Cool Intentions: The History of Sorbet
Ancient iced desserts, medieval Arabic sherbet, and the birth of sorbet in Naples.
Sorbet. Ice cream’s more refined sibling. It’s the iced dessert you buy to impress your dinner guests, the one that comes in weird flavours you’d never choose but like to think you would, like persimmon or lavender. Basically, it’s fucking fancy. Always has been fancy, always will be fancy. Since its inception, the aristocracy have been spooning sorbet into their fancy mouths, using fancy spoons, and saying fancy things like ‘palette cleanser’.
But where and when did sorbet originate? And has it always been off limits to trash people like you and your trash family?
The earliest of ices
There’s plenty of history and myth around iced desserts. Iced drinks, the ancestors to all frozen puddings, date back at least to the ancient Greeks and Romans. It’s said that Nero, the last Roman Emperor, enjoyed icy refreshments so much that he sent slaves to the mountains to collect snow, which he flavoured with honey and wine. Some even report that he would boil those unfortunate enough not to return on time.
In the medieval Arabic world, people drank aromatic icy beverages, called sherbet, flavoured with cherries, pomegranates, quinces, rose water and orange blossom. The word ‘sorbet’ derives from this Arabic word, which itself means ‘sweet snow’. It’s probably these Middle Eastern drinks that inspired European visitors to concoct their own varieties when returning home from travelling around the region. Back in Europe, frozen drinks quickly became the vogue in aristocratic circles and its likely these were the ancestors to the ice cream and sorbets we’re so obsessed with today.
The Italian style
Another enduring myth claims that it was Catherine de Medici who introduced ices to the the French court in 1533 when, at aged 14, she married Henry, Duke of Orléans (the future king). While there’s no evidence to support this, it is widely believed that sorbet originated in Catherine’s home country of Italy. From at least the end of the 1600s, Naples (not Catherine’s home of Florence) has been closely associated with its production and consumption.
The Frenchman, Nicolas Audiger, writing in 1692, told his readers that ‘the Italian style’ was the method for creating sorbets and other frozen desserts. He didn’t have any recipes specifically for sorbets, but included ones for iced waters and told his readers to double the sugar and flavouring to turn them into iced treats. He flavoured his drinks, and presumably his sorbets, with everything from lemon, strawberry, raspberry to pistachio, chervil and fennel.
Antonio Latini and his sorbabies
Antonio Latini was the first person to write in detail about making and serving ices, which he included in his two-volume work, Lo scalco alla moderna, or The Modern Steward (1692 and 1694). He wasn’t a Neopolitan native, but did spend the last ten years of his life working as first minister to the Spanish viceroy in Naples.
He prefaces his recipes for ‘various kinds of sorbets or iced waters’ by telling his readers that he does not intend to ‘invalidate the knowledge’ of anybody who already knows how to make sorbetto, stressing that ‘here in Naples, it seems that everyone is born with the skill and instinct to make sorbet.’
This didn’t stop Latini from recording his own recipes, which he said should have the consistency of sugar and snow. He wasn’t writing for experts, he noted, instead he was helping those who couldn’t yet make sorbet. But his recipes, like the ones below, never offered any instructions as to cooking, freezing, stirring or timing. They also mentioned large quantities of salt being needed for sorbet, but not that it was only used in the freezing process rather than as a seasoning. So, in reality, he could have only been writing for those with prior knowledge.
Lemon sorbet, according to Latini, was a favourite among Neapolitans and was eaten in great quantities. He also included recipes for sorbets flavoured with cinnamon, strawberries, cherries, pine nuts, and even aubergines.
A Truly Modern Steward
Some historians credit Latini with creating the first ice cream, with his recipe for ‘milk sorbet’. While sweetened and flavoured cooked creams and custards were widely popular at the time, freezing the dessert was an innovation.
But milk sorbet wasn’t the only way Latini showed himself to be a truly modern steward. He also included two recipes for sorbets made with chocolate, which at the time was a relatively new ingredient and consumed primarily as a hot drink. Drinking chocolate became popular in aristocratic circles after it was introduced to Spain from the New World in the late 16th century. It was commonly mixed with sugar and cinnamon, but also paired with chilli, almonds, honey, milk, eggs, musk, bread crumbs and maize.
Jeri Quinzo, author of Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making, points out how interesting it is that Latini’s recipes called only for chocolate and sugar, which was uncommon for the period. Perhaps his chocolate was already mixed with cinnamon and other spices, or maybe he preferred an unadulterated chocolate flavour.
Sorbet, A High-Class Treat
Whether or not Latini believed he was writing for a general audience, he worked within an aristocratic household so it’s likely that his work was read by others of a similar status. The first publication which focused entirely on sorbets, New and Quick Ways to Make All Kinds of Sorbets with Ease, was also published in Naples towards the end of the 1600s and reflects how iced desserts had become popular on the tables of the wealthy. The inventories of many noble houses reveal that by the mid-1700s many kitchens included equipment for making and serving ice cream.
So there you have it - sorbet has been fancy from the beginning. Confined to the homes of the rich and powerful it was a delicious treat reserved for the few. And this is the prevailing view of sorbet that culinary historians have maintained for many years, but recent work by historian, Dr Melissa Calaresu, has begun to challenge this assumption.
Sorbet, A Street Eat
Yes, sorbetto was eaten in the homes of the wealthy, but what about the common folk? The poor, the townspeople, the merchants? In the past, historians haven’t been able to answer this question because they face a very particular challenge - sorbet quite literally melts away, and much of its history with it.
Through examining accounts by travellers, as well as engravings and paintings, we can tell that sorbetto and other frozen drinks and desserts were sold as street food and enjoyed by people at all levels of society.
The hot summer heat created a lucrative market for refreshing treats, for both locals and tourists. Snow, the main ingredient, was readily available and cheap, and even sugar, which was expensive until the end of the 1700s, could have been substituted with local sweeteners, such as syrups made from grapes.
Henry Swinburne, an Englishman who visited the city in the 1780s, highlights the local appetite for and availability of icy treats: ‘The passion for iced water is so great and so general in Naples, that none but mere beggars would drink it in its natural state; and, I believe, a scarcity of bread would not be more severely felt than a failure of snow.’
It wasn’t only the Grand Tourists visiting Naples in the early 18th century who commented on the ubiquity of sorbet and icy treats. An engraving by Pietro Fabris shows two common children trying to lick the spoon of a sorbetto seller and a scene by Achille Vianelli depicts a sorbet seller by Castel Nuovo. Both of these images reveal that, to these artists at least, the selling of sorbet was an important part of Neapolitan street culture.
Piecing together these fragments of evidence, it becomes clear that, in Naples at least, sorbet wasn’t completely reserved to the upper levels of society, but was also a refreshing snack for the masses.
The case of sorbet illustrates an issue with food history (and history) more generally - that it’s often hard to know what went on beyond the highest levels of society. It was the rich who wrote and painted, and the rich who had enough money for cookbooks, servants and the eating implements that still exist today. At times, they will have commented on the habits of those below them, but their accounts are influenced by their differing positions and many truths have, like sorbet, melted away.
But visit the hot summer streets of Naples today, and you’ll find a scene not dissimilar from those in the 18th century. For a small price almost anyone can indulge in the sweet, sticky delights of an ice-cold sorbetto.