Ice Cream

Historic Foodways Journeyman Rob Brantley makes ice cream the really old-fashioned way in the kitchen at the Governor’s Palace.


Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast, I’m Harmony Hunter.

My guest today is Rob Brantley who is a Historic Foodways journeyman, he’s a cook here at Colonial Williamsburg, and he interprets 18th-century cooking mainly at the Governor’s Palace and at the Peyton Randolph house. And Rob, you cook a lot of things but you’re here today to talk to us about ice cream and the process of 18th century ice cream making. Thanks for being here today.

Rob Brantley: Thank you.

Harmony: Well I imagine people must be surprised when they stop by the Governor’s Palace kitchen and find you making ice cream, it might not be what’s expected.

Rob: Absolutely not. I mean as soon as people come in they recognize what I’m doing but then they ask, “Well why are you doing this, this is the 18th century. Is this something that would have been done? Ice cream’s more contemporary, more 19th century.” Then I have to tell them, “Yes it’s something that was being done right here in Williamsburg, probably the only place it was being done on a consistent basis is right there at the Governor’s Palace.”

Harmony: Is it the ice cream that we would recognize today?

Rob: Depends upon which region of the country you’re from today. The ice cream that it would closely resemble is from someplace like Wisconsin. If you’re familiar with frozen custards, that’s about as close as you’re going to get. It is a custard base. You’re taking the cream, your eggs, your sugar and your other flavoring and you’re essentially cooking it. But there’s no air whipped into the product, it’s more of a dense, kind of frozen custard which leaves a lot more of the mouth feel. The cream still lingers around your palate.

Harmony: I want to hear more about recipes but first I’d like to talk about the technology of making ice cream. How do you make ice cream when you don’t have a freezer? When you don’t have refrigeration? How does that process start?

Rob: Well first off, you have to have money, number one, in order to have the facility to store your ice. Then you have to have the income to have the equipment. So you have a place to store your ice and the equipment which, it’s not too much radically different in the 18th century that some people might be familiar with. You still have your bucket, your salt, your ice and a cylinder to hold the cream in to freeze it up.

There is no hand-crank variety of ice cream maker yet, that really doesn’t come about until about the 1830s. Nancy Johnson, she gets the first patent on the first hand crank variety of ice cream maker. You also, instead of having the blade inside of the cylinder scraping as you crank it, whipping air in the product you just spin the cylinder by hand and then your blade’s on a separate handle and you take the cap off and scrape and every so often and stir it up.

Harmony: You mentioned ice, it seems like a simple ingredient, but it’s a pretty big deal before there are freezers. How do they manage the ice part?

Rob: You have to wait on the weather. That’s the bottom line and that’s always been my raging question with on of my colleagues in the kitchen is: how often were you able to obtain ice in southeastern Virginia? There’s only three icehouses in existence in southeastern Virginia. One of them is at Shirley Plantation along the James River, that one if I remember correctly was built around the 1730s. Then the ruins of the Rosewell plantation over in Gloucester County, and the Governor’s Palace, which wasn’t constructed until Lord Botetourt’s time after 1768.

How often do we get those freezes in this area? You are still experiencing a little mini ice age in the 18th century. There are accounts of the James River freezing up, but my question has always been: how often did it happen? But if they couldn’t get it locally, if they were to obtain it anywhere outside of this area, do they ship it in from Pennsylvania, or New York? That’s going to cost some money to ship it down. Was it brought in down the James River from the western part of the colony? Again, that’s going to take a lot of money just to have ice cream and chill wines. Those are the two purposes we think Botetourt had built that icehouse.

Harmony: So if you’re lucky enough to be in one of the three spots that does have an icehouse, how does that work? They must harvest it in the winter.

Rob: Absolutely, you have to have a lot of labor, a lot of burly individuals to go out where that river, that pond or whatever that freezes up and you essentially have to chip up ice with axes. Then you take the blocks and haul it out of that frozen pond or stream, load it on a cart and then transport it to wherever your icehouse is.

Then you have to lower it down into that icehouse, which is usually below ground, lined with stone or brick. You have to lower it, pack it in there and cover it with straw, so that’s going to take a lot of labor to transport it to that that final destination.

Harmony: So this works on the principle that that the lower you get in the ground there’s sort of a constant temperature. What is the temperature of the ground at the depth that the icehouse is?

Rob: I believe it’s around 50 degrees or less depending upon how far you go down. So you’re going to lose some ice. Let’s say you pack it in January, you’re going to lose some ice. One of my colleagues, Dennis Cotner, and another gentleman said that one year they actually had an opportunity to fill the icehouse up at the Governor’s Palace in January, covered it up and he said by the first week of September there was about a foot to a quarter-foot of ice still down in the icehouse of the Governor’s Palace. So it will last.

Harmony: So conceivably, you could have ice right straight through the summer.

Rob: Absolutely. And I’ve seen a newspaper article from 1790 for a confectioner in Alexandria, Virginia. He advertised not only selling various flavors of ice cream but also selling ice, July of 1790. So he’s storing it someplace around in the Alexandria area.

