I admit it. I have fallen behind. Or, I have ceased being ahead, with respect to my Old Foodie posts. Today (by which I mean yesterday, when this was written) I was to going to ‘get ahead’, but things got in the way (as they are wont to do) – and by the time evening came, the lure of dinner at a local Japanese restaurant with friends won. So – today’s post is a cheat. It is a very slightly tweaked version of an article I wrote for a now defunct magazine. It is about delicious frozen things.
Sorbet is not what it used to be. It used to be sherbet (or sherbert), with pretensions of an Italian heritage. But sherbet is also not what it once was. It was certainly not originally a frozen dessert item. And if they were once the same thing, are sorbet and sherbert now different? And what about granita and gelato and frozen punch and (sorry about this one), the violently coloured slushy drinks sold at the movies?
Culinary experts apply the various terms with linguistic abandon, leaving us only with the certainty of iciness. Lawyers of course, are certain - at least in some parts of the world – that the differences are strictly in the proportions of fat and sugar and the inclusion, or not, of dairy produce. It hardly needs to be stated, however, that truth in food is not the primary motivation of the legal system – the sort of system which, in 1893 in the USA determined, in the face of overwhelming botanical evidence to the contrary, that the tomato is a vegetable.
Linguists know the truth about sorbets and sherberts. ‘Sherbert’ derives from the Turkish/Arabic word for ‘drink’. In other words, a sherbet used to be a beverage – a costly beverage to be sure, in its home culture. Early European visitors to those fantastically distant and exotic places described it raptly as a sweetened fruit drink made fragrant with expensive ingredients such as roses, violets, musk and ambergris. Those intrepid adventurers made the best fist they could of the strange language, and the Arabic word gave rise to a multitude of phonetic interpretations from charbe to zerbet. ‘Sorbet’ came about as a result of the phonetic and linguistic coincidence of the Italian verb ‘to drink’ – sorbire – and the name stuck because the Italians became masters of frozen confections during the Renaissance.
So, the original sorbet was a drink. Not frozen, just a drink. As the idea spread beyond its origins to other climes, sometimes the drink was chilled with snow or ice, but the tyranny of climate means that the coldest drinks are desired in the hottest months. The very rich could afford to have ice cut from mountains or frozen lakes and stored in deep pits or caves for summer enjoyment, but most of history’s citizens had to wait for technological progress to bring salt-and-ice churns and eventually refrigeration for all, in order to be able to enjoy such incredible treats.
It constantly surprises me that unlike many other artists, cooks don’t often consciously use the past as an inspiration. Many very old recipes sound amazingly innovative and cutting edge and deserve rediscovering. A manual Containing Original Recipes for Preparing Ices (1851) from that supposedly dull and stodgy English Victorian era contains over one hundred ideas, including for example ‘water ices’ flavoured with aniseed and sweet fennel. The recipe is a variation of a basic vanilla ice, using four ounces of either seed instead of the vanilla.
‘Crush half an ounce of vanilla and a stick of cinnamon, in a mortar, add a pint of water, cover it over, and let it stand for ten hours; then pass it through a sieve, and add the juice of two lemons, if you choose; put in twenty-four ounces of sugar a lisse, and freeze it. This may be varied by using milk instead of water.’
Quotation for the Day.
My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it's on your plate that's my philosophy.