Sweet 95 has the classics like strawberry ice cream (pictured),as well as unique flavors like coconut chocolate chip. Photo byJames Dickinson
There's a long, multi-legged and hotly contested timeline of the making of ice cream throughout history, and whether you know it or not, you've probably made versions of your own that (supposedly) stem from different eras and parts of the world.
According to legend, if you've ever used a hand-cranked ice cream machine, you were doing it like the 18th-century Brits. If you froze ice-and-salt-packed coffee cans filled with cream and sugar when you were a kid, you stepped back into China as early as the seventh century — although you probably didn't put camphor in yours. And if you've poured juice over a bowl of fresh snow, you spent a few moments in the deep B.C. era of the Persian Empire.
The documentation of "ice cream" contains ledgers upon ledgers of frozen treats, as everyone on earth wants to claim that their country was the first to create it —but many of them don't at all resemble what we know it as today. The earliest renditions were "ices" — ice blended with wine, honey, juice or fruit — and they were probably more like slushies.
Italy, France and England's respective maiden voyages in gelato, "frozen fromage" and ice cream happened in the 1700s, giving rise to the hand-crank freezer and the French sarbotière (a pewter double-walled freezing pot that servants had to spin constantly). Both employ the same basic action that creates ice cream today: freezing and whipping together cream, sugar and flavorings.
Modern ice cream shops and gelaterias offer countless flavors, some of which, like olive oil and basil, or cayenne chocolate, seem pretty daring — until you hear about what Europeans were making once the production of ice cream took off in the 18th century. Asparagus. Parmesan. Foie gras. Or perhaps a nice cone of … oyster.
In America, people started making molds so that they could serve their ice cream shaped like fruit baskets or swans. Or beavers. It was a wild time back then, apparently. At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson had the cooking staff trained to make frozen treats. "Under French chef Honoré Julien, they certainly would have made ice cream, as well as something akin to a baked Alaska," Monticello historian Leni Sorensen explains. "They were quite sophisticated."
The current iteration of ice cream is made almost exactly the way it was in the 1800s, except with the added bonuses of electricity and more efficient freezing methods. Homestead Creamery, the supplier of Sweet 95's offerings, makes 11 gallons of ice cream at a time in about 10 minutes, using a frozen, spinning cylinder with a mixing paddle inside that's not much different from its 19th century counterpart to agitate the ingredients.
"We just have a deeper cylinder with a pump that pumps cold fluid through the freezing cylinder. It's a very simple process," says Homestead Creamery sales manager Doug Wray. "There are modern freezers for continual freeze — these are for major dairies — that you feed the [mixture] into and ice cream gets pumped out on the other side. It's fast. But I think you lose something at that scale; small-batch has tighter quality control; you're measuring things out every time, standing over it, watching it."
Richmond's got a pretty fantastic smattering of frozen treat shops: Bev's Homemade and Sweet 95 lead the pack of classic ice cream spots; Gelati Celesti serves an addictive ice cream/gelato hybrid; and DeLuca Gelato heads up the classic Italian department. Nick DeLuca of DeLuca Gelato opened his spot after repeatedly visiting Italy as a schoolteacher and deciding, having eaten gelato every day for multiple trips, to make a career change because he was so smitten. There's also the South Side's La Michoacana, which makes ice cream popsicles in addition to the usual stuff. Long story short, you should be covered this summer. In chocolatey drips.
- Bev's Homemade Ice Cream , 2911 W. Cary St., 204-2387
- Sweet 95 , 312 N. Boulevard, 354-9595
- Gelati Celesti , 8906 W. Broad St., 346-0038; 3004 Stony Point Road, 320-0000
- DeLuca Gelato , 1362 Gaskins Road, 741-3202
- La Michoacana , 7808 Midlothian Turnpike, 320-0788