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We all scream for chocolate and vanilla, of course. But what about saffron, rose petal, or rye bread? Those might sound like weird hipster ice cream flavors, but, history writer Jeri Quinzio explains, they were all on offer in the decades when ice cream got its start in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe.

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Quinzio writes that ice cream was essentially a frozen version of existing dishes known as creams and custards. Its cousin, the ice, had the same relationship to sweet drinks called waters. Since creams, custards, and waters came in all kinds of flavors, so did the new frozen dishes. Flavorings included chestnut, saffron, musk, fresh currants, and tea.

Most of all, early ice creams and ices used flowers. Jasmine, violets, elderflower, and roses were all common. Orange, in all kinds of forms, also featured prominently. Cooks used orange flower water and candied orange flowers, as well as juice, pulp, and peel of the fruit. Some recipes called specifically for peel from Bergamot oranges or pulp from Seville. Others used orange flower water as the base for an ice cream that included pistachio, walnut, or nougat.

“It was the vanilla of its day,” Quinzio writes.

In 1768, M. Emy wrote the first book all about ice cream and ices. One of his recipes called for the addition of rye bread crumbs to a custard mixture, which was then strained before freezing. Other suggested flavorings included macaroons and cookies. Unlike Ben & Jerry’s, Emy’s recipes didn’t end up with chunks of baked goods in every bite, though he did suggest sprinkling on some crumbs before serving.

Another of Emy’s recipes included truffles—not the soft chocolate delicacies but the fungi. A third was made with grated Parmesan, coriander, cinnamon, and clove and frozen in a mold to look like a wedge of cheese.

By the nineteenth century, Quinzio writes, wealthy British families were doing different weird things with ice creams and ices. At dinner parties, they served them as palate cleansers between courses. These were often molded to look like fish, pineapples, or—especially often—asparagus. Cooks might use vanilla ice cream for the stalks, with pistachio or greengage plum ice cream for the tips. But some really went in for realism, parboiling and pounding asparagus tips to make the ice cream.

One 1885 cookbook, The Book of Ices, by London culinary entrepreneur Agnes B. Marshall, included an ice cream concoction in a duck-shaped mold. The ice cream was flavored with cayenne and liquid aspic jelly, and the center contained a surprising filling—“the contents of a jar or tin of pâté de foie gras.” She suggests giving the duck a glass eye to create “a finished appearance” and serving on a bed of chopped aspic jelly, garnished with sprigs of chervil.

It’s probably best not to tell the hipster ice cream places about that one.

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Gastronomica, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Spring 2002), pp. 63-67
University of California Press