Long portrayed as a luxury product that in its early days would have been enjoyed primarily by an elite set of society, ice cream was sold on the streets in Naples as long as 300 years ago. At that time, making ice cream was a laborious task which relied on large amounts of ice. Until the late 19th century, when industrial refrigeration eliminated the need for ice houses, ice was harvested from glaciers in the mountains and transported to towns and cities where it was used to cool buckets of mixes. Snow too was gathered and made into ice by being compressed in pits, where it was kept cold for months. In fact, the early history of ice cream-making suggests that snow often inspired frozen treats.
Popular lore has attributed the creation of iced desserts to the Roman Emperor Nero, who had slaves bring buckets of snow from the mountains to mix with fruit and honey. There was also Marco Polo, who brought from China a recipe closely resembling the sherbet. The royal chef of England’s King Charles I apparently made frozen treats and Catherine de’ Medici supposedly brought Italian chefs able to make “flavored ice” to France when she became the wife of Henry II.
Others credit Bernardo Buontalenti, an architect and engineer at the Medici court in Florence, with making the first gelato. At the 1600 wedding of Maria de’ Medici and Henry IV of France, he conceived “marvels of gelati” made of snow, salt, lemons, sugar, egg whites and milk. Ice cream, whoever invented it, was long associated to wealthy tables, as surviving royal porcelain artifact relating to the consumption of iced desserts testify. But according to Melissa Calaresu, an historian at Cambridge University, U.K., ice cream was not reserved for the elite –- at least not in southern Italy. ”Contemporary sources suggest that there was much greater intermingling and overlapping of social milieus in cities such as Naples than historians have thought,” Calaresu said. The stifling heat of Neapolitan summer represented a lucrative market for cool refreshments that would have included both rich and poor, said Calaresu. Via In Early Italy: Ice Cream All the Rage