are flavours further east. Singapore’s signature "air batu campur" contains many flavours such as crushed ice, red beans, palm seeds, grass jelly, corn, seaweed, aloe vera, durian, coconut milk, and chocolate sauce on top. The most popular type of ice cream in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal is called “kulfi,” which infuses flavours like saffron, rose water, mango, cardamom, raspberry, and pistachio. Halo halo is a favourite in the Philippines, which is made from shaved ice, dried fruits, sweetened red beans, jackfruit, and coconut milk. The Japanese prefer to have something with fewer ingredients: green tea ice cream with pureed beans.
Let Dickens be for condemning Italians for eating ice cream year-round. Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) wrote a poem called "Moments" when he was 85 and said that he would "eat more ice cream and fewer lima beans" if he could live life again. Nicely said.
And who wouldn't endorse such a succinct statement?
Café Procope would. In this engraving in the French National Library's collection, Voltaire (the one raising his hand) and Diderot converse "sweetly" in front of the ice-cream seller.