I don’t know about you, but I love ticking off the summer season checklist. From your first barbeque to the first beach trip and, of course, that first visit to the ice cream van and lick of your first 99p Flake! There is no hiding it, ice cream is loved all over the world!

From all those trips to the ice cream van and numerous tubs consumed at home, we know it’s pretty tasty, but did you also know there is a pretty interesting history behind it?

Join me in this guide as we explore who discovered ice cream for the first time and where it’s rumoured to have originated.

Where it all started

There are many stories on the invention of ice cream. History doesn’t have a clear answer as to where the idea first originated but it seems most countries have a tale in which they make a claim for the title of the creators of the frozen dessert.

Starting in China, the earliest signs of ice cream are found here. Legend has it that in the Tang period (A.D. 618-907), buffalo and goat's milk was heated and left to ferment. This was then mixed with flour and powdered camphor (as in the camphor tree)  to thicken it and put in the fridge.

It also dates back to the reign of King Charles where it seems the words ‘ice’ and ‘cream’ first came together. He was known for enjoying a sweet treat after dinner and during the Feast of St. George at Windsor Castle, ‘cream ice’ was served, which consisted of one plate of iced cream and another of strawberries.

However, that was in 1671 and history also tells us that between 336 and 323 BC Alexander the Great also enjoyed eating frozen milk topped with honey, nuts, and fruit.

Skip forward to the middle of the 18th century and it seems we have France to thank for the invention of the custard-based ice cream using egg yolks.

You see what I mean when I say where its exact origins come from are still debated. But whilst its birthplace is a little blurred, it seems that ice cream has developed and evolved all over the world – maybe that’s why it’s ended up being so damn delicious!

The first flavour

Nowadays, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to ice cream flavours. From the true classics such as vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry to the more exotic rum and raisin and luxurious mint chocolate chip, there are simply too many to choose from! This, however, wasn’t always the case. There was a time when the menu was more limited.

Vanilla was one of the first flavours to be widely produced in the modern era. It’s said that it was France where vanilla was used to flavour ice cream for the first time. This is how the Americans got their first taste of the delicious treat, with Thomas Jefferson discovering it while living in Paris in the 1780s. He adored the taste so much he copied down a recipe and brought it straight home. This recipe is now preserved in the Library of Congress.

It’s this humble flavour that remains one of the most popular flavours across the world. To find out which other flavours rank highly, read our Top 10 most popular ice cream flavours across the globe article.

The ice cream van

Ice cream made its way through history and soon became an icon in the dessert world. But it wasn’t until 1956 in West Philadelphia that we saw the introduction of the ice cream van. We’d seen variations of vehicles transporting ice cream via horse and cart and even motorcycles but, it was down to two Irish brothers that the first official ice cream van was created. It was these brothers, James and William Conway, who also brought us soft-serve ice cream. And it was in fact the introduction of this soft-serve ice cream that inspired its European sibling, Mr. Whippy.

Read our articles on the history of the ice cream van and the complete history of Mr. Whippy to find out more.

The cone

There are a few other key players in the ice cream industry too. It’s thanks to a Syrian concessionaire named Ernest A. Hamwi that we can thank for ice cream being served in a cone. History has it that Hamwi was selling Zalabis, a crisp, waffle-like pastry, next to an ice cream vendor at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, when the ice cream stall ran out of serving dishes. Luckily, Hamwi was able to step in to help by rolling one of his wafer-like waffles in the shape of a cone. The vendor stuck a scoop of ice cream in it and voila customers were happy, and the ice cream cone was born!

However, it seems that Ernest A. Hamwi can’t take all the credit for the ice cream cone. ‘Cornets with cream’ appeared in Mrs. Marshall's Cookery Book in 1888. Agnes Marshall was an English culinary entrepreneur and became a leading cookery writer in the Victorian period. She was also known as the ‘Queen of Ices’ because of her two cookbooks devoted solely to “ices”—ice creams, sorbets, souffles, and mousses. There are no earlier references for this invention so it seems it’s really the Brits we can thank for its creation.

The ice cream machine

The invention of the ice cream machine simplified the way we make and serve ice cream. During the 1840s, Nancy M. Johnson developed the first ice cream maker. Using a crank and coarse salt, the ice was added and churned to produce a smooth and even frozen mixture. This was no easy work, it required a lot of time, patience, and muscle as you had to manually crank the handle to churn the mixture.

Despite the level of elbow grease needed, Johnson’s machine sold quickly. Over the years, improvements were made but this original method of hand-cranked churning is still used in ice cream shops to this day.

The importation of ice

In the 19th century, it was the importation of ice from Norway, Canada, and America that made ice cream readily available to the general public in the UK. It was shipped into British ports and stored in ice houses before being sold onto ice cream makers.

I told you the history of ice cream was rather interesting, didn’t I!

The modern way of ice cream

Ice cream is one of the most popular sweet treats available to us and it’s one that we don’t just like to have when at the beach or when the sun’s out. Nowadays, with craftsmen (or magicians as I like to call them) like Ben and Jerry becoming regular household names, the joy of paying a visit to the ice cream van can be had all year round, no matter when or where.

They’ve helped take the ice cream game up a notch and evolved flavour and ingredient combinations. I doubt the Conway brothers would ever have imagined pieces of brownie, marshmallow, cookie dough or ready salted crisps and actual pieces of the ice cream cone in ice cream!

I’m certainly glad they exist; do you agree with me and love these new and exciting flavours, or do you prefer the classics? Let me know your favourite in the comments below!

The last stop!

If you are looking to get your own ice cream van or perhaps you already own one - make sure to get a Ice Cream Van Insurance quote direct with Lexham!