Friday 3 March 2023

'Putting it on Ice the English Way' by Karen Maitland

'Scheherazade and Shahryar'
Artist: Marie-Elenor Godefroid (1778-1849)

When I was a little girl, I was enchanted by the idea of someone reclining on silken cushions on a hot sultry evening, sipping iced sherbet. I think image must have come from Scheherazade and the 'The Tales of the Thousand and One Nights'. But it was only as an adult, I wondered how Scheherazade would have got ice to put in her fruit cocktails on those hot Arabian nights, centuries before fridge-freezer was invented.

A bizarre legend says the 16th century Mughal emperor Babur, who was very fond of iced sherbet, used to send his servants to the mountains of the Himalayas to hack off a chunk of ice or snow, every time he fancied a glass, but this must have caused quite a delay in the drinks service. Ice clearly needed to be stored.

The simplest technique was to take ice or compacted snow from mountains or from frozen lakes and store in underground to preserve it through the summer. In the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great, on his campaigns, had pits dug and covered with vegetation to keep ice through the heat of summer in order to preserve food.

Entrance to Icehouse, Brantwood
Photo: Peter James

Down through the centuries, ice harvested in winter was stored in natural caves, or in deep underground cisterns and tunnels beneath towns, which had often been dug by earlier civilisations for water or shelter. But this meant that the ice was frequently stored some distance from where it was needed, a great disadvantage on a hot summer’s day. So, by the 17th century in Europe, purpose-built ice-houses were in use for wealthier houses.

The oldest known ice-house in England that still exists is in Felbech Hall, Norfolk built around 1633. It is reached via a tunnel and is 28ft deep. But England’s climate was unsettled and since it had its own mini-ice-age beginning in first decades of the 17th century when the Thames regularly froze for weeks, the construction of ice-houses didn’t become widespread until after the Civil War.

The first ones were circular pits dug into some shady spot in the grounds of a manor house or palace, with thickly thatched roof, a wooden floor with holes to drain off the water, and the narrowest-possible door near the top, which was insulated with straw. This style was a direct import from the continent. 

Icehouse at Battle Abbey
Photo: Nilfanion

The English quickly evolved their own version consisting of brick-lined, conical pits which could store ice for up to two years. Many refinements were added including vermin grids and air-traps in the drains helping to keep damp air out in order to slow the melting.

But the biggest problem the English had was where to get the ice to store in them. We don’t have snow-capped mountains close at hand and even our winters don’t regularly produce thick blocks of ice on lakes or falls of deep snow. The answer lay in bowling greens and shallow ponds.

Interior of Ickworth Icehouse
Photo: Bob Jones

In medieval and Tudor times, abbeys and great houses had a series of ponds, usually created by diverting a natural stream, in which fresh fish were fattened to feed the huge households. Often villages too had their own medieval fish ponds. By digging out new shallow ponds and connecting them to the old fish ponds or streams by sluice gates, it meant that if the temperature was likely to drop over-night, these ‘freezing pools’ could be flooded and, because they were very shallow, ice would form on them where it wouldn’t in deeper water.

In the morning, the thin sheet of ice was collected, smashed into tiny grit-like pieces, poured down into the ice-house from an opening above and pounded to compact it.  A film of water might be spread over it to ensure it formed a solid block.

'The Bowling Green and Octagon Pond'
Circa 1700's. Artist Unknown
Hartweel House, Buckinghamshire
National Trust

Many great houses had a bowling green or a croquet lawn surrounded by little grassy dyke to keep the balls in play, and these too were often deliberately flooded in winter, if a frost was expected, to make ice.

By the eighteenth century, ice was being transported by barges all over England having been harvested from the marshes where again it formed easily in shallow bog pools, even when the weather was not cold enough to freeze lakes. But the ice, having been made from fishpond water or marshes was too dirty to be put directly into drinks or food. It could only be used to chill containers of food or bottles. The English had to wait until clean ice could be imported from abroad before it could actually be added to their drinks.

Ice Cutting on the St. Lawerence River
Montreal, Quebec
Photo Alexander Henderson, circa 1870

The first import from Norway proved a bit of a disaster, since by the time customs had decided ice was ‘dry goods’ they were left with nothing but a warehouse full of water.  But by 1830, 150 tons of imported ice was stored beneath the Haymarket in London, collected by steam-driven cutters from lakes in Scandinavia or the Great Lakes of America, brought over by ship and transported round England by barge.

The American lawman, Bat Masterson, (1853-1921) once said, ‘We all get the same amount of ice. The rich get it in summer. The poor get it in winter.’ But finally, that was changing – people could buy clean ice cheaply for their kitchens and in time, cooks in even in modest households could attempt Mrs Beeton’s famous ice creams and lemon-ice recipes.

As for sipping iced sherbet while reclining on silken cushions – it’s still on my bucket list!

Ice Formation Edge of pond
Photo: ThomasLendt















1 comment:

Gillian said...

I have made historical sherbets. Not nearly enough of them. I should try this again...