The Italian invention of ice cream and sorbets


“Waters, Cordials, Sorbets, and Ice Creams”

Italians were the undisputed masters in developing methods of chilling and freezing drinks. “The real way to make all kinds of waters and cordials in the Italian style” was disclosed to the French in 1692 in a chapter in Audiger’s La maison reglée. Thirty years earlier, the same Audiger tried to obtain from the French king the exclusive right to “manufacture and sell all types of cordials in the Italian style.”

This indicates the acknowledgment of a truly Italian invention that was already at least a hundred years old. The custom of chilling drinks—by mixing snow or ice with water, wine, or any other drink—had spread throughout Italy in the second half of the sixteenth century, though against the advice of many doctors. In larger cities this custom spread among the masses, if we are to believe a comment made by a Roman physician in 1603.

The creation of sorbet resulted from experiments in chilling drinks, and it too became a matter of myth. Supposedly, sorbet was also brought to France by Catherine de’ Medici (and who could doubt it?). There is no documentary evidence to support this hypothesis, however, and we cannot prove that the art of sorbet making was already practiced in Italy in the middle of the sixteenth century.

Yet we certainly know that sorbets—already developed to a degree of remarkable sophistication—were sold in special shops a century later, most notably in Venice and Naples. When Antonio Latini, a native of the Marches, took up service at the court of Naples in 1659, he had the impression “that everyone [in the city] was born with a special skill and instinct for making sorbets.” This pursuit was not limited to experts, however, but was also practiced by “persons of little learning,” as Latini informs us in his brief “Treatise on Various Kinds of Sorbets, or Water Ices.”

His short essay, included in the book on stewardship and cooking that he composed at the end of his career, between 1692 and 1694, contains the first written recipes on how to mix sugar, salt, snow, and lemon juice, strawberries, sour cherries, and other fruit, as well as chocolate, cinnamon water, and different flavorings. There is also a description of a “milk sorbet that is first cooked,” which we could regard as the birth certificate of ice cream.


De’ sorbetti, the first book entirely dedicated to the art of making frozen confections, was published in Naples in 1775. Its author, Filippo Baldini, discusses different types of sorbets, some made with “subacidic” fruits, such as lemon, orange, and strawberry, and others made with “aromatic” ingredients, such as chocolate, cinnamon, coffee, pistachio, and pine nuts. A separate chapter deals with “milky sorbets,” meaning ice creams, whose medical properties are vigorously proclaimed. Literary works echo this trend. The “sorbettiera” (sorbet maker) is celebrated in a canzonetta written by Lorenzo Magalotti,147 and Parini’s young protagonist (il giovin Signore) concludes each day with the sweet, cool taste of a chocolate or coffee sorbet.148 Sorbets were produced side by side with the “flavored waters” that captivated Audiger. During his visit to Italy he wrote:

I made a vigorous effort to neglect nothing connected to confectionery and cordials and to perfect the art of making all kinds of waters, with flowers or fruits, chilled or not, sorbets, custards, barley waters, pistachio waters, and others made with pine nuts, coriander, aniseed, fennel, and every type of grain, and to give them a good flavor by emphasizing their own best qualities. I also learned how to distill all kinds of flowers, fruits, cereals, and other substances, distilling them in both cold and warm conditions, and to prepare chocolate, tea, and coffee.

Capatti, Alberto. Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) (p. 111). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.




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