Harmony: So that’s one big technological hurdle is the ice. The other big deal is salt: when people discovered that salt allows them to move beyond just cooling things to actually freezing them. Tell me about how that process was discovered and exploited.

Rob: The first documented evidence of using the endothermic effect, putting salt to ice, goes back to a court of a Chinese emperor about 900 A.D. So as far as world history is concerned, it’s relatively recent. But it’s something that’s been known long before Europeans ever got their first taste of ice cream. So it’s a technology that’s been around.

Harmony: Are we using freezing to preserve food in the 18th century, or is it more like a novelty thing?

Rob: It’s more like a novelty at this point. The idea of taking meat and allowing it to freeze and it keeps it is known, but again, you’ve got to be having that consistent freezing, so it’s not a method that’s being used quite so readily here in North America.

Frozen things are very much a novelty that the elite are going to have. I read accounts here in North America where people were having something out of seasonal context, like it’s April and you’ve got this frozen confection sitting on the table.

Harmony: So this is a luxury treat. What kind of flavors did they like, they us about the 18th century palate.

Rob: The sky’s the limit. Looking in our cookbooks of the 18th century, the cooks in general are not afraid to have various influences and various flavors. Any fruit that was being grown here in North America was being converted in and putting into a frozen confection, ice cream, strawberries, pineapple.

The three hot beverages of the 18th century we have in frozen form: coffee, tea, and chocolate. And using the chocolate we make in our kitchen in a frozen form is really good. And also too some out of the ordinary ones are ones like parmesan ice cream. If you like cheesecake, you’ll like it in the frozen form. As I tell visitors, all you need is a fruit syrup drizzled over it and there you go, you’ve got a frozen cheesecake.

Other ones that may take people aback are ones like oyster ice cream. But don’t look at it as a sweet frozen ice cream, look at it as a frozen cold soup. That’s where you really have to view it in that context like a gazpacho or a vichyssoise, you have to really look at in that context.

And allegedly – and I say allegedly, we haven’t really been able to pinpoint it that – that was one of Washington’s ones that he had a liking to. But I’m still trying to track down that shred of evidence that says, yes he actually enjoyed it a lot.

Harmony: So you’ve found a lot of these 18th century recipes that give you ingredient lists and methods. As you’re trying to follow those recipes in the Governor’s Palace kitchen have you found that you have to come up with little tricks of your own to work around? What have you discovered that hasn’t been covered in the recipe?

Rob: Oh gosh…if they turn out. I’ve had some difficulty with the coffee ice cream which you’re cooking the custard, but the beans in the bag release oil. If it sits overnight it will make this sort of cheese on the top and not much cream. So I’m still trying to figure out am I using too much? Am I just to cool it that day and then freeze it? And same thing with the parmesan ice cream.

There’s that fine balance of how much of the ingredient do I use? Because if you use too much of any ingredient, for instance with the parmesan, too much salt, too much sugar or alcohol, that will inhibit the freezing of it. So that’s something I’ve had to really play around is to try to get just the right amount where it will set up.

Harmony: Generally speaking, for these recipes what are the proportions like of milk to sugar and when do they begin adding eggs and making it a custard?

Rob: You see right during the 18th century a really good example of eggs being added to custard is the recipe that Thomas Jefferson brings back is the French vanilla ice cream. This is the base that I use a lot. A lot of other ones are simply almost like a gelato.

A lot of the recipes from our cookbooks from the chefs of the day or that we have from the housewives sometimes don’t give you proportions. They’ll just say, “Take your milk or cream and your sugar and take your fruit and freeze it up.” So they’re very vague in a lot of cases.

With the Jefferson recipe, there are at least some specific proportions that I go on. Just like any time we cook, we’ll do a batch and go, “You know what? Too much sugar in this case or a little bit too much on this.” So we really have to, as we say, have a few disasters and then really keep tweaking it along the way. Because sometimes they just don’t give you proportions. They assume you know what you’re doing.

Harmony: What keeps you in the kitchen hammering away at these recipes and trying to find one that turns out?

Rob: Just my determination that I’m not going to let this one recipe defeat me. You just keep doing it. And there’s some truth that there’s really no such thing as a bad batch of ice cream. So it’s, “Oh well, this one didn’t turn out, well I guess I’ll have to eat it.”

But it’s our kind of dedication of Historic Foodways as a whole. We want to take the documentation, we want to take these recipes, and we want do it correctly, we want to understand it and be able to present it to the public.

Harmony: Now Rob, we want folks to come out and see you making this ice cream in the Governor’s Palace, how can they find you and when?

Rob: The making of ice cream is not a set program like, lets say, our beer making or the chocolate making. It’s pretty much whenever I feel the need, or if I want to work on a particular recipe.

But we exclusively make it at the Governor’s Palace because that’s the only part that had the icehouse and the equipment to make the ice cream. So if you catch me making it that day it will be at the Governor’s Palace.

Harmony: Great! Thanks so much for being here today.

Rob: Thank you.

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