Ice cream came from the Orient, we're often told. The words sherbet and sorbet are from the Turkish language, and Marco Polo is sometimes pictured bringing back ice cream recipes from China.
It's always enchanting to hear about wonders arriving from the East, but in this case the stories are wrong. The Turkish word serbet means syrup--either fruit-flavored or medicinal, like our cough syrups. When Turks tell you that you have "sherbet in your veins," they mean that you're delightful company, not that you're frozen solid.
Drinks have long been cooled with ice or snow in China and the Near East, but that practice didn't lead to the invention of ice cream. When you put ice in a drink, the drink doesn't freeze; it cools down, but at the same time the ice is warming up and melting. In order to freeze a liquid, you actually have to create a temperature below freezing, and there's no evidence that anybody knew how to do that until around the 16th Century.
The invention of artificial freezing followed the discovery by European sailors that when ice formed on the deck of a ship, you could melt it by scattering it with a salt, such as table salt or saltpeter. Salts lower the melting temperature of ice, which is another way of saying they lower the freezing temperature of water. The first (by his own account) to divulge artificial freezing mixtures was Blas Villafranca, a Spanish doctor practicing in Rome, who published his report in 1530.
Even with this knowledge available, the idea of freezing desserts evidently didn't occur to people for some time. It had to wait until a craze for iced drinks swept Italy in the late Renaissance--originally a self-conscious attempt to revive the Roman practice of icing drinks, using ice stored in insulated underground pits. Once there was plenty of ice around, freezing your sorbetto could occur to somebody.
In 1979, the English food writer Elizabeth David published a series of articles on early French and English ice cream in the magazine Petits Propos Culinaires. According to her research, the earliest evidence of an organized profession of people involved in freezing procedures is the title page of a book published in 1615, where the author, Ottaviano Rabasco, describes himself as a member of the "Academy of Gelati in Bologna known as the Assurance."
David takes this to mean that frozen desserts were being made by that time. It's certainly true that Italians took freezing to France about 50 years later, and that in the 1660s ices were fantastically popular at the court of Louis XIV. Since the Sun King was the trendsetter of Europe, frozen desserts spread to all the royal courts in short order.
They were great favorites at the English court. When Charles Stuart returned from exile in France to become Charles II of England, one of the first things he did was to build a royal ice house. His brother, James II, was even more devoted to ice cream; when he was camped at Hounslow Heath during the civil war that would depose him, he had ice cream on the menu.
Both sorbet (syrup) and sweetened cream were being frozen. In French, ice cream had the curious name fromage glace , or frozen cheese, probably because it was solid like cheese. This occasionally led to eerily named products such as fromage glace de Parmesan-- which was frozen in molds with the traditional pie-wedge shape of a piece of Parmesan, not flavored with Parmesan cheese.
Many familiar flavors were already being made: cherry, raspberry, chocolate, coffee, pistachio. But there were also some delicate flavors that have fallen out of popularity: orange blossom, lemon peel, coriander. They would have seemed particularly delicate because it was not until the 1720s that the French started using custard as the basis of their ice cream mixtures, rather than simply sweetened cream.
These products were not much like a modern sorbet or ice cream. They were frozen solid, more or less flavored lumps of ice or frozen cream. The great innovation that led to modern ice cream was first published, Elizabeth David writes, in the 1692 book "La Maison Reglee." The author, Audiger, had already created the fashion for petits pois at the French court. In this book he pointed out that if you scrape the sides of the fromage glace container from time to time while the freezing is going on, the texture stays smooth.
As a result of this discovery, the typical 18th-Century ice cream maker was the sorbetiere, a bullet-shaped pewter mold that you stuck down into a salt and ice slush and twisted back and forth with a handle on the lid to keep the contents stirred up. Every few minutes you had to take off the lid and scrape away at the sides. No wonder ice cream was such a luxury in the 18th Century, even for people who could afford ice.