A friend of mine said recently that she couldn’t imagine living without a refrigerator. Neither could I – I need somewhere for old vegetables to moulder into compost, and small pieces of cheese to develop new and interesting life forms.
But the reality is that fridges are only a recent addition to many kitchens, even in wealthy Australia, and most parts of the world cope without domestic refrigeration altogether.
Yet the need to keep food fresh has existed ever since the first hunters caught their first mammoth, and decided to save some for later. The best answer, then as now, was ice.
In Siberia, people made dumplings called pelmeni in great numbers, froze them naturally in the ice outside their homes, then boiled and ate them as needed. Early in the 20th century, Clarence Birdseye saw Inuit using ice similarly to preserve fish and applied the technique to set up the Birds Eye Frozen Food Co – one of many examples of indigenous knowledge being applied to make someone else a fortune.
In most regions of the world, however, ice is at best a seasonal phenomenon. Before the invention of refrigeration in the 19th century, various strategies existed to make the most of this seasonal harvest. It was a luxury – and like most luxuries, it was available at a price. Wealthy Romans used slaves to bring ice from the mountains. Later the Persians and Mughals did the same: the Oxford English Dictionary calls ‘sherbet’ a ‘cooling drink of the East, made of fruit juice and water sweetened, often cooled with snow.’
The logistics of transporting ice and snow such long distances meant that it was a product for conspicuous consumption – to cool drinks at banquets, for instance – rather than a reliable way of preserving food. For that, other processes, such as salting, drying, smoking, or sealing under fat, made more sense, and led to the development of many of our favourite foodstuffs: bacon, jerky, kippers or confit de canard.
But harvesting local snowfalls was another matter, still the preserve of the rich, but logistically feasible.
In the small Italian town of Urbino, in Umbria, stands the palace of Federico da Montefeltro, Renaissance prince and scholar – and one tough bastard, both literally and metaphorically. In the portrait above, you can see his odd profile – this is because, having lost one eye in a tournament, he ordered the surgeon to remove the bridge of his nose so that his one remaining eye would have a wider field of vision. Like I say, one tough bastard.
When Federico ordered the extension of the Ducal Palace in Urbino, he wanted all the latest mod cons. This included a complex plumbing system, and a system for harvesting the winter snow. The palace covers many levels on the hillside of Urbino, and on one of the topmost levels is an open courtyard filled with roses – an ideal secret garden for his trophy wife, Battista Sforza.
The rose garden sits above the lower levels of the palace, its soil no doubt renewed from time to time by sweating workers. The function of this courtyard only becomes clear when you look more closely – a series of holes in the pavement allowed workers to shovel the winter snow through to storage pits below. Packed tight, the snow turned to ice, a cold storage area for the palace, designed to preserve food well into the summer months. As the ice slowly melted, a drainage system distributed water through the palace. The cleanest water was heated for Duke Federico’s bath. More water went to the kitchens, the grey water finally finding its way to the stables at the base of the palace.
The snow melt system at the Palace of Urbino is particularly well preserved because, after Federico, the place became a backwater. Federico’s son left no children, and Urbino was incorporated in the Papal States. One of its later residents was the exiled James II of England.
Amongst the European landed gentry more modest icehouses were commonplace. Snow is fleeting, but ice is dense, and needs a good deal of heat to melt it – as those of us old enough to go back to the days when fridges needed defrosting will remember. An icehouse, packed with snow during winter, could preserve surplus meat and dairy into the summer months.
But what about those of us who live in regions where there is no snowfall, or any snow covered mountaintops nearby?
In the 19th century, a new market for ice developed, with wealthy people in hot lands – like Australia during the Gold Rushes – prepared to pay for the luxury of imported ice.
In the northern winter, the fresh water lakes of New England freeze to a depth of a metre or more, and a trade developed, cutting the frozen lakes into blocks, and transporting them, by rail and ship, around the world. Packed tightly and carefully insulated, the ice was still frozen when the ships arrived in Melbourne or Calcutta. The trade was too seasonal for year-round food preservation, so, like the Mughal Emperors, Australian colonists used the ice for conspicuous consumption, to cool their drinks or make flavoured ices.
The trade ended only with the invention of refrigeration. Artificial ice making turned a luxury into a commonplace – and eventually into a necessity in our fortunate lives.
Even then, refrigeration moved into the kitchen quite slowly. Most towns in Australia once had an ice works, which sold ice blocks to families to use in an ice chest. Beyond the reach of an ice works, country people relied on the good old ‘Coolgardie safe’, a store cupboard with hessian or canvas sides that were kept wet, and acted as an evaporative cooler.
I was once told of a man who made the wrong career choice. It was the 1930s, and work was hard to come by, but through various family and friends, this young man was offered two alternative jobs. He could either get an apprenticeship with a man who made ice chests, or with a man who repaired radios (‘the wireless’, in 1930s terminology). He chose to learn to make ice chests. Big mistake.