Of Princesses and Sherbets - When Ice Was Strictly a Royal Affair

Quirky book studies the history of ice - a delicacy for the well-off


By Elizabeth David

Viking. 413 pp., $24.95

Feeling hot and bothered this summer? Make sure the air-conditioning is on. Perhaps a quick trip to the fridge would help. Plop an ice cube or two into the soda. Ah ... nothing like a cool refreshment on a scorcher of a day!

But what if there's no fridge? No air-conditioning? In fact, what if there's no electricity to crank up an ice machine? What if you've got guests coming and the menu is ... complicated?

In ''Harvest of the Cold Months: the Social History of Ice and Ices,'' culinary writer Elizabeth David describes one little party from years back that faced that situation.

On June 10, 1661, Cardinal Carlo de Medici hosted a banquet in Florence, Italy. His guest of honor was Princess Marguerite-Louise - the older daughter of Gaston, Duke of Orleans - who was about to marry Cosimo, heir of Ferdinand II, Grand Duke of Tuscany.

The first service alone consisted of 35 separate dishes. There were ''hams cooked in wine, milk, and water,'' stuck with little slices of cinnamon and whole cloves; a Genoese pie filled with cooked and uncooked egg-yolks, festooned with a pistachio sweetmeat; road guinea-fowl, the whole covered in jelly. There were pigeons in ''the Catalan manner,'' first half-roasted then stewed; there was marzolini, the ''fresh spring cheeses of Tuscany''; bowls of peach sweetmeat; Genoa sugar plums; and olives. And most important of all, there were strawberries served with ice; apricots served in ice with flowers and leaves; green almonds in ice, with garlands of cherries; and ''pyramids of ice, with divers sorts of fruits.''

As festive as Florentine dinners can be - my own Italian-American in-laws being no exception in their preference for seemingly endless gastronomical courses - the Cardinal's gathering surely set a standard for indulgence. And as David chronicles in her witty book, the Cardinal was not alone in his eagerness to bring ice to wearied palates on a warm day.

Frankly, ''Harvest of the Cold Months'' has to be one of the strangest books I have ever encountered. But that is not written in disrespect. The research for this series of essays about the social history of ice was begun back in the 1970s by David, a prominent British food writer who passed on in 1992. The book was put into final form by editor Jill Norman, who also provides a fine, although too-brief historical discussion of ice-storage. And the book is richly illustrated. But for most general-interest readers, this is an account probably best borrowed from the library, rather than purchased.

The harvesting and storage of natural ice goes back centuries. The earliest recorded icehouses were built along the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia almost 4,000 years ago. The affluent stored ice to cool drinks. There is a reference to the practice in the Old Testament, Proverbs 25:13: ''As the cold of snow in the time of harvest, so is a faithful messenger to them that send him: for he refresheth the soul of his masters.'' The Greeks and Romans created elaborate ice houses.

David's account began as an examination of early ice-cream recipes and the links between Middle Eastern sherbets and the ice desserts of Europe. Indeed, much of her book consists of menus. She concludes her study at around 1900, when electricity-driven ice-making plants rendered the harvesting of natural ice obsolete.

Surprisingly, there is little discussion of the quality of all the ice that was stored away from mountain peaks, frozen rivers, or collection chambers. In some cases, the water was boiled before being frozen. We do learn that the British were making ice cream by the 1600s. And sherbet came out of the Levant.

Still, as untidy as this book is in its historical narration, it is also fun. Clearly, they who had great wealth and power in days of yore often had much ice. Perhaps if Marie Antoinette and her royal friends had given the ''simple folk'' a few ice cubes, as well as cake, they might have extended their stay a few years. After all, the Bastille was stormed in July.

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