Legend contains many fanciful stories of Marco Polo bringing frozen desserts from China, Catherine de Medici introducing it to France, and King Charles I having his own personal ice cream maker. Fantastic stories aside, there's sadly not a scrap of historic proof to back up any of these legends. Polo didn't introduce frozen dessert or frozen food to Europe, and worse still, he probably never even visited China. Most of these myths appear to have been introduced by the Victorians.
The earliest proof of anything approaching something that could be called a frozen dessert, was created was in China, in the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907). Buffalo, goat, and cows' milk was heated and allowed to ferment. This 'yoghurt' was then mixed with flour for thickening, camphor (yes camphor!) for flavour, and 'refrigerated', before being served. King Tang of Shang had 2,271 individual workers, including 94 ice-men.
Early Strategies Of Freezing Food
The early strategies of freezing food likely needs some clarification. The ability to freeze foods was achieved by mixing salt with ice. Mixing salt and ice reduces the temperature, and temperatures below -14C are easily attainable. Who discovered the method is unknown, however it is likely to have been invented by the Chinese. It was written about in India within the fourth century, and the initial technical description of ice making using numerous salts, was by an Arab medical historian named IbnAbuUsaybi (A.D. 1230-1270).
Regardless, the method didn't arrive in Europe until 1503. In European countries, it was considered to be a chemists party trick, using numerous acids, water and salts. However, it had not been used for food until water ices (sorbets) appeared in Naples, Florence, Paris and Spain in the 1660s. In 1664, versions made with sweet milk first appeared in metropolis.
What About The Cone?
Most people consider the cone, or cornet, as the traditional way of consuming ice cream and until recently, it had been claimed an American invention, dating from the 1904 St. Louis World Fair.
However, recent analysis has shown that the frozen dessert cone was an English invention. Though the cone itself can be traced back many years, the first records of cones being used for serving frozen dessert was in 1888, in Mrs. Marshall's Cook Book.