During the brief sunny spells in recent weeks, queues suddenly formed at Ireland’s ice-cream vendors. However, rather than being merely an occasional summer-time treat, the history and current evolution of ice cream tells us a lot about industrial and technological processes.
Food historians credit the Chinese for inventing flavoured ices as far back as 3000BC. Adventurers such as Marco Polo introduced the concept to Europe. The ice creams we know today were invented in Italy in the 17th century. However, for the subsequent 200 years, ice creams were essentially hand-made and sold at the point of origin.
The development of the first ice-cream refrigeration unit in 1854 proved transformational. In particular, commercial ice-cream production exploded across the United States. From 1899 to 1919, ice-cream sales in the US soared from 5 million gallons to 150 million gallons per year.
However, in the early 20th century, most ice cream was poor quality, milk-based, bubbly and poorly packaged. Intense competition meant meagre profits for vendors. This changed in the early 1920s, when 17-year old Reuben Mattus re-imagined ice cream. Reuben was an assistant to his mother in her New York ice-cream parlour. He decided to make a premium consumer good rather than continue with the cheap commoditisied product. He added in superior ingredients, such as Belgian dark chocolate and vanilla beans from Madagascar. By the early 1960s, the New York store was doing very well and Reuben invented a new brand name, Häagen-Dazs, to go alongside the myriad of new flavours. In 1976, his daughter opened the first independent Häagen-Dazs shop and, following a meteoric rise in popularity around the world, the Mattus family sold their company to Pillsbury in 1983.
Since then, the global trends in ice cream mirror those in coffee, wine, beer, and other consumer goods. In particular, more and more consumers have sought out “premium and handmade” ice-creams – or ‘gelatos’ as the Americans call them – that offer ingredients from local artisans and farmers, with prices that are signicifantly higher than a traditional ‘99’. This ‘affordable luxury’ is linked to trends such as the Slow Food movement. An example is the up-market chain, Grom. Founded in 2003 in Turin, the birthplace of the Slow Food movement, they have more than 20 stores in Italy as well as locations in New York, London and other major cities. Like many other high-end consumer goods, the process and the cost of ingredients are relatively minor factors in price, compared with branding, packaging and distribution.
However, you may notice a price increase in the supermarket this summer. Following a poor harvest in Madagascar last year, the cost of vanilla beans has doubled since February 2016. Indeed, the price of vanilla is second only to saffron among food ingredients. It is more likely that mass-produced, low margin vanilla ice-cream may be affected by such a price hike.
Such a price rise might stimulate further technological innovations. Already, using synthetic biology (synbio), scientists at various companies have edited the DNA of yeast, and through a fermentation process, forced it to sythensise vanillin. Of course, such innvoations run into the same issues that genetically modified (‘GM’) crops have faced in recent years. If the price of key ingredients continue to rise, one can expect that ice-cream manufacturers and retailers will turn more and more to synthetic alternatives if they are available.
In the meantime, we have a choice to pay a premium for our exotic ice-creams or enjoy more mass-produced varieties at more afforable prices. All we are missing in Galway for now is ice-cream weather!