Stop Me and Buy One

August 26, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Posted in Eating and Drinking | 2 Comments
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With a bit of luck – for me, if not for you dearest readers – this will be the first of two or three posts on the glories of ice cream. As the summer nears its end I’m suddenly very aware that I’ve not used my ice cream maker this year and should really crack on and make something while there are still lots of nice fruits available (although the idea of autumn ice cream is appealing too), plus next weekend sees the staging of the King’s Cross Ice Cream Festival. More on this anon, I hope (and hopefully it will be better than the Bloomsbury Biscuit Festival – so much promise but sadly such a let down).

Yesterday I took a trip to the London Canal Museum, a charming little old school museum housed in an old ice warehouse by Battleship Basin near King’s Cross. Here you can learn about the history of canals, especially those of London; step inside a canal boat to see how tiny the cabins really were; admire the castles and roses motifs and patterns of canal art; learn how to tie proper knots; have a go at opening a miniature lock – the list goes on and on.

Because of the history of the building, you can also learn a little bit about the history of ice and ice cream in London (what follows is cribbed from the museum and its website). Before the 1800s ice would be gathered from frozen ponds, rivers and canals and kept in underground ice houses; from the 1820s it was increasingly shipped from Norway as there was no mechanical refrigeration until the turn of the century. The Canal Museum building was originally constructed by Swiss Italian Carlo Gatti in the 1860s to house the ice he shipped over from Scandinavia. The ice was brought by sea, river and then canal up into the heart of London where it would be stored in a deep ice well (which you can peer down into from the ground floor of the museum) before begin delivered all over London in Gatti’s distinctive yellow horse-drawn carts. The ice was sold to fishmongers, restaurants and other food suppliers to keep their goods cold. A happy effect of the large scale import of ice was that the price came down making the production of ice cream for the masses became economically viable.

Before this it was the preserve of the rich and was not necessarily the smooth and creamy delight we know today (it could be quite gritty with large ice crystals). According to one of the museum’s information boards, the earliest recorded description of ice cream, or at least a type of iced milk, is from China and the first record of ice cream being consumed in the England was at a feast at Windsor Castle in the 1670s where the King was the only one lucky enough to get some.

Two centuries later ice cream had become a more democratic pleasure. The mass arrival of Italian immigrants, combined with the increasing availability and affordability of ice from the mid 1800s, led to the popularisation of ice cream. It could be bought as a scoop in a re-usable glass (known as a ‘penny lick’) or as a slice cut of a large block and wrapped in paper (a ‘hokey pokey’). The museum has a fun selection of ice cream paraphernalia on show including a variety of licking glasses (eventually banned in the 1920s for spreading diseases), machines and moulds for shaping hokey pokey, scoops, adverts, menus and even an old ice cream bicycle (first used in the 1920s) with the famous slogan ‘stop me and buy one’.

By the time the Famous Five were roaming the countryside with their enormous appetites, refrigeration was much more common (the import of ice stopped in the 1920s) and ices were widely available in shops, cafes and from mobile sellers in vans and on bicycles. For the Five, ice cream is a staple, especially in the summer and the sound of ice cream bell elicits an almost Pavlovian response. In Five on a Treasure Island they hear ‘the tinkle of an ice-cream man’s bell […] in the distance’ and rush off to purchase ‘four fat chocolate ice cream bars’. Often the proffering of ice cream is used as a gesture of inclusion and/or to stop arguments, and even thought he generally woolfs his all in one go, Timmy is never left out (George gives him some of hers if her doesn’t get a whole ice to himself). Joan the Cook ( a treasure herself if ever there was one) also makes a very good ice cream and I’m sure she would enjoy the events lined up for the ice cream festival next weekend which include milking a cow, meeting ice cream producers from the south east, seeing nitrogen being used to make ice cream and of course plenty of opportunities for tasting. More info on this here.

You can read more about the history of ice cream here.




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  1. Ah – the London Canal Museum is a gem indeed. I am lucky enough to live near to one of the canals that finds its way into London. There is a splendid fleet of locks and, if you are lucky, you can see one or more of them in use, marvel at the technology, and dream of living in the Lock Keeper’s cottage. And, taking one’s life in one’s hands, and, holding very tightly, cross the canal via the lock footholds.

    • That sounds like a lovely adventure indeed! x

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