Originally written as part of my Taste of Time series, this article was never published. As we again sink into the midst of the autumn gloom, a brief ray of summer sunshine prompts me to post this. I hope you enjoy!
The changing of the seasons brings with it a sense of nostalgia. As summer, a time of hot days and muggy evenings, draws to a close, I begin to forget the desperation of escaping the heat and start to long for warmer days. There is no more thirsting for that breath of wind or hint of fresh air. No more locking myself away in my tiny bubble, air conditioners humming, surviving in a world of artificial cold. Humanity uses water to cool itself. Ice water, chilled water, swimming, skating – the myriad of cooling pursuits is seemingly endless. Frozen foods are especially popular – popsicles, frozen yoghurt and best of all, ice-cream, melt on our tongues and create a cooling sweetness and pleasure that echoes the first time we tasted it as children.
Is it strange to think that we can taste time? When I eat ice cream, I am cast back into my childhood. Days at the beach, the swimming pool, and walking around the shops with my mum. All of these were punctuated by treats of ice trapped in cardboard tubes, stuck on wooden sticks, or scooped into delicious sugar wafers. A discussion with friends about their memories of ice-cream inspired recollections of being bribed with their favourite flavours (strawberry or chocolate generally) and arguments over whether our childhood treats had tasted better then or it was just our imaginations. Of course, food tastes better as a child. Everything is new, exciting, and wonderful to their tastebuds. Some things are just too sweet as you grow older, like sherbet, or slurpies, yet to a child they taste delightful.
Memories: nostalgic treats suspended in our minds like the distant sound of the local ice cream truck on a late school afternoon. Our memories are interwoven with our senses. The feel, smell, and taste of a food can bring an old, long forgotten memory to the fore, from where it was locked deep in the psyche. Smell memory, taste memory, all connected to parts of your life long forgotten. That much-used trope ‘the tastes of childhood’ does not exist for no reason. Memory has also become associated with dreams. While recent studies suggest that dreams make a way to form and store long-term memories, dreams may also provide a glimpse into the concerns of the present. A dream of ice cream, for example, may symbolize the delightfulness of life, pleasure, and a concern with the here and now. The physicality of ice cream itself is representative of a brief and fleeting moment in time – it must be eaten, quickly! Before it melts! How many times were you told that as a child, before being left to deal with your quickly liquefying cone of gelato. Sticky handed and chocolate smudged lips, you couldn’t care less, as long as most of it was in your stomach and not on the floor. A touch, a taste, a smell can all conjure traces of our memories, and our younger selves. Time has a taste.
So, you declare, what does time taste like? Depends on the place and the time, after all. Of course, since that first iced-cream was scooped from a pail in seventeenth-century Italy, it has tasted cold and creamy. Gelato, or sorbet, was a source of delight, novelty and pleasure for those who had the resources to transport ice to their homes. These Italian chefs were the creators of the ‘iced-cream’ that we would recognize today, though it had been around long before them. Sweet or savoury, the predominate characteristic was that it was frozen. Chefs and cooks experimented, striving to achieve the perfect technique to freeze cream. Ice mixed with salt became extremely cold, and into that, they placed the container of frozen cream. This technique has never been lost. Today, children experiment placing bags of sweetened cream into a combination of ice and salt. In less than half an hour, you have a small serve of iced-cream, and a small taste of what it might have been like for a diner in seventeenth-century Italy.
Once a technique is perfected, however, flavour can be truly experimented with. Chefs and cooks all over Europe could now focus on creating complex and strange flavour combinations. Vanilla, so familiar and commonplace today, was rarely seen in the eighteenth century! Popular flavours enjoyed by Europeans included lemon, chestnut, cinnamon, ginger, and saffron. In 1768, M. Emy, a French chef, created an ice cream flavoured with cookies, then strained before freezing. He then topped it with cookie dust, a creation that would be enjoyed by any lover of cookies and cream today. Given the opportunity for creativity and opulence, chefs created statues of ice cream, moulding them into animals and even into the shape of asparagus spears. Ice cream was even served as an accompaniment to savoury foods, and a Mrs Sarah Rorer records a recipe for cucumber sorbet, to be served with halibut. Sweet, savoury, or somewhere in between, ice-cream was a way to innovate flavour and texture, and create new sensations on the palate.
While we may disdain such flavours, in favour of those like vanilla or chocolate, the sense of creativity and wonder in creating new ice creams still inspires chefs and cooks in various ice-creameries and restaurants in Sydney and the world. Numerous gelato creators still add salt to many flavours – salted Belgian chocolate has appeared on the menu at Gelato Blue and salted mango at Gelatissimo. Many food lovers make the trek to try Peter Gilmore’s world famous Guava Snow Egg and even more will visit their local gelato place to enjoy pistachio or pavlova. No matter the flavour, ice cream is associated with play, with joy, with wonder, and most of all, with summer. I remember as a child, a hot summer’s day at school. Our teachers led us outside, to the grass oval, where we caught glimpses of gold painted rocks in the grass. ‘Go find them!’ they said. ‘It’s a treasure hunt!’ After finding as many as we could, we were taken back inside, and told that we could trade these golden rocks for cubes of jelly and scoops of vanilla ice cream. Hot and sweaty after digging through the grass, those cold and quickly melting scoops were heaven to a group of nine year olds.
I can still taste it. Of course, I know what jelly and ice cream tastes like (I’ve had it many times) but this taste is more than just sugar and cold. It is memory. It is special. Though humanity may progress and change in many different ways, we can still have that same sense of wonder and excitement over a bowl of ice cream as someone four hundred years ago. So, relax, try a new flavour, and enjoy the fleeting sunshine. Just take care to eat it before it melts